September 22, 2016

Shower Thoughts with For Honor

Full disclosure: up until recently, I haven’t really cared about For Honor.  I saw its reveal trailer and thought it was fine -- something that’d find a home in the arms of gamers, but not something I was tripping over myself to play.  So all the news, articles, footage, and interviews that have likely gone up by this point?  My tactical dodge-rolling let me miss every last bit of it.  Am I richer or poorer for it?  Time will tell.

Conversely, my brother was decidedly amped up for it.  He’d bring it up in passing every now and then, in the same awed tone he’d used to show excitement for upcoming games he was sure wouldn’t let him down (like Destiny and The Division, both of which he dropped within 1.5 months).  But when it comes to hype, he’s no stranger to it.  So he announced one night that he got into the For Honor alpha -- through what I assume is a Faustian blood ritual vis a vis uPlay and the Ubisoft Club -- and invited me to try out the split-screen multiplayer.  It turned out that said split-screen wasn’t in the alpha (which I can’t say was a surprise), but we both had some hands-on time with it.

What do I think of it?  Who cares, baby?  There’s a bigger question at hand here: what’s Ubisoft’s endgame with this, uh, game?

I’ll readily admit that I was skeptical about For Honor.  I still am.  The idea of a company like Ubisoft making a game that puts focus on combat is laughable to me.  I mean, what’s their standard?  What parts of their catalogue have implied that they’re the ones you should trust when it comes to finely-tuned battle mechanics, especially in the melee space?  Their biggest franchises put immense trust in the power of a gun -- Far Cry, Watch Dogs, and a smattering of Tom Clancy games, to name a few.  The best they’ve got is Assassin’s Creed, and given how many fights in that just devolved into “stand in the middle of a circle of goons and counter them into oblivion”, I hope you’ll forgive me for being wary.

With that said, it’s not like For Honor is dead on arrival.  Setting aside the fact that Ubisoft could easily bring in new talent/resources to make up for its shortcomings, there’s always the fact that they’re building an entirely new combat system from scratch.  As one of the major AAA developers/publishers, the company’s likely throwing some weight behind their latest production -- which means they’re taking this seriously.  The core idea in itself has plenty of potential, so I’d think that the devs are doing all they can to make For Honor the best it can be.  At least, I hope that’s the case.

We’re a ways out from release day, but the alpha should give us some clues as to where the game will go in terms of quality.  And yeah, I know I said “who cares” when it comes to giving my thoughts, but I’m nothing if not a hypocrite and habitual betrayer of expectations.  I’ll wear that scarlet letter like a badge of honor.

So for those unaware, For Honor is an online multiplayer-focused game that puts players in control of one of three warrior factions: knights, Vikings, or samurai.  Granted you’re not locked in with a specific faction once you enter a match; even the intro shows that the three factions are willing to come together (or come to blows) to get what they want.  The important thing is that the player teams -- in the main mode, at least -- try to seize key points on the map, king of the hill-style.  If they succeed, they’ll put the enemy team on the ropes and disable their respawns until they rally back, or they get wiped out and lose the match.  Pretty straightforward stuff, for sure.

But the star of the show is, ideally, the combat.  For Honor puts a heavy emphasis on melees, albeit with twists that you wouldn’t expect from anyone but the hardiest action experts.  Hold down L2, and you’ll enter a fighting stance.  Move the right stick in tandem, and you’ll change your stance -- a way to orient your weapon so you’ll hold it high, to the left, or to the right.  It’s not enough to just hit R1 or R2 for light or heavy attacks (respectively); your stance determines your moves’ placement, and whether or not you’ll actually be able to hit your opponent in an impromptu duel.

The same goes for defense.  Your enemies follow those rules for their attack, so deflecting their blows comes down to reacting to the prompt that shows up in a fight.  If you’re not fast enough -- or not paying attention to their moves -- then you can look forward to eating a sword sandwich.  Conversely, you can thwart your foes entirely if you keep deflecting their blows, and attacking them in one of their weak points.  Coupled with dodge mechanics and a dedicated guard break option, there’s plenty of potential for some top-notch battles.  (There’s also a way to cancel your heavy attacks, which could add a whole new layer of strategy -- but I didn’t get a chance to try it out for myself.)

