Who would win in a fight between a knight, a samurai and a viking? It’s a sort of question asked off-handedly on a playground or illustrated crudely in bored grade school doodles. It seems ridiculous on the surface, but one you get past that initial question there’s a depth to For Honor that can’t be denied. It doesn’t always dance gracefully with the craft of battle, but For Honor is a game that harnesses some of the most impactful melee combat we’ve seen.

Believe it or not, there’s a narrative built into For Honor. The three main factions come to blows across time and space via the end result of a “Cataclysm” that upheaves the lands, destroying much of civilization and its resources. What’s left is just a few scraps of food and water that create desperation between the strong survivors that withstood the destructive event. In the midst of this chaos, a warlord known as Apollyon chooses to sow the seeds of dissent among the survivors to ensure that the strong are separated from the weak in a perpetual war for supremacy. It’s not much, but it gives For Honor some stakes and serves as the core of a surprisingly coherent single-player or co-op Story Mode.

Ubisoft

In Story Mode, players take up the roles of various actors working for or against Apollyon as she carries out her campaign of chaos. There is a chapter for each of the three factions, and missions put players into the role of various heroes for each side. The story is serviceable enough to give context, though many of the missions do little more than present an A-to-B scenario in which players kill everything between them and the end of the mission, often ending with a duel against an opposing hero. There are extras in the form of breakable crates to gain collectibles, special observable points to get extra story snippets and completing the missions on different difficulties to get bonuses for the Multiplayer. Otherwise, the story doesn’t do more than simply offer atmosphere for why these people are fighting.

Fighting in the game is an intense experience with a kind of rock-paper-scissors rhetoric at its core. Players will lock onto an enemy which brings up a stance indicator and the option to change to right, left or high stances. Being in the same stance as your enemy will defend an attack from that direction, while attacking someone from a different stance than they’re guarding against will do damage. You can also attack someone mid attack and damage them regardless of stance. Alternatively, you can go at an overly defensive enemy with a guard-break throw and shove them in a direction of your choosing or follow up with an attack while they’re stunned. The basic system is fairly easy to understand and it makes a great foundation to start from as you get into the variety of environmental quirks and heroes.

Ubisoft

There are 12 hero classes in the game --- four for each faction --- and each has a variety of different light and heavy attacks, combos and offensive and defensive capabilities that set them apart. For instance, the Lawbringer can stun heroes with any high-stance heavy and end chains with unblockable heavy attacks on those foolish enough to be caught in range. Though some skill requirement varies between classes, there’s a solid balance and difference between the full extents of what each hero can do. You have to unlock each hero, but a bit of practice and some time in Story Mode will get you to where you can unlock a solid chunk of the 12 heroes with relative ease. To make matters easier, there are also a ton of tutorial and hero-specific practice options to allow players to get acclimated and practice their skills to their heart’s content.

Though you get a taste of it in Story Mode, Multiplayer is where all of the combat shines. Modes are separated between three core game styles: Duel, Deathmatch, and Dominion. Duels come in the form of one-on-one fights or two-on-two Brawls. Deathmatches are four-on-four team affairs split between Elimination, which offers each player one life to live in a round for a best of five match; and Skirmish, in which players kill until their side reaches a point goal. Finally, Dominion offers a control point mode in which players lock down and control zones for points. Dominion is easily the most interesting because one zone of any given map is always determined by AI minions of both teams. Players must help their minions push back the enemy minions in order to control the zone, adding a lite-MOBA aspect to Dominion and making it an arena that combines the best of all worlds of offense, defense and strategy in For Honor.

Ubisoft

Interestingly, there’s a bigger reason why the Multiplayer modes are separated into three core categories. At the beginning of the game, you pledge allegiance to one of the factions and jump into a world map where the three core styles of games each represent a different front. After each match you gain points called War Assets that can be put towards a single territory of the front in order to attack or defend against the other two factions. The servers constantly update with the latest on who controls what territories, and the idea is that the faction with the most territory will win bonus rewards for any member that contributed at the end of a given season. It’s a compelling way to give players incentive to keep playing and putting their part in for their factions.

Though For Honor does a number of things right with the general balancing of heroes and the general chaos in which games play out, it’s not perfect. For Honor has some of the most oppressive fall damage mechanics of perhaps any game ever. Remember that a guard break can allow you to shove opponents in a desired direction. If that direction is a cliff, they’ll be instantly killed. That makes sense, but you’ll die just the same if you’re pushed off a 15’ bridge to another part of the stage below. There’s actually a stage with a fountain that features a 4’ drop at most. Its existence as a deathly pitfall is more than ridiculous, and the whole mechanic makes for a whole slew of players waiting around particular pits to drop you to a cheap death.

Ubisoft

If that wasn’t annoying enough, For Honor suffers from a few server issues that cause bizarre occurrences. It wasn’t common, but we did run into a handful of dropped games and it seemed to be tied heavily to players dropping in and out of matches. In its defense, For Honor puts an AI bot in place of players that drop out to ensure even numbers on teams, but one annoying glitch causes bots or players you’re fighting to outright vanish in the middle of a fight or the whole game to stutter when being replaced by the opposite, which can be supremely frustrating when you’re in the middle of an intense encounter.

For Honor takes a somewhat ridiculous concept, lays down a pretty great fighting foundation on top of it and loads it with plenty of reasons to keep playing. This past year, Ubisoft has shown a penchant for developing exciting multiplayer experiences. For Honor might frustrate in a few areas, but for every one thing it does wrong, it does a dozen other things right. For Honor sets a strong pace for Ubisoft, and it looks like the developer on course for another great year of multiplayer action.

This review was completed using a digital copy of For Honor provided by the publisher for PlayStation 4.