Oh my God, the Ladyvikings are awesome.
I guess Ubisoft finally worked out how to animate women? I joke, I joke, but seriously: the female viking character models - let's call them Viqueens - in For Honor [official site] are spectacular badasses. It's a delight. As for the game itself, well, we're looking at third-person Battlefield with swords and axes, with a touch of Dynasty Warriors.
The following is based on a couple of days in last week's short-lived closed alpha. We can expect a ton of changes before the finished game arrives in February, as well as some manner of singleplayer mode. The alpha offered only multiplayer or bot matches, but nonetheless plenty of scope to work out what it is this vikings vs knights vs samurai business is trying to achieve.
If 'vikings vs knights vs samurai' sounds like the formula for a comedy game, rest assured that Ubisoft's trademark deadly seriousness is all present and correct. Hilariously, an opening cinematic even tries to justify the conceit in an entirely straight-faced way. Something about an eternal war arranged by an evil ladyknight, though I didn't take in all the details because oh for God's sakes.
All that matters is you get to choose to be a viking, a knight or a samurai and then you go sword/axefight a whole load of enemies from across those factions. This being 2016, there's a heavy focus on unlocks, both in terms of skills and equipment and purely aesthetic stuff such as helmets, tats and even how the shaft of your weapon looks.
You can spend in-game cash earned from fighting and levelling up on random packs of unlocks, and I'll go tell a real-life viking that he's got girls' hair if there isn't ultimately some option to do this with real human money too. In any case: a move from guns to blades does not involve a move away from the tropes of a modern multiplayer game, but admittedly armour and melee weapons are a whole lot more fun to tweak from a visual point of view than fatigues and machineguns.
As for the fighting, inevitably we're not in reticulesas any more. This is a game about timing and blocking, not aiming. The idea For Honor's come up with is that you can hold your weapon in one of three directions - left, right, above - in order both to block which angle you think an attack is coming from, and to ensure your own hit connects rather than bounces right off the enemy's blade with yer classic clang or donk sound effect.
If you're in a duel with a single enemy you'll have Block held all the time and will choose a weapon angle before each and every strike, but these bouts are broken up by gleeful hacky-slashy-spammy battles against hordes of smaller, weaker foes, in a vaguely Dynasty Warriors fashion. That stuff's almost just for fun though, more tp provide a huge wash of body-based spectacle than to challenge, although it does offer potential for some fun ambushes upon folk who are busy bothering the AI. The meat of the game is mano-a-mano fights against either player-controlled or relatively fearsome AI-powered foes of equal strength to yourself.
Speaking as An Impatient And Not Terribly Sharp-Eyed Individual, this did not come at all naturally to me, thanks to a combination of struggling to immediately surmise which way a foe was holding their weapon in the heat of battle and finding that activating an extra toggle before I hit someone to be a bit of a faff.
This problem was far, far worse on keyboard and mouse, which by default involves almost perpetually holding down Control, of all buttons, then waggling your mouse left, right or up to choose your favoured angle before striking, but over on gamepad it felt dramatically more natural. (Left trigger was the hold-down block button there).
My own strategy, which says more about me than it does the game, was to just randomly pick an angle every second or third strike and hope for the best. Rock, paper, scissors by any other name, and as with that cheery RPS tribute game, it meant success roughly 50% of the time.
I fully expect this approach to drop to a success rate of about 10% of the time once a playerbase is established, and most folk gain the ability to immediately work out which way I'm carrying my weapon, regardless of how much chaos and confusion is on the screen. Hopefully I'd end up doing similar if I played for long enough too, but I just wanted to convey that this is inherently a skill game and not just a matter of wildly waving a massive sword around.
I don't know that I'd describe this tactical, positioning-based approach as having the fluidity you feel when you're air-swording in front of the mirror, but nor can it really be described as a sword-fighting sim, given ultimately it boils down to block or stab. It's somewhere in the middle, and I feel like maybe the controls need a bit of tweaking yet in order to make the position switching more organic. Right now it shares a thumbstick (or mouse) with looking around, and that does create a few headaches.
I reckon it's plausible it can get there though, and on the handful of occasions I settled into a bit of a rythym, one-on-one duels had a push-and-pull tension that getting suddenly shot in the back of the head does not. Especially given that there are also options to throw and shove to some extent, and I've had a couple of comedy wins by booting someone off the ramparts or into some opportunistically-placed wall spikes.
I should mention that For Honor looks pretty spectacular, albeit in a slightly grey way, particularly in terms of its environments. There are only a handful of maps in the alpha inevtiably, but we get to see medieval castles, Viking villages and Japanese fortresses, all of which are packed with detail that probably doesn't need to be there, given that 90% of the time you're staring intently at someone's health meter.
Sadly it's obfuscated by a ton of screen-noise that I cruelly want to call 'UbiUI' but in fairness haunts most anything multiplayer these days. Some of the modes involve a Battlefield-style capture point system, so there's that UI in there too, but it's an appropriate structure for This Sort Of Thing. The choice between chasing down an injured foe or running to grab/defend a vulnerable point is an acute one, and gets across at least some sense that this is factional warfare rather than just a load of armoured people in a field.
I suspect it will be popular, and I think it deserves to be, a little finessing on the controls notwithstanding. I hope the mania for unlocks can be controlled somewhat in order that it stays focused on tight battles, which hopefully will eventually give rise to feinting and psyching out too. I am also very much looking forwards to more wonderfully excessive character models. Viqueens4lyfe.