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For Honor pre-review: The combat shines, given enough time

It’s hard to keep one’s discipline in multiplayer, though

Ubisoft

Rarely, if ever, have I sized up an opponent in an online multiplayer game, much less a team deathmatch. There's simply no time for it in a shooter. Yet that is what my dueling partner and I were doing last night in For Honor.

I felt him looking me over, too. We switched our guards twice and circled each other. This preamble to sword combat probably lasted about 2.5 seconds. In my mind's eye, it seems like a full minute, and even though I lost, it was by far the highlight of my play so far.

When this happens, For Honor feels novel and engaging. The problem is it just didn't happen often enough in multiplayer for me. There wasn't enough in For Honor’s blocking/guard system, nor the inscrutably tight window for parrying attacks, to discourage an opponent’s relentless assault on the fast attack button (shoulder/R1). An awareness of one's mortality should inform the strategy of a close-quarters fight with very large knives. As long as online multiplayer is nothing but consequence-free death, its combat will reflect that, whether the weapons are guns or swords.

Ubisoft

For Honor is primarily an online multiplayer game. If duking it out with human opponents doesn't interest you, look elsewhere, even if For Honor’s samurai, vikings and knights look awesome (and they do). The single-player campaign, comprising six missions for each of the game's three factions, is more or less an extended tutorial for fighting in the larger multiplayer suite. It's a lot of the same thing: Go here, kill all of these enemies, participate in this set piece, learn about this piece of gameplay, watch a cut scene and collect your XP.

Single-player did, at least, give me time to think about how to fight someone, and in that For Honor's swordplay really shone through. Players may hold their guard in one of three directions either to attack from that angle or block attacks against it. Leaving aside the repetitive nature of the single-player missions, there's an undeniably satisfying and determinative feel to combat against the AI, backed up by rich, timely sounds and well done animations. Circling one foe, I switched my guard and watched him match my posture. By switching quickly to his unguarded side I began a nasty, thwacky scourging. For Honor has many rules to follow, but it still left enough room for me to improvise things like this kind of feint attack.

For Honor's campaign will force players to try all of the different classes through the rather limited characters the story presents. They have different names within their factions, but the vanguard is the all-rounder class; the assassin is the fast striker (stealth is not a factor in this game); heavies speak for themselves and then there's a hybrid, which requires the most skill, as it blends the benefits and obligations of two specialized classes. For example, assassins must constantly refresh their blocking posture as a tradeoff for the speed of their attack. Heavies had the longest attack animations and presented the greatest challenge in parrying blows or quickly responding to them.

When new players begin multiplayer they have only the all-rounder available. This means a lot of grind until the other types open up. Matchmaking was considerate enough (I played on PlayStation 4) though I did get dumped into a few games with guys at level 10 while I was still pushing through level three. At level four I had my first positive kill-to-death ratio for a game (9 to 7) and felt like I wasn't simply losing out to gear and attributes before the fight could begin. I also poached a few victories off outnumbered foes. The game’s 2-on-2 brawl mode often breaks down to who loses a teammate first. A two-on-one advantage in For Honor’s multiplayer is almost immediately decisive.

Still, there were moments where I felt I was getting the hang of it. Breaking an opponent's defense and slashing him twice made that ass-kicker of a heavy attack at the end hurt a lot worse. I just couldn't execute that consistently. Successful combinations depend greatly on the first one landing on an unguarded side. That's a lot of advance planning when your foe is constantly whirling at you with fast attacks. In the heat of battle, I felt my mental RAM filling up fast: OK, this move for block break, this for a throw, this to dodge, here and here to block foes I'm not locked onto ... it's no wonder why most players pick a single target and go after it relentlessly, eschewing defense.

There are 12 maps in the multiplayer of For Honor but their value mainly is in the scenery and atmosphere they provide. I'm not sure what the point is of an elevation change in a game with no ranged weapons (there's a leaping attack from above, but it's rarely effective against humans running all over the place). I suppose I could have run to the ramparts when my unit had broken and I was the last man standing in four-on-four skirmish (the deathmatch mode).

For Honor doesn't revolutionize melee or multiplayer combat but it does deliver some moments where it's more meaningful than simply hitting a button first or having the advantage of surprise. I just wish there were more of these moments. The appeal is instantly understandable, and someone disciplined enough to develop an attack rather than swinging at everything in reach will see some things that shooter multiplayer cannot offer. It's just hard to maintain your own patience and focus when so few of your competitors pay no price for not having it themselves.

We’ll continue grinding away at the game and will have a full review in the coming weeks.