I tend to avoid competitive video games because they stress me out, but I’m known to have an inexplicable knack for one-versus-one fighting games. Mortal Kombat, Injustice, Soul Calibur, and Street Fighter aren’t even games I was interested in growing up, but I can play a mean Scorpion and I’m still convinced that Martian Manhunter was a little overpowered. It’s not even fun to play Super Smash Bros. 64 with me, but I’m an easy target in any other version in the series. I’m by no means an expert, but I’m certainly interested in the mechanics of tightly balanced player-versus-player experiences. In a failure of willpower, I recently picked up For Honor by Ubisoft Montreal and the mechanics have clarified my understanding of the way fighting games are designed and balanced.
I’ll be discussing my thoughts on the mechanics, game design, and communication in For Honor that contribute to a clear, interesting, and skill-driven fighting game. This is not a review of the game, nor is it an argument for changes to game balance (though game balance will be discussed from a design standpoint).
Guessing Without Dice Rolls
One of the defining factors of a fighting game, and one that often needs clarification, is that there is no randomness (programmatic dice rolls) that affects gameplay. Hits do not deal random damage, attack collisions have predictable results, and there are no RPG-style stats that inflict random effects. The clarification I mentioned is that while there is no randomness in fighting games, there is plenty of guessing. Guessing is an interesting mechanic because we can evaluate it from a game balance standpoint as though it were randomness, but in reality a plethora of psychological factors contribute to guessing that make it incredibly interesting for the player.
Guessing is the core (and only) mechanic in everyone’s favorite tiebreaker, rock-paper-scissors. For those who are somehow unfamiliar, in rock-paper-scissors, players simultaneously guess either “rock,” “paper,” or “scissors,” and the outcome is resolved via a circularly symmetric interaction chart graph. Some players argue rock-paper-scissors has no skill, and is determined by simple randomness, while others argue that guessing is the skill of recognizing patterns and using them to predict behavior. Regardless, guessing is what separates rock-paper-scissors from flipping a coin, and is also what makes the game fun.
Though it’s clear how they derive from rock-paper-scissors, fighting games add an extra few axes to the core mechanic established by the simplistic guessing game. The axis of time allows for anticipation, and the resolution of conflicting actions through speed rather than an interaction chart. The axis of movement and three-dimensionality places weight on range and zones of control. Because of the side-view perspective of classic fighting games, the three areas of attack are typically vertical: low attacks that sweep the legs, mid attacks to the chest, and high overhead attacks. Players are still guessing (with anticipation) at where their opponents are vulnerable, and blocking where they think their opponents are attacking. Associating areas of attack and zones of control with characters and animations facilitates the skill in guessing by helping players identify patterns in their opponent’s behavior.
Sleek UI and Animations Clarify Mechanics
Unlike classic fighting games, For Honor’s areas of attack are directional rather than vertical. Attacks come from the top, right, or left. This deviation from tradition forced Ubisoft to explain the mechanic through the user interface, but also allowed them to teach unfamiliar players, as well as reinforce for experienced players, exactly what areas of attack are in fighting games and why they are important. The developers clearly leaned into this opportunity: a sleek world-space UI with subtle but clear icons and animations telegraphs the mechanics to players without obscuring the equally important character animations. The artists executed basic principles of animation superbly to accent and highlight the mechanics. Ease-in-ease-out swings and follow-throughs communicate moves with excellent timing, and an overemphasis on anticipation and exaggeration makes moves clearly readable against the plethora of UI elements and effects in the scene.
The directional areas of attack open For Honor to almost all of its selling points and make it feel like a breath of fresh air in the fighting game genre. With three dimensional motion, Ubisoft could explore multiplayer game types that support more than two players. Suddenly I can play a fighting game cooperatively and competitively with my friends. Ubisoft also did an amazing job of keeping the game down-to-earth. The designers were cognizant of the fact that the mechanics are fun when they stay simple, and Overwatch-level complexity in character design would overcomplicate the experience. Ubisoft rode the thematic seed of grittiness and groundedness in medieval sword-fighting. A striking use of camera angles allows the artists to compose a highly visual fighting game that mirrors scenes in only the coolest action movies. The action-style direction of the game makes it one of the most visually compelling sword-fighting games ever made (in my opinion, and maybe besides Nidhogg /s).
