- For Honor release date: Out now
- Format(s): PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
- Developer: Ubisoft
- Price: $59.99 / £44.99
For Honor, Ubisoft's third-person sword-'em-up, is out now. Chris has only had a few days with the live game, and so will be returning a full verdict this week. In the meantime, he'll be recording his experience in a daily review diary.
I have entered the serious business phase of my For Honor honeymoon. I assume that honeymoons have serious businesses phases - I have never been on one. In any case, easy duels are a thing of the past and my winrate is balancing out, which suggests that matchmaking has well and truly kicked in. The vast majority of players I'm facing in one-on-ones are polite, skilled and talkative, and this feels like a very healthy place for the game to be in.
It's difficult and sometimes frustrating, mind, because fighting games always are beyond a certain level. If I'm tired or not really concentrating, I'll get my ass handed to me. Winning means needing to remember which strategies to employ against which classes and tailoring them to the specific player I'm up against and their playstyle. And that's just with Warden, too - I've now prestiged with my main, and I'm wondering if it's soon going to be worth picking up a second character.
If you're going to get value out of For Honor over the long haul then I think you've got to be attracted to this kind of grind: the tough, entirely-skill-based kind. You'll lose when you play badly and win when you play well. When your connection is good (and I've found that it's generally been fine, but mileage reportedly varies) there's no luck element here: if you find yourself typing 'that was cheap' then what you really mean is 'I could have done better'. Beyond a certain point getting better at duels means doing the time in the salt mine. If you've ever tried to climb a fighting game ladder, you know how this works.
I've got some concerns about the way the metagame is developing. When I wrote on day one, I noted that newcomers should expect to face a lot of Orochi and Nobushi - but actually, for the last few days, the issue hasn't been as pronounced as it was in the last hours of open beta. Given a few days, however, the live game has caught up. Most of the Elimination games I've played since yesterday have been 50% Nobushi and Orochi and a 50% mix of all of the other characters in the game.
I think there's a few competing reasons for this, from the enduring samurai cool factor to the fact that they're both tough to deal with for players that like to pile in and smack things (which is a lot of players.) I've got faith that balance patches are on their way - Orochi was nerfed already during the beta - so my main frustration is the repetitive matchups. I'm always happy to see a Valkyrie or Conqueror because I simply don't fight those characters as often. I've now spent a lot of hours diligently attempting to counter Nobushi's stab, retreat, stab, retreat strategy.
I've also found myself less and less drawn to the team modes. Dominion is fine but it lacks the immediacy of Brawl and Duel, both of which give me the type of fight I want straight away. I'd play Elimination more if you could queue for it directly, but the greater-than-zero chance of having to play Skirmish (which is still rubbish) puts me off. That said, I think the team modes have a role to play in this game, particularly for newcomers. They let you run around and hit people with swords in a big arena where failure is less punishing and you can pick your own approach to each fight. Not many fighting games offer that kind of alternative, with teammates to pick up the slack and a big stage to lose yourself in - in fact, For Honor's hybrid nature is precisely why it can do this where Street Fighter, say, cannot.
I can feel myself getting pulled into a long journey with this game. I always want to be playing it, even when it's frustrating, because I know I can do better. And there really isn't anything like the feeling of winning when you're sure you're going to lose, or of watching an opponent run rings around you and having to acknowledge that they're simply better. It's good for the soul, if not your heartrate. Would I recommend this experience to everybody? No. It's a particular type of person who will resonate most strongly with the fantasy that For Honor is selling, and its value proposition is perhaps more question for people who just want to dip in, play the campaign, try a few rounds of multiplayer, and move on. But I'm impressed that Ubisoft made a game this finely-focused: it's a far cry (cough) from the do-anything-ish open worlds they've centred on for the last few years. For Honor isn't trying to be for everybody, but I'm not convinced that any game should ever try to be.
Returning to singleplayer, I finished off the Knight campaign - a six-mission war stretching from verdant medieval strongholds to an icy viking fastness. The first few missions introduce you to the Warden, but after that there are outings with the Lawbringer and Peacekeeper too. Being spoon-fed new characters in this way is a good way to discover which ones you want to invest more time in. It's a little weird, however, that don't also get to play as the Conqueror - there's a prominent one in the story, but he doesn't get his own mission.
Playing on hard, I found that the difficulty spiked sharply after the fourth mission or so, although this may just be because I'm so familiar with the Warden that those missions were relatively trivial. Sparse checkpointing can lead to some frustrating repetition when you die, but being forced to repeat one particular sequence as the Peacekeeper did force me to get better: when I finally cracked it, what had been initially a very cagey run of duels had become a smooth dance of death.
There are some spectacular setpieces, particularly a siege conducted over an icy ravine using catapults to fire rope bridges into the battlements of a viking fortress. Yet For Honor doesn't stray from its core competence, which is giving you a lot of people to hit and telling you to get on with it. Sometimes you'll fight your way to a button and push it, sometimes you'll fight within an area to defend it: but you'll definitely do a lot of fighting. Without multiplayer to get the most out of the game's depth, this campaign - while well-produced - wouldn't have a lot of longevity.
That said, there are moments where it really gels. One boss battle combines the moveset of a particular viking class - the Warlord - with a set of new moves specific to the legendary warrior you're fighting. You can employ some of your Warlord-busting strategies with success, but you need to get a handle on some boss specifics too. It's an elegant merging of multiplayer and singleplayer logic that teaches you something useful while challenging you to solve a specific challenge - if there's more of this to come, I'll be happy.
