For Honor’s Duel mode plays like real-time stabby chess

Hands-on with For Honor’s Duel multiplayer mode shows plenty of promise for this sword-wielding melee-combat new IP.

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For Honor’s Duel mode plays like real-time stabby chess

Earlier this week, Daniel Wilks and I had a chance to go hands-on with Ubisoft’s new IP For Honor. We played the opening level of the campaign, some 4v4 Dominion multiplayer on a couple of maps, and finished up the session with the 1v1 Duel multiplayer mode. Just last month, I went hands-on with For Honor’s Dominion multiplayer mode at Gamescom, and I wasn’t particularly impressed with what I played there.

I don’t know what’s changed in the month between Gamescom and what we played earlier this week—whether it was some gameplay tweaking or the quality of the opposition (maybe both)—but I’m well on board with For Honor now. It’s a lot of fun. The opening level was a great reintroduction to the game mechanics, as well as some of the systems I hadn’t fully grasped the first time around. Dominion mode was a lot of fun, with the bots (we only had 3v3 humans, with a bot per side filling out the fourth slot) proving to be the biggest threat, at least early on while everyone was still coming to grips with things.

Ubisoft Montreal has struck that right balance between feeling powerful and squishy, where brash tactics against a competent player are punished as often as they are rewarded. For the most part, though, the battles play out at a slower pace compared to the likes of Chivalry (my go-to mental comparison for any game with sword fighting), and fighting on your lonesome against two or more enemies is a recipe for death.

Contrary to the game title, there wasn’t a lot of honour at play during our Dominion multiplayer hands-on session. Both sides were regularly guilty of surprise stabs in the back, 2v1 fights, stealing kills, or good ol’ fashion bum-rushing an enemy player into a wall or to their death. I’m always a fan of multiplayer modes with bigger player counts, but I actually had the most fun with For Honor’s 1v1 Duel multiplayer mode.

Duels are best of five, and I got off to a bad start in the first two rounds (check out the video above), thanks to successive defeats. Even though I’d already played a couple of rounds of Dominion, it was clear I hadn’t taken on board some of the visual cues that For Honor uses to educate players. The most important cue you’ll notice in the video above (that I foolishly didn’t counter properly) is the red exclamation mark during a player’s attack that indicates an unblockable strike.

This means, as the defending player, your choices are limited to dodging, rolling away, or taking the hit. That third option is ill-advised. These types of strikes are achieved by stringing together three attacks that aren’t blocked. This means that seemingly flailing twice before you reach your target, only to ultimately deliver a third strike that can’t be blocked is a completely viable tactic. This is important because, at first, For Honor’s three-guard system—left, right or high—reeks of controller accessibility, but the more you play, the more you realise that while the simplified mechanics are easy to learn, there’s depth not just in how you string them together, but in terms of getting inside your opponent’s mind to make them think you’re going to do one thing when you actually do another.

Ultimately, I managed to turn my 0-2 start in that first duel into a 3-2 victory, which was incredibly satisfying. The matches only last a few minutes in total, so Duel is a great mode for snatching a quick For Honor fix, which helps to improve your fighting skills without the distraction of playing the objective in Dominion. My second duel (video above), against a different player, started out in much the same fashion: poorly. After plummeting to an early death in the first round, I quickly returned to form in some close matches thereafter.

Choosing between Knight, Viking or Samurai factions is more than just cosmetic, too. Knights are balanced to a point where they’re recommended for new players, Vikings hit slower but harder, and Samurais have a range advantage. There are also some ability differences between factions: that aforementioned bum-rush ability, for instance, appears to be exclusive to Vikings. I attempted it as an opener with a Knight and Samurai, but couldn’t achieve the same result.

In Duel mode, guard breaks are also important, as both players attempt to psych each other into thinking a certain attack is about to happen, or that they’re just waiting to block, before opening an attempted combo with a fast attack. Heavy attacks are brutal, but easy to block, and stringing together successive hits is satisfying, albeit tricky. There’s nothing quite like stealing victory away from an overzealous opponent, though, particularly when you both strike at essentially the same time but you land the killing blow first, as was the case in my final victorious round in the second duel.

The third duel was more one-sided (video is above). I was confident that I had a solid grasp on the core game mechanics, so I took some bigger risks. The strategy of predicting what your opponent will do next is incredibly satisfying, particularly when they feel they’re about to win (health and stamina bars are visible to both players, so it adds to the psychology of the fight), and you steal victory from the jaws of defeat, which was the case in the first round of my rematch against the player I’d just beaten in my second match.

In the second round, I scored a second win as my opponent was seemingly stuck on a rock, and I kicked him off the edge: honourable Achilles I am not. Knowing I was up 2-0 meant I fought a more aggressive third round, but so too did my opponent, which made for a satisfying fight that ultimately ended with a 3-0 win with a brutal combo to finish off what was an otherwise evenly matched clash.

For my third Duel opponent, we messed around with some of the mechanics before fighting proper. That’s where we discovered that not every faction has the bum-rush charging ability, and that a jump-attack from an elevated position results in an insta-kill. That latter point I found out the hard way. For our proper fight (check out the video above, which is from my opponent’s perspective), it was a more evenly matched affair throughout, but ultimately ended with a thrilling final-round win where I took no damage, and strung together a beautiful flow of deadly strikes for a brutal victory.

We were playing on PlayStation 4, which was the main disappointment for this PC-loving player, and director Jason VandenBerghe said that the game has been designed with controller in mind. He also confirmed that it’s not the only way to play, with the three defensive/offensive stances mapped to mouse buttons, by default, which is great for players like me who fully intend to play on PC (and with a keyboard/mouse control scheme). For Honor looks gorgeous on PS4, so obviously I’m excited to see it in all of its beauty on PC when it launches on Valentine’s Day next year. If Ubisoft follows its recent trend, I’d wager there’ll be a For Honor open beta in the coming months.

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