I’d say that the core mechanics are definitely there.  Fighting an opponent one-on-one has the potential to be a real thrill, especially once both players get a full understanding of For Honor’s systems.  Or one of them, at least, given that we’re almost a decade out from Street Fighter IV and there are still probably people relying on flowchart tactics.  But the important thing is that there are more mechanics to engage in, both in terms of practice beforehand and in terms of mid-match, split-second decisions.  For Honor is, by default, much more complex than the point-and-shoot system of gunplay; it’s a hell of a learning curve to use the right stick for offense and defense, not just spinning the camera around.  If Ubisoft wants the players to engage in their game, then they’ve taken steps toward that conclusion.

If that’s the case, then why am I so worried?

I can think of two big reasons -- though they both fracture into damning micro-reasons, but whatever.  The first big up-in-the-air question is whether or not the game will work as intended come release day; part of that is because, from a total rookie’s standpoint, the cracks are already starting to show.  Again, the potential is there for a really good game.  The problem is that the systems in place don’t always feel conducive to a multiplayer game -- which is kind of a major issue when you’re trying to sell a multiplayer game. 

When you get ready for a skirmish in For Honor by holding L2, the camera will zoom in and your speed will drop.  Likewise, you’ll lose camera control for as long as you’re in Fight Mode.  It gives you access to your offensive and defensive moves -- and likewise, it helps you focus on fighting your foe -- but matches have you and your three teammates pitted against four opponents.  If at any point another enemy shows up before you finish one duel, your chances of survival drop significantly.  Until you can master target-switching, you can’t read and defend against two attackers simultaneously.  Not consistently, at least.  And it’s kind of hard to be consistent when at any point another rival could sidle around to your backside and run you through.  Because if there’s one thing that screams “for honor”, it’s an unfair fight.

I’d imagine that there are ways to even up a two-on-one fight (and above).  You’ve got items to use as needed, so you can use them to try and regain the advantage if things go south.  Likewise, you don’t have to enter Fight Mode to attack, so you can probably lad a few hits if you do some blind swinging.  Weirdly, it seems like a strong strategy in the alpha is to break off from a fight and run away at top speed, AKA the Joestar secret technique; if an opponent does it first, then it leads to a situation where he’s virtually impossible to catch as long as he keeps moving. 

I guess the plan is that the game will eventually differentiate its classes with more definite stat differences; it’d make sure that heavy guys will be strong but slow, for example.  As it stands, running away is almost too good of an option to not use, especially if there’s a chance you can lead pursuers into an ambush by your teammates. 

I’m really starting to feel like “For Honor” is a really inappropriate title.

It’s also worth noting that matches are extremely chaotic.  In an effort to make each match feel like a major battle, droves of NPC soldiers will fill out arenas and push toward control points on the map.  You can mow down a couple of them at a time with a good swing -- a measure to help the player feel powerful, no doubt -- but even a single ignored grunt can do some damage to you if you let them live.  So there were instances where my brother got completely lost in the shuffle of bodies, unable to determine who was friend or foe, or even who was an NPC and who was a player.  I don’t blame him, because the same thing happened to me a couple of times -- and even when it didn’t, there’s still a lot of busy activity throughout.  It’s kind of hard to have a tense one-on-one battle when you’re trying to beat a foe quickly before his pals show up, and while you’re being swarmed by a mosh pit.

Still, I don’t want to heap too much hate on For Honor right now, because this is an extremely early version of it.  Many things could change between now and the full release; they probably will, assuming that Ubisoft listens to player feedback (and I don’t know why they wouldn’t, unless everyone just decided to be lazy).  I went in with low expectations, but walked away feeling like there was something to be gained.  Am I a devout believer in For Honor’s quality or potential?  Not really, no.  Do I think that it’s going to be a good game once it makes its retail drop?  Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…yes?  No?  Maybe so?

