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How For Honor is Keeping Old-School PvP Culture Alive

In February 2017, For Honor was officially released worldwide, and to great success.

According to SuperData Research as reported by PlayStation Lifestyle, it ranked 7th in the world during February of that year for digital sales, selling 700,000 copies across the three primary platforms. And is it surprising? For Honor’s combat system, first showcased at E3 2015, was unlike anything anyone had seen before, introducing the complexity of a fighter title into the realms of aggressive, massively multiplayer PvP battle scenarios. But now, almost a year on from its original release, though there is still a consistent (and dedicated) player base, For Honor’s numbers have been in decline for some time (though recently there has been an upsurge again).

My question is: what more could you want from a medieval military game? It combines three iconic historical warrior cultures: Vikings, Samurai, and Knights, hitting all those nerd buttons in one go. And not only that, but the attention to detail is impressive to say the least. Knights utter Latin insults as they launch themselves into a fray; Samurai haughtily mock in Japanese; the Vikings utter Icelandic battle cries. The weaponry, equipment, methods of execution and combat techniques are all sourced from history, although the time-frames have been conflated (it is described as a ‘fantasy’ world after all) so that all three cultures can exist and compete on one continent. If you’re interested in the background behind For Honor, it’s all there to be discovered online on the wiki. For such an accomplished and well-researched game, then, why has For Honor fallen somewhat off the radar already?

One of the great sorrows of living in the modern age is that often good things are overlooked because they get tarnished with the same brush as much of the crud out there. For Honor has come under severe fire for its matchmaking (using old school P2P systems rather than a dedicated server) and use of microtransactions, despite the fact its microtransaction setup is radically different from many of the more money-grabbing examples we’ve seen in recent years. Every piece of equipment or reward in For Honor can be earned with good old-fashioned elbow grease. And not only that, but it’s pretty fun doing it that way, and not so taxing as to get dull. You have to be a little bit smart to do it, exploiting the Daily Challenges and Orders, but the game actively encourages you to do so.

Another potential reason For Honor has been overlooked is the sheer difficulty curve, which at first is steep. I recall Angry Pat, of Super Best Friends fame, once saying on an LP: ‘Call of Duty told us all what buttons to use’, and though he was making a joke, there’s a degree of truth in that. Developers are scared to break or make adjustments to such a proven formula for accurate and easy-to-grasp controls. For Honor disregards all of this with its unique guard system, complex movement, and class-specific moves, which require fighter-game style inputs to perform correctly. Playing For Honor for the first time is like starting again: you have to really think, rewire your brain. It’s learning a new skill — and at one point in time, all games were like that. In the 80s, before there were such stringent genre conventions, every new title was an experiment. We’ve become used to being able to pick anything up and play it, and while it’s good to be away from the needless obfuscation of old games with diabolical control systems, we’ve lost that sense of discovery and challenge that comes with learning new things.

Amid these distractions, the genuine innovation of For Honor’s incredible Art of Battle system has been somewhat overlooked. But, as is the case with great literature, art and movies, the good stuff stands the test of time because of the readers and viewers who keep it alive. Despite the frequent attempts of the critical intelligentsia to destroy the reputation of The Lord of the Rings, for example, the book captured the heart of the nation and has continued to be read and reprinted for over fifty years. Now, academics are all but forced to admit its power and place it among literary canon, and it’s even found its way onto University syllabuses (I was lucky enough to study it in my third year).

It’s 2018, and while player numbers of For Honor may have dwindled since launch, its online PvP is as alive as ever — as previously stated, there has actually been an increase recently in the number of players logging on. But it’s not the numbers that make it strong; the PvP has evolved, no longer just a random group of people competing, but a complete culture with unwritten rules of conduct and a genuine emphasis on ‘honourable’ play, entirely player-led. This takes me back to the days of old-school player-versus-player interaction, like that of Runescape’s wilderness, or Halo 3’s custom games, where players often had to invent rules for participants to abide by to make their custom games work. Why is this a good thing? Well, because it’s an antidote to the facelessness of most modern online play.

Online gaming is becoming less and less social. I rarely find myself chatting with (or even getting abused by) strangers anymore, because when I look for the headset/microphone symbol on players in the same lobby as me it’s usually less than 25%. Back in the noughties, it would have been 80-90% every time. And while I’m glad I don’t have to argue with a twelve year old about whether he’s ‘done my mum’ or not, I do think something’s been lost in the progress. This antisocial trend is a bizarre paradox, as there is an increasing number of games moving to solely online play. Most major titles cannot be played without an online connection and either Xbox Live or PlayStation Plus membership. AI has also reached such a level that it can be difficult to tell the difference between playing against players and bots. So, on the one hand we all want to be connected, and on the other, we want to minimise the actual human interaction, and are continually innovating towards an experience that is less human, and less personal. The unintended consequence is that online play is starting to feel dead.

Except when I play For Honor.

It’s a lot, you might say, to lay on the shoulders of a single game. But it’s the honest truth. I really don’t find myself with any inclination to go online except to play For Honor, and that’s nearly 12 months after release. Most online games generally become tired or repetitive to me after that amount of time; an endless sequence of flash-bang-wallop gunplay or kinetic firefighting that results in a small sense of achievement — if the match is won — or just a flat emptiness, if lost. For Honor is different, even though its core gameplay has remained largely unaltered. It is the quality of the gameplay itself that keeps you coming back. The fighting is complex, nuanced, and skillful. Unlike the plethora of shooting games out there, where one stray bullet or lucky knife causes instant death, For Honor requires patience and determination. Yes, a fatal misstep early on can lead to severe disadvantage, but it is more than possible to recover, and some of the most skillful players are able to defeat four opponents at one time on a sliver of health. In addition, the variety of classes (which has now expanded to 18), and the ways in which these classes can be played, as well as the limitless aesthetic customisation, mean that the game still feels fresh. You can always change something to make it new, even if it’s just the way you play.

