Let’s get one thing out of the way, because it’s a thing that really bugs me about For Honor: It is not a “new genre,” no matter how many times Ubisoft claims it is. I don’t care that it said it in the E3 presentation. I don’t care that on Ubisoft’s blog creative director Jason Vandenberghe is quoted saying “I haven’t actually been able to really put a name to For Honor’s genre.”
Regardless of whether the genre has a name or not, it is not new. Not in the least. If you have played Chivalry or you’ve played War of the Vikings/War of the Roses, then congrats—you’ve already dabbled in whatever the genre is that For Honor fits into. I guess we could toss it in with hack-n-slash. Or we could very eloquently call it “Medieval-Weaponry-Shooter-Thingy.” (Hey, it’s no worse than the awful “toys-to-life” genre name for games like Skylanders.)
Okay, now that that bit of bookkeeping is out of the way, here’s the good news: For Honor is a more polished game than either Chivalry or War of the Roses. In other words, Ubisoft is using the Apple definition of new, a.k.a. “If you’re not first, at least try to be shiny.” And that’s fine by me.
Chop it down with the edge of my sword
In case you haven’t played Chivalry or War of the Roses (and my eloquent genre name above didn’t do enough to convey the specifics to you), picture this: Take a third- or first-person shooter, and then replace all the weapons with swords/shields/bows/flails/et cetera. Medieval weaponry.
That’s pretty much what this genre consists of. For Honor has all the trappings of a Call of Duty or a Battlefield (including a twist on Battlefield’s point-capture Conquest Mode), except instead of headshots you’re stabbing people through the eyes with a four-foot blade.
Combat in For Honor is a bit like glorified rock-paper-scissors. The left analog stick controls your character’s movement—pretty standard—but in combat the right stick is used to control your knight’s sword stance. You can either aim your sword strike up, left, or right.
On defense, you’ll want to match your opponent’s stance. Going on offense, you’ll need to anticipate his or her actions and try to choose a different stance. There’s also a stun move, which involves punching your opponent straight in the face with your big metal-clad fist.
In terms of complexity, it falls somewhat between Chivalry and War of the Roses/Vikings. I feel like Chivalry has a bit more depth to its combat, although few players truly take advantage of it. War of the Roses is easier to jump in and understand, but as a result a lot of encounters devolve into people slashing each other as fast as possible.
For Honor is slower and more deliberate than War of the Roses, and thus encourages high-level play. But it’s also simple enough in its approach to combat that some of Chivalry’s higher-level concepts (i.e. feinting) are immediately accessible. It’s basically the type of Chivalry game you’d expect from a big-budget studio—a bit more accessible, a bit more arcade-y, and a lot prettier.
And you know what? That last piece is surprisingly important. I can (and will) continue to decry the whole “For Honor is a brand new genre” thing, because it’s not true. But Ubisoft’s deep pockets do give For Honor one huge advantage: It’s gorgeous. Like, surprisingly close to a Ryse-esque experience at times.
That’s kind of important, because this whole medieval hack-n-slash genre is sort of busted. It’s just a factor of where video games are at—nobody can quite nail down the feel of melee fighting in the same way we nailed the “Left-Trigger-Right-Trigger” feel of shooters. In singleplayer hack-n-slash games that’s fine. Developers work around it by making your attacks pretty much always hit, or at worst you get the shield guy who requires a marginal amount of footwork to defeat.
In a multiplayer game, you need some sort of skill-based aspect. But even so, this whole “three stances” thing is, at best, a rough approximation for sword fighting. At best.
So in order to sell you on the game, the genre’s mostly fallen back on its more unique aspects—selling you the idea of being a knight or a Viking warrior or what have you. For Honor does that better than any other game on the market, because battles feel epic and important.
At the beginning of my demo match, both teams were situated on opposite sides of a crumbling castle. When the timer hit zero, the two armies sprinted towards each other before meeting in the middle in a whirlwind of steel. Think Braveheart.
Now, only a dozen or so of these combatants were actually humans. The rest were fodder enemies (a la Dota 2 or League of Legends) which don’t even require the stance-switching mechanic for combat—you just hack through them with ease.
But For Honor—at least in my one-game demo—felt more on the size and scale of a real medieval fracas than any Chivalry or War of the Roses match I’ve ever played. There were soldiers all around me, swords flashing in the sunlight, and when you do meet up with another human player? Even in a virtual environment you can feel them lock eyes with you from across the battlefield, and then you wade through a sea of bodies to match swords. It’s an adrenaline rush.
Does that feeling hold up over time? I don’t know. I do know it was convincing enough that I (at least temporarily) stopped worrying as much about other aspects. Combat still feels oversimplified and I’m slowly becoming convinced that until we get haptic feedback in a virtual reality set-up we’ll never see a truly great sword fighting game. But I also enjoyed my time with For Honor, because at least it made me feel like a badass—something Chivalry, for all its mechanical complexity and for as much fun as I’ve had with it in the past, failed to do.
Never underestimate the importance of selling a feeling.