For Honor review

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Ubisoft
Developer Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date Feb 14, 2017

For Honor is a fighting game. I had to keep repeating that to myself every time I got frustrated.

The third-person camera, the medieval settings and the melee weapons had caught me off guard, thinking this was an action-adventure, or a hack-and-slash somewhat like Ryse. Approaching it with those expectations left me disappointed. When I accepted it as a fighting game, though, my attitude changed.

Rooted in a clear system of checks and balances that require varied moves and annihilate spam attacking as viable gameplay, For Honor delivers some of the most creative melee combat I've seen. I'm no Robocop in this game, but there's something to be said for actually facing the person who chopped me down, rather than being slower on the draw or picked off from a blind spot. For Honor still has some qualities to help novices or the fighting-game averse. And the truth is that most everyone in For Honor, a week into its launch, hasn't played anything like it either.

most of For Honor's merit is in its multiplayer

As a fighting game, most of For Honor's merit is in its multiplayer. Yes, there is a single-player campaign, but it feels unfair to bash its threadbare story, empty characters and over-reliance on set pieces when that mode noticeably takes the back seat. I just enjoyed the campaign for what it is: a chance to experience all of the heroes against specific foe types in an environment more structured than the open practice For Honor also offers.

For Honor’s roster isn’t sectioned off by classes, per se; nor does it really have the kind of specific, iconic characters of a fighting game's lineup. Three factions, the Vikings, Knights and Samurai each have four fighters: a standard warrior (Vanguard), a fast but vulnerable attacker (Assassin), a heavy (Heavy) and then a hybrid of two of the preceding classes. Significantly, two of these can be played as men or women, and two others are female- or male-only. I felt this gave meaningful gender distinction to certain roles while credibly including everyone. Gender avatars, where the choice is available, can be switched at any time in the multiplayer menu.

For Honor screenshot

The different heroes across factions, though they may belong to the same "class" for lack of a better word, all play differently. The Knights' Conqueror (a heavy class) rightly has no real parry with his flail, but his block thwarts chained attacks. The Vikings' heavy, however, carries a sword (unlike that faction's Raider, with an axe) making him a much more viable counter-attacker. The best counter-attacker is the Samurai's orochi, assuming one knows how and where to dodge, but it takes real discipline to keep his guard up. The distinction given to each of the 12 heroes is the crux of For Honor. I would lose interest immediately if the fighters were effectively different skins of the same attributes.

This means that for each hero, there’s a different, most-important part of For Honor's combat system, which can make the game intimidating in what it expects of a player. Some classes simply don't make good use of some moves, for purposes of balance. Experimenting with a new character should be done on a long-term basis, rather than assuming that what worked with a past hero carries over. For example, the Knights' Lawbringer, a blend of the Heavy and Vanguard groupings, was advertised as an effective counterattacker, but I learned that he parried a lot more slowly than the Warden. Against the Samurai's orochi, trying to parry was just a path to frustration.

The "Art of Battle," as For Honor’s combat is called, absolutely requires an active defense. This is what makes it a fighting game more than the hack-n-slash it otherwise appears to be. Players strike from one of three positions — left, right or overhead — and block attacks from the same locations. For Honor's striking and movement isn't a true free-range-of-motion affair; there are long animations and super attacks and combinations galore. But again, the game's virtue rests on uncomplicated and reasonable fundamentals like the guard, building out to the more esoteric move sets and capabilities.

For Honor’s combat absolutely requires an active defense
For Honor screenshot Image: Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft

The guard still is vexing, particularly for newcomers, and it constantly challenges the patience of seasoned players too. There is no way to win without paying attention to your foe's guard and varying your strikes. It was common for me, under a relentless assault, to get caught in a blow-trading mentality, which is a one-way ticket to defeat. A basic block-and-attack approach just isn't effective against anyone other than similarly low-leveled heroes. You have to know what your fighter's unblockable move is and be able to work off of that. You also have to know what all the other classes' unblockables are and, when you see that red danger icon, know how to get out of the way.

A long-range character like the Samurai's Nobushi, which has probably the least health of any in the game, will carve up someone who sticks on a conventional blocking method. There was no poaching from bot fights, even where the AI had a predictable cadence each round. Either know your skills and the other fighter's, or you're meat. If you lack that commitment, For Honor will be frustrating.

