I really enjoyed playing For Honor at E3. The combat was easy to get to grips with, while still having enough meat on its bones to really capture that warrior spirit. Upon hearing that multiplayer was coming, I was sceptical about how that combat would translate when faced with a human opponent – would it devolve into an endless spam-session of a few basic attacks? However, having played the alpha, not only was I wrong, but this is the first time in what feels like forever that I’ve experienced a multiplayer game that feels truly unique.
For Honor uses a very simple combat control scheme which allows encounters to follow a rock-paper-scissors flow. After locking onto an enemy, you can move the right stick up, left or right. This dictates where you'll attack, but also forms your guard position. Arrow indicators highlight where you’re currently guarding and where attackers will strike. If you’re guarding the same part that an attacker tries to hit, you'll block. Very simple, but it opens up plenty of depth when guard-breaks, throws and each of the three character classes – Vikings, Knights and Samurai – come into effect.
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It’s an excellent system that slowly reveals its nuances and intricacy the more you play it. At E3 I feared there were too few instances where battles were close and intense. The arrow indicator of an enemy attack seemed to make it glaringly obvious where to defend, and the time between attacks made many encounters feel like glorified tutorials. However, getting a chance to experience online multiplayer, against both fellow players and incredibly challenging bots, I’ve seen how fun it can be.
The For Honor alpha offers three different multiplayer formats: Duel (one versus one), Brawl (two versus two) and Dominion (four versus four in all-out war mixed with domination). Each faction has two playable characters, one basically a brute and the other a more agile fighter. Each hero also has a set of perks which can be used during Dominion, from flash grenades to ‘Viking Fury’. The cool thing is that For Honor adopts a MOBA-like approach to abilities, with each of the four gradually unlocking throughout a match once you’ve accrued enough points, and all with cooldown timers. It’s a very cool system that helps keep the battlefield from becoming too much like something from Warcraft.
There’s also a swathe of customisation tools. Everything from gender to skin tone to clothing can be changed. At the conclusion of each battle you’ll be able to ‘Scavenge’ items from the battlefield, which can either be new items which improve your stats or materials which can be combined to earn new equipment. The RPG elements are nicely implemented, though the stat improvements that every item grants make me wonder how well balanced battles will be as players begin to level up. Initially I was really intrigued by the notion that every battle was won or lost purely on player skill, but as more axe heads and clothing items were unlocked, each better than the last, it led me to question whether encounters were won through my tactical nouse or if I simply had the tougher gear, which is a shame.
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However, once the battle begins, there’s no denying it’s as brutal as it is fun to play. The Duel format represents the truest essence of For Honor’s combat – straight-up one-on-one battles where the better combatant walks away from the best-of-five fight alive. There’s a genuine sense of tension as the camera pans across For Honor’s glorious environments, before zooming in on my character, stood several yards across from my opponent, and then we’re told to begin smashing each other to pieces.
It like Mortal Kombat meets 300 – very gladiatorial while maintaining a sense of over-the-top insanity which fuels the adrenaline.
Matches can start at a slow pace, with players circling and trying to encourage the other to make the first move (and, more importantly, the first mistake), but once the first hit lands it’s all systems go. There’s something truly satisfying about the battles, aided by excellent sound design and visceral violence. The noise of a Viking’s axe clattering against a Knight’s shield is incredibly real, helped further by the drum beat underscoring the action.
My first match is incredibly intense. As the Viking Raider I lose the opening round, but claw back the next two with last-gasp kills. On the brink of sealing a 3-1 victory, I have my finishing blow countered and get defeated. However, in the third round, I rediscover an incredible trick up For Honor’s sleeve: the ability to throw your opponent off ledges. After stunning an enemy, the Raider is able to pick them up and carry them before a throw. If throwing them into a wall, the Viking will finish the move with a brutal knee to the face, but in this instance, the ledge has been broken by a previous ballista barrage, and my enemy plummets to his death. A 3-2 win and proof that Vikings are clearly the best.
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After a few more very fun matches I switch across to Brawl, and this is the weakest of the three modes, mainly because of the very delicate balance of the game. For Honor is built around one-versus-one combat, so whenever the odds are stacked against you, you’re toast. Your only hope of survival is getting a quick kill by throwing one of your foes off a ledge, but this is very rare. If your team-mate loses their battle, and you haven’t already killed off your enemy, the match is over, you’ve lost. The odds are nearly always insurmountable.
What doesn’t help is the lack of information from the game. I didn’t know my ally was in trouble until he was dead – with a small cross indicating the body’s location for me to try and revive them. Duel is a mode that will be entirely dependant on communication, and one that’ll be best served with you joining up with a friend and taking on others. When playing with mute strangers it felt like a severe disadvantage and took much of the fun out of the combat when fighting two opponents. You become a bullied schoolkid very quickly.
Thankfully, Dominion makes up for Brawl’s shortcomings in spades. It's four-versus-four all-out warfare with some AI fodder thrown in for good measure. This is an excellent spin on Domination – capture points A and C are the classic easy grabs for the two teams at the start of a contest. Capture point B represents “no man’s land” where scores of AI – weak, one-hit-kill minions from both sides – run head first into each other and begin to fight. It's up to you and your three warriors to drive the enemy line back and take control, dispatching as many of the weaker enemies as you can to give your AI the ability to push up and take control.
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Then the strategy comes into play of knowing when to take on human enemies. They’ll be running around the map, trying to take capture points and kill AI, but again, with the emphasis on one-on-one combat, teams must travel in numbers to maintain dominance. Keeping a squad of four grouped together really made a difference in winning games. In matches where we stayed together, or at worst splintered into two groups of two, battles became immense. Being able to spring up on an unwitting opponent and help out a friend with a crushing blow is so satisfying.
The one hilarious inclusion is friendly fire, which made combat feel like classic Golden Axe arcade madness when all eight players occupied a small space. Plenty of times I accidentally clubbed my team in the back of the head while trying to hit a baddie.
I’ve been delightfully surprised by For Honor’s multiplayer. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before, and that’s incredibly rare for a huge game in 2016 to achieve. It doesn’t have any gimmicks, nor does it require any “hoo-rah” nonsense; it’s just an excellent combat game.
Host migration and server stability was also surprisingly good for an alpha, making the experience all the more enjoyable. Bring on launch day.