Ubisoft’s new brawler is interesting in a brutal kind of way.
For Honor is a new take on the brawler, one of gaming’s oldest genres. In the modern era the genre has had a rocky road. For every Ninja Gaiden Black there was at least one Dynasty Warriors game. At their best these games mixed elements of fighting games and adventure games with deep combat systems to master and interesting environments to explore. The spice that For Honor tries to add to the dish is an original control scheme and a more modern approach to online multiplayer, which they borrowed from shooters.
The game is actually a little similar to existing games in some modes, but others are much fresher and more interesting. The story mode does some interesting things with environments. The one-versus-one duel mode and the two-versus-two brawl modes are very reminiscent of fighting games. The map control Dominion mode and the classic Deathmatch modes are reminiscent of first-person shooters. But even when this game reminds players of other games there’s always a caveat. For Honor is a weird new thing and weird new things are always worth playing.
The style of the game is surprisingly bright and colorful for such a bleak story. Even as all the characters in the game are manipulated into a bloody conflict outside of their own interest they do so dressed in bright, happy colors and travel through lush forests, crumbling castles and cities, icy mountains, frozen lakes, rundown temples, and sprawling palaces. Each environment is rendered beautifully with great attention to detail. The level of attention in For Honor is so impressive considering how many AI controlled characters are on screen during multitudes of situations.
The structure of the story mode in For Honor is promising but a few small choices hold it back from being truly great. A frame story for the events of the campaign bookends the playable sections of the story mode. Three of the principal characters of the tale give first-person narration as the player fights their way through various battles.
The problem comes in the form of the game’s antagonist, Apollyon. Apollyon is portrayed as an incredibly skilled fighter and manipulator bent on creating conflict between the Knights, Samurai and Vikings that make up the game’s factions. Apollyon doesn’t just kill the non-player characters and trick the player characters into going to war, she also narrates the openings to several story missions and all the flavor text that accompanies the in mission points of interest that make up half of the collectibles in the game. Having the sinister social darwinist pop up to add a little story flair whenever a player points the camera at a statue with a little glint of light and hits L1 kind of robs her of some of her power. This also robs the three characters telling their stories some opportunities to actually tell their cultures’ side of what is happening. Apollyon is a character who separates herself from all culture in favor of conflict, but For Honor puts her in the position of telling the story of three vibrant diverse cultures that happen to be in conflict and it doesn’t really work.
One aspect of the campaign in For Honor that does work is the way it trains players on how to use the game’s control scheme. Once players get a handle on the controls system the combat feels really great! The controls feel different enough that there is a pretty steep learning curve but the campaign helps ease players right in. Once the controls are mastered the combat feels a lot like a fighting game in the duel, brawl and Deathmatch modes. Dominion mode is its own thing and has more in common with MOBAs and Overwatch-style hero shooters where encounters where your team has a numbers advantage will almost always go well, 1-versus-1 fights are do-able, but anytime you’re outnumbered you’ll be wrecked pretty quickly.
The control scheme in For Honor is the most interesting aspect of the game’s gameplay. Most 3D brawlers stick with some variation of the well-worn Streets of Rage control scheme, with camera control added to the left analog stick. That control scheme doesn’t really deal with defense though. Many of games try to deal with this by adding in a dodge-roll or parry system, but no game has done this as well as For Honor. The use of the right analog stick in For Honor that chooses the direction of defense and attack adds a layer of complexity in this combat system that makes it unique and interesting.
Balance is an important aspect of any game and gives it that good-game feeling. For Honor achieves that with their character types. There are twelve character types in the game, each fitting into one of four classes and one of the three factions of the game. The quick characters are just quick enough to balance their lower health, the heavy characters are not too slow, the balanced characters are just bad enough at one thing to not feel identical to each other, and the hybrid classes each blend together aspect of the other classes in interesting and complex ways.
On top of the multiplayer modes in For Honor there is a territory control minigame called the faction war. The mode is similar to the mode of the same name in Mortal Kombat X in that it gives players in-game rewards based on the performance of their chosen faction. What’s new in For Honor is the way the results of the Faction War affect the multiplayer mode itself. As factions gain and lose territory the maps used for different modes change, as do the cosmetic look of those same maps. The mode doesn’t really add or take away much from the game, though. If the Faction War weren’t in For Honor and the game just gave players rewards for leveling up I’m not sure anyone would notice.
While the environments in the game are rendered beautifully and designed with interesting hazards that can be used to gain advantage against opponents, the collision in some spaces seems a bit harsh especially in some of the boss fight arenas. Nothing feels worse than seeing an escape from a tough spot, but getting stuck on level geometry and subsequently getting slaughtered.
For Honor is one of the better looking games in this console generation. When you allow for how many AI characters are on a given map at one time it makes the graphical fidelity even more impressive. The music is pretty good but not amazing, in multiplayer For Honor benefits from a death-metal playlist more than most games. The sound design, on the other hand, is top notch, especially the sound effects. Two swords clashing sounds different from an axe on a sword or a spear against a sword, which really helps with situational awareness. You’ll be engaged with one opponent then hear a new sound and know instantly that it’s a new opponent even without seeing them.
The tail on For Honor is long so long as you like the combat. There are tons of customization options for all the different heroes, some of which tweak their stats but, thankfully, the game allows purists to turn those tweaks off for E-sports reasons. Story sections can be replayed but beyond the completionists’ desire to find all the collectibles there isn’t really a reason to go back to the story mode once it’s finished. The faction war is kind of interesting but only in a superficial way. This game is worth the price of admission if you like the combat, but if you don’t engage with that aspect of the game you’ll skip off hard.