Sunday, September 25, 2016

For Honor Alpha Test Impressions!

                I’ve been craving for a video game with medieval combat ever since Dark Souls 3’s non-magic combat got me riled up, but this craving is bound to go unsatisfied, at least for a while. Looking at the bright side of things, the close future might be holding what I’m looking for with the upcoming releases of Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord (I’m holding my hyping inner demon in check!), For Honor, Of Kings and Men and even Mirage: Arcane Warfare.
On that note, last week’s For Honor Alpha test was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss and since there was no NDA I’m going to share some of my thoughts about the game’s multiplayer aspects.
                Right from the tutorial I could tell that For Honor is at an asymmetric meeting point between Chivalry and Dark Souls with various elements borrowed from other games, but enough elements of its own to stand out in the crowd.
                For Honor is an online medieval combat action game which will feature a singleplayer campaign and an online multiplayer component. Contraire to the latest multiplayer titles from Ubisoft, For Honor isn’t a team based game per se and it’s rather focused on duels with teamwork being on a secondary plane. This is most likely a result of the combat system which has all the qualities for awesome skill based 1v1 fights, but not enough functionality when things get crowded.
                The game has the players picking a class from one of the three available factions: Knights, Samurais and Vikings, with each faction’s classes play slightly different even if they have the same traits. As expected from any online game of today’s gaming era, For Honor comes with an extensive customization system which is split in two parts, an appearance customization and a skills and gear customization which has a direct impact on the gameplay and the player’s performance.
The appearance customization is your day to day vanity fair. As each class can be leveled up, new cosmetic options become available and can be used to change the appearance of various parts of the hero’s armor.
Prepare for microtransactions?

The skills and gear customization has a bit more depth to it providing players with gameplay options and a more meaningful progression system. Each class has four slots filled with default skills, by leveling up these skills can be changed (to something more ridiculous) as more options are being unlocked allowing players to create their own small builds. On top of that, the game has a gear system with items being rewarded after matches. These items can be equipped in various armor and weapon slots increasing the combat capabilities for that class. There is even some sort of crafting involved as unwanted gear can be destroyed and used to improve other items. These kind of game mechanics sound like they could kill any chance for this game to be competitive, but there is a catch.
The game could do well without this...
...or this.

                In this Alpha Test there were three game modes available: Duel (1v1), Brawl (2v2) and Dominion (4v4). Dominion is an objective based game mode in which two teams fight to take control over three objectives while being helped by continuous spawning waves of AI soldiers that push through the middle objective and fight each other in an eternal battle that waits to be scaled by the player’s actions. This game mode felt like a frivolous attempt to provide the players with some sort of team play. The maps were too small and the objectives too close together destroying any attempt of tactical play and leading to some chaotic fights between groups of players highlighting the limitations of the combat system. Even if focusing on team play and objectives, the ending of the match is usually decided by combat and the tides of battle can be swiftly shifted as comebacks are allowed way too easily.
The above mentioned gear and skills play a role in this game mode and could possibly give you the edge against other players, but considering the chaotic nature of Dominion I didn’t feel all that bothered about this. What I thought to be interesting and might be a foreshadowing of Ubisoft’s interests with this game’s multiplayer was the fact that the Duel and Brawl modes do not allow the usage of gear and skills. Players start on an equal ground and the only thing that will make the difference in these modes is personal skill. This could mean that Ubisoft might be trying to make something competitive out of these two modes or they are just designed to make sure the players have a fair fight. I guess only time will tell.
The pretty colors tell me that I'm doing my job!

                As mentioned in the numerous presentations videos, For Honor’s most interesting and innovative feature is the combat system also known as the Art of Battle.
The Art of Battle is a combat system created with target locking as its primary mechanic and all the good and bad that come with it. Locking onto a target opens up an interface which allows the players to control the direction of their swings and blocks by moving the mouse in one of the three directions available and automatically setting a stance. The combat is extremely reactive as each player engaged has to pay attention to the opponent’s stance and match it in order to block incoming attacks and swiftly switch to a different stance to have a chance to hit. In theory it is nothing too laborious, but in practice everything is much more complex as there are multiple options that enrich the core mechanics. Aside of the expected light and heavy attacks, players have the ability to counter-attack after well timed parries and can even attempt to break their opponent’s guard opening them to deadly combos. Mobility is important and dodge provides an additional option to avoid attacks and reposition or simply disengage from an unwanted fight. In addition to these mechanics, each class adds extra layers of complexity to the combat system through different play styles bound to stats, abilities and a unique set of moves which aren’t all that easy to pull off.
I keep forgetting them!

