In a game full of axes, agro and abs, the best bit, oddly enough, is not attacking people.  If you don’t know, the general cut and thrust of For Honor is that you fight people in 1v1 duels and small skirmishes of up to 4 players. You’ll pick a warrior from the three factions; larger than life stereotypes of Knights, Vikings and Samurai. Once you’ve chosen your warrior, you’ll set about hacking to pieces anyone that comes within your reach. Combat is deceptively simple. Hold one button to lock on to an enemy, when they attack you, match the direction of their attack to block or parry, then respond with either heavy or light attack. Though it’s easy enough to grasp the basics, the system has a lot of hidden depths with combo chains, precise timings, and counter attacks (something the tutorial does a terrible job of conveying).

“Attack is the secret of defense; defense is the planning of an attack.”

-Sun Tzu

Despite its fur-trimmed violence and steel clad spectacle, For Honor is not the third-person hack’em-up Ubisoft want you to think it is. Concealed behind the rippling pecs and piles of corpses displayed in the trailers, lies an innovative fighting game.  The best thing about For Honor’s combat system is how you defend yourself. Blocking and parrying relies on you matching the direction of the incoming attack by flicking the right control stick (I played on PC using a controller). Time your block just right and you’ll parrying causing your opponent to stumble for a second. Because blocking relies on motion, not just a simple button press, it gives the combat a glorious tactility. Games like Infinity Blade on the IOS used swipes on the touch screen to control sword slashes to excellent effect and blocking in For Honor feels similar. Because you’re not just pressing a button and instead swipe your thumb, the feeling it creates is so much more satisfying. Combat feels best in Duel mode, these simple 1vs1 fights remove any risk of your fight being interrupted by minions or another player.

The Best Offence

Duels often begin with nervous positioning before the first clashes result in flurries of blocked and parried blows. Blades will clash in engagements that seem to last an eternity as neither opponent lands a hit, every attack intercepted to be followed up with an equally fruitless riposte. In these short matches, victory tends to go to the first player to successfully land a combo of hits. The fact that in close fights, most of your blows won’t land makes the ones that do all the more satisfying. The constant parrying and blocks gives the best fights a choreographed quality. In Film, duelists rarely hit each other more than a handful of times, it’s they elegance and excitement with which they don’t hit each other that makes cinematic swashbuckling exciting. At their best, For Honor duels played out like every on-screen duel between Robin Hood and Guy of Gisbourne; block! parry! block! riposte! each wounding the other before one finally delivers the killing blow.

It doesn’t matter how big your axe is, footwork is still important.

 

Watch Where You’re Putting Your Feet

Equally important to blocking is positioning. For Honor brutally beats you about the head with the importance of where you stand. Arenas are filled with levels that feature deadly drops and all it takes is a shove to send you to your demise. Initially, I thought the potential for these instakills was too punishing, a momentary mistake, a lapse in judgement and it’s all over. But the threat of being pushed ignominiously to your death forces you to pay attention, screams at you to be wary of your surroundings. Positioning is not just important to avoid falls but can help you trap foes in corners, put their backs to flames or in one map, manoeuvre them onto lethal steam geysers. There is nothing more satisfying that slowly edging an opponent back as the Beserker, trapping them in a corner then unleashing an unblockable heavy attack, knowing that they cannot roll away.

 

Really then For Honor is not the mindless hack and slash it makes itself out to be, but a thoughtful game of combat that has more in common with the swashbuckling of Errol Flynn than brute strength of Conan. Wants to look like it revolves around turning people into gory Jackson Pollocks, you spend a lot of time not hitting people. And it’s great.

Duels feel a lot more like this than the cinematics would have you believe. Yet combat still feels appropriately “weighty”.