Wot I Think: For Honor
Axe on, axe off
There’s a scene in the History Channel’s Vikings where the protagonist, Ragnar Lothbruk, says he is “bloodsick” after a hard fought campaign. He’s maudlin, weary of everything. It’s as if he is coming down from a dark age combat high. Well, that’s sort of how For Honor leaves me feeling after a battle. Even if my team won, I’m frustrated and irritable at all the small deaths. That attack from behind by three other players. That shonky, crowded melee amid the NPC pawns. Those dozen cuts from a Samurai blade that I could have sworn I was blocking. All of it working together to leave me weary, sighing and bloodsick.
For Honor is Ubisoft’s ludicrous love song to the idea behind Deadliest Warrior. What if all these infamous fighters through history were to meet and fight it out? Vikings, Knights and Samurai clash swords, axes and katanas in a never-ending war. There’s a story mode behind it all, which puts a manipulative war God, Appolyon, at the centre of things, conspiring to make the three groups fight their infinite fight. This single-player (or co-op) mode has its strengths. It’s a good way of learning each character’s moves, for example, and completing the story gets you a good amount of steel, the game’s currency, which you can spend in multiplayer to unlock new classes of character or gamble for better gear in grubby loot crates.
But mission by mission it’s not much more than a conglomeration of recycled multiplayer levels with set pieces and terrible dialogue that you’ll recognise from hundreds of action movies. Toward the end, one of the characters confronts Appolyon, who has been stirring up trouble like an armoured Trickster since the start. “You!” the character gasps, “You want war!?” I exploded into laughter. Yes, you dense fugitive. We have known that since the opening cinematic. We have known that since the trailer.
While the story mode is not much but a hackneyed tapestry sewn together from Ubisoft’s big box of levels, the real gristle to chew on was always going to be the multiplayer fights. The premise might be Vikings v Samurai v Knights but that’s not how the fights actually work. It’s red versus blue and you can mix and match, fight as any kind of warrior. So in the game’s 2v2 brawl mode you might have one team featuring a ninja-like Orochi and a blonde Raider, throwing down with a knightly Warden and a spear-wielding Valkyrie. The eternal war of three is only really for show (and for the ‘war map’ – which I’ll talk about later).
After moshing about in the open beta, I stormed into the full game confident in my ability to throw tin men off bridges. A lot of genres have been fused together here to create sportsmanlike battles full of angry men and women going back and forth and stabbing each other in the head. In game modes like Dominion there’s even a little bit of MOBA influence if you squint. Fragile creeps in the form of lowly soldiers constantly flood down the “middle” of the battlefield, and you have to help them out by clearing the way of enemy creep-soldiers. Unlike the other two control points, this is the only way to take the centre of the map. You have to pitch in with the plebs, which leads to all sorts of moshpit like fights with player-controlled enemies, as each of you try to find space among the throng to get a sense of your surroundings and lunge at each other.
In this mode, you need to get 1000 points and the enemy will “break”, at which point you need to kill them all and wipe them out, since they can’t respawn while they’re breaking. But if the enemy can hold out, kill your team and regain some ground and points, they will “rally” allowing respawns again and giving them the chance to break the other team in a counter-attack. This can lead to close games as warriors rush around the field reviving their dead mates (this doesn’t count as a respawn) and coming back from the brink of defeat. To ensure the dead remain dead and “unreviveable”, you can kick or push players off ledges, where their body can’t be reached, or you can perform an “execution” as your final blow against a flagging player. They can’t bring you back to life without a head, mate. Sort yourself out.
