For a studio best known for perennial blockbusters like Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft is entering the 2016 holiday season without a lot of recognizable fanfare. Most of the publisher’s major franchises are taking the year off, instead allowing for new properties like Steep and For Honor to take the spotlight.
All of which is to say that I didn’t know what to expect from For Honor when I jumped into a multiplayer demo at Fan Expo in Toronto. The new game is a medieval mashup in which samurais, barbarians, and knights fight for control of strategic checkpoints on a massive battlefield, with an aesthetic that looks a lot like what you’d get if you removed the Uruk-hai from the Battle of Helm’s Deep.
Fortunately, For Honor is shaping up to be a unique and intriguing multiplayer option. It’s too early to make a final judgment call, but the game I played was both dynamic and accessible, and I’ll be curious to see how it evolves in the months to come.
Our demo opened with a tutorial that walked us through the mechanics. Combat against another human player is essentially a violent variant of rock-paper-scissors. You can attack from the left, from the right, or from above, while your opponent is always defending one of those three areas. If you attack the same area your opponent is defending, your attack is deflected. If not, you’ll break through and do some damage. There’s more to the game than that – subsequent lessons add quick and heavy attacks, dodge rolls, and guard breaks – but the basics are relatively straightforward.
That simple foundation makes it easy for anyone to pick up the fundamentals. Once we finished the tutorial, we were split up into two teams of four for a game of Dominion, a multiplayer mode in which you fight over a map with three primary points of interest. Your team receives points for taking (and holding) any of the three zones, while additional points are rewarded for each kill. As with most multiplayer games, you’ll respawn if you die, and the majority of the match is spent wading into the fray and trading blows with dozens of other combatants.
That’s one of the major distinguishing features of For Honor. Though each team only has four human players, both sides stand at the head of entire armies, so the battlefield is littered with computer-controlled soldiers that can be knocked aside with a single blow. The sheer number of bodies adds to the clutter, infusing the game with a chaotic dash of Dynasty Warriors that makes For Honor feel more like a full-scale battle rather than a more contained multiplayer match against a limited number of human players.
It sounds counterintuitive, but that’s also what makes the game more accessible. For Honor will clearly reward players with a better understanding of the mechanics, and winning one-on-one fights against other human players is one of the surest ways to secure victory. However, the game is designed in a way that ensures that every player is able to contribute. Even if you’re not much use in a one-on-one fight, you can sneak up behind someone already engaged in combat and give a teammate the opportunity needed to strike a killing blow. Similarly, clearing out minions or claiming an unguarded checkpoint generates valuable points for your team.
I got caught up in that tense back and forth throughout the demo. For Honor is manageable when you’re involved in solo combat, yet even the best players will struggle in 1-vs-2 and 1-vs-3 situations. You can go from feeling like you’re in control to feeling overwhelmed in a matter of seconds, and inexperienced players are still able to help tip those scales.
For Honor’s other noteworthy twist is its endgame. Unlike many multiplayer modes, Dominion matches do not have a predetermined length. Rather, the endgame triggers once one team has accumulated enough points. For Honor then announces that one army has started to break, and players on the team that’s breaking – the team with the lower score – will no longer respawn after they’re killed. The match ends when the last human player falls, while the defending team can win if the players rally and survive for a set amount of time.
The endgame is heavily weighted in favor of the team that’s on the attack, but it doesn’t affect the balance because both teams start the match on even footing and have plenty of time to establish an advantage. The endgame is therefore a more flavorful way to resolve a match that has already reached its conclusion (in most cases it won’t take the attacking team long to wrap things up). The match concludes when everyone on the defending team is dead. Speaking from experience – we were able to rout our opponents during our demo – that’s a lot more satisfying than watching an arbitrary timer count down to zero.
Meanwhile, if the team on defense does manage to survive, it would make for an incredible comeback story. Both victory scenarios add to For Honor’s thematic charms. I can’t speak to the game’s single player options (and apparently neither can Ubisoft), but I’ve seen enough to make me curious and that’s always a good sign for a new IP. For Honor layers complexity on top of a simple core premise, and that should be a compelling proposition for a lot of players when the game debuts early next year.