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After two weeks circling opponents, sword held stiffly above my head, waiting for an opening, I think it’s time to slap an official score on For Honor. It’s not the score I wanted to give, and it’s not even a score I’m confident will apply long-term—Ubisoft has leaned heavily on games-as-a-service the past few years, with numerous instances of a stuttering launch experience turning around to an unabashed success. Looking at you, Rainbow Six Siege.
Maybe For Honor will find itself added to that list someday. It has the potential—there’s an excellent core concept here. But oh, there’s also so much reason to be disappointed. Worst of all? There’s no reason for it. Reverse a few key choices and this all could have been averted.
Dog eat dog
I’ve come full-circle on For Honor’s combat. I once found it underwhelming, especially in the context of Chivalry, War of the Roses, and other medieval sword-and-board games. For Honor’s rock-paper-scissors style fighting, wherein you pick one of three stances and try to either trick your opponent (to attack) or match your opponent (to defend), felt a bit too stripped-down.
It’s only after spending substantial time with the game that it clicks. Yes, you have fewer options than in something like Chivalry. But the result is a cleaner and more precise game, one in which high-level play comes from out-thinking your opponent and where fights have actual heft instead of feeling like two headless chickens flailing with pool noodles.
For Honor’s combat shines best in its 1v1 mode, where its duels are given room to breathe. No second parties butting in to ruin the fun. Here, it’s just you and a stranger trying to feint, counter-feint, and land the killing blow, both of you testing the depths of For Honor’s systems and finding that even with its limited palette there are nigh-infinite ways for a fight to play out.
The other modes are pretty good too, if less pure. Elimination pits teams of four against each other, which can lead to some interesting moments for the especially-talented—seemingly-impossible 2-vs-1 brawls where the underdog manages to block, parry, block, parry, and somehow come out on top. And Dominion, the point-capture mode bolstered by dozens of dumb AI soldiers (a la Titanfall), is full of Hollywood moments, two titans locking eyes across a sea of lesser combatants, then wading through the detritus of battle to face off.
So what’s the problem? In short: Literally everything else.
We held off publishing a scored review last week because I felt like I hadn’t spent enough time in the game’s multiplayer modes. That was a good call, it turns out, because For Honor’s multiplayer is simply busted.
Yeah, playing the game is great—when you can actually play. But in my entire week with For Honor, I think I’ve had maybe ten matches proceed start-to-finish without a hitch.
I’ve had the game tell me I’ve “joined” a match only to make me sit at a lobby screen for three minutes as the game finished up—and then the connection was lost, kicking me back to menu. I’ve constantly found myself placed into games that are 95 percent done, on the losing team. I’ve been plagued with random slowdowns and stuttering. I’ve had it try to matchmake me into a game, only to tell me “Oops, that game is actually full” as if it were my fault.
And I’ve grown to loathe the words “Recovering network connection. Please Wait.” It’s a near-constant presence thanks to For Honor’s peer-to-peer connections. Every time the host drops (which is seemingly every ten seconds) the match has to migrate to a new host while everyone sits and waits. Yes, even if you’re mid-killing blow.
It’s ridiculous, for a game of For Honor’s size and with the backing of Ubisoft behind it. I feel like I’m back in 2004, trying to play Halo 2 in the early days of Xbox Live or something. I haven’t seen a game with this many P2P issues in years.
So sure, For Honor’s P2P isn’t wholly broken. Ubisoft put out a whole blog post about the structure of its P2P system and why it negates host advantage—basically, all the PCs in a session simulate a server. Cool stuff. But host advantage isn’t the only reason P2P’s largely been abandoned. There are myriad other issues with running a multiplayer game in that manner, all of which plague For Honor and suck the joy out of what’s an otherwise-interesting game.
Then there are the microtransactions.
I don’t so much mind the cosmetic stuff. That’s par for the course these days, and while I could rant about “A Better Time” circa 1999 when it wasn’t par for the course there just doesn’t seem to be much point. And so while For Honor has plenty of unlockable symbols, helmet adornments, color schemes, and all sorts of stuff with which to outfit your soldier, it’s ignorable.
I also find it hard to care about earning in-game currency to unlock customization options for the game’s full roster of 12 classes. Not only are the characters playable (in stock form) from the start, one run through the game’s campaign netted me enough to “unlock” every character with currency to spare, so it’s not like Ubisoft’s put that out of reach. I’d wager it’s easier to snag the full For Honor roster than Rainbow Six Siege, a game I like a hell of a lot more.
The gear system, though. Layered on top of For Honor’s cosmetic items is an overly-complicated gear system, with each piece you equip buffing certain stats and draining others. Not only does it seem entirely unnecessary—the game would certainly be better if it were based on raw skill and had nothing to do with numbers—but its inclusion seems predicated on microtransactions.
Some amount of gear is salvaged each match, and you can also buy chests of the stuff with your in-game currency instead of wasting it on cosmetics. But you can also pay real money for the privilege of scouting out gear, which then has a direct effect on your ability to play For Honor. Add to the fact that gear is class-specific, and you could be looking at a hefty time-sink or money-sink.
It’s annoying, at best. I thought we’d already agreed: Skill-based items should not be paid for in full-price games. Cosmetics? Fine. Skill items? No. That’s been the standard for years, so why Ubisoft thought this would be a good time to revive the practice? I have no idea.
