Following in the tradition of large-scale action games like Dynasty Warriors, players control a knight, viking, or samurai who leads an army through a massive battle, alternating between fighting hordes of weak foot soldiers, and one-and-one duels with enemy commanders. Though Ubisoft kept mum on how heraldic knights, vikings, and samurai would wind up squaring off against one another, they did say the campaign would feature sub-campaigns for each of the three factions. (I can’t be certain, but the structure sounded like the three-parts would tell different acts of a single story from the various sides’ perspective, a la Starcraft.)
That said, based on the cutscenes from the pair of modified single-player levels the developer showed us, it’s safe to say that the historical accuracy and narrative cohesion will both take a back seat to making excuses for cool swordfights.
As you might expect, it’s those one-on-one duels that make the game stand out. When players run across an advanced opponent, you simply press a button to engage them, triggering a Zelda-esque lock-on system, which facilitates tense circling and other strategic movements. Once engaged, players can set one of three stances: left, right, or high. Your stance determines what direction you’ll swing your weapon, as well as what direction you’ll guard against. In other words, you need to match the direction to parry your opponents strike, and hit them in a different direction. When attacking, players can choose to use quick strikes, which are hard to parry, or heavy attacks that do more damage.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. Both players can swap stances until the last possible second, so it’s possible for attackers to feint, and defenders to overthink and move out of position based on the angle of a strike. What’s more, while an indicator always showed what “direction” your opponent was using, some fighters’ actual stances did not correspond to left, right, and high. A samurai with a long katana, for example, pointed his sword straight in the air in his “right” stance. It’s a game that requires many short bursts of intense concentration, which can become surprisingly challenging to sustain.
In addition to the actual weapons, you can also grapple with your enemies, throwing them backward and disrupting their defensive stances. Some characters will have modified abilities. When playing as a large viking “raider,” grabbing an enemy on the run would allow you to ram them into a wall. And if that wall is covered in spikes, or is a ledge that your opponent can get flipped over, so much the better.
If things feel like they’re getting too hairy — maybe you just barely won your last duel — players can find power-ups in every level to give them an advantage. The power-ups, which you can use immediately or stash until you’re in a really tough spot, range from healing, strength, and armor bonuses, to a catapult strike. While some power-ups will fall along the level’s main path, you can expect that the more powerful ones will be hidden away.
Though duels rule the day, there are other moments where your expertise can turn the tide of battle. In a level where players must defend a castle from a siege, players have to help their army repel waves of enemies, a mix of duelists and footmen, to staunch their flow into the castle. In the second level, where a viking army invaded a Japanese castle, players had to help a wall of shield-bearing soldiers push the combat line across a large courtyard.
It’s clear that For Honor isn’t going to change the way we think about video games, even within the altogether-rote category of repetitive action titles: However, in mastering a single type of gameplay within its limits, it may have carved itself out a compelling niche.
For Honor arrives on PS4, Xbox One, and PC on February 14, 2017.