Much of the appeal comes down to the fights themselves. One-on-one bouts can be tense, exciting battles. You have to be aware of your foe’s attacking direction (presented as little white arrows) and match that direction while guarding to block the incoming hit, while also striking out in an effort to get past their own guard. This is the basic principle of the fighting, however, there’s much more going on underneath. Sometimes too much more. You can also grab opponents, throw them, parry attacks and perform heavier and slower attacks. It doesn’t really end there. Depending on the type of warrior you’ve brought into the fray you can also:
- Sweep them off their feet
- Chain attacks together infinitely
- Feint to one side then attack at another
- Guard from all directions
- Stun them with the butt of your axe
- Charge up a nasty attack
- Perform an unblockable attack
- Swing your mace around endlessly like a wide-eyed maniac
- Cut them with poison
- Set them on fire
- Headbutt them down a cliff
- Throw them over your own head
- Charge into them from ten feet away and carry them across the earth like a sack of potatoes until they tumble backside first into a pit full of terrible spikes
Because of the variety of tactics and movesets, defeating even one player requires agility, timing and a vicious and permanent awareness of the nearest unfenced ledge. It’s a rough, adrenal affair. But then you find yourself up against two people. Three people. The entire enemy team. At this point you’re lean, high-grade mincemeat. Taking on more than a single person alone is folly. And that’s before you consider any of the character’s perks that are unlocked as the battle goes on. Some of these let you plant down a life-giving aura for other players. Some let you call in a volley of arrows on enemies, or throw flasks full of fire, or “mark an enemy for death” and reduce their defence.
I learned how to fight dirty when I lived with the Rat King Covenant, however. So I love the use of your environment to get kills or even just to make your opponent wary of approaching you. Throwing people into pits, moats, off cliffs, castle walls, perilous bridges. Booting them into a wall of spikes or headbutting them straight into a fire. It summons a good, bloodlusty feeling. It makes you feel like Rollo Lothbruk, you know, before he went all French.
But there are also plenty of players to whom the whole system of blocking, countering, feinting and slashing comes freakishly naturally. During one gore-soaked Dominion match, I had repeated face-offs with one Knight who was consistently swinging a mace around as he jealously guarded a control point the entire match. I tried everything – grabs, counter-attacks, stunning blows, dodging strikes. Every time it was a futile effort. Six times I had my head crushed by that mace during our vicious rivalry. Six times. It was like having a fight with a living quicktime event.
There’s usually at least one person like this in every match. Normally, a jerkish Samurai Orochi. These dual-wielding characters don’t have a default stance (same goes for the Knight’s Assassin and the Viking’s Berserker), so the direction of their incoming attack doesn’t appear until the last second, meaning you have to be quicker in response when guarding. They are fast, vicious monsters who can dart and dodge blows while delivering their own small cuts at the same time. You can play as giant, tanky characters and still succumb to the speed of these stab-happy rats.
The trade-off is that they are difficult to learn and master, like other classes of fighter. Spear-wielding Valkyries make me quake with fear, because they have a move that can sweep you up by the heels if executed properly, and they are fond of bashing you with their shield. The most rotund of the Knights, the Lawbringer, has a pinning charge that stabs you in the gonads, which can then be followed up with unblockable attacks that you’ll need to dodge, not block. But if you’re like me, the instinct to raise your shield will always take over and you’ll know before the strike hits, by the appearance of small firey symbol, that you are soundly dead.
But again, these classes are hard to learn well. They can still fall to the much more manageable Raider. I use this hearty woman to whap people on the bonce and stun them. In this state their screen goes “grrrhb?” and they can’t tell which direction the next strike is coming from. In their panic, I grab them and toss them off a rampart.
So, the fighting is quite good. But there are issues. The popular Dominion mode is both the most fun and the most annoying. Here, death comes by the gankful. A lonely player is a delicious lamb for a pair or a trio. And if you are being spammed with attacks from multiple directions, there’s normally no way out of it. You’re supposed to be able to roll out of a fight by double-tapping A. But firstly, the roll never rolls you that far. Secondly, any blow while “unlocked” from enemies interrupts your movement completely. Running is only an option if there’s already distance between you and your predator.
You could play the 1v1 duels exclusively, or you can just accept this pack mentality to be part of the game, train yourself to recognise the signs of a fight worth fighting. If I’m on my todd and I see three enemies, for instance, I tend to turn around and “nope” my way out of there lickety-split. If I see one guy, I’ll charge toward him and look for the nearest environmental hazard. But there’s no avoiding the gank sometimes. Players popping out of seemingly nowhere, AI bots becoming human at a moment’s notice, running around a corner to find the whole enemy team descending on you like a pack of rabid honey badgers. All these deaths and more will come to you in time, my sweet child.
The problem, I think, is that there is far too much going on in any one fight. Say you run up to point C and, oh look, it’s a Warden with death in his eyes. That’s okay, let’s just keep your eyesight trained on his guard stance. Left, right... high red! Parry! Left, high... heavy left swing! Dodge! Phew, this guy is really dancing that’s for sure.