All right, look.  I have a confession to make: before trying the For Honor alpha, I hadn’t played a game from Ubisoft in years.  It’s not like I actively boycotted them; it was more of complete apathy toward their output, and an assumption that buying into their latest products would be a waste of time.  As a reminder, I’m the guy who positively reviles Watch Dogs.  And thinking back, the last Ubisoft game I played (albeit for less time than it takes to bake a cake) was Assassin’s Creed: Unity.  You know.  The one eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeverybody loves.

I don’t trust Ubisoft anymore, and from what I can gather, I’m not the only one who’s suspicious of the company.  Even if they've garnered massive sales in the past -- and will continue to garner massive sales on the backs of AAA-level marketing and uninformed consumers -- there’s still discontent with what they’ve done over the years.  They’ve tried (and partly succeeded) in running the open-world genre into the ground.  They’ve made baffling excuses as to why they can’t have female protagonists.  They’ve pushed some of modern gaming’s most infuriating vices -- pre-order culture, microtransactions, and bug-riddled releases well among them.  And even if you stuff all of that baggage into the closet, there’s still an argument to be made that (in terms of its bigger-budgeted titles) the company’s output is as flavorful as a wad of chewed-up gum.

So remember when I said there were two big reasons why I’m worried about For Honor?  Well, here’s the second one: what’s Ubisoft going to do to fuck everything up?

It’s a sad state of affairs when you have to assume the worst of a company right off the bat -- when you can’t trust them, despite their resources and clout, to deliver what they’re paid to deliver.  Yet here we are regardless, and I’m legitimately concerned that For Honor will be mired in controversy instead of sick fights between knights and samurai.  That’s a negative mindset, I know, but that’s what my mind jumps to.  It’s not a matter of “will there be microtransactions”, for example; it’s a question of “how big will the microtransactions be” -- and how will the game distort its loot/leveling system to exploit that.

Are gamers going to have to sift through massive charts again to figure out how to get all the bonuses and DLC they want?  Will Ubisoft rehash content down the road and try to sell it as something new?  And what happens if For Honor really takes off?  Will it spawn a franchise?  Or will it provide a golden opportunity to start converting the title into a “service” to consistently suck money from wallets?

And all of that’s overlooking the real up-in-the-air factor: how will Ubisoft make sure that the game is actually ready for release day?  Any amount of lag in a game like For Honor will hamstring it in an instant; will the lag already present (however slightly) be resolved, or will it fester while on store shelves?  Will the progression system end up creating an impassable divide between the haves and have-nots, widened by some form of money-grubbing economy? 

Will the game receive edits to make anything beyond the one-on-one battle system more intuitive, or will people just have to wing it with sneak attacks and pure cowardice?  Will there be continued support for the game to increase its staying power, or is this just a stopgap release -- a wimpy first outing to pave the way for an “improved” second outing, all while Ubisoft boasts about another IP that’s waltzed its way toward millions of units sold?

These are all issues we’re going to have to confront as time goes on.  We shouldn’t have to confront those issues, but look at the company we’re dealing with here.  Everything they’ve done over the past few years has made it impossible to buy wholesale into whatever they’re pushing -- at least not without an asterisk the size of Neptune strapped to the last letter.  It’s a shame, because at least they’re trying.  At least they’re putting out a new IP.  But I’ve been down this road with Ubisoft before, and “a new IP” isn’t a free pass toward adoration and financial success.  Well, it shouldn’t be, but they’re making some serious dough off of their latest and greatest [citation needed] releases.  So what the hell do I know?

Well, I do know this: I want For Honor to be good.  I’d rather spend my time playing and enjoying good games instead of bad ones -- and by the same token, I’d rather love a company than hate it.  For Honor occupies a hypothetical space where it can be refined into something truly special, or it can come out in such a coarse state that it shreds the fingers with a touch.  As development continues, we’ll know conclusively if it’s primed to redeem the company.  So for now, I think it’s best to leave on this note: let’s all keep an eye on the game.  Let’s make sure that it gets the recognition it needs, but let’s do so while making sure it at least makes it to par.

The gaming world could use a few more dope-ass sword battles.  I say that if Ubisoft’s so eager to provide, we should give them a helpful push.  Couldn’t hurt, right?

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