For Honor review

For Honor is a strange name for the game Ubisoft has published this February. Apparently nothing could be more honorable than three lithe, spear-wielding assassins ganging up to perforate one  sweaty dude like Simon in Lord of the Flies. Such “fights” are an enlightening taste of what For Honor feels like most of the time: playing against odds so insurmountable and useless as learning experiences that they’d be funny if not for the times you end up hanging off the pointy end of someone else’s stick.

For Honor is a class-based fighting game, but not the kind where two opponents are locked to a single plane or round arena. Instead it’s mostly open melees between up to eight contestants vying for bloody control of battlefields. Cuts, stabs, swings, and slashes dealt between players one-on-one are telegraphed by triangles that show where someone means to block or attack from. Once two challengers lock onto one another, it becomes a game of feinting, dodging, parrying, blocking, combo-ing, and throwing each other with the unique talents and strengths of each class. At least in theory.

More often — at least in most of the multiplayer modes that are For Honor’s focus — two or three or four players will form death gangs to Ginsu isolated targets in an ugly, panting flurry of button mashing. Which  makes splitting up to capture control points or set up solo ambushes into near death sentences.

There is a mode called “Duel” that combats this overcrowding problem. It’s a best-of-five battle between, as its name suggests, just two combatants at a time. You can take your pick of 12 classes split between samurai, Viking, and medieval knight factions and throw them against each other (which is a frequent occurrence in all of the game’s modes).

Paradoxically this might be the multiplayer mode I enjoy the least, but find myself drawn to play the most. “Duel” is a pure expression of For Honor’s combat, where you can really see what the developers are reaching for. Without any abstract objectives to battle over, it serves to spotlight the very best and very, very worst of this game’s dance of directional cuts and blocks.

Depending on your class you might be able to strike a heavy attack from the left, switch to the right with a quick stab, and finish with an unexpected (or even unblockable) forward tackle. The idea is to feel like you’re in an actual pitched battle for your life — scrabbling to parry blows that might drain half of your health bar in an instant and balancing your avatar’s stamina against the pressing need to put them down before they do the same to you.

Unfortunately, For Honor the game isn’t always up to making For Honor the idea work smoothly. Whether in Duel, the control-point-covered Dominion, or in more standard deathmatch modes, one-on-one fights fall prey to some discouraging balance issues. The easiest issue to spot is that countering tackles is hard.

For Honor’s block system means keeping your right thumb trained over the right analog stick at all times. You’ll need that same digit to parry incoming tackles and throws, however, and the window for countering (at least right now) is very, very tight. Miss your timing and your opponent’s full-body strike will send your character off-balance. Which opens you up for combos and being tossed off numerous cliffs to your instant death.

Just as in more open combat, my experience with duels has mostly been players instantly exploiting this tactic to plant me into corners where I can’t make create distance or dodge. Unless it was me doing the same to them, first, and assuming the battle didn’t end with a short, surprising drop into the ocean anyway.

There are more complex tactics for getting around these “cheesy” strategies — quite a few, in fact. Concepts that might only make sense in context with a glossary of fighting game jargon — like “startup,” “priority,” and “interrupt” — pop up from time to time in the game’s silent video tutorials. More basic concepts, like how to block and parry, are demonstrated in playable tutorials, but those more sophisticated facets are only ever explained passively. If they’re explained at all.

This adds a rarer level of agitation when you run into someone that, just a few days after the game’s release, already seems to understand For Honor’s hidden depths. I’ve seen my Viking Valkyrie’s spear clip through a number of rolling, dodging bodies, only for no damage to register and for me to catch a swift sword to the ear while my character re-centered herself. I’m giving For Honor the benefit of the doubt here. I assume I’m missing because of some arcane skill I haven’t learned to recognize yet, instead of just bad netcode.

If you enjoy the satisfaction of For Honor’s combat there are A.I. bots to play with and against. At the very least, you’ll know that whatever just killed you isn’t silently judging you 2000 miles away.

And to the game’s credit, bot matches give most of the same rewards as if you played against real humans. Those include loot drops to customize your classes with, plus currency for less practical, more cosmetic upgrades. You’ll even be able to influence an ongoing “Faction War” between the game’s three fictionalized juntas.

It’s a bit murky at the moment, but players can pledge themselves to Vikings, Samurai, and Knights at an account level. It doesn’t affect what classes you can choose in multiplayer. Instead, it allows you to throw numbers at other factions on a constantly updating map. The promise is that at the end of several months-long seasons, those maps will permanently alter to give credit to whichever team rules the most territory.

It’s impossible to say if the Faction War will be worth players’ while. We don’t know what rewards they’ll get or what changes they’re contributions will make. Furthermore, the process for actually deploying the “War Assets” that determine which team controls which zone is oddly hidden behind menus that you can only access between rounds of multiplayer. You’d be forgiven for forgetting that you even could influence the abstract war effort after every match— except that the game reminds you about it every time the multiplayer suite boots back up.

The Faction War, then, could be nothing but a novelty. Just like For Honor’s deceptively intricate combat seems to be if all you play are its tutorials and the slight, but competent, single-player campaign. Or it might have hidden, inscrutable depth — just like the combat system reveals, once you get to the multiplayer. What the intimate melees and impersonal numbers game have in common is that neither knows how best to explain itself through anything but time, determination, and brute force. 

For Honor’s combat is at equal times exquisitely satisfying — like the sound of machetes on meat, if that’s your thing — and painfully frustrating. Its instant satisfaction springs from the superficial, like the weighty noise a virtual club makes meeting with a digital skull,or knowing an enemy can’t be revived on the field if you chop off their head.  It can even be the simple math of watching your team’s point total instantly swing 100 in your favor after taking a control point.The frustrations run much deeper. You might not notice them right away, yet you’ll feel it when your ratio of successful blocks, parries, and strikes to failed feints begins to erode. You’ll notice players doing things you don’t understand or haven’t figured out how to fight back against. And you’ll grit your teeth while drilling through menus in search of better training than the game’s tutorials can give you.

At this point, it’s up to you to make a decision. You can resign yourself to bot matches, move on to something else, or stick with For Honor the way others have stuck with Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. There’s a deeper satisfaction to mine out of the game than it lets on, but it won’t give you all the tools you need to reach them easily.

Verdict:  Yes