I was excited to play Ubisoft’s new historic war game, For Honor, when I got an invitation to participate in the open beta on Jan 26-29, 2017. The concept of participating in large scale sword battles as a viking, knight, or samurai (let’s be honest, samurai) was something out of an overgrown child’s imagination. However, despite having a decent discount on Amazon, I found myself cancelling my pre-order by the end of the weekend.
The game answers the age old question of which of these
marketable deadly warriors would win in a fight: vikings, knights, or samurai, in what must have been pitched as Deadliest Warrior: The Game (even though that was already done). In For Honor, the player takes control of a combatant in one of these factions and does combat with other players in 1 vs. 1 duels, 2 vs. 2 brawls, or 4 vs. 4 battles where opposing armies of AI cannon fodder charge into battle in order to overtake the map.
It all sounds very similar to a standard multiplayer shooter in terms of scale and objectives but what makes For Honor so special is that it sports an innovative combat system that makes melee fights more interesting than its gun toting counterparts. That is to say, For Honor does not feature guns as primary weaponry like you would see in Call of Duty or Battlefield. For Honor‘s system adds complexity to its melee combat instead.
Players lock themselves in one-on-one duels with a single enemy. While you aren’t attacking, you are defending one of three sides: up, left, and right. Attacking is done using the same directions, and a player must land a blow in a direction differing to that of the defending player’s guard, otherwise the attack is blocked. It really makes you slow down, read your opponent for openings, and time your attacks to quickly dispatch your opponent. On top of that, you can dodge, grapple, throw, and strike quickly or heavily. There is so much depth to the combat that Ubisoft could have designed the rest of the game around it. However that is not what we got.
What we get with the 4 vs. 4 battles was the setup of a shooter – teams of 4 players fighting each other while trying to control objectives on a map – with the ranged combat replaced with the new melee combat. The result is a watered down experience as the new combat system does not adequately compensate for the removal of gun play. The objectives and goals stay the same but now the player only has one option to complete them, which is to engage your opponents up close, one at a time. It almost doesn’t matter how unique each encounter can be since the player is forced to play according a certain play style.
What makes shooters really fun is variety. Variety in weapons, map designs, and gameplay objectives. It supports the idea that every player plays the game differently, leading to more dynamic games and keeping players engaged in the action. Restricting the player takes away any lasting power that the game might have because each match starts feeling the same after a while. When a game starts feeling repetitive the player will look elsewhere for something more exciting, and that’s a problem when dealing with games focusing more on a multiplayer experience.
For comparison, we’ll be looking at a shooter that has a lot of variety in weapons, maps, and objectives: Halo 3. This game is structured much like For Honor with the teams of players fighting for objectives on a map. The key difference is what Halo 3 is able to do with ranged combat that cannot be done in For Honor‘s restrictive melee combat.
The first and most obvious difference is in what weapons are at the player’s disposal. As already established, For Honor deals exclusively in melee weapons and while the range of melee weapons is decently varied (multiple swords, axes, polearms, etc.) the way they control is similar enough that the player is still restricted in their strategy. On the other hand, Halo 3 has a very diverse selection of weapons that change the way the game is played. The battle rifle is good for mid to long range targets, shotguns and energy swords for close range. The player can employ powerful one-hit weapons that can be easy to use like rocket launchers or ones that require some more dexterity like the Spartan laser. For Honor doesn’t have as much to offer so in regards to weapons (and their associated play styles) it’s actually removing choice from the player.
Having only melee weaponry means that maps don’t need to be as complex and probably benefit from not having obstacles or structures scattered about, which would encumber the player’s movement and make it more difficult to fight their opponents. This results in simple, uninteresting landscapes with only one way to maneuver from one end to the other. Complicated maps with interior and exterior areas, multi-storied platforms, and gaps for jumping over would prove too difficult to traverse. That speaks volumes about the limitations of For Honor, since maps like this fit right at home with Halo 3.
In Halo 3 combat can be done at any angle, incorporating the field for cover or positioning, and the game allows the player to traverse the map by either jumping or using the map’s features like gravity lifts or teleporters.The map plays a part in fights just as much as the weapons do whereas For Honor‘s maps serve more as an interchangeable aesthetic theme. The map plays no role in a fight unless you count the edges of the map where you can (hilariously) knock opponents off. A match played on one map is no different than another because the limitations of the game don’t allow it to.
Another disconnection that For Honor has with the player is what game play objective they should be invested in. The Beta featured a game mode called Dominion that played like a three pronged king of the hill where players fight for control of three capture points for their team. The confusion with this is that holding these points on the map seems to be the only thing that was important in winning the game. Directly speaking from experience: no matter how many kills I got I was always on the losing end of the battle. I soon realized that staying in a captured zone actually increased your score faster. Since the game doesn’t end until the last player on either team is killed during sudden death, it was actually a viable strategy to stay completely still. If that sounds unbelievable, watch this match that I recorded where my team wins with the lower score (skip to 8:30, my team is orange):
Graphic content warning.
The problem with this mode is how much the player has to run around keeping tabs on each capture point to stay ahead. Combat almost feels optional unless two opposing players find themselves in the same capture zone. It feels like fighting gets in the way of completing the objective if you have to stop for a few seconds to dispatch an opponent. There isn’t a whole lot of flow between objectives and combat unlike in Halo 3, where given the same setup the objectives can be fought for across the map from one another, using the variety of short to long range weaponry. Moving in to capture these points can also be approached in multiple ways with the versatile design of the maps, and since combat doesn’t slow you down it never strays from your objective just to fight another player.
A game that goes against the grain like this is deserving of praise for trying something new and a shooter game that puts its focus into swordplay is definitely innovative. The problem is not what it adds to the genre however it’s what it takes away that is more evident. That makes For Honor feel less like a shooter with swords as advertised and just a shooter without guns instead.
For Honor is developed and published by Ubisoft Montreal and is available for PC, Playstation 4, and Xbox One.
Halo 3 is developed by Bungie and published by Microsoft.