I tend to be repelled by multiplayer, but For Honor seemed interesting enough to try during a free weekend a while back. Thanks to the netcode (peer-to-peer), the game was barely functional. I only played for a couple of hours and my initial impression was "could be cool if it worked". I didn't think about it again until recently, when I saw that I could add it to my library for free and that Ubisoft switched the game from peer to peer to dedicated servers. I gave it another try.
Now that it actually works it's a superb game. The concept is actually innovative; no small risk for a giant like Ubisoft, and much appreciated. It looks like a third person RPG yet feels like a traditional fighting game, but with the traditional 2D plane of motion extended to 3D. Ubisoft calls the combat system "Art of Battle" which sounds more grand than it is. At its core it's pretty simple. Three directions for blocking and attacking; top, left, and right. There are light attacks and heavy attacks, and blocking works by matching the direction of the incoming attack. Beyond the basics, there's enough complexity to keep it interesting and unpredictable. There are combos (of course, it's a fighting game), guard breaks (which can be extended into throws), parrying, dodging, rolling, and unblockable attacks. The whole thing comes together beautifully. Doing well comes down to reflexes, focus, and knowing the opponent.
Fighting games are my least played genre, even more so than sports. Of course, this meant there was a bit of learning curve. The mechanics were easy enough to understand. The hard part was doing the right thing quickly enough. For example, it's very obvious that I shouldn't try to parry a light attack from a quick, nimble character like an Orochi. I'm not quick enough so it's better to dodge out of the way or block. Actually applying this information in the heat of battle took some time. I went through an amusing, strange phase where my hands felt disconnected from my mind, doing foolish things I absolutely knew I shouldn't. Once I began to internalize the mechanics and rely more on reflexes and muscle memory, the game became very enjoyable.
Most of the time it feels like an epic, desperate melee despite the mechanics boiling down to an elaborate form of rock, paper, scissors. The sheer theatrics of the experience is what builds the illusion. The character design, the animations, the voice acting, and the sound effects combine to turn a simple concept into something greater than the sum of its parts. Sometimes the facade cracks and the combat suddenly feels gamey and clumsy. It's infrequent, but jarring.
The character design stands out for being well done. Every hero looks and feels distinct, and I found that I became more attached to my favorites the longer I played with them. It's a lot like having a favorite car in a racing simulator, where the satisfaction lies in knowing all its little quirks and details. I'm writing this review after not having played the game in over a week (thanks, Stellaris), but the visual weight of each character is still fresh in my mind. The imposing, square-shouldered Conqueror with the skin on his forearm rubbed raw from the chain of his mace wrapped around it. The wild Raider, covered in scars and caked blood, giving the impression that she just walked off of a two day battle and is thirsting for more. The rest of the art direction is a treat. It conveys a state of miserable devastation and war while remaining vibrant and full of life. I have no idea how they managed it.
The only real issue with the game are the microtransactions, which look worse than they are. Rather than being tactful and restrained, the presentation of the store looks like it was put together by those wretched, data-driven marketing departments of our current era. Once I understood the system I realized the store is completely irrelevant to the experience and not even slightly pay to win. This is a high quality game and that kind of nonsense cheapens it.
The developers made something amazing in For Honor. It's a shame the bean counters were too shortsighted on launch and decided on peer-to-peer networking, and the marketing department had to make it look like an awful free to play game. I don't know how well the game did, but having to retrofit dedicated servers a year after launch and then offering the game for free seems like an act of desperation. It's a shame they didn't just do the right thing in the beginning.