Death by a thousand cuts
I spent a lot of time dueling other players in Dark Souls. I’d carelessly wander into the Darkroot forest and willfully invite the protectors of those shaded woods to come and try to force me out of them. I’d painfully claw my way through the game with a sub-optimal build for taking on the monsters of the land with gear designed to give me a slight edge in the one-on-one combat with other players I craved, regardless of how it compromised me in other areas.
And through it all, PvP in Dark Souls was always a secondary feature. An interesting sub-game tucked away in a much richer and varied world. It’s always been the domain of ad hoc fight clubs, risky invasions, and inevitable ganks. But, I stuck with it, the thrill of patient one-on-one combat too irresistible to ignore.
That’s why I was so looking forward to For Honor. A game that promised to take the tense beauty of staring down the edge of a blade and trying to get inside the mind of your enemy. Waiting for the slightest dip of the blade, the most innocuous shuffling of the feet, that micro-second moment of vulnerability to make your move.
When For Honor is at its best, it is that game. As beautiful and brutal as one could hope. Sadly, those moments are few and far between. While For Honor was supposed to bring the thrill of the duel to the surface, it feels more tucked away and obscured by poorly conceived game modes, obnoxious grinding, and technical glitches than it ever did in the deepest recesses of the Darkroot Garden.
For Honor [PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC]
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Released: February 14, 2017
Aspiring warlords need to approach For Honor like a fighting game. If you’re expecting a Dynasty Warrior-like power-fantasy, or a breezy hack-‘n’-slash experience, this is not the game you’re looking for. This is a game all about granular mechanics and very specific match-ups – you can still feel like a bad-ass, but you’ll need to work for it.
The heart of For Honor lies in the deceptively deep “art of battle” system that governs one-on-one fighting. The idea starts with a simple rock-paper-scissors setup of left-right-and-top attacks and guards, but quickly layers in additional levels of complexity until it feels like a video game equivalent of fencing’s tactical wheel. The right stick governs the position of your blade and direction of your attack. Press right on the stick and tap the attack button and your swordsman will hack or swing to that side. Similarly, you can block an attack by positioning your blade in the right direction to intercept.
But then things get trickier. Light attacks are fast and hard to block, but they’re weak and only peck away at the enemy. Heavy attacks take off chunks of a health bar, but can be seen coming a mile away. That’s why it’s handy to “feint” a heavy attack, canceling the blow with a button press while still winding up. Parrying, a more aggressive block that will throw the enemy off balance, can be accomplished by launching a heavy attack at the precise moment and direction of an incoming blow, but if they feint, you’re left wide open. Guard breaks work similar to throws in fighting games, opening up defensive players to attack, but can be countered with a quick attack or defensive guard break of their own.
Then you have environmental hazards to watch out for. Treacherous ledges, ruined ramparts, wall-mounted spikes, and good old fashioned castle moats can all spell quick death to any warrior unfortunate enough to be knocked into one. Staying aware of your surroundings and anticipating how your opponent might use them against you is key to staying on your feet, and not broken at the bottom of a pit.
While everyone shares the same basic attack options, each of the 12 characters possess unique traits, abilities, and rules that put a personal spin on them and further crinkles into the mind-games of a duel. The Shugoki can shrug off a single flesh wound with his super-armor. Wardens can punish vertical attacks with a devastating counter-blow and shoulder charge careless fighters into obstacles. The Peacekeeper can inflict a damage-over-time bleed effect with her knife. Berserkers can chain their attacks together in an endless flurry under the right conditions, and so on. Much like any modern fighter, you’ll likely want to focus on one or two characters to master playing as, while also studying up on each other fighter’s bag of tricks to prepare yourself for them.
This is where For Honor is at its strongest. One-on-one fights. Two fighters each pulling out every tactic, move, and dirty trick they can to get an advantage over the other guy. At its best, it’s very close to perfection.
That’s why it’s baffling that so many of the game’s modes and mechanics seem dead set on undermining this purity at every turn.
