I still can’t decide whether Ubisoft’s For Honor is more like a series of unsatisfying novels that you continue reading due to a deep-seated need for resolution, or one of those paint-by-numbers things we had back in the days when coloring-in didn’t involve a touchscreen. It may even be closer to attending a long awaited all-you-can-eat buffet only to find that their dessert bar is closed and that they stock Pepsi products instead of Coke. Let’s hold onto all three analogies for now and you can choose the most apt after some explanation.
Oh, the anticipation that arose as I handed over my hard-earned $59 to JB Hi-Fi’s most comically disinterested cashier. She clearly didn’t understand how the prospect of pitting Knights against Vikings against Samurai with all manner of tools of butchery would sate the carnal whims lying dormant within this sophisticated modern man. It would be a digital (which makes it OK) battle to the death, played out over and over again as my skills and renown unfurled like a majestic carnivorous plant that feeds on high definition human blood and depravity. Kind of like Audrey II from Little Shop Of Horrors, but on my PS4 which makes it free of moral consideration. Nothing sociopathic here.
Had I kept a journal of the days that followed it would have read a little like this:
DAY ONE. Weather: Irrelevant. After much reading, YouTubing and a shopping experience for the ages I now have For Honor in my possession. It informs me that I will be unable to play it until the 20GB update is complete. My unreliable internet heaves a sigh of resignation but this night will pass eventually. Until tomorrow, my sweet and violent one.
DAY TWO. Weather: Unknown. I haven’t left my PS4’s side in 28 hours. With limited rations remaining I closed my eyes, pressed X and hoped for the best. Would you believe that Ubisoft have just today released an update patch and that another 17GB of download is required? Will this infernal wait never end? Why on earth does one need ‘network features’ to play the single player campaign anyway?!? Just save to the bloody hard drive!
DAY THREE: The time has come…
THOSE MOST UNSATISFYING OF NOVELS
Storytelling is a strange beast. It releases the soul from the mundane obligations of real life and excites the emotions in ways few other forms of expression can. Storytelling may also bring with it all manner of hinderances – from overwhelming internal monologuing (Twilight) to clunky expository conversation bearing all the natural flow of a reality TV contestant narrating their own footage (Maze Runner) – yet somehow that craving for plot resolution propels us through the most drudgerous of reads and onwards into book two, then three, then that unlikely fourth instalment you were horrified to find existed (Eragon). Sadly, story sabotaging traits such as these are not bound within the realms of young adult fiction or even literature as a whole. Enter For Honor.
For Honor’s ‘storyline’ represents a bunch of hours of my life that I will never get back. Was it six? Was it nine?? It all blurred into a dreamlike malaise so rapidly that we’ll never know.
Was this the worst single player gaming experience ever? No, Rise Of The Robots still holds that title in my mind but there some striking similarities between the two. On a technical level, both games owe their best features to the classic competitive fighting games. We’re talking DNA from the Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat lineages here; games which still appear in arcades and living rooms around the world decades after their inception.
For Honor drew me in with its promise of melee-focused real-time combat featuring a range of historical weapons. The combat system of setting your guard (stance and weapon position) for an effective defence or to strike where your opponent is vulnerable quickly makes sense and offers an attainable skill curve. Throw in the combination of knights, viking and samurai warriors and you’ve got a quality foundation on which to build an awesome brawler. So how could Ubisoft possibly undermine such an innovative creation? With a superfluous and labored campaign mode that tries overly hard to justify the historical mash-up fantasy, that’s how.
PAINTING BY NUMBERS
In the same year that this blog commenced (2014) a little game called Titanfall came into being. Titanfall brought fast-paced, multiplayer mech combat to the masses but was criticised for being an exclusively PvP (Player vs Player) experience. Despite having no storyline and few competitive modes available at launch, the gameplay was strong enough to build an avid following. When EA finally added a fully-fledged campaign mode with the release of last year’s Titanfall 2 the package was complete and there was much rejoicing. I for one loved it.
