The combat in For Honor is great. Learning to battle properly requires that you first unlearn everything you thought you knew about fighting in games, like the cocky young apprentice picked up by a battle tested old master. But going in immediately on the attack feels stronger, sir! No, young padawan. You must be patient (here you are hit on the head to emphasise the point).
In For Honor the heroes have different attack ranges and speeds, but all the speeds are probably slower than you’d expect in a fighting game. The effect of this is twofold: firstly it makes your giant medieval sword feel genuinely heavy, to the point that when, for example, the Knight Warden grips their sword by the blade and smashes the cross-guard into their opponent’s neck, you sort of wince a bit. Secondly, it makes attacking without thought a terrible tactic; you will start your heavy attack, be unable to cancel the action, and your opponent will come in on the side with a quick jab, or parry your attack and proceed to kick your ass around the map. There is no way that you can win a duel in For Honor by button mashing.
You must stay back and watch your opponent, sizing them up. Eventually one of you will make the first move (sometimes it’s you, cautiously slashing at the air and backing up again; sometimes the enemy will run in with confidence). As you fight and play as more heroes you learn their idiosyncrasies. The attacks of the giant Samurai Shugoki cannot be easily interrupted with one of your own, so you must learn to dodge to the side or be confident in your parries. Viking Raiders have more range than you’d expect. The Nobushi, with their spears, are the absolute devil (I have still not found a surefire way to beat a Nobushi that knows what it’s doing). You find your favourites and dig into how to play as them. Right now I’m working on the Orochi, a Samurai hero that is fast but has a limited block window. I am not good enough to play as the Orochi.
The way the Heroes are balanced means that in theory any of them could beat any of the others in a straight match up. This is thrown off balance by the micro-transactions: while you can save up the in-game currency by playing to buy anything in the in-game store, players who pump in real money can get immediate access to feats they can use, or that other players have to earn. It’s not exactly pay-to-win, but it does give anyone who will shill out cash an advantage, especially when the game is new.
When you’re in a 1v1 duel, though, it all gets stripped back, and feels oddly intimate. I often fight people who constantly apologise in the quick chat when they beat me. ‘Sorry’ — down-to-the-wire fight ending when I fail to block a light attack — ‘Sorry’ — stunning me and pushing me off a snow bridge to the depths below — ‘Sorry’ — brutal execution that separates my head from my body. At every defeat your imaginary master chides you. You should have been smarter! You tried to block when you should have dodged! You have learnt nothing! Dishonour on you! Dishonour on your cow!
It does feel like your honour is actually at stake, in a way. Because you work more slowly, trying to think about what you’re doing, when you make a mistake it seems like you palpably made it, that you screwed up and did something stupid. When you allow an opponent to fluster you and draw you in too quickly, that is your fault. The rounds take longer, so losses feel more substantial.
But the victories. Ah, the victories. The victories are so sweet. You half expect to reach down and find a bloodied sword at your side, which you must wipe clean soberly, slowly, whilst contemplating the life and death of your enemy. And your master nods: you are a terrible student. The worst he’s ever had. But perhaps, one day, you may be less terrible.