Once upon a time, a bunch of Vikings, knights and samurai got into a war with each other. If that statement makes you cringe because of its historical impossibility, quit reading right now. If, on the other hand, you’re dying to know how this war turned out, then Ubisoft has just the game for you. For Honor takes the premise that three of history’s most legendary warrior factions are locked in a millennium-long conflict, vying for control of the land around their kingdoms. But why they’re fighting and how this great war came about is largely irrelevant. It’s all about combat in For Honor, and in that respect, games don’t get any better than this.
Watching gameplay footage, it’s easy to think the game is simply Call of Duty with melee weapons. Nothing could be further from the truth. For Honor takes cues from multiple genres, but most closely resembles a fighting game.
Every character has a different move-set, with specific button combinations and circumstances required to execute each maneuver, just like a traditional brawler such as Tekken or Street Fighter. Players can launch attacks to the left, right or top, with opponents able to match their guard accordingly. On the surface, it’s all quite simple, but anyone familiar with fighting games knows there’s an entire metagame lying just under the surface.
Every attack you make consumes stamina, which is represented by a meter below your health bar visible to you and your enemy. Exhaust all of that resource, and your attacks slow and make you more vulnerable to being knocked down, putting you at risk of receiving some serious punishment. Stamina only recovers when not attacking, and because all players can see one another’s stamina and health, it allows you to know when your opponent has to back off, when they’re in danger, and when they might retreat.
Light attacks generally require less stamina than heavy strikes, but there’s another nuance that comes into play. When locked in a duel, you can see which way your opponent is preparing to attack or is guarding, and vice versa. As an attack comes in, the directional indicator switches from white to red. If you have an attack blocked, it consumes more stamina than if your strike lands, but the combat goes a step further than that.
After the attack indicator changes from white to red, it changes again for a split second and begins to glow as the attack is about to land. If you’re blocking in the direction of the attack and launch a heavy strike as the icon is glowing, your character parries the blow, interrupting your opponent’s strike, knocking them off balance and creating an opening of your own.
But there’s more. To prevent player from simply guarding the entire time, there’s a guard break button, which staggers an opponent for a moment. A second guard break initiates a throw, which can knock enemies into myriad environmental hazards. Again, however, the metagame comes into play. Guard breaks can be countered, but the easier solution to them is simply dodging. It takes a moment to recover from a missed guard break, which leaves the player open to attack.
Put simply, For Honor’s combat rewards patience while punishing hesitation. And those are just the basics. It gets more complicated when you start examining individual classes.
Every character possesses strengths and weaknesses, which the developers have done an admirable job balancing. At launch, each faction contains four different warriors, which fall into four classes. Vanguards are the jack-of-all-trades fighters and generally regarded as the easiest to learn. The heavy classes are also considered easy to play with, possessing large pools of health and stamina while delivering slow, high-damage strikes.
Assassins are more difficult to use but can be devastating. These are the smaller, lithe combatants, who have quick dodges, fast strikes and lethal counters. However, assassins can only guard in one direction for a short time before it resets, making timing crucial. They also have smaller health and stamina reserves.
The last group are the hybrids, which don’t fall into any one style of play. These are the warriors that are considered the most difficult to learn, but when used effectively, can confound unprepared enemies.
It isn’t necessarily fair to pigeonhole the 12 classes into four groups, though. Every class plays with a unique style, and it’s a good idea to focus on one or two before trying to master the others. There’s also an option to “recruit” a class, which allows you to collect new equipment after battles, choose different appearances and apply unlocked skills.
While every game comes down to a series of duels, For Honor offers up multiple modes in which to fight, ranging from Dominion, where teams try to capture and hold three points, to one-on-one duels and team death match.
The incredible level of detail For Honor’s combat possesses is mirrored in its graphics. Every cut, thrust, stab and block occurs with astonishing fluidity. Attacks chain together with deadly grace, and even the cinematic executions flow from one attack into another. Character models, weapons and armor all impress with their meticulously crafted nuance. Getting new gear is a thrill for the practical reason that it ups your stats, but there’s also something special about seeing how it alters your character’s appearance for the first time.
For Honor’s maps look great, too, although there are some small details that lack the polish of the characters. The fire engulfing burning buildings occasionally looks cartoonish and pixelated, usually standing out because the rest of the environments look so refined.
Within each battle, there are also basic foot soldiers, who both enhance the game’s realism and serve a practical purpose. Although they deal little damage and are felled in a single hit, they serve as a distraction and can slowly chip away at your health if ignored. They’re also a key component for capturing the middle sections of domination maps, making it feel as though you’re in the midst of an epic battle and not just a series of duels.
Further adding to the grand scale, the game’s audio gives the impression that you’re truly undertaking a grand conquest. The clang of metal blades, the thud of flaming arrows and the visceral slices of sharpened steal bring For Honor to life through their immersive quality.
For Honor has numerous ways of packaging its combat, but the battles themselves are the real heart of the gameplay. Whether you’re playing the game’s story mode, which acts more like an elaborate tutorial, or you’re fighting AI opponents with friends, the level of care Ubisoft Montreal put into balancing every facet of combat is genuinely astonishing.
The steep learning curve and the need to understand the different characters can take time to grasp, but when it all finally clicks, it creates some of the most satisfying moments I’ve experienced in gaming.
For Honor earns 4.5 GiN Gems out of 5 for its polish, remarkable level of detail, and the fact that Ubisoft gave us a game that has Vikings, knights and samurai fighting a never-ending war.