It is my belief that someone somewhere in an isolated Ubisoft office lost a lot of sleep to the Titanfall 1 dilemma. For Honor represented an entirely new concept that – like the groundbreaking Street Fighter II series before it – had no need of a narrative to justify the fantastic scenarios it envisaged. No one (read: me) cares why a Viking Valkyrie is crossing spears with a Kensei any more than they worry about why Blanka is green and can electrocute people. Or for a more contemporary comparison: why is Winston from Overwatch looking suspiciously like Beast from the X-Men as he leaps the payload to harass a cowboy or bionic ninja? There is Overwatch lore available should you strongly desire an explanation, but I’d suggest that for most players it doesn’t really matter; the crazy scenario is less important than the exciting and rewarding gameplay that underpins it. I presume that our poor Ubisoft team felt pressured to avoid a Titanfall-esque critical reception (“What?! No campaign – that’s outrageous!”) and therefore followed the path of many a big budget release before it; namely crafting an overly serious gauntlet of story missions with enough pointless unlockables to keep the ‘hardcore’ crowd coming back for more. It’s as if the inspired multiplayer heart of For Honor was ready to ship when someone remembered how great it was that time they got addicted to Dragon Age: Inquisition for six months.
“Hey guys! Let’s add that, but with little development time and no play testing!”
This seems to be the only explanation for how For Honor ended up with such a formulaic and excitement-free story mode. As pretty as the Japanese mire location is, there is no way I’ll be playing through any of this again*.
Finally ejecting For Honor and replacing it with Horizon: Zero Dawn has reminded me that video games need not suffer from lacklustre storytelling simply because they straddle the worlds of cinema and childlike role playing. I’d encourage anyone and everyone to check out this article on NPR.org for an insightful perspective on the power of storytelling within video games and Horizon: Zero Dawn in particular.
So in the third of our helpful analogies, For Honor’s inspired array of PvP modes takes the role of chocolate mousse. It is a well known fact that the dessert bar – and endless chocolate mousse specifically – is the pinnacle of any all-you-can-eat buffet experience. Without this key element the rest is basically worthless. Game types with evocative names such as Skirmish and Dominion promised to re-light the flame of excitement that had been steadily extinguished throughout For Honor’s campaign. The multiplayer experience that emerged however was less like glorious chocolate mousse and more like the last corner piece of apple crumble that is so baked to the tray that no mortal is capable of retrieving it. There it waits, smug and appetising, before ultimately returning to the kitchen from whence it came. So much potential, so little fulfilment.
Over two weeks of searching in late May I was only able to find a handful of PvP matches, for a total of around 30 minutes of play. The process typically involved watching my precious gaming time ticking away through a few unsuccessful matchmaking attempts before giving up and trying a different game mode. Then it was back to watching patiently as the search parameters gradually became less and less specific.
Opponent’s location? Not important. Opponent’s skill level? Anything’s fine!
As a relative newcomer the latter sounded a little foreboding, and the two Duals I eventually loaded into were rapid affairs that proved my fears to be entirely rational. It didn’t seem to matter whether the game mode advertised low, moderate or very high traffic; there was no guarantee that a match would be found even with waits of over 10 minutes. In later days I did land a 2v2 battle (heavy loss) and a 4v4 (equally heavy loss), but by that stage the outcomes felt in keeping with the theme.
Were these difficulties due to buying the game five whole months after it released?
Could Ubisoft’s servers sense that my internet occasionally freaks out and drops to pre-dial-up speeds?
It is certainly possible that on some of those ill-fated nights my connection had become unusable, but as it was never represented in game as anything lower than green or yellow this shouldn’t be the sole problem. At no point in the matches I played were the usual signs of lag cropping up either; nobody teleported around the map and characters took damage as expected. Based on this experience I wholeheartedly believe TheGameFreakShow when they reported recently that only 5% of For Honor players are still regularly online, a point made more stark in this handy graph:
I may not have an equally appealing pie chart to back it up, but my guess is that the considerable majority of remaining For Honor’s userbase are dedicated, competitive players and that the remainder are people like me that were fashionably late to the party. This immense skill gap would naturally result in less balanced and more time consuming matchmaking, as I saw first hand.
At least there is the option to battle with AI opponents, which I did more than playing against real people. You still get XP and the chance to experience the PvP maps, but it doesn’t quite share the tension of competing with another human being for, well, Honor I suppose.
So there we have it. For Honor has a great premise and solid gameplay, marred only by a campaign that manages to make eight hours feel like an eternity and multiplayer that you may or may not be able to access. I would dearly love to time travel back to For Honor’s highly populated early days as the aforementioned PvP game modes still sound exhilarating, but alas.
The verdict? ‘Unsatisfying novels’ repeatedly came to mind during my actual playthrough, but having now spent just as long dissecting the experience I’m going to settle on ‘disappointing buffet’ as the best figurative fit.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a herd of corrupted robot dinosaurs to quell.