For Honor review

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[Reviewed on Xbox One]

A startling trend is quickly becoming apparent when it comes to Ubisoft. While the publisher is known for its sprawling, heavily iterative open worlds – bloated with collectibles, familiar content and cartoon caricatures of whatever period it is brazenly attempting to depict – its finest titles are the polar opposite. Smaller, succinct games with an eye on careful innovation and the unique execution of bold ideas; Child Of Light, Valiant Hearts: The Great War and, of course, Rainbow Six Siege are the key examples. And then there is For Honor, a game quite unlike anything the company has released in its thirty-year history, a uniquely brilliant fighting game styled up for a generation weaned on first-person shooters.

For Honor might look a hell of a lot like Ryse: Son Of Rome with a good helping of Dynasty Warriors thrown in for good measure, but that comparison couldn’t be further off the mark. In spite of the medieval setting, the tight third-person camera, and presence of AI minions stumbling around a gorgeous variety of fields of war, For Honor is, in actuality, a fighting game. And yes, we are being completely serious.

For Honor review

For Honor unleashes one of the most creative melee combat systems we’ve seen in years with its “Art Of Battle” marketing malarkey. As the underlying feature of For Honor’s starring multiplayer system (and largely avoidable single-player campaign/extended tutorial), most of the combat and moment-to-moment action is built specifically around this seemingly easy to understand – but surprisingly deep and difficult to master – mechanical fighting system.

It is built on a clear system of checks and balances; rooted heavily in active defence, with three-hit combos, guard breaks, parries, dodges, throws and a selection of light and heavy attacks giving each of the 12 characters on the roster a unique flair and flavour in combat. There’s a sublime balance to be found between the characters on roster, with the standard warrior (Vanguard), swift griefer (Assassin) and lumbering behemoth (Heavy) each necessitating a different approach to positioning and combat. A hybrid class of the two preceding warriors also brings an advanced touch to play; with so many different combat proficiencies running around on a field at any one time, visual awareness and identification is as important as memorising combos and attack patterns.

There are many reasons For Honor works so well, but something has to be said about the quality of animation here. Ubisoft Montreal has always displayed a rich proficiency in visualising nuance in character movement, but its clarity is key here – it changes the game. Being able to read a situation is essential for survival, let alone victory; knowing when you need to spring dutifully out of the way of attacks, understanding when a character may be goading you into an unwarranted assault or judging which direction to block while under a lightning fast barrage of blows and combos is all part of the charm.

For Honor review

This is essentially what makes For Honor a fantastic fighting game. It requires active defence at all times. It’s intimidating, especially when facing a player who clearly knows their class inside and out – but pulling a surprise execution out of nowhere is exhilarating, perhaps in a way that only shooters can replicate. The basics work by asking you to drop into one of three stances – left, right or overhead – which allows you to block and attack from each respective location.

You build out from these fundamentals. Every attack, every counter and every combo is built out of defence; solo fights can be a dangerous waiting game, while group battles are a mess of lighting-fast reaction strikes. But the key is that it is uncomplicated, built around basic but fair fundamentals – all governed by a stamina bar and a locked-down move set accessible from the menu.

There is only one instance in which the balance of combat is skewed, and that is with a mechanic called Revenge. It’s an enhanced state – activated by blocking attacks – which essentially activates a small window of ‘god mode’. The studio has continually likened this to unleashing an Ultra in Street Fighter IV, but the reality is that if you see a player going Super Sayain – bright gold glow and all – the best tactic, sadly, is to run. And there is little honour in that – or pushing people off of cliffs in one-on-one duals, though we still do it.

For Honor review

There’s a heavy learning curve to For Honor, but every victory feels hard earned – justified by virtue of how solid and enjoyable the underlying systems and mechanics are. Like other fighting games of its kind, the more time you put into For Honor the more you get out of it. It’s a game that feels like it scales with your understanding and appreciation of each of the characters and classes; game modes and weapon types. It’s quite the achievement from Ubisoft, although it does struggle in some all too familiar ways.

Much like Rainbow Six Siege, the back-end is a mess. Load times are overly long, there’s a clear issue with lag and repeated server disconnects that ensure For Honor is never consistently engaging – because it can’t be. The biggest issue facing Ubisoft now is the lack of punishment for rage quitters – a frequent occurrence, at least on Xbox One and PS4, both tested – which can also have a tendency to destabilise the entire game and cause a crash. For Honor uses a network model in which all players are connected to one another at all time, which essentially means that any disruption to the link causes problems for all.

It’s a frustrating reality, but one Ubisoft is already working diligently on a fix for. Like Siege, For Honor is in the beginning stages of becoming something truly unique and brilliant. If you’ve ever struggled to get into fighting games, are eager for a new multiplayer game to try your hand at, or are simply interested in what happens when Ubisoft diverts its resources out of populating open worlds with content and into an experience that thrives because of its nuanced design, then try For Honor – you won’t regret it.

A bold release capturing the art of battle