There are plenty of balance issues in For Honor; they’re nearly unavoidable in such delicate player-versus-player experiences. I really want to talk about one that’s permeating through the higher tiers of For Honor competitive play, and why it causes so many balance issues that can make the game boring to some. I’ll be discussing the defense-first meta (also known as the turtle meta). Some players love it, some hate it, others don’t even believe in it, but for the sake of this discussion, let’s pretend the defense-first meta is a reality, and I’ll even make some quick arguments as to why it must be the optimal way to play.
The defense-first meta is the concept that the safest way to win a battle in For Honor is to never initiate with an attack, because attacks are designed be punished, while perfect defense is impossible to punish. In other words, regardless of which character I choose, I will never die or lose any stamina if I block or parry every single attack, dodge all unblockable attacks, counter ever guard break, and never fall for a feint. As an attacker, my attacks drain my stamina, and my attacks can lock me in an animation that can be parried and punished. I also cannot play an attack that defeats a perfect defense; I need to draw my opponent out of their defense in order to deal damage. Attackers cannot outplay defenders; the ball is always in the court of the defender after an attack is thrown. Tying this concept in with my earlier discussion, the defense-first meta takes guessing out of the game because playing defense is the only reliable way to play predictably with guarantees.
Regardless of whether or not you feel that this problem exists or affects gameplay, it’s clear how the game balance leans towards defense, and arguably slopes downhill toward boring gameplay. In a game of guessing, where predictability should be punishable, predictable defensive play is unpunishable. If the optimal way to play is to play reactionarily, players that enjoy guessing will get frustrated by players that turtle, and players that enjoy playing optimally would, in theory, never attack unless attacked. If two players play optimally, the game will be resolved by the life span of their consoles. As with all balance issues, the problem of the defense-first meta is a touchy one to solve. The problem lies in the mechanics rather than the numbers, so the only way to fix it is by introducing, altering, or removing mechanics.
- Defense Costs Resources. Add a resource cost to defense. Draining the stamina of a blocker, even slightly, might not immediately make attacking a more viable strategy, but psychologically imposing a time limit on a defender might pressure her to break down her guard try a new tactic.
- Unpunishable First Attacks. Like many fighting games, combos are a huge part of the fun and gameplay in For Honor. However, because of how punishable and predictable attacking is, many characters struggle to reach their combos. If blocking a first attack can only result in an even trade, defenders are forced to react offensively or bait attackers into a second reactionary attack before they can punish. This makes for more interesting gameplay that requires multiple interactions to occur before defense becomes a rewarding strategy.
- Allow Skilled Attackers to Outplay Blocks. The only way to break a defensive tactic as an attacker is to feint attacks. Players can cancel heavy attacks, which telegraphs the attack to the defender but does not follow through, enabling the attacker to stop or switch their attack pattern in an effort to trick the defender into missing the block. However, if read properly, the feinted attack is still 100% mitigatable. The defender anticipates and reacts to the attack, and the opposite is never true. One option to crack the defense-first meta would be to add a mechanic where with proper timing and prediction, an attacker could actually force their way through a block. Perhaps if the attacking taps the attack button again with the attack direction at a precise moment, the attack succeeds or they can instantaneously make a new attack.
This Game is Fun
At the end of the day, For Honor is an amazing, beautiful, challenging game. It feels right, is quick to learn and difficult to master, and doesn’t over-complicate itself yet allows room for new mechanics in the future. It’s tough, and takes some practice, but is rewarding to master. It’s a little pricey, but if you haven’t already, pick it up, give it a shot, and let me know your thoughts.