Ubisoft's melee combat game defies easy classification but its competitive foundation is undeniable
Ubisoft's For Honor drops on February 14, and it looks like it'll be a very bloody Valentine's Day. The brutal, competitive-focused melee combat game resists tidy classification, but if you've ever been wholly engrossed in a fighting game, you'll be in familiar territory. It's also built around a competitive framework that would feel at home in a big-budget, blockbuster first-person shooter, with long-term progression, a persistent metagame, and one particularly intriguing promise: that the playerbase will have a real effect on how the game develops, across free downloadable expansions and whatever lore accompanies them.
Here's what you need to know about this bold, bruising competitive game.
It Plays Like a Fighting Game
For Honor looks at times like Dynasty Warriors – it's easy to mistake it for a braindead brawler when the field is crowded with AI-controlled fodder that exists solely to be mowed down, which is often. Other times, when you're locked in combat with an actual human, it looks like player-versus-player combat in Dark Souls, with paired-off combatants stalking, circling, and poking at each other, starving for even the slightest opening. But it actually plays more like a fighting game; your default state is one of defense, and when you're in the thick of it, you spend more time pondering feints and misdirections than launching offensive flurries.
"When you do martial arts, when you do fencing, when you do any fight sports, the first thing that you learn is to defend," says Roman Campos-Oriolas, For Honor's game director. "If you look at video games in general, it's the inverse. The first thing [they] teach you is how to attack, how to do good combos. [Defense] is where we started from."
The control scheme is unorthodox – think of the first time you picked up a Souls game and had to relearn the very basics – and it doesn't in any way blush at complexity. You can block, parry (which is tough and requires good timing), you have to mind a super meter and a stamina meter, keep track of special "feat" abilities on timers, and learn all of your character's special moves (and there are 12 characters). If you've been around fighting games, get ready for a lot of the same jargon to hold currency here: unblockable attacks, power armor, feint-cancels, and more. If you find the preceding incomprehensible, know this: For Honor is complex and demanding when played competitively. The thrill of outwitting and dominating your opponent is real. When you acquire even the slightest inkling of mastery, it truly feels great – stuff like successfully defending against two opponents, which the game's direction-based block system rightfully makes really hard.
You want to understand why the fuck a samurai is fighting a viking in that crazy colorful world.
There's Actually a Story
Believe it or not, For Honor has a single-player campaign, in an era when Overwatch has essentially conquered the world without one, and a critical hit like Titanfall 2 added a brilliant story mode that failed to move the needle. According to Campos-Oriolas, the decision to include one in For Honor revolved around a fundamental question that the game's premise begs. "Understanding the dynamics of that universe and what's happening in that world is important, he says. "You want to understand why the fuck a samurai is fighting a viking in that crazy colorful world."
In For Honor's world, there's a war going on – a bloody three-way conflict between the Knights, the Vikings, and the Samurai. These factions might have other names in the lore, but the game wisely expresses them that simply. As the intro cinematic depicts, a massive cataclysm has redrawn the world's contours, bringing these three warlike cultures into close proximity and setting them on a collision course. Behind the scenes somewhere, likely manipulating everything, is a warlord named Apollyon.
The single-player mission I played was For Honor at its most Dynasty Warriors. As a Viking Raider – one of classes you'll use in competitive play – my job was to pillage a settlement inhabited by my kin, burn down their fortifications, and steal their food. Most of the enemies I encountered were the type to fall with an axe-hew or two. Occasionally, there were some that had a player class that you had to engage like you would a real human, by blocking their attacks and using special moves instead of just mindlessly whaling on them. At the end, after defeating him in single combat, I had to chase down the village chief on horseback and take him out with a throwing axe to the head in an on-rails, quick time event-style sequence. He had it coming, the game assured me.
Going into the single-player after having played hours of the competitive game with real, ferocious, homicidal humans with a will to dominate, it fell a bit flat. But frankly, in those circumstances, the deck was stacked against it.
There's a Super-Involved Persistent Metagame
The boldest thing about For Honor is what they're calling the Faction War. It's a framework that ties all of the game's competitive activity into a cross-platform, persistent meta-game. It works like this: when you start the game, you choose a faction – Knights, Samurai, or Vikings, though this doesn't limit the classes you can play – and every time you play a multiplayer match, the results are tallied, and the winning faction makes progress toward acquiring territory on the in-game map. There's an intricate system running it all that tallies results every few hours to award territory to the winning faction and dole out in-game rewards every two weeks to players who participated depending on well their faction is doing – like gear with actual in-game stats as well as cosmetic items. After 10 weeks, a new season begins, and the faction with the most territory is declared the winner, and earns the biggest rewards. ("Cross-platform" here doesn't mean that Xbox One players will be matched with people on PC or PS4 – just that the Ubisoft's servers will track results across all three in order to declare the winner.)
Ubisoft is promising new in-game content like maps and modes with every season roll, but more interesting is how they're planning to alter the game based on the results. As a season progresses and the fronts shift, the appearance of multiplayer maps will change depending on who controls what territory – think viking banners replacing knight tapestries on the fort's walls. And in addition to big content drops Ubisoft is planning more substantial, lasting changes to the game following a season. "It's a little bit early to answer that in full detail, but we want to put the lore, or parts of the lore, in the hands of the players," Campos-Orioles says.
During For Honor's development, he describes how players who were exposed to the game would quickly start to develop an affinity for one faction or another. "You need to be able to express that in the game," he says. His hope is that the community will remain invested enough to be a part of the "evolution of the lore and the world," and thereby ensure its longevity. It's a reasonable thing to wish for, given how hard it is these days for even the best competitive games to keep an audience engaged.