But the real draw for me is not the fantastic Art of Battle system. It’s deeper than that. It’s the culture. I first experienced it as the last man standing in a Dominion game — a 4v4 match where players vie for control of three critical objectives. For each objective controlled, the team score will rise, and when your team reaches 1,000 points, the enemy team ‘breaks’, which means when you kill them, they will not respawn. Our match had been neck and neck for ten minutes, but in a freak domino effect, our team was broken, leading to  three of my teammates being killed, leaving me holding one last objective. Just as the enemy team reached me, our ‘team’ reached 1,000 points as well – both teams were ‘broken’. I was surrounded and outgunned, but if I could kill any of the enemy team, they were going to stay down. The four players closed in. I turned, helplessly, from one foe to another, trying to anticipate from where the first blow would come, knowing it would do no good. I wanted this to be my epic last stand, but I knew it was going to be a massacre. Then, something strange happened. The top player from another team, a beasty-looking Warden Knight, lowered his weapon and performed an emote. Two of the other players stood down, and the final one moved in front of me. I realised something incredible. They were going to fight me one at a time.

At first, I thought it might be a trick or a game; some kind of ritual humiliation. But as the first opponent fell to me, and the second saluted with an emote and stepped forward, I realised they were sincere. I cut through three of the enemy team, scraping by with only a single ‘pip’ of health remaining. Finally, the Warden stepped forward. ‘Good fight’, he said, on the Quick Chat. ‘Thanks’, I replied. We fought like Luke Skywalker and Vader in Return of the Jedi. Suddenly, the game had become cinematic. I could feel the eyes of fallen players on us. Every dodge, parry and slash full of meaning and significance. Both of us were playing Wardens (I hadn’t yet discovered my favoured class yet, which is the Orochi), and there is something truly special about a Warden-on-Warden fight. In a jaw-clenching feat of concentration, I managed to fight him down so we were on level health. Me with just under a pip, and he with one whole pip. Our fight had taken us across the map and onto a rickety bridge spanning a chasm. Now, the cinematic ante was upped, because as the Warden rushed in at me – a final, frustrated flurry – I sidestepped, grappled him, and threw him off the edge of the precipice and down into the smouldering fog-cloaked abyss below. Lo and behold, from being on the brink of destruction, my team had won.

Afterwards, I couldn’t resist sending a message to the Warden, asking him why they’d fought me one at a time. The answering message I got was perhaps one of the most perfect encapsulations of gaming culture I’ve ever seen:

“It’s called For Honor for a reason. Dumbass.”

I would later learn there’s a running joke that For Honor’s real name is “No Honor”. Not everyone fights fair, and between those that do, there is some disagreement as to what is acceptable in a world of unrelenting bloodshed. Some players are so honourable they will not attack players who have exhausted their stamina bar if they are new to the game, despite the fact that one of the main aims of combat is to deplete your enemy’s stamina bar and thereby gain an advantage. Others seem to have no qualms in rushing up to unsuspecting players and kicking them off edges to gain an environment kill. Environment kills are generally viewed with disgust by the majority of players and as soon as you commit one, all bets are off. The unspoken agreement of ‘honourable conduct’ between players only lasts as long as both players uphold it.

For Honor is probably the only game where I’ve been reprimanded by my own team for pulling off a dishonourable winning manoeuvre. During another intense Dominion game, a friend, who plays a ferocious lock-down Centurion, and I were on the losing side. We creamed the other players, but there was one Warlord Viking who kept trouncing us royally. Warlords are armed with heavy shields and have numerous defensive capabilities. When someone knows how to use them, they’re like impregnable tanks.

Together, me and the Centurion devised a plan. The Centurion sat on an objective and waited for the Warlord. I waited in the shadows. The Warlord Viking arrived as planned. At the same time, our team members took control of the other two objectives and the enemy team finally broke. Within ten seconds, the Warlord was the only player on their team left. I thought then, as he started to demolish my Centurion friend, about showing him the same honour I had once been shown. But I needed Steel – the in-game currency – badly for a new armour pack, and I couldn’t take another defeat. He wasn’t a rookie, he would understand, I told myself. All’s fair in love and war, right? To my everlasting shame I stepped from the shadows and cut him in the spine. The Warlord spun, swinging wildly. He might have taken us both if he’d been prepared, but the surprise wrong-footed him, so we ended up hacking him to pieces. This noble Viking warrior, a collapsed muddy torso by the end of it.

After, I got a message that has genuinely haunted me. It was two words:

“No. Honor.”

The message was not even from the Viking. It was from one of my team members. They shortly afterwards quit the party, considering my conduct a disgrace. Can you imagine this happening in a CoD game? Who is going to complain about teammates doing what’s necessary to win? It’s an utterly different playing field. I was shaken by my first experience of ‘no honor’; I swore I’d never again stoop to such villainy. Meanwhile, my Centurion friend embraces his shameless lack of honour, kicking players onto impaling spikes, taunting newcomers by allowing them to get the first few blows in, then decimating them in one flashy combo. He wears flames and a helm that would make Sauron envious, and paid Steel for the long, drawn out super-villain Execution kills. There’s a soft element of role-play to For Honor which draws you in, steadily, but assuredly.

Great player-versus-player allows you to create this kind of story, because the game matters. When a game is imbued with a sense of culture and camaraderie, it becomes more than a game, but a real bonding experience. For Honor is by no means perfect,  but it remains my go-to for multiplayer. I’m invested in it, both for the self-created story, which is always one of the greatest joys of videogames as they take on a life of their own, and for the exquisite gameplay, which I honestly doubt I’ll tire of any time soon.

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