But as you’re doing all this you also need to be keeping an eye on those ledges nearby. There’s three drops into sweet nothing to keep track of here, and a forth onto a lower level, where he might throw you and jump down with a killing leap (or where you might be thinking to do the same) and these are - Left red! Block! Right red, parry! - these are things to be aware of.
So your eyes are going everywhere at this stage, when you suddenly, instinctively remember to glance at your radar. There are two orange blips coming up behind you. “GG, Warden.” You mutter as the knives come down, “GG.”
In other words, For Honor demands an often-exhausting amount of spatial awareness, abstract awareness of enemies, and the twitch-like instincts of the fight itself. It’s like trying to play three Batman Arkham games at once. Then, at a critical moment, the screen is covered with garbage.
I’m talking about the game’s UI here, which is as intrusive and irritating as any Ubi game can be expected to be. Even the menus outside a fight are busy, garbled boxes. On the multiplayer menu there’s a big war map which shows the territories owned and fought over by each faction. As you win matches you can dispatch “war assets” into these territories on behalf of the faction you’ve allied yourself to. I pledged myself to the Vikings at the start of the game, so a big axe comes down and stabs the map whenever I send my war assets somewhere. Take that, map! Every few hours the map changes, depending on how folks have been allocating their warboys.
But what any of this even means, I couldn’t tell you. At the end of a season, we’re told, there’ll be rewards for everyone who participated, according to your faction’s score. But fight-by-fight, this map is just a convoluted distraction. It helps to think of it like the map in Planetside 2, except you can’t explore a single inch of it and it has no real significance, since all the battles already take place on a preset list of cycling levels entirely unrelated to the larger world. An early video says if an area falls into enemy hands “you will see many changes”. But they only mean that some round shields on an insignificant wall will become square banners on an insignificant wall. There’s no real geography to any of it, no real war. Just a playlist of battles and a funny-looking map slowly being painted a Viking red (Valhallllaaaaaaaaaa!).
But nothing demonstrates the game’s overbearing UI like when a match goes to sudden death. Here, darkness starts to intrude at the edge of your screen, the left and right fills up with names and profile pictures so that you can see who’s dead and who’s not. All this at the expense of seeing, you know, the actual battlefield.
It is a frustrating and totally unnecessary obfuscation of your view. Your fighting attention is already busy enough, filled to breaking point with radar, player enemies, NPC hordes, and environmental obstacles. I do not need giant skulls appearing in my peripheral vision, along with more flashing words right in the centre of my sight. UI designers, please stop what you are doing. Please, stop.
There are other irritations, unrelated to stabbing men in the neck. Matchmaking is unreliable and often garnished with lengthy wait times. When a match ends players often leave, and the game doesn't know how to look for new ones, even if there's four people willing to stay, so it just kicks you all out at the end of a timer. I've seen all manner of error messages saying that a match I've tried to join is full, or that there's a simple "network error", both of which kick me out of matchmaking and back to the menus, rather than simply lining me up for a new match automatically. Network issues also mean you sometimes swing to stab an opponent for a cheap cut of human meat, only for the game to freeze and this to appear.
It's not an ideal launch. Mostly though, the busy-ness of the fighting is why, despite enjoying the charge of my warring Raider and being a dastardly manipulator of gravity, I tend to come away from the battles surly and tired. But also, the over-reliance on ganking as a genuine and expected tactic simply makes losing horrendously un-fun. They definitely called it For Honor as a joke, because I have rarely yelled “oh fuck off” at a death screen with such disdain for my opponents. “This game is going to give me a heart attack,” said one player to the rest of our team. We had just won a match.
Overall, I don’t know exactly how I feel about For Honor. It sometimes feels like a Ubisoft hired a bunch of scientists in white coats to observe Dark Souls PvP from behind reinforced perspex and experiment on it with Dota DNA in a mad attempt to recreate a tame monster in a safe environment for their own nefarious ends (profit). What they’ve made is an interesting chimera, something that is both more accessible but sometimes just as unforgiving. I expect that to be able to enjoy it more, I’d need even more time to practice, more time to learn the ins and outs of all the characters, to become better at reading its clustered mess of a screen, to build up that thumb-cracking muscle memory to a point where I too can crush a man’s head with a mace six times in a row.
But I don’t know if I can face that. Because right now I just feel bloodsick.