This weekend I sunk some time into the closed Beta of Ubisoft's upcoming sword-slinging melee combat game, For Honor. Ever since I played it in December, I've been looking forward to getting back to grips with it. My first encounter with the game wasn't particularly auspicious: I was slow to pick up its fairly unusual control scheme, and my first few attempts at combat were unsuccessful to say the least.
This time out, I spent a lot more time with the tutorial, practicing the timing of my swings and, more importantly, becoming familiar with the ins and outs of blocking and parrying. There are some games whose controls just click into place, and you don't need to think about them at all. Unfortunately, for me, For Honor isn't one of them: I don't find the way its numerous offensive and defensive maneuvers are executed particularly intuitive, and I really had to learn how to play the game. I think a large part of the difficulty I'm having in picking up the game stems from the fact that For Honor delivers something completely new in terms of its game mechanics: I have no prior frame of reference.
Consequently, it took quite a bit of practice before I started feeling even remotely adept with my character's weapon – despite having already played For Honor beforehand. Indeed, that's the reason why I practiced so hard. I know from prior experience that this isn’t a game where you can wade into combat, rapidly spamming your attack buttons. Do that, and unless your opponent is as equally inept as you are, you're not going to win any battles.
That's because For Honor's combat is actually quite nuanced and complex. Not only do you need to implicitly learn the fundamentals of its control scheme so you can intuitively pull off moves and combos, you also need to be able to read your opponent and react to their movements accordingly – otherwise they'll simply take the initiative and demolish you before you even have a chance to fight back. Additionally, you have to take into account that weapons have a certain amount of heft and momentum to them, and that most moves take time to wind up and then follow through.
It's a lot to take in all at once, but practice definitely makes perfect. For me, one of the keys to truly getting my head around the way For Honor's combat works was learning the cadence of its action. Press the buttons too quickly, and your character feels clumsy and uncoordinated as he or she attempts to transition from one move to another. However, as you begin to master the timing of those transitions, the hero starts to feel a lot smoother and more controllable – and you begin to get into the flow of combat.
That flow is actually quite slow and steady, but the odd thing is that you still need to be able to react very quickly to your opponent's moves to ensure that you can block or parry them. This means watching your opposite number like a hawk, and always making sure that you can quickly move into a blocking stance as they wind up their attack. It took me quite a while to know how to read an opponent correctly, and even now after playing the game for hours, there are still certain classes whose moves I'm not familiar enough with to be able to consistently and effectively fend them off. Again, it's just a case of needing more time with the game, but it simply feeds into what I'm ultimately saying, which is For Honor is – at least for me – a game that requires investing a fair amount of time into if you're really interested in mastering it.
Another area where For Honor has a surprising amount of depth is in the breadth of its classes. While they all play fundamentally similarly in terms of their controls, classes have their own unique moves and playstyle that can make them feel very different from one another.
I started off with the all-rounder Warden, a well-balanced fighter who's one of the easiest, or rather, the least difficult character to pick up and play. Swinging a two-handed sword is slow, but after some practice I found it was easy to switch between attack and defense, and I ended up sticking with this class for most of the time that I played. I also gave the Peacekeeper a whirl, which pretty much feels like a glass cannon. Initially I tried going toe-to-toe with enemies, but I kept on getting absolutely slaughtered. But then it occurred to me to try using the character's speed to close in on the enemy, fire off a couple of offensive moves, and then run away before they could counter. I'm sure it was annoying playing against those sorts of tactics, but they worked surprisingly well.
The other character I tried was the Nobushi, which uses a longer-range Naginata weapon that can be quite devastating to those who don't know how to counter it. Indeed, I've read some player feedback claiming that this character is a little too overpowered at the moment, but I think those views probably come from players who didn't figure out that you need to parry or dodge their initial move, and then close the gap and counter-attack. If you don't do that, you're going to be poked endlessly and will end up bleeding to death.
To me, that's evidence of For Honor's potential depth of combat. In some respects it reminds me of playing Street Fighter II for the first time. There seemed to be certain moves and combos that were impossible to deal with. Turned out that they weren't - we just had to learn how to play the game properly to be able to defend against them. For Honor feels like it's in the same spot. There seem to be counters for pretty much every move - players simply need to learn the way their characters work to be able to exploit them properly. At least, I hope that's the case.
Despite my complaints about how tricky For Honor is to pick up and play, let me state for the record that I'm enjoying playing it. I'm just pointing out my own difficulties learning the game to see whether anyone has had a similar - or indeed the opposite experience to me. It's just so unusual in this day and age to play a game that feels so different and new, and I'm interested to hear how other people are getting on with it.
In the meantime, Ubisoft announced earlier today that there will be an open Beta for the game from Feb 9th to 12th. And keep an eye out for our full review of For Honor when it's released in a fortnight.