For Honor imagines an alternate Middle Ages in which medieval knights, Vikings and samurai all live within about five minutes of each other, which funnily enough is the kind of world I’ve imagined for so long that I feel as though I should be getting royalties from this. I’d be doing pretty well for myself, too. For Honor has shifted a remarkable number of copies considering it’s a multiplayer-focused duelling simulator. I suppose even for adults there’s an implicit desire to find out which of your favourite historical warriors are the hardest. It’s a timeless argument that has its roots somewhere in kids insisting that their dad can beat their mate’s dad in a straight fight. That idea has a lot of legs. For Honor is a franchise waiting to happen, really. Maybe the sequel will explain where all the pirates went.
One of the first things For Honor asks you to do is choose which faction to belong to. I selected the Vikings because I feel as though my life has a lot less raping and pillaging than I’d like, but it turns out the choice only applies to multiplayer, and that regardless of who you choose to align with you can play as whoever you like, thus rendering the choice utterly meaningless. I’m glad I agonised over it for half an hour, because it isn’t as though I have anything else to be doing.
One thing I won’t be doing, as it happens, is playing much of For Honor’s multiplayer. Nothing against it, obviously, it’s just that there are already barely enough hours in the day for me to fulfil all of my professional, romantic and parental obligations, so becoming hopelessly obsessed with smacking around armour-plated knights isn’t near the top of my to-do list. I did play through the story portion, though, as I’m always keen to venture into the tacked-on half-arsed modes while everyone else busies themselves with the good stuff. You know me – always giving the people what they want.
I’m being facetious, I know. I guess I find it hard to talk seriously about a game that has perhaps the most juvenile premise ever conceived. Not that there’s anything wrong with juvenility, of course. I spend the vast majority of my time being childish, and you’d be surprised how funny I find it. But imagine how foolish I’d look banging the “games are art” drum as I march a hairy Nordic marauder across the plains to challenge an ancient Japanese swordsman to single combat. Then again, maybe that’s what art is all about.
Anyway. The story’s a load of old arse, but for the sake of posterity here’s a rundown: the knights, Vikings and samurai all live in the same gated community, and they all hate each other because everyone keeps planting trees on the property line and kicking their footballs over the fence. Nobody knows how to communicate in this world unless they’re grunting with axe-swinging effort or roaring in victory, so a three-way conflict rages eternal, and For Honor’s campaign does a good job of emphasising this by having three chapters, each comprised of six missions, wherein the knights invade the Vikings, the Vikings invade the samurai, and the samurai invade the knights, all while a cobbled-together uber-battalion called the Black Legion – they cherry-pick their ranks from the opposing teams’ best fighters, like the World XI of medieval warfare – invade everyone. The game’s story posits that all this perpetual conflict is actually thanks to the geopolitical manipulation of a stern schoolmarm lady who believes everyone should fight everyone else so that the resultant society is comprised of only great warriors. I mean… yeah, if you like.
You can forgive all this because it was clearly written to justify the premise, and there’s so much inherent value in the core idea that I wouldn’t give much of a shit if they were fighting over a Scrabble tournament. For Honor’s single-player component only really exists to function as an extended PvP tutorial, which is why it mostly uses repurposed multiplayer maps, but at least Ubisoft had the good sense to stuff it full of outlandish – and surprisingly well-choreographed – fight sequences. Yeah, you read that right – Ubisoft made this, proving once again that they mostly choose to peddle samey sandboxes at the expense of the fresh, interesting IP that they’re quite clearly capable of creating.
Still, For Honor made it out the door, so who am I to complain? And I’m thankful for that, because despite the campaign’s abysmal writing and repetitive mission design, I had a tremendous amount of fun with it. Sure, there are some flaccid diversions like on-rails horse riding, rope-climbing and ballista-firing that I could certainly have done without, but the vast majority of the gameplay is divided between hacking through swathes of squishy infantry like you’re playing a steroidal Dynasty Warriors, and duelling one-on-one with chunky captains using a robust, weapon-focused combat system that’s most reminiscent of Soul Calibur viewed from Resident Evil 4’s over-the-shoulder perspective. And if that sounds like something you’d be into then, spoiler alert, you’ll definitely be into it.
There’s more to it than that, obviously. For Honor’s duelling is mostly governed by a three-way stance system – holding your weapon to the left, the right or above your head, thus allowing you to attack from a certain angle and parry your opponent’s directionally-specific counters. This is the skeleton of a system with all kinds of familiar appendages: fast, light attacks and slow, heavy ones; short combos; parries, dodges and throws; and a rapidly-depleting Soulsy stamina meter. The various characters you pilot throughout the campaign all have different names and flimsily-written personalities, but they’re really just big weapons that denote a particular fighting style – this guy’s balanced, this guy can take a pounding and hits very hard but moves like he’s wading through treacle, this (inevitably) lady is remarkable quick but has the resilience of a mouldy breadstick. Etc., etc. None of this seems particularly unique or interesting, but you’d be surprised. The game’s handsome presentation no doubt has something to do with it, as does how smoothly it transitions from the charging frontline combat to the more deliberate, complex mano a mano encounters. But it’s mostly just how complementary the whole system feels. The camera angle and shooter-style HUD benefit the stance mechanic, which benefits the more traditional fighting-game conceits, which are benefitted by the diversity of characters and their attendant special abilities, weapons and fighting styles. For Honor’s smartest realization was that complexity does not necessarily equal depth. It’s a fighting game that relies less on memorizing knotty button combinations and more on reading and reacting to your opponent’s movements; recognising patterns, considering strengths and weaknesses, and implementing the best strategy in a given situation.
And then there’s the simple quality of the animation, which is often remarkable and arguably the best digital approximation of melee combat I’ve ever seen – and I didn’t even realise that was a criterion I was paying attention to. But it has to be said that the weight and chunkiness to it all is compelling in a way that such things almost never are. Whether it’s the soggy thud of a successful hit, the vibrating clang of clashing weapons, or the heaving shoulders of two combatants who have disengaged, knackered, to recover their stamina, there’s a consistently meaty nuance to For Honor that ensures each gruelling duel is individually interesting and exciting. Admittedly I haven’t spent as much time with the game as most people will, but I never tired of it throughout the six-hour story campaign, which is surprising considering it’s the same thing almost all the way through.
I have no idea if For Honor has any long-term viability (I assume it does, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable asserting that without spending more time with the multiplayer) but if you have a decent amount of spare time and a desire to smack your mates over the head with big lumps of steel, this is a game that will scratch that itch better than most. Just be careful you don’t accidentally lop your own head off while you’re at it.