"Remember what it's like to not be good at something. I think as gamers, we've forgotten what it's like to learn an entirely new genre for the first time. Think back to the first strategy game you played. The first shooter you played. The first fighting game you played. That's where we are with this game."
"Be gentle, be patient with yourself. Give yourself the chance to try it, set it down, go to sleep, wake up, come back, and try it again. Learning to do a new hard thing is not something gamers have to do that often. Once you've mastered one genre, you can move from game to game to game, and now you're just picking up variations of the same thing. Well, this is a new genre, so go easy on yourself."
These are the words of Jason Vandenberghe, creative director of For Honor, when I ask him how best to approach Ubisoft's upcoming sword fighting game as a beginner. They make a lot of sense to me, and offer me some comfort. Despite playing the game for a couple of hours at a recent preview event, I'm struggling with its rather unusual control system. Timing my attacking moves to successfully hit my opponents with my two-handed long sword is proving to be tricky, and the all-important blocking aspect of the game is eluding me entirely.
A large part of my ineptitude stems from the fact that I'm not immediately adapting to the very steady cadence of the game's action. I'm spamming the buttons, when I should be making very careful, critically-timed presses to shift from attack to defense, taking into consideration my Warden Knight's momentum, which requires her to follow through on a maneuver before she can perform another.
Jason continues, "Remember the first time you played a first-person shooter on a controller? The first time we really got those functional first-person controls? It was tough. I remember having problems trying to control the game because I'd been so used to a mouse and keyboard, but at the end of that year, I'd forgotten why it was hard. It just became how this is done."
"I remember that experience. The hope here is that we're onto something. It feels like the right way to do melee combat, so let's commit to it. Let's assume people will pay that learning cost. We've tried to make it as easy as possible to learn – we've spent an enormous amount of time researching and experimenting with what the best learning path is. We have this training approach, and that took a lot of time and effort. It's certainly been one of the great challenges making that onramp nice and smooth, but that's our job."
I can attest that the game's training mode is a good one. It ran me through the basics of combat very effectively – it's just that I should have spent a lot more time with it before jumping into For Honor's multiplayer action. Still, while I'm clumsily trying to remember exactly how the controls work, the actual objective of the multiplayer mode I'm playing is really easy to grasp. It's a version of Domination in which each team of four combatants fights over the three control points that are dotted around the moderately-sized map. Stand in a control point long enough, and it's turned over to your team, and points are earned while it's under your influence.
As I sprint from point to point, I occasionally have to stop and fight the hordes of enemy NPCs that are regularly running into the midst of the action from the opposing team's starting point. They're easy meat, and I wade through them, slicing and chopping with my long sword. I'm not sure what their purpose is, other than to mire down players in the middle of the map, but they seem to be very effective at that – as indeed are my team's NPCs as I watch a couple of enemy players trying to battle their way through them.
Both teams thin the NPC ranks, and players start battling players. It's here that I get unstuck once more as I try to take on two enemies simultaneously. I manage to get in a few hits on one opponent, but the other stabs me in the back, and I'm left to respawn as they move onto a control point. All is not bad, however. While fighting, I noticed something important. Instead of blindly attacking the person in from of me, I waited for them to make a move before committing to a move myself, and that enabled me to parry their attack, and then as they took a step back, get in two consecutive light offensive swings. For a brief moment, the game has a flow to it. Combat feels smooth and logical. I'm slowly starting to get it.
Jason confirms this when I ask him about the key to successful combat. "The whole goal is to give you the experience where you both have to watch what your opponent is doing, and try to get your weapon in a place where you can attack them, but also defend yourself. That weird balance – that's the emotions of battle. That's how every warrior in history has felt in that moment. The goal of this gameplay is to give you that moment that has occurred for thousands of years."
I keep these thoughts at the front of my mind as we move onto the next multiplayer mode, which is a four versus four team elimination battle. Each player only has one life, but can be revived by teammates if they're given an opportunity to do so. The map is quite small, and almost immediately I run into an opponent. I patiently wait for them to make the first move, and counter-attack successfully when they do. I repeat the process, and I'm feeling confident – but then they stop attacking and wait for me to swing my sword. I attack several times, but my moves are blocked repeatedly. So I shuffle forwards in a feint, see them start to block, and then take a swing. I get a huge hit on target, and follow up with a couple more swings, and the opponent crumples to the floor. It feels really satisfying. While my moves were clumsy, I nevertheless felt some semblance of control over my actions. Clearly I've still got a lot to learn, but I've finally made the conceptual leap that actually allows me to play the game properly, rather than stab haphazardly at the buttons in the hope that I'll do something right.
After the battle finishes, I switch characters from my Warden Knight to a Shugoki Samurai. I could have chosen a Viking, but I liked the look of the Japanese fighter's fearsome-looking two-handed mace weapon. Turns out that he moves even more slowly than the long sword-wielding Warden Knight, and I have to time my attacks even more carefully. I keep opening myself up to being counter-attacked, but after some practice I finally start getting it right – and cause enormous amounts of damage to my enemies.
For our final round, I select a Berserker Viking, and discover a fast-moving, fairly light-hitting character that I really enjoy playing. It suits my temperament and playstyle – although I note that not all Viking characters follow this archetype. In the final version of the game, there will apparently be four classes per faction, ranging from quick and nimble through all-rounders and heavy tank-types to longer-range characters with pikes and spears. Each has its own playstyle and strengths and weaknesses, which should make for some interesting combat.
