A horn sounds in the distance, signaling that our army is at its breaking point. I look down at the grassy field from the relative safety of a crumbling wall. One of my comrades is clashing with a knight, doing his best to block the unrelenting swings of his opponent’s morning star. Two of the knight’s allies come, and it’s three against one. I could run down and help, but even then we’d be outnumbered. Instead, I call in a volley of arrows. The projectiles rain down on our enemies, slaughtering them in seconds. Our ragged forces regroup, and we manage to narrowly pull a victory from what seemed like an inevitable loss. At its best, “For Honor” lets you live out the fantasies you had as a kid, where every stick was a blade and your backyard was a roiling battleground waiting for your swordsmanship to save the day.
The game’s setup is either supremely strange or just plain stupid: The best warriors from three different factions — knights, samurai, and Vikings — have been pulled into a realm of war, where they continue to fight for 1,000 years. A campaign attempts to make sense of it all, but ultimately it’s an excuse to get a dozen heroes from various cultures together so they can fight to the death. I couldn’t say with any confidence what exactly is ultimately going on in “For Honor’s” story, aside from the fact that these guys like to fight.
The combat system is easily the highlight, working as a solid foundation for the rest of the diverse modes. It’s a 3D action/fighting hybrid that slashes its own unique path; the warriors have a variety of different weapons, including poison-tipped spears, battleaxes, and katana, but the fundamentals are the same regardless. Your hero can hold his or her weapon in three directional positions, for either attacking or defending. Switching positions is as simple as locking onto your opponent and moving the right analog stick. Add in feints, parries, block-breakers, and unique move sets, and you have a robust melee toolset.
Battles are methodical and thoughtful. Button-mashers quickly run out of stamina, leaving them vulnerable. A refreshing amount of tension comes at the start of battle, and I loved how often the initial moments of contact would consist of me and my opponent circling one another while switching stances, looking for weaknesses and openings. This kind of psychological engagement is at its best in one-on-one duels or two-on-two brawls, where you’re able to focus your attention and get into your opponent’s head — and hopefully remove it.
Things are more frantic in the Dominion mode, where two teams of four earn points by taking and controlling three points on a large map. Double- or triple-teaming the enemy is commonplace there, but “For Honor” helps even the odds by making it easier to block attacks coming from several directions and also allowing the outnumbered party to quickly fill a revenge meter. Once activated, it can knock attackers down, providing a chance for retribution or escape. Being able to endure such an onslaught, and even overcome it, is intensely satisfying, and one of my favorite things about the game.
Even though characters share the basics, don’t expect to jump between them at ease. You need to learn each hero’s range, chain attacks, and various feats if you want to be effective. As silly as the story is, it does a great job letting you try out several of the different classes to see which ones best fit your play style. Early on, I gravitated toward the Viking Warchief, but I found his limited stamina to be a problem (even after equipping items that boosted the stat). Once I started playing as the Samurai Kensei, however, I flourished.
As you play more with the characters, you level them up and get better gear. Thankfully, their associated stat boosts don’t matter in the skill-based duels and brawls, but they can make a difference in some of the other modes. You can earn them via random drops or buy blind bundles of gear using the in-game currency, steel, which is earned in matches and daily missions. Earning steel through matches alone is a slow process, with a typical Dominion battle earning about 40. You need 500 steel to open the best bundles, and even more to purchase additional taunts, costumes, or other cosmetic items. Most of this is purely optional, but it’s a little gross to see more than $200 of microtransaction content laid out the first week of the game’s release — including the ability to fast-track your way to character feats that would take dozens of hours to otherwise unlock, or to purchase a special account status that earns you additional loot and XP.
The game’s battles can be great, but you also have to contend with the online infrastructure. In its current state, I experienced frequent disconnects and other networking issues. Players would vanish before my eyes, and the action would stutter as it replaced the missing person with an admittedly competent bot. That this happens at all is disconcerting, and more so when the screen hitches as an enemy sword is swinging at your face. Sometimes, these disconnects also shatter online parties, requiring you to send another wave of invites. Ubisoft has big plans for “For Honor” in the months ahead, with a faction-based metagame, evolving stages, and additional characters to join the war. Hopefully, addressing these technical issues is even higher on the list of priorities, because they undermine an otherwise memorable experience.
When everything lines up, “For Honor” is a brutal and rewarding game that makes you feel like an unstoppable warrior. Sure, sometimes you get kicked off a bridge (again) or your head gets lopped off, but those failures make your battlefield successes even sweeter.
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