For Honor screenshot

The game types do their best to encourage different tactics but this is where For Honor more resembles a popular shooter than a fighting game. Objectives still break down to Kill As Many People On the Other Team first, which usually takes care of everything. I enjoyed Dominion a lot; this capture-and-control variant saw some great rallies both by my team and against it. And a four-on-four fight (with AI cannon fodder for both sides) also neutralized For Honor's biggest shortcoming: getting ganged up on when a weaker teammate falls.

This makes the Brawl mode (teams of two) effectively a game of drawing first blood, as fending off two human foes either sequentially or in concert is almost asking too much. That said, I saw a lot of chivalrous behavior, such as a teammate letting their partner have the kill (or letting me have mine) rather than ganging up on the remaining fighter. Even in defeat it was charming to see a community playing not only by the spirit of the game, but the meaning in its title.

The thumb on the scale for rank beginners can be found in something called "Revenge," an enhanced state where a fighter deals more damage and has better defense. It becomes available after a meter is filled, and the meter is filled by blocking attacks. So a player who is good at that basic element and disciplined enough not to counterattack everything still has a rally option.

Revenge has a counterpart, the Execution, which becomes available when the killing blow is a heavy strike. It is very showy and packs some rather harsh sanctions: longer respawn time and no revival for anyone killed by it. For Honor conditions a fighter to go for it because of the huge gain in Renown for an execution kill. Renown is the XP that delivers the boosts (called Feats), which give fighters special qualities as they level up.

If a game is going to give big, overarching goals to its multiplayer base, they need more support

These buffs coming from Renown are important because For Honor is stingy in what it awards for winning a standard match.. Players will see faster progression by completing "orders" which are goal sheets offered either daily or long-term. These return bigger gains in XP and steel, the in-game currency that unlocks customizable options, characters and the like. Typically, orders will involve completing two matches of a particular mode of play and deliver about 1,000 XP, plus some currency. It was a bummer, however, to find a game type I really liked and wanted to stick with, yet realize I'd plateaued and it wasn't really helping me improve my character. In-game currency can be bought for real money, but it acquires cosmetic items. Adding feats only comes through experience, which is why a committed player has to be scanning and fulfilling orders in multiplayer.

For Honor screenshot

All of the multiplayer is wrapped in something called the Faction War, and I'm not really sure I understood its point. It does not get in the way of the multiplayer, but nor did it really motivate me to participate in it. Faction War seems to acknowledge this by allowing players to automate the postgame of a multiplayer match, where the "assets" won for their performance are spread over a territorial map. I buttoned through this process, accepted whatever the current state was of the territory, and went on to my next match.

Faction War’s problem is it aspires to unite players under some kind of a common banner while allowing them to play as any character, whether in the faction they chose or not. That’s proper; a user shouldn’t lose two thirds of the multiplayer roster just because of a clan choice. But it still erodes the overall premise of fighting for some larger cause. You might be a Knight alongside two Vikings, or might be fighting for the Knights as a Samurai. If a game is going to give big, overarching goals to its multiplayer base, they need more support. I was never sure if the Knights I fought with actually were Knights or somebody from another faction spending time with a Knight in their roster. I even wondered if I should even tank my end of the match to hurt them. In post-release support I hope Ubisoft Montreal can make this competition a little more meaningful, and perhaps stage faction-only events or at least give clearer indications of who is fighting for what.

I reviewed For Honor on PlayStation 4, which hasn't seen the kind of problems reported on PC during the game's launch week. Load times do seem a little long, even for a one-on-one match against a bot. It was easy to blame lag when I didn't get the parry at the proper time, but this is anecdotal at best. Playing during prime time hours sped up the matchmaking but also made it likelier that I joined a battle in progress. That’s fine, but you end up shouldering some losses without really being responsible. Matchmaking itself seemed reasonably fair, although with so much of the population low-level at the beginning I did run into games where my side was plainly outranked.

Wrap Up:

For Honor is worth the work you have to put into it

For Honor feels very much like a well-made (and gorgeously presented) sports video game to me, in that it’s a stout challenge but honest about its expectations. In all of my failures I knew why I lost, and had only the feeble excuse that maybe I needed more time to plan my attack. Players must ask themselves if they're willing to put in the work and practice to meet the talented competition in For Honor, which presents a deep and long-playing proposition in its multiplayer even if the single-player campaign is rote and not worth revisiting. It's easy to give up against such uncompromising and fast-paced combat, but those who stay with it are there to fight for something other than mere survival.

For Honor was reviewed using a final "retail" downloadable code for PlayStation 4 provided by Ubisoft. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here

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