When Ubisoft showed the For Honor trailer at E3 last year, a friend of mine described the game as "dedicated to everyone who cried for three uninterrupted weeks when Spike TV didn't renew Deadliest Warrior." Given what I'd seen of the game, a hodgepodge of clichés, it was hard not to share his skepticism. It's 2017, for fuck's sake! Surely we can get something besides another medieval hack and slash with – god help me – knights, samurai, and vikings engaged in an nameless eternal war.
But after a week with For Honor, my cynicism has been buried alongside the couple hundred of chevaliers who have had the misfortune of being placed under my control. It's a lesson in humility: a game that at first appeared stricken by platitude actually conjures something palpably new from well-worn components. This is not to say that it sheds its clichés, exactly. There's still plenty of those, like the game's profound historical incoherence and its unnaturally brawny warriors talking bullshit (sample bargain bin dialogue: "Do you know how to tell a predator from prey? You can't unless you see them in war"). But For Honor isn't weighed down by them. Excise the game's gossamer-thin attempts at world building, which isn't very hard to do given how forgettable it is, and you're left with a deep and elegant ruleset that owes more to the choreographic finesse of fighting games than any mindless hack and slash.
Though For Honor has a single player campaign, it's little more than an extended tutorial. I'll also let lie the bloated menus and obnoxious real money store that Ubisoft has saddled over the game. Above all else, For Honor is a venue for human competition, and the game is best during its one-on-one duels, which are as taut, visceral, and maddening as anything I've ever played. For Honor's combat system – "The Art of Battle," as Ubisoft has missed no opportunity to call it – beautifully enacts Ralph Baer's old truism of "easy to learn, hard to master." There's an intricate web of advanced techniques that link together like fine chainmail, but each is built on top of a simple system: every character can attack and block in three directions (overhead, right, and left), controlled by the right control stick. Even the most spectacular sequence of blows emerges from these elementary gestures.
The direct correspondence between your character's actions and the movement of your own hands is striking, lending the game a sense of immediacy that isn't as pronounced in the often arbitrary button mapping of other fighting games. In fact, much of the game's emotional intensity can be attributed to the magnificent synergy between the For Honor's information-rich art direction and its controls. Though the user interface offers some clues into what your opponent is up to – like which direction they're swinging, where they're blocking. – the most useful information is embedded in the character models and animations themselves. Once the game's controls feel natural, you learn to read your opponent's actions based on their stance and how they hold their weapon. After a while, you'll start to see you foe's intentions and predict their moves, too. And that's when the real game begins.
This sets up what might be For Honor's finest innovation: reining in the manic pace of fighting games into a bloodsoaked dirge but without sacrificing any strategic depth. For Honor is obviously indebted to the likes of Street Fighter and Marvel vs. Capcom: to play well, you must master a familiar retinue of counters, combo chains, dodges, parries, unblockable attacks, stuns, throws, guard breaks, and executions. But For Honor's brawls are plodding in comparison to Street Fighter V's kinetic blitzes. A simple attack in For Honor might take a full, luxurious second instead of the blink-and-you'll-miss-it handful of frames found in most popular fighting games. As a result, For Honor is much more a game of response than it is a game of reflex (though good reflexes help). The pace of combat also lends the game an unmatched degree of corporeality; every swing of the mace feels like it has an entire body's worth of weight behind it, and I frequently caught myself wincing at particularly grisly blows.
Once I'd internalized For Honor's controls after a few hours of being brutalized, I found that one-on-one duels played out more in my head than in my fingers. Fighting well meant learning my opponent's style and tells on the fly, making each match an epic in miniature. This isn't to say, of course, that Street Fighter and the like aren't flush with mind games (they are), but that they're often played in a state of flow, where conscious decision making is second to carefully honed kinesthetic instinct. In contrast, For Honor gives you ample time to think and bluff and call bluffs. Weirdly enough, even amidst rolling heads and the cacophony of war, there's something kind of intellectual about For Honor's combat. When you win, you don't just feel like you've outplayed your opponent, you also feel like you've outthought them. Victory feels that much more satisfying, and defeat... well, I'd rather not talk about it.
One-on-one combat will occupy the majority of your time in For Honor, even in game modes that are ostensibly 2v2 and 4v4. For now at least, players inevitably end up finding and facing off against one another, even when there are nearby objectives being ignored. The simple explanation is that players are still learning how to fight, but the thornier one is that the game's duels are superior to the rest of its multiplayer system. For Honor's multiplayer includes several conventional formats (King of the Hill, Deathmatch), all of which are integrated into a single, global conflict between the game's three factions. It's not especially elegant, but it's an interesting way of mitigating the sense of detachment inherent to the duel and imbuing it with a stake in something far larger. If For Honor's duels are a genre-bending fighting game played at a Dark Souls pace, you can see traces of many other genres. Look closely, under the grime and the blood, you'll glimpse hints of everything from Planetside 2 to lane pushing games in the game's larger, multiplayer apparatus.
But no matter what's happening in the world of For Honor writ large, all roads lead back to the purity of the duel and learning to savor the coarse self-interest of ensuring that you are the survivor of your mortal encounters. With well over 100 asymmetrical matchups to master, there's a lot of game left to learn, and For Honor more than earns its keep. Far from a jumbled mess of clichés I once feared it might be, For Honor is the kind of game that captures something great, but hitherto unseen, in a genre that has begun to feel as hard as stone.