Game director Roman Campos-Oriola tells us just where history ends and fantasy begins
"We broke a shitload of swords," Roman Campos-Oriola says, laughing.
Campos-Oriola, the game director for the new knights versus samurai versus vikings brawler For Honor, is telling me how he and the team at Ubisoft Montreal initially had the bright idea to use real swords for the motion capture. To his credit, it must have seemed like a smart enough idea. Everything from comic books and movies to dinner tournaments at Medieval Times tells us that swordplay is a frantic matter of slabs of steel clanging mercilessly against other slabs of steel, with sparks raining on the sand below. There were sparks all right, but they went flying unheroically into the eyes of the stuntmen. As for the clanging steel, each sword would only endure around 20 nicks before it shattered. There was action, but not without piles of broken blades scattered about the sound stage and frequent stops to grind the nicks out of the weapons before they inevitably broke.
"It was bullshit, so we actually hired a blacksmith to forge us specific weapons in a specific alloy that was much more resistant," he says.
I'm talking with Campos-Oriola to get a better idea of how much of the swordplay in For Honor – or at least its animations – has a basis in history. He seems dismissive of the notion. As scores of reviews have already pointed out, For Honor's foundations better resemble fighting games in the vein of Street Fighter V than some of the more realistic swordfighters out there, but it's hard not to spot a passion for historical accuracy in the details. Sure, you'll find horns on the helmets of the Viking faction, a historical no-no but badass and iconic enough to justify carryover into a video game. But the armor for the samurai faction is a thing of beauty. The hardened leather on the kusazuri that protects a samurai's thighs looks as though it's suffered in the sun, with bindings that show evidence of wear.
But still, Campos-Oriola insists historical accuracy wasn't a huge focus for his team.
"For us the goal was never to create a simulation – it was to create an action game that actually looked believable," he says. He tells me to think of an Eighties Schwarzenegger movie, where he pumps bullets into a horde of bad guys while holding a machine gun with his elbow impractically close to his body.
"You go, 'Yeah, that's bullshit. You don't shoot a machine gun like that. But it looks accurate. For us, it's the same kind of thing. It's an action game. When you look at the moves, the characters, that close one-on-one combat... in some sense, it looks believable, and that's the goal."
According to Campos-Oriola, For Honor's original pitch was "Fight Club with swords," which seems miles away from a sober grounding in history.
"And so we started to think of the game like Street Fighter, but instead of choosing a character, you would choose a weapon," he says. "Your weapon is your character, and so we started to look at what type of weapons we could integrate. And so quickly, knights, vikings, and samurai emerged [from] the types of weapons we were choosing."
It was only after the oddball knight-viking-samurai faction triumvirate was in place did Campos-Oriola and his team bother to really tap into history by enlisting the aid of British weapons historian Mike Loades. Loades is best known for his 2011 book Swords and Swordsmen, but he isn't just a writer – he's also known for showing off his skills in horseback archery, jousting, and chariot driving on the BBC and the Discovery Channel. That type of expertise came in handy when Ubisoft was researching the fighting styles of the vikings, of whose combat techniques very little is known. The best bet, according to Loades, was to look at the weapons themselves and study archaeological evidence and draw conclusions from them.
"All of our viking characters have lot of moves designed towards hitting the legs of your opponents because Loades told us that when you look at the skeletons in graves found from that time, they all tend to have a lot of wounds on the legs," Campos-Oriola says.
Naturally, they had far better luck with the knights and samurai, as numerous resources on the specifics of these fighting styles remain. (The samurai were by far the easiest, as the caste in its medieval form was essentially still in place until late in the early modern period.) Campos-Oriola tells me he and the team even took combat courses themselves, going so far as to learn how to use weapons like the German broadsword and the Italian spatha. In the process, Campos-Oriola found himself in love with the comparatively humble longsword. "It's not the fastest weapon, it doesn't do the most damage," he says. "But it's the best all-around sword: you can hit with the blade, you can stab, you can use the edge, you can use it in a large variety of ways, and that versatility has been rediscovered when people actually look at the story of how it was used."
So maybe there is more of a historical grounding in For Honor than Campos-Oriola originally let on. Still, he insists, they didn't hesitate to bend the rules a bit if they had to, or if one of their stuntmen had training in a different style of combat that nevertheless seemed complementary. He mentions the Knights' faction's Peacekeeper class as an example, pointing out that it draws its dagger-and-sword fighting style from a real Italian martial art because they had a stuntman who was trained in it. And though many of the samurai moves were performed under the direction of historian and martial artist Alex Bennett, Ubisoft had trouble finding stuntmen trained in using the naginata, a Japanese polearm with a curved blade. So they just improvised. As for tackling the vikings, they simply adapted techniques from styles they were familiar with into something that looked good.
"In the case of the berserker that uses the two-handed axes, the guy that performed the motion capture actually took inspiration in [Filipino martial art] Kali Arnis Escrima," he says. "Even if Kali doesn't have shit to do with Norway, [it] translated well for the two axes of the berserker."
But what about the swords themselves? I'd come to this interview expecting to hear some story about how they'd used the exact model of, say, William Wallace's alleged six-foot claymore or one of the Ulfberht swords so prized by the vikings. But Campos-Oriola just shrugs it off.
"As you progress, your weapons' looks venture more toward fantasy because we had to," he says. "Real life weapons are beautiful when you look at them, but they are also a little bit, well, not boring, but they're fighting gear. They're for war, they're not [meant] to look cool. Eventually when you progress as a player you will also want gear that looks cool."
Campos-Oriola tells me that they never showed the final product to historian Mike Loades, which is a bit of a shame since Loades previously expressed his admiration for the historical detail in the Assassin's Creed series. History was never so important as the action. At the heart of For Honor, whenever they trained themselves or enlisted stuntmen to pull off fancy moves, there was always a hunt for something more raw and primal than the acrobatics of ripostes and feints. For Honor may focus on the epic clashes of armies, but at every step, Ubisoft Montreal sought to start with the pain familiar from kitchen mishaps and Boy Scout blunders.
"We have all used a knife in our life and got cut with it, so when we see a big, sharp sword, all we can all think about the weight behind that sort of stab," he says. "I think it adds to the value and the appeal."