Set within an alternative history, For Honor is an anachronistic battlefield in which Knights, Vikings, and Samurai endlessly compete for the same square of turf. Demonstrating flashes of brilliance and more than a few annoyances, it looks great and its core fighting is smart and technical, but the looming specter of microtransactions and pay-to-win mechanics can turning a play session of For Honor from soaring to sour.
Serving as a highly extended tutorial for the three basic factions, there is a six or seven hour long story mode that dutifully introduces the game's combat and move sets. Brutal, gory, and infused with sweat and blood, the action is intense and looks fantastic. The premise is, of course, ridiculous and the dialogue is a frankly hilarious mashup of sword-and-board movie cliches combined with implausible American dialog. It's impossible to take it even remotely seriously, but it is graphically impressive -- as is the game as a whole -- and it hints at the level of strategy to come.
For Honor's combat is precise, technical and takes both muscle memory and unswerving attention to succeed with. In simplest terms, players use regular and strong attacks aimed at several zones on their enemy, and likewise must read their opponent's attacks and block those areas accordingly. There are other techniques and counters such as guard breaks, and each of the game's twelve character/class types have special skills and abilities. Becoming reasonably competent in For Honor will take some time, both to learn the game's combat and to grind enough currency to earn the ability, weapon or armor modifiers that will really turn the tide of a duel.
Or, you can just skip the time-consuming play and buy the items or abilities which are happily for sale for real-world money. While all the characters and classes can be unlocked through the story mode, those players wishing to fast track to the head of the gear line can just buy their way to the top. Since the game's matchmaking doesn't take disparate levels and gear into account, it becomes pretty obvious that to be competitive, one must pony up cash or be prepared to grind and lose for a long, not very enjoyable time.
Aside from the Story Mode -- padding out the product for those not willing to risk online humiliation -- For Honor has four competitive modes, from 1v1 duels to a team-based Dominion mode. By far, the 1v1 duel mode is the most enjoyable, as the other modes very quickly turn from finely tuned exercises in strategy to chaotic free-for-alls. Paired with an opponent that is approximately similar in skill and gear level, For Honor's combat really shines, a unique and tactical ballet of warriors trying to gain the advantage and deal the final, killing strike. In those moments, For Honor can be thrilling and unlike any other action game, and the combat is enhanced by some of the best motion capture I've ever seen. I wonder, though, if it's already too late to jump in. Given the game's poor match making and a couple weeks for the dedicated players to "get good" -- either through cash-enhanced leveling or hours of play -- diving into competitive combat now will certainly require determination, a love of humiliation and a thick skin. Even in the single player Story Mode, For Honor requires an always on internet connection and more than once, matches were sullied by dropouts and crashes.
Distilled way down to one-on-one medieval combat, For Honor is both instinctual and smart. It's bloody and entertainingly over-the-top, but much more than a button-masher. It's a game that repays thoughtful practice. It looks impressive, with believably gritty textures and tons of detail in the armor, weapons, and environment. It's a shame, then, that so much good will was squandered on the less appealing margins of the game, with pay-to-win systems, poor match making, and a throwaway single player campaign. With lots of time -- or cash -- to spare, playing For Honor is a rewarding action experience that doesn't feel like anything else on the market right now.