I ask Jason how the three different factions were chosen. He responds, "What I noticed is that we'd have these conversations, and talk about what we could do, and Vikings, Knights, and Samurai came up again and again and again. It was these three factions that people would argue about. We should make a Knight game. No! We should make a Viking game. That's the way the discussion went for a long time."
"The other thing is that when I say Knight, Viking, Samurai, everyone knows what they are. It's a weird personality test. All I have to say is are you a Knight, Viking, or Samurai, and anyone on the street can answer that question. So, there's a commonality there that exists that's about values – warrior values. Knight people believe in the warrior protector – the defender of the weak. Viking people tend to believe in freedom, passion, liberation, fearlessness, and bravado. Samurai people tend to believe in mastery, skill, and devotion to a higher cause. They all seem to be great reasons to be a warrior. All the other historical legacies share those values. I think there's a truth there about why we become warriors and fight, and I thought that was a great way to bring you into this fantasy, by asking you Knight, Viking, or Samurai, because that's a kind of code for what kind of warrior might you be."
"The idea behind the game actually began 15 years ago. I took a course in German long sword, which is the style of the Warden, and I attended a dojo for a year and trained. I thought about taking the basic form and applied it to a controller and bam! As I was walking home from the dojo one day, this controller layout came into being in my head. Once I had that idea, I became obsessed with it. If I can convince someone to do this, it would feel the way that I feel when I do it in real life. The other question that was raised in my head at that point is that this kind of game hadn't been done before. So how much longer would it be before somebody else built it? I had a feeling of desperation and responsibility to say that we should do this. There aren't that many unfulfilled fantasies left in video games, and this is a really good one – at least, that's what I thought."
I wonder how that original idea became For Honor. Jason answers, "I have an amazing team. I'm surrounded by some of the most talented video game developers that I've ever worked with. They’re an incredibly passionate team of people who've come together to fix this idea, because my basic concept was incomplete, but the inspiration was there. The team really came together and crafted that through playtesting and playtesting and playtesting. We made something like 400 prototypes in 18 months. We were doing daily and sometimes twice-daily tests just experimenting with different ways of approaching the game and what would work and what would not. We knew we wanted to do multiple characters, but we spent a lot of time working on long swords before branching out. It's been a lot of hard work and a lot of iteration, and a lot of really smart people working super-hard on it. I don't know another way to solve a huge problem like that. We just committed to it, and had incredible support from Ubisoft from day one. It's not very often that you have a crazy idea and get the full support of a company behind it."
After playing the two multiplayer modes for a few hours, we then move onto the campaign aspect of the game, and tackle a pair of missions. They're pretty straightforward affairs, featuring semi-open environments in which you move from one clearly-marked objective to another. Needless to say, there's a horde of NPC characters barring your way, which results in plenty of swordplay as you attempt to reach your goals.
I initially approach the first mission quite defensively, but soon discover that I can hack my way through enemy characters by being very aggressive with my sword swings. That makes the proceedings pretty easy. However, once I achieve all the level objectives, I then have to fight a boss character who's more adept than the regular NPCs at blocking and parrying, and that makes for a quite exciting and challenging sword fight. Then, just as I'm about to kill my quarry, he runs off and jumps on a horse. My character leaps onto another nearby horse, kicking of an entertaining chase sequence where we race through a forest, dodging trees and low-hanging branches. The level finishes when I finally catch up with my enemy and finish him off.
The second level is a little more linear than the first, and I follow a narrow path through a forest to reach a village whose main gates I need to sabotage. I actually skip a lot of the fighting by simply running past the enemy NPCs, and make my way straight to the mission's objective, which I complete really easily. Whether or not it'll be possible to do that in the finished version of the game remains to be seen, but one thing I will say is that because there are no ranged attackers in the game – at least, in the levels that I played – you can definitely use avoidance to your advantage.
To be blunt, I'm not as impressed with For Honor's campaign as I am with its multiplayer. The boss fight from the first mission I played was the highlight of what I played of the campaign – but the rest of the mission largely boiled down to scything through fairly straightforward enemy NPCs with my sword, and I'm sure that would have been true for the second had I not decided to simply avoid conflict altogether and instead outrun my opponents. Hopefully the finished campaign will feature a lot more set-piece battles with intelligent enemies, rather than hordes of grunts to cut through.
The multiplayer, on the other hand, is where For Honor really stands tall. Assuming you're willing to invest a good few hours in learning the ins and outs of its rather complex control system, fighting other players is a lot of fun. Battles can be really tense and gripping affairs as you attempt to parry and block your opponent's moves, while trying to maneuver into a position where you can successfully attack them. Although I only spent a few hours with the game, I got the impression that there's plenty of potential for mastery – the controls offer a lot of different swordplay options, and the game caters for a wide variety of playstyles thanks to it having 12 different characters to choose from, each of which has its own distinct advantages and disadvantages, and unique weapon loadout.
Indeed, that's my final question to Jason. What was the process of coming up with all those different playstyles? He responds, "We did tons of weapon research. For every weapon style, we'd bring in multiple experts and people who could fight with them. I talked to a lot of historians. We'd bring in stunt actors and martial artists who were doing competitions, and everything we could to figure out what the essence of each weapon is."
"A lot of these weapons are not inherently historically accurate in themselves, because we don't know very much about them. If we had holes in our knowledge, we'd just try them out and ask ourselves how would you use this? We'd bring in experts that were good at pit fighting and ask them how they'd use that weapon, and have them fumble their way through it until we came up with a theory. There was a lot of swinging wooden weapons at one another, which was great – so much fun. So many bruised and broken fingers!"