For Honor is the most fun I’ve had with a multiplayer game since Rocket League. Ubisoft’s medieval battle simulator is set in a fictional world in which Knights, Vikings, and Samurai exist in a constant state of warfare, and the struggle for territory plays out in multiplayer modes that range in scope from 1v1 Duels to pitched 4v4 Dominion battles in which two sides fight for control of a battlefield littered NPC cannon fodder.
The gameplay itself is an intricate take on Rock, Paper, Scissors. You can use your weapon to attack from the left, from the right, or from above, but your opponent can block your attack if they parry in the same direction. There’s a bit more to it than that – each character has special combos and abilities – but the foundation is astonishingly simple. You want to attack a zone that your opponent is not defending. Attacking at the wrong time will leave you vulnerable, so you need to learn to be patient and wait for the right moment to strike.
The pace makes For Honor stand out in the current online landscape. Whether it’s Street Fighter, Counter-Strike, or Starcraft, most competitive online games prioritize memorization and the ability to click a button many times per second. For Honor is far more deliberate. Though the game rewards precise play, managing distance and creating an opening for a single attack is often better than executing complex combos. As a result, there are ways to contribute even if you’re not the most skilled fighter. Taking on two opponents is nearly impossible, so any beginner can swing a battle as long as they show up at the right time. Knowing when and where to fight is as important as knowing how to fight, and that makes For Honor accessible without sacrificing depth. The game gives you time to think instead of forcing you to react.
That’s what I like about For Honor. Head-to-head showdowns are careful encounters in which one mistake can mean the difference between life and death. Dominion, meanwhile, is an exercise in controlled chaos in which the tide can shift back and forth several times over the course of fifteen minutes. Each match is a race to 1000 points (points are gained for kills or holding territory), but achieving that threshold only stops enemy players from respawning. You still need to hunt down and execute all of the enemy heroes before they get to 1000, allowing for epic comebacks if the other team is able to stay alive. The winning team is not the one with the most points, but is instead the last one standing on the battlefield. That makes makes victory feel not only satisfying but glorious, as each match becomes a parable of triumph.
For Honor requires a mix of patience, teamwork, and individual prowess. I find that blend to be seductive. The game is never in a hurry, which lets players process information and builds tension as each match nears its conclusion.
Of course, there is content beyond the multiplayer, and that’s where things get odd. For Honor has a moderately sized solo campaign that introduces the world and the three factions. In practice, it’s little more than extended tutorial, and a useful one at that. It gives you the chance to try many of the twelve hero classes (four per faction), making the campaign a good way to experiment with the mechanics in a safe and stress-free environment.
Unfortunately, the story tries to explain how the three factions became embroiled in the never ending conflict that defines the multiplayer. The narrative kicks off with Apollyon, a warlord who is essentially a cross between Apocalypse and Cersei Lannister. She instigates a war that lasts for decades, but she’s not hoping to gain anything from doing so. She simply thinks that people should be at war, and no one gets the chance to correct her because that would negate the premise of the game. The story isn’t bad, per se – For Honor manages to build a self-contained mythology – but the glorification of war in a fictional setting doesn’t feel quite so benign when the real world feels like it’s on the brink of a similar conflict.
That’s what makes For Honor feel so weird. If you’re planning to build a series of linear tutorial missions, it makes sense wrap those missions around a story. Once you decide to tell a story, it’s logical to tell one that contextualizes the multiplayer content. The solo campaign and the multiplayer are indeed complementary, and everything that’s included is included for a reason.
The problem is that the story has to normalize warfare as a natural form of human interaction. That message feels a little off at the current moment in history, even if it is unfair to Ubisoft. Every game with Death Match options assumes a degree of persistent violence. That’s the unavoidable subtext. As with Watch Dogs 2, that makes For Honor a victim of bad timing. The standard video game logic of the past two decades feels tone deaf in 2017.
Then again, it might have been a mistake to make the effort in the first place, because For Honor would be more palatable without the context. There’s nothing appealing about a thousand years of bloody warfare, and the attempt to make it comprehensible only makes it more real. When limited to one-off multiplayer matches, violence becomes abstract. It can be interpreted as an exercise in strategy, like an animated game of chess. We know the outcome of the game has no bearing because there’s nothing to tie it to the world beyond.
For Honor violates that compact, half-heartedly advocating for non-violence in a game in which a battle is always the next point on the timeline. The game can’t be both, and the mixed signals make things far more awkward than they need to be.
It’s too bad, because in other ways For Honor is keenly aware of its place in history. The hero ranks are split equally between men and women, and gender is in no way related to strength on the battlefield. Apollyon is also an effective villain, the kind of brutal warmonger that women are rarely given the opportunity to play in video games or elsewhere.
That parity is the game’s redeeming factor. Though the narrative is ham-fisted, the mythology is window dressing. When you strip it away, For Honor remains an enjoyable multiplayer experience, and the more time you spend online, the less important the context becomes. Each match becomes disassociated from the ones that came before it. Every skirmish is a standalone event devoid of broader implications.
Since that multiplayer core is the best reason to purchase the game (the campaign is not worth $60), that’s enough to hold an audience. Despite my criticisms, I’m more puzzled than irritated. A tutorial is necessary, but For Honor would be just fine without the narrative filler. The fact that I have to mention it at all is somewhat baffling.
I do have minor gripes about some of the multiplayer mechanics. For Honor is stuffed with online features, including has an elaborate crafting system that allows you to upgrade weapons and armor. The system itself is fine, but For Honor also supports microtransactions, so part of me worries that money will warp the game at higher level play if those weapons prove to be too much of an advantage.
Thankfully, it’s not a problem at the lower levels, and perhaps not ever. Most of the features – such as War Assets and Orders – are superficial carrots to promote audience engagement that have no impact on the outcome of individual matches. I’m happy to put up with the garishness as long as the gameplay remains fair.
With For Honor, Ubisoft has delivered an excellent core gameplay experience that demonstrates that it is possible to over-explain a good idea. The result feels like Ubisoft used a brown paper bag to wrap an expensive present. The package isn’t great, but the gift at the center is still worthwhile. For Honor is incredibly engaging in 30-to-60 minute intervals, and you couldn’t want much more from a multiplayer title.