For Honor is a beautiful, bizarre hybrid of three distinct (and relatively niche) genres. On the one hand, it's a deeply accomplished fighting game with hints of Soul Calibur. On the other, it's a third-person brawler that delivers relatively big but clunky battles in visually incredible locations. And binding both of these flavours together is a persistent online structure reminiscent of Bungie's Destiny and Ubisoft's own The Division, pitting players against players with AI-controlled bots filling in the gaps.
In short, it's a weird game – one that's not altogether sure what it is or what it wants to be, but is still one of the most distinct games in recent memory. For Honor is even stranger because of its approach to history.
Ubisoft plays fast and loose with historical authenticity for a fantasy land where knights, Vikings and samurai battle for domination. While the world Ubisoft has built is astoundingly pretty, it's one that most of the time feels empty, even soulless. It's also almost constantly marred by Ubisoft's obsession with pointless clutter in the form of icons that do nothing but confuse and distract.
The strongest of the game's three core mechanical pillars is the close-quarters melee combat, which forms an impressively solid foundation that'll appeal strongly to the fighting game community. It's essentially a game of rock, paper, scissors, with three directions of attack and three directional blocks to counter those sword-swings, spear-jabs and axe-hacks.
By holding the left trigger, you can focus on one enemy and go into a combat stance, wherein you'll have to watch where your enemy is going to strike. You can block on your left, on your right, or above you with the right stick, so it's a constant game of pre-empting where your enemy is going to attack, watching for an icon to highlight where you're about to get hit.
The system encourages smart blocking, with an increase in defensive effectiveness if you're already blocking from any given direction. Last-minute switches to counter a surprise attack from up high will reduce your defence rating, and could leave you staggered and your stamina low. Any smart player will take advantage of that and you could end up dead in seconds.
At first the game can feel slow and a bit unresponsive but combat soon shows a greater depth. It's deceptively nuanced, in fact, with a ton of additional combat considerations that allows it to flourish into a competent fighting experience. On top of the attacking and blocking you have guard breaks, parries, combos, counters, combat stances and all the finesse-based moves that you'll only find in hardcore fighting games, which encourage replay and improvement in order to nail particular strategies.
With four different characters within each of the three factions, there are all kinds of different tactical considerations in any given fight. For example, you could head into battle with a knight's straightforward and good all-round Warden class. You'll begin to work out the tics of that particular class – the speed of its sword swings and the way it handles blocking under pressure – but if you switch to something like the Samurai's Nobushi, you'll find a completely different playstyle is required to get the same results.
The best way to discover that is in multiplayer. Facing off against a skilled player using the Valkyrie class can be absolutely maddening, for example, as it has an incredibly powerful move that can sweep you off your feet. But it's also a fantastic way of seeing how different classes can be used so you can try it yourself.
This kind of dynamism is great, but it's a shame that the rest of For Honor's ideas simply don't stand as tall as the mechanical underpinnings of its combat. Outside of its 1v1 and 2v2 modes, which are by far the game's strongest, you've got a confusing overarching meta-game where players fight for territory on the overworld map, a deathmatch mode, a mode called Dominion, and a single player campaign.
The meta-game just isn't that appealing or necessary, acting as a classic example of Ubisoft overcomplicating a game that should, in essence, be a simple fighting experience; and the deathmatch and dominion modes, while cool on paper, fall apart a little. It's frustrating to have a great duel with one player, only to get stabbed in the back or ganged up on by other combatants. The balance goes to pieces.
It's the single player that really lacks, though. Sandwiched between forgettable cutscenes with truly terrible dialogue, For Honor's campaign missions act as basic tutorial sessions that use multiplayer-mode frameworks in a single player environment.
This is fine at first, and there's definitely a benefit to playing offline to give you a chance to get to grips with the intricacies of combat and to learn the basics of zone control, but the campaign ends up feeling incredibly repetitive. Its best missions, such as the one in which you infiltrate and sabotage a Viking stronghold under cover of darkness, are still a lot less enjoyable than they need to be to warrant the repetition on offer.
In most missions, you have to kill the same grunts over and over, finishing off bigger enemies in 1v1 combat as you go. There's one particularly long-winded and drawn-out boss battle against a Viking warlord who's flanked by a dozen or so wolves and rather than being climactic and adrenal it's a plodding bore. In the same level even you start off protecting a massive battering ram as it edges towards a Viking stronghold. What follows essentially boils down to "walking in a square to keep the ram moving while killing men that try to destroy said ram". If that's medieval battling, count me out.
In short, For Honor is bloated in a way it doesn't need to be, but in a way that's completely unsurprising for Ubisoft. A ton of cosmetic upgrades and progression rankings can't save it from being an ultimately narrow experience. It may not wholly satisfy anyone craving an enormous single-player campaign or competitive multiplayer, but if you want a surprisingly competent fighting game that's capable of offering some great, tense and skill-based encounters, For Honor has enough to offer. Ubisoft may have marketed the game as a big, broad battler, but in truth it's just about you and your opponent and that's where it is at its best.