The more warriors added to the battlefield, the more frustrating and less satisfying For Honor becomes. 2 vs. 2 Duels often boil down to a race between who can kill their opponent and help their partner pile on the remainder faster. The skirmish and brawl modes, and 4 vs. 4 deathmatch variants, become similarly chaotic. The more I played those modes, the more I noticed some players were picking the fast-sprinting assassin class for the express purpose of dashing away from their original dueling partner, ganging up on another fighter, and then using the number advantage to snowball over the rest. What a joy.
This trend reaches its zenith in the 4 vs. 4 Dominion mode which places player characters alongside NPC foot soldiers in a territory control battle. Each map is broken into two separate control points to lay claim to (you get more points per second by leaving a player to defend rather than abandoning it to rove the map in a giant pack) with a middle battlefield that must be held by pushing back waves of enemies to allow your (peculiarly tiny) soldiers to advance.
Or at least that’s the theory. Most games of Dominion I played boiled down to raiding squads of three or four Renaissance fair rejects trying to catch isolated targets. All of the carefully balanced mechanics and finesse of the dueling system goes straight out the window when engaging multiple targets. The “art of battle” is reduced to a clumsy race to escape (which is when it becomes most evident how clunky and awkward the controls and characters are outside of the locked-combat style of a duel) or a frantic attempt to block enough attacks to trigger the “revenge” mode, a kind of Super-Saiyan power-up state ancient warriors apparently achieve once they’ve deflected enough blows. It quickly becomes tiresome, on both ends of the sword.
This muddled chaos is compounded by a poorly explained feat system that allows players to start flinging crossbow bolts and medieval grenades in the middle of a fight, or power up their attacks and defensive stats once they achieve enough points. While it might seem like a cool idea to add more tricks and upsets in the multiplayer, the actual effect is getting smacked by arrows from off-screen, or having a bomb land at your feet while in the middle of fighting some other guy. More random chaos distracting from the game’s strengths.
The laughably imbalanced gear progression system further makes certain that confusion and frustration reign supreme. Gear, such as shoulder pads, axe heads, and fancy pommels, can raise certain stats and abilities for characters. Depending on the level and type of gear, this can range to a slight, near-imperceptible increase in your sprint speed, or a terrifying increase in damage. Who knows? This makes the bigger multiplayer modes (gear effects are mercifully disabled in one-on-one duels and serve only to make your Viking look pretty) a frequent source of sudden and violent surprises.
In the 4 vs. 4 modes, you’re never quite sure who has what or what they can do. Often, the only way to find out a Warden has an upgraded blade that can damn near two-shot you, or a viking Raider has a bonus that allows him to chuck you halfway across the map, is the hard way. Particularly problematic are gear options that decrease the time it takes to revive downed comrades, or ones that increase the power of the already devastating revenge state, leading to fights where it feels like you can’t meaningfully hamper the enemy team unless you can land a fatality-like execution (tricky) and have to deal with Samurai Goku raging out on you every few minutes.
While the unlocking system is not quite as bad as I thought in my original review in progress post (all characters are available to play off the start, you only need to pay to customize them and equip gear on them, mea culpa), the microtransaction hooks are still greasy enough to be off-putting. Feats can be earned through experience, or bypassed with cold hard cash (giving you access to a direct in-game advantage over people working their way up naturally). Gear accumulates slowly as occasional post-battle rewards, or can be bought in random loot packs with in-game currency.
Of course, the in-game currency is painfully slow to amass. Yes, completing daily tasks and special conditions can help you gain more, but that crutches on your desire to play five matches of AI Dominion, or complete ten executions as a class you don’t like. Otherwise, you can always buy some currency and spin the wheel on some random loot packs that may or may not give you what you need. Spend, spend, spend.
There is a Season Pass for sale to automatically unlock an additional six new characters as they become available, as well as a flat-out XP and gear booster. Supposedly, players will be able to buy these characters with in-game currency when they roll out, but Ubisoft wouldn’t be trying to sell them in a $39.99 pack if they were going to be affordable enough to grab without serious grinding.
It’s all the same free-to-play tactics we’ve seen again and again, only in a game you already paid full price for. There are enough ways to gain For Honor‘s currency to deflect accusations of cash-grabbing, but everything has been carefully tuned and tweaked to make it just annoying enough to push players to dig into their pockets. You could get everything with patience and grinding out daily tasks that may or may not be fun – or you could just throw some cash at the game.