                The multitude of combat moves which make each fight look spectacular and unique have to be used thoughtfully as each action has a price in the form of stamina. Stamina is limiting each player’s combat actions pushing them into strategic thinking through careful resource management as each move could cost more than it could provide. Spending stamina wisely is one of the keys that open the gates to victory, while depleting it could be a certain path towards perdition.
It's just you against me!

                What I noticed as soon as I jumped into online matches was that the gameplay is faster than it looked in the showcase videos. The first few matches I had were a bit confusing if not infuriating because I felt like I didn’t have enough time to adapt, but as I played more I got the hang of it and the combat system grew on me. Knowing how to move and reposition when necessary, timely parry and how to attack efficiently while properly managing stamina dramatically changed the pace and the way each fight unfolded. With time, fights went from a panicky mashing of buttons to a spectacular battle dance that could only be interrupted by the common treacherous backstabs seen in Dominion and sometimes in Brawl (where is the Honor in that?!).
                The learning curve is pretty steep, way beyond my initial expectations, with each duel being a certain mix of speed, skill and mind games. The options are many, but using them towards your advantage comes with training. Players can trick one another into different moves to force wasteful spending of stamina and properly using the move set of each class could make a huge difference. There are plenty of tricks to be learned and I believe this Alpha Test wasn’t enough for anyone to truly master the combat system.
Get used to be cornered, in For Honor this is (ironically) called team play!

                The problem with For Honor’s combat system is that it is great as long as it is used for duels. Engaging into group battles immediately surfaced some of the bigger issues that stem from its undecided core design.
                First of all, the game was clearly created with the controller in mind and those like me who prefer mouse and keyboard will be at a disadvantage. The controls are just not smooth enough and the transition between stances can’t be done as swiftly as it should be with the mouse leading to a delay that could prove fatal in combat, but this isn’t even the worst part. What I found most troublesome is that the combat system was clearly built for duels and it was forcefully transitioned for team based game modes without being properly adapted for them. As a result, each team fight is a chaotic mess where the targeting system proves futile and its ties with the Art of Battle interface make everything even worse. There is hardly any skill, strategy or proper control of the character involved in team fights, everything turning into a dizzily attempt to deal with a situation the players aren’t equipped for.
Tactical gameplay!

                In what can be considered a desperate move to compensate for the uneven group fights and the lack of functionality of the combat, players were given the Revenge ability. Revenge is a comeback mechanic that comes in handy when fighting multiple enemies at once. When activated it gives players increased combat capabilities and a (magical?!) shield allowing them to stand a chance against larger groups. Ironically enough, an ability that should fix some of the combat problems creates more as the players under the effect of Revenge can take down entire groups of enemies in a cheesy fashion that is not suitable for the game’s skill based gameplay.
When the sword isn't enough, just switch to magic!

                The more I played the more it was becoming clearer that Ubisoft has a weird manner of hindering For Honor’s good mechanics through a cumulation of questionable design choices. Besides the functionality problems of the combat system, there is an entire array of small issues that build up on the annoying. It begins with the game’s interface, which is so big that it can be spotted from another room (clearly accommodated for TV play) or it blends perfectly into the game’s environment becoming unreadable. The chosen color scheme for the in-game UI is weird to say the least, as the environment is so saturated, the interface can be hardly visible at times and players might not be able to get any information out of it in the heat of the battle. It is a tiring endeavor to stay focused in this game and not because the mechanics require a high amount of concentration, which they do, but there is a growing sense of vertigo when watching the environment mixing with the UI in a swirl of strident colors (the menus aren’t much better).
WTH is with all these colors on my screen!