To be fair, it’s hard to say For Honor is 100 percent pay-to-win. A skilled player could still dismantle the defense of someone who sunk cash into the game but hasn’t practiced, so there’s a baseline of competition here. Gear is also tied to your level, so even if you sink money into the game you’ll eventually find better stuff to equip or (cynical viewpoint) have to sink more money into the game.
It looks greedy though, like the legacy of a free-to-play game that was expanded into a full game at some point in time. (See also: Gearbox and Battleborn) And maybe that was the case. Maybe For Honor was once intended to be free-to-play, and then they tacked on a campaign and decided to make it a full package. I don’t know. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth regardless, and detracts from the fighting itself.
That’s a shame because, to reiterate, “the fighting itself” is excellent. For Honor, when everything’s humming along smoothly and the connection is stable and it comes down to you and some other combatant facing off on a moss-covered bridge in faux-Japan? Incredible. Enough so that it’s often worth dealing with all the other garbage layered on top.
I can’t help but imagine how much better For Honor would be without its various missteps and its predatory aspects, though. What we have here is good, but it could’ve easily been great.
Not to woo honor, but to wed it
I can’t really say the same about the campaign, which clocks in around eight hours long—one Knight chapter, one Viking chapter, one Samurai chapter, each consisting of six missions.
In any case, it’s hard to overstate how dumb For Honor is at its core. In case you’ve missed the setup: There was some sort of earthquake/timequake called “The Cataclysm.” It swallowed up entire portions of Earth from different points in history, brought these pieces to a new dimension or something, and as a result there’s now an eternal battle between Knights and Vikings and Samurai.
It’s Deadliest Warrior, except instead of residing in the realm of the purely hypothetical Ubisoft has tried to lend the idea some semblance of credibility, of respectability. Knights behead their Viking foes, Samurai slice through Vikings, and all the while a sad aria plays in the background, a voice moralizing about war and its place in the human condition. “Ah yes, the Cataclysm” you think, trying not to focus on how silly the entire kid-plays-with-action-figures concept is from the start.
But I’m not even mad. Sure, it’s dumb, but I’m kind of happy Ubisoft leaned into it? The story is a needlessly-serious affair about a Knight named Apollyon—not-so-coincidentally the Greek translation of “Abaddon,” Angel of Death. Apollyon is upset the various factions have lived in relative peace for a while, so sets out to start a three-sided war.
The main failing is that there’s just not much to do. Missions are all some variation of “run in, kill a bunch of enemies.” That’s it, and while the scenes that play at the beginning and end of each mission are spectacular, there’s not much eye-candy within each mission. For Honor’s minute-to-minute action lacks the sort of badass memorable moments you’d expect from, say, a comparable shooter campaign. You just trudge forward and swing your sword a lot.
There are a few exceptions, including a storming-the-beach-at-night section in the Viking campaign that’s stunning. But I’m just not very impressed. Characters are paper thin, the story is even thinner, and it just doesn’t have enough “Wow!” to it. Mostly it just reminds me of playing Ryse, another perfectly-competent-but-also-so-very-boring hack and slash game.
The best thing I can say about the campaign here is it will prepare you for multiplayer, especially if you go through on the higher difficulties. There’s plenty of opportunity to get familiar with For Honor’s rock-paper-scissors style combat, the full range of character classes, and the myriad complexities particular to each faction (like unique stuns or blocking maneuvers).
Serving with distinction
Lastly, performance. I’ve already talked about the game’s weird P2P problems, so we can skip that. As far as local performance though, For Honor is solid. On my system (with an Intel Core i7-5820K and a GeForce GTX 980 Ti) I typically see frame rates between 80fps and 100fps, running at 1080p with all the settings maxed out. Aside from some awkward face animations the game looks beautiful, and it supports Nvidia’s Ansel supercharged screenshot technology if you’re using a compatible graphics card. Even with a massive crowd of soldiers battling it out on-screen I haven’t noticed any precipitous frame rate drops. I have noticed a few stutters here and there, seemingly as a result of new areas loading in, but it hasn’t affected any fights.
Not that there aren’t problems. One boss battle late in the second act (the Vikings) caused me to mute all dialogue because the boss repeated the same two barks over and over and over for the entire fight. After dying to him a few times it was either mute the dialogue or break my desk in half listening to him say “You’re a raider! Legendary!” like a broken record.
And the enemy AI could use work. Oh, it’s fine once you’re engaged in battle—not quite up to par with a real human, but they tend to feint and counter and stun-lock you enough to feel like a decent challenge, especially on the harder difficulties.
Outside of battle they might as well be plastic action figures, though. Entire groups will just stand in place waiting for you to approach, even as you shoot their nearby buddies with a ballista. I’ve also found you can easily disengage most enemies by just walking out of their zone, causing them to return to their initial position and ignore you again. It’s very artificial feeling at times.
Don’t write For Honor off though. Sure, the singleplayer’s not great, but I never expected it to be. And sure, the multiplayer has problems. Serious ones.
But damn, when it’s all working it’s so good. This is a really frustrating review because there’s absolutely a diamond somewhere within this game. You catch a glimmer of it maybe once or twice an hour, when a match has that perfect moment and you’re down to a sliver of health, deflecting every blow, and then manage to throw your opponent off a bridge or something. That! That’s For Honor.
It’s also microtransactions though, and “Recovering Network Connection,” and a hundred tiny annoyances that detract from the core conceit.The only honor here is on the battlefield itself.