All of this is especially galling since the matchmaking system doesn’t seem to particularly care about tossing low-leveled players with minimal equipment up against players who have achieved their second or third renown level (prestiging by another name) and have blinged out their warriors with high-level baubles. On multiple occasions, I was stuck on teams wearing the equivalent of potato sacks, facing off against warriors decked out in a particularly generous D&D treasure haul worth of booty. If you don’t think this was an intentional design choice to encourage loot-envy, you’re kidding yourself.
Of course, matchmaking is only the start of the online issues. The real question is whether you’ll be able to actually complete a match once you’ve found one. When For Honor isn’t stacking horribly mismatched teams against each other, or saddling teams with AI bots (especially curious when playing “high activity” game modes), it’s crashing mid-match or suffering from crippling lag. It’s a mess.
The peer-to-peer networking For Honor is built on just doesn’t support what the game demands. In a title all about split-second reactions, deft parries, and skillful feints, the added wonkiness of sub-optimal connections make combat unreliable and seemingly luck-based. I’m playing on the PS4 (poking around message boards, the situation seems even worse for PC players), and even a week after release, matches are still dropping on a regular basis.
You don’t know fun until you invest 10-15 minutes into a pitched-battle or nail-biting duel that’s come down to the last round, only to hit the brick wall of the “CONNECTION ERROR” screen yet again. It’s unforgivable. The game never should have made it out the door in this kind of state.
These problems even bleed over to the single-player experience which, unfortunately, requires a connection to play. While I never got dropped out of a mission midway due to a connection error, I did have trouble starting the game one night when the Ubisoft servers failed to connect on the title screen.
Speaking of, the single-player campaign is nothing to write home about. It provides a functional introduction to most of the cast and provides some unique set-pieces and the occasional entertaining boss, but it’s nothing you can’t miss. Enemies are lifeless and fight with a scripted, mechanical gait, often launching the same attack pattern or requiring the player to defeat them in a specific way (most notable with shield-bearing enemies who will deflect any and all attacks, no matter how clever, until you guard break them). The stages are littered with breakable clay pots and observation points (audio logs) to be found, presumably for “replay value.”
The plot that explains why three distinct anachronistic warrior groups are fighting is predictably thin. Spurred on by a war-crazed overlord who reminds me of nothing more than a medieval Jigsaw (lots of pseudo-philosophical posturing to justify sadism), the three factions are reluctantly drawn into perpetual battle where the real enemy is man’s inability to trust man or some similarly yawn-inducing moral. The dialog and plot beats are so generic I wouldn’t be surprised if they had been written by an algorithm that recycles B-level action-movie scripts.
Aside from the flat narrative, For Honor attempts to inspire the player to care about the fictional military groups by providing an on-going faction war. Players choose an alignment off the start and their deeds in battle are collated, crunched, and spit into an ongoing tug-of-war of numbers determining territory control and factional dominance. It’s one of those broad online hooks where your individual efforts seem meaningless and the results are arbitrarily stacked towards the most popular group. Just like life.
Honestly, I’m not sure why anyone would care. I choose my faction based on which shield emblem I thought was coolest at the start of the game. I have no stakes, no investment in my “side.” It seems like victory changes the banners or crests on some levels – a detail nobody will ever possibly notice while trying to avoid decapitation. Maybe the faction war would have more meaning if players had to invest some skin in the game, like if choosing a faction locked you out of the opposing factions’ characters. As it is, it’s just a jumble of numbers the game likes to assault me with when I just want to join a freaking duel.
I’ve seen chatter saying this game is going to be another Rainbow Six Siege: A great game that comes out in a somewhat compromised state. A game that is a little too greedy with the microtransactions off the start, but with discounts, balance patches, and a slew of freebies later, becomes a decent value. A game that finds a core audience a few months after release, after the zeitgeist has written it off.
I hope so. I hope in six months I’m excited about For Honor again. I hope people will throw this review back at me later and say For Honor just needed a few tweaks to achieve greatness. As it is, this is a game with a disposable single-player campaign, multiplayer matches that crash or disconnect as often as they complete, and a slew of fantastic mechanics that only rise to the surface in a single game mode out of a half-dozen.
If there was ever a game to take a “wait and see” approach to, it’s For Honor.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]