                The balance is another factor that fills the pot of grieves. There was a visible performance difference between some of the classes available in this Alpha with Orochi usually coming on top. It’s also worth noting that despite having a stamina system, For Honor doesn’t penalize well enough the button mashing, sometimes allowing players to spam multiple attacks without severe negative consequences. Last but not least in terms of balance issues is the difference in speed in and out of combat which makes it extremely easy to disengage when losing a fight without being caught, something I found extremely annoying, especially since recovering lost HP happens in a matter of seconds.
                The last on the list is an issue that Ubisoft is notoriously known for, the connection problems. For Honor Alpha had a peer to peer connection which is laughable for an online game in 2016. Some would argue that it was intended to save money during Alpha testing, which could be true, but nevertheless annoying, as a test environment should have the proper tools for testing. Yet, after The Division incident and the countless deaths due to netcode in Rainbow Six Siege, it’s hard for me to believe any of this. While all the problems above are in a dire need of being fixed, the connectivity comes above all of them as a competitive PvP game cannot be properly played while facing the problems that arise from poor connection.
So the client based stats fiasco wasn't enough?!

                Overall, the gameplay of For Honor is a mixed bag of good and bad and I’m not sure which takes precedence over the other. There is enough time to change things for the better, but my latest experiences in this matter have left me more skeptical than I ever was before. And that is not because I think the developers don’t want to improve their games, but because these games are always surrounded by huge groups of apologetics that defend any flaw starting from the game’s early stages, preventing the developers from improving them. I hope this is not the case, because the gameplay of For Honor has the qualities to be something worth playing, but it needs more work and refinement.

                There wasn’t much into graphics settings and it is safe to presume that’s because of the Alpha state of the game, but there was enough environment variety with the three different maps to form an opinion about the graphics.
                For Honor looks pretty good, nothing mind blowing, but with enough details to be visually pleasing. I might not have been impressed by the texture quality or the quality of the effects the game had in store, but I did find the artistic direction captivating. The landscapes looked great, with each map presenting an environment that was part of a different culture associated with one of the three playable factions. The armor design was also something worth praising (knights ftw!) and I can’t wait to see some of the cosmetic options available at release. But this isn’t all, returning to the technological part, the AnvilNext engine shows once again its high class level animations with a motion fluidity which when combined with the unique set of combat animations for each class is becoming a true feast for the eyes. There is production value in this game and the animations show it more than anything else, but it doesn’t stop there if the players have the eyes to see it.
Look at my character dancing with that blade!

                The game did have the annoying problems that usually accompany an Alpha Test including long loading screens, unstable fps and rare stuttering. On the list of annoyances I could also add the inability to turn off motion blur which made my attempts of capturing any good screenshots a nightmare. But I hardly think any of these problems will make it into the final game or at least they shouldn’t. What could make it into the game and ruin part of the experience and the immersion are the annoyingly glary visual effects that should remain part of action arcade games and never make it even in the Alpha stages of a serious title like For Honor wants to be.
Were these effects really necessary?!
I wish I could explore that!

                I wish I could talk in detail about the sound, but there wasn’t much to hear in the beta aside of the battle sounds with the metal clanking of weapons hitting the hardness of armor, the battle cries of those fighting and the engaging but not varied enough music because this was just a slice of the actual content. For Honor Alpha sounded pretty good and I’m expecting the same if not an improved level of sound and music quality for the full game, but at an increased scale.

None shall pass!
That's gotta hurt!
The victory party!

                In conclusion, despite my need of a medieval warfare video game I wasn’t mesmerized with For Honor. I liked some of the game’s features and found some of the mechanics extremely promising, but the issues I’ve noticed were quite a turn off. I might be undecided now, but I’m glad I got to test the game in its Alpha stages as I can better follow and evaluate its evolution when the developers respond to the issues at hand.

                There is great potential within For Honor for both a competitive or casually entertaining game, but a lot of that potential is hidden behind walls of problems that require a lot of work to be torn down. I’ll be waiting for the Beta Test to see how many of those walls are left standing.


1 comment:

  1. Great article. I can't wait to play For Honor game, since it looks so realistic and well done. The graphics, gameplay - everything looks so nice :) Maybe you could also tell the release date of For Honor?