I'd also like to highlight For Honor's admirable, pervasive and unspoken commitment to diversity. Almost every character class can be played as male or female and the most prominent voices in the story are female - particularly if you opt for a female Warden at the very start. Unusually, almost everybody is fully masked or helmeted at all times and body types are varied and realistic - well, realistic as far as hypercapable warrior-people go. It's refreshing to see a game ignore the traditional orthodoxies of male and female character design and do its own thing.
Beyond singleplayer, I've played a lot of Duel and a little Elimination. Matchmaking has started to kick in and I'm getting harder and harder fights. The gif above was a moment of fist-pumping, duel-clinching success (a sideways feint into the Warden's crushing counter, don'tcha know) but I've had some brutal losses the other way and plenty of games lost on the final swing. I feel like I've really started to learn, so I don't mind at all.
What has stood out to me in this time is how remarkably friendly the For Honor community remains. I played Jedi Knight multiplayer for years, and later Blade Symphony - two forms of duelling game that maintained intimate communities. But they were niche games, and this is a big-budget Ubisoft game-as-service. In the closed beta, maybe, I'd expect people to be nice and communicative. But in the live game? No, never.
Yet here we are. On PC, where text chat is readily available, people use it. And they're nice. In the space of a day I've frequently had people ask to make sure that environmental kills are fair game before we play. I've had people thank me for great fights, win or lose, and wish me luck in my last duel. On two occasions I've met opponents willing to stop a fight mid-way so that we can both practice some critical aspect of our technique that is lacking. For example, my achilles' heel is my guard break counters - I just can't do them reliably, whereas my parries are fine. Two separate opponents have noted this during close fights, but rather than flame both of them have offered to just throw guard breaks at me until I get it right.
For balance, there have been ragers and flamers too - but far, far fewer than I'd encounter in any given game of Overwatch. The fact that they've so far been outnumbered by decent people is mind-boggling to me. I know the game's called For Honor, but jeez.
Confession time: this isn't really my first day with For Honor. It's something like my twentieth: I've been playing the game since the very first closed alpha test, through closed beta and into last weekend's open beta free-for-all. I feel like I've come to know the multiplayer component of the game pretty well - well enough to feel comfortable entering what is, by all accounts, a very unforgiving medieval warfare battlefield.
For Honor is a fighting game in its heart of hearts, a battle of wits, game knowledge and technical skill that simulates gory combat between heavily-armed medieval warriors. Like a fighting game, there's a lot to learn and a lot of inevitable frustration as you place your feet on the bottom rungs of its long, long ladder. In multiplayer, newcomers get wiped out by unblockable blows, whittled down by light attacks, and kicked off battlements this-is-Sparta-style.
It looks and feels great, with chunky and reactive animations depicting brutal blows and duel-turning parries. Its roster of a dozen characters are varied and interesting, although some are easier to play than others and some are harder to deal with for newcomers than others. There have been balance issues over the course of multiple tests, too, some of which have been addressed and some of which threaten the live game. This is an ongoing project, however, and the beta suggests that changes can and will be made.
My first few hours with the live game were spent settling back into the comfortable greaves with my main character, Warden - the longsword-wielding default character that I've stuck with ever since I first braved the tutorial - and so far I've had a good experience of both multiplayer and the community. Matches are easy to find and my games - particularly one-on-one duels - have felt appropriately close, suggesting that matchmaking is doing its job (something that was a concern in the beta.) The fact that it's a peer-to-peer rather than server-based game is still an issue, mind, and lag can really spoil a good match when it shows up.
I'm lucky in that I understand all of the component parts of For Honor's faction war metagame, its gear system, and its daily order assignments - but I do think that there might be a little too much complexity here in places. Newcomers to multiplayer are furnished with an admirable suite of tools with which to practice against bots either solo or with friends, but they're still being asked to pick a side, assign war points to territories on a big map, and unlock boxes to get new sword hilts. All of this is secondary to the real meat of the game, and while explanations are available both in-game and online it's arguably more distracting than it needs to be.
Free of the game mode restrictions of the various stages of beta, the launch game's multiplayer offering has peaks and troughs. Dominion, the objective-based team mode, is the gentlest introduction of the game and works well when you grasp its tactical complexities: there's always a push-and-pull battle between minions happening in the centre of the map, with two capture points off to either side. Scoring points for your team means dividing your effort between all of these points, with matches hinging on acts of both individual swordplay and team-wide coordination. The more hardcore, no-respawn dueling modes - Duel, Brawl, and Elimination - all show off the game's combat system at its best, providing plenty of tension and a real test of player skill.
The weak link here is Skirmish, a 4 vs. 4 deathmatch mode that more often than not devolves into a combination of chaotic mob combat and Benny Hill-style chases - it doesn't really work, and frustratingly it's in the same playlist as the much better Elimination. You can set a preference for one or the other, but not opt-out of Skirmish entirely.
The biggest part of the game that is entirely new to me is singleplayer, which takes the form of a linear campaign with multiple protagonists from all three factions - knights, vikings and samurai. There's a plot and well-produced cutscenes with some solid voice acting: Jennifer Hale plays the Warden and does the kind of job you'd expect from the voice of Commander Shepard. The notion of a huge war between real historical archetypes in an entirely made-up setting is a little weird, but it's sufficient to drive you from one encounter to the next.
The missions themselves constitute a solid introduction to the game's combat system and its various classes, with multiple difficulty levels and rewards for good performance to encourage re-play. Hidden collectibles feel like a bit of an afterthought, however, and at its core this is still primarily a game about hitting people with swords: you don't seem to get to do much more than that. It's better produced than most fighting game campaigns, but is probably best thought of in that light regardless. Perhaps my view will change as I dig deeper into it.
Check back tomorrow for another installment of Chris's diary. We'll aim to have a full, scored review up soon.