For Honor is a medieval third-person fighting game developed by Ubisoft Montreal and released on February 14, 2017 for Playstation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
The game sports the new “Art of Battle” system , which ties defense and offense together into three stance from which a player may block attacks and throw their own; a nod to similarly styled games like Mount and Blade and Chivalry. You can throw a light attack, a faster and typically less damaging attack, or a more damaging but slower heavy attack. You can perform a guard break which, get this, breaks an opponent’s guard and allows for a free heavy attack for most characters. Defenses against attacks include blocking, dodging, deflecting, and parrying. Some attacks also possess certain properties, including being unblockable, undodgeable, stunning an opponent, or making them bleed. For Honor is a very combo-heavy game, with each character having a unique set of moves that allow them to string multiple attacks in conjunction with each other. The game sports 4 factions, the Knights, Vikings, Samurai, and the Wu Lin, with the latter being released last year. Each character also comes with a plethora of armor and weapon customization, a perk system, and unique in-game executions and emotes.
The story takes place in a medieval, post-apocalyptic scenario set sometime in the 12th century, after a series of natural disasters led the partial collapse of society. Since then, the survivors of the cataclysm have heavily militarized and have begun fighting over basic resources in an area implied to be a heavily altered and terraformed Europe. The Knights of Ashfeld are a combination of classical Western European and ancient Roman warriors, the Samurai of the Dawn Empire arrived after their homeland sunk into the sea, the Wu Lin are Chinese warriors who arrived after their own homeland descended into a state of perpetual civil war, and the Vikings of Valkenheim are overpowered.
Being Ubisoft’s first serious attempt at breaking into the fighting game market, the company went great lengths to advertise and show off the game’s impressive graphics and fresh gameplay mechanics. Early gameplay looked promising, featuring every gritty and mud-covered facet of medieval melee combat that the newest PC hardware and generation of consoles could offer. Gameplay showcases of a very primitive yet still recognizable For Honor began to be shown at E3 and other conventions starting as far back as 2015. Lo and behold, the fans bit. The For Honor open beta recorded 1.8 million players joining the battle (Ubisoft’s most popular beta ever) and sold 868,000 copies in its first week. During its release month, For Honor topped out at just over 45,000 players on Steam.
By March the player count had dropped to about 20,000. By April of that year, it was down to 6,000. March would be the last time For Honor would break 10,000 players until Ubisoft made the game free to play for a short time in July of 2018, raking in an impressive 216,000 players at its peak- which dropped to about 37,000 by the next month, and dropped back below 10,000 again by February of 2019. What happened? Over %50 of your playerbase vanishing within a month of release? Sure, any title with any hype behind it is bound to burn off players quickly in its fledgling months as there’s always a population of players who were never very committed to the game jump ship early, but half your playerbase? That’s a good indicator as ever that something serious must be amiss. What about this game prevents it from sticking to its player base?
Well, as is the case with many video games and presidential candidates, the issue lies in what was delivered versus what was promised. What were we promised? An innovative fighting game that combined elements of contemporary team-based, strategy oriented titles such as Overwatch and Rainbow Six: Siege within the framework of a fast-paced beat-em-up of the arcade era, set on a large 3D plane, and doused in a generous helping in mud, grime, and blood to set the grimdark atmosphere for the multiplayer and story modes, bearing some resemblances to Ryse: Son of Rome.
What did we get? Something that tried so hard to be just that before corporate greed took the reins of development. We did in fact get something that in concept should have been a new leap in the fighting game market and the video game industry as a whole, with truly impressive graphics to boot. We did in fact get a diverse and interesting cast of characters with unique designs and concepts behind their design. All of this we got, under a smothering heap of aggressive microtransactions, dreadfully slow progression, developer miscommunication/non-communication, game-breaking character balancing, and peer-to-peer matchmaking (collective groan).
I’ll start with the matchmaking, an issue which still dominates the game as of today. For those unfamiliar, here’s a Reddit article (collective groan) running down the basics of peer-to-peer matchmaking. To fill in the gaps of this article, not only does For Honor utilized a mesh-type peer-to-peer system, it also uses Ubisoft’s lag compensation system. In effect, these equate to the game running as smoothly as the player with the worst internet connection’s machine will allow. While this is fair on paper, it severely hinders the quality of the game. PC players seemed to have it slightly better than their less powerful console cousins, but lag is lag. The difference is most noticeable in 4v4 modes with the most things happening and the most packets being sent here and there. Fighting enemies is vastly less fun and involved due to both the lobby connection and each player’s console struggling to meet the strain the game puts on it. In particularly bad lobbies, you may get midway through an execution before the enemy miraculously rejoins the fight, or you may get hit by an attack without any animation playing. Ubisoft has since launched dedicated servers for For Honor, but their infrequent maintenance and the game’s shoddy netcode make the difference negligible. Complaining about lag in a video game will always be trite, but when successfully attacking and reacting to attacks come down to fractions of a second in nearly every fight, it’s worth noting.
The game to this day still features dead-slow progression, making you feel almost forced into buying in game currency. Each character can achieve up to 70 “reps”, or 70 sets of 20 smaller levels. At each level you get some sort of customization item, be it a new material, paint color/style, embossing, or symbol. These tend to be extremely repetitive, an a majority of levels are filled with tacky color palettes or reverse versions of paint styles given to you at earlier levels. At each rep, you typically get a slightly flashier piece of customization. The game also has a set of daily and bi-daily challenges, which net you about 1500-2000 currency a day. Most items in the game cost 7000, and characters, depending on when they were released, cost up to 15000. Do the math.
Balancing is a blurry topic: Everybody wants their character to be the best, or at least exactly how they want them to be for maximum dopamine release. In For Honor’s case, however, seldom do you encounter a player who’d say they’re satisfied with the game’s balance, regardless of who or how they play. How Ubisoft managed to dissatisfy such a large majority of a community with so many differing views on where the game should go is beyond me. Extremely over-tuned or outright busted characters/moves stay in the game for months at a time with no word or attention from the developers; exasperated today by the fact that the dev team has significantly downsized since release. Honestly, I’m not projecting my own opinions here: Go seek out any For Honor community online and take a shot every time you read a rework post about Hitokiri or Lawbringer. Ubisoft can’t possibly be expected to appease every fan, but there are some issues that such a massive majority of the community agree require (in most cases, a relatively simple) fix that it’s easy to agree with many in the community that Ubisoft has more or less abandoned For Honor. It doesn’t make the money that Siege or Assassin’s Creed does. What strides were taken (and I will admit, there was a point when it did seem that Ubisoft was genuinely attempting to improve the state of the game) were too little and too late, and they didn’t acknowledge many of the game’s fatal flaws. The devs also removed two of the five maps offered at launch for the game’s most popular mode, Dominion, with no word on why. They were eventually re-added with some small tweaks, but it helped set the stage for developer-consumer interactions for the future.
The state of For Honor as of 1:39 PM on February 4rd, 2020 is one of a game that at one point showed untold potential to turn the fighting game scene on its head. The game isn’t as comically unbalanced as it once was, but it’s by no means in a good state in terms of meta. The last of the dev team’s original members has left, and the player count is still on the decline. Let’s remember a time when, not willing to sacrifice graphics for gameplay or vice versa, Ubisoft strove for an innovative spin on classic and well-aged tropes that attracted massive hype from the community and by all rights should have been one of the most memorable games of the decade and propelled the fighting game scene back into the gaming limelight.
…And in typical Ubisoft fashion, it fell flat on its face.