In its greatest moments, For Honor might be the most exciting game of all time. The designers seem to have really paid attention to the right competitive games over the past few years, and it shows. You know the feeling you have in a tied match of Tekken where you’re about to jump out of your skin but you’re still, somehow, ice cold? How about the other one when you’ve finally smashed through a boss in Bloodborne? It’s both of those feelings, a real chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter electrical nightmare, and it happens a dozen times per game. Over and over again, For Honor sends blazing bolts of adrenaline through my body as I try my best to survive and, the good lord willing, win a game or two.
I’m a PlayStation 4 player, though, and that means that I’m at the mercy of basically every problem that an online competitive game can have. There are no dedicated servers, so sometimes this game that requires pinpoint accuracy and timing just turns into a slideshow of stuttering framerates. When I’m winning a game, the enemy team just starts dropping from the match, denying the sweet human victory. Worse, sometimes I just get kicked from games for no reason. All of that is very frustrating, as you might think.
Every single one of those problems combined is nothing compared to the sheer nonsense of environmental hazards in For Honor. Often when I have a disagreement with the designers of a game, I think of it in terms of a push-and-pull of expectation. What did I think was there, and how is it different than what the designers thought should be in the game? What were their design pillars, and how do my needs or desires as a player run into friction with them? I’m pretty easy-going when it comes to that sort of thing in all but the most dire circumstances.
Let me be clear here: For Honor environmental hazards are a cataclysmic error. They are bad, and it was wrong to put them in the game.
What do I mean by an environmental hazard? They’re sort of like a water hazard in golf. They’re there, and you need to know they’re there so you can avoid them. On some maps it is a bottomless pit on the edge of walkways. On others it is a sheer cliff face. On yet others it is an improbable and questionable giant strip of spikes that lines the wall of a murder palace.
From a mechanical point of view, these hazards are in the game to add an additional layer to the combat. Most of the time, a player is going to spend their For Honor fighting time in the tense one-on-one combat that I was talking about above. It’s just you and your opponent, blocking each other’s moves, taking advantage of gaps in defenses, and literally fighting tooth and nail for a marginal advantage. Sometimes you might have to break and run, or you might have to fight two people at once to get Revenge, a kind of rubberband mechanic that helps you defend against the increased damage of two opponents. And in each of these moments, if the game is working correctly, you are dangling by a thread. That thread is your skill, your focus, your ability to make the warrior dance in the way you want it to. I, personally, become so focused on it that I don’t even have time to flop sweat.
Then, in the middle of that intense focus, you can get grabbed and thrown off a cliff. Just whoop and your opponent has grabbed you and tossed you into that bottomless pit. Or those spikes. Or just off the third level of a tower. You go splat on the ground below.
The environmental hazard robs For Honor of its beauty. The inclusion of instant death mechanics in a game that is all about testing your skills cheapens every other aspect of the game. For such a tightly-controlled and wound experience with a dozen different combatants who can all compete at a more or less equal level, the addition of the ability to kick someone into a pool of lava just doesn’t make any sense. It changes the game.
It’s not that weird interactions shouldn’t exist in competitive games. Design that goes against the grain of the rest of the game can sometimes lead to wonderful displays of competition. But creating a system that sometimes feels like threading a needle while riding a bicycle that can be immediately nullified by where you happened to be standing while you were doing that incredibly difficult action robs the entire apparatus of magic. If you can just tackle people off of cliffs all day, then it seems like it’s worth just learning how to do that with maximal skill (and, indeed, that’s what a lot of PS4 gameplay looks like right now).
The obvious response here is that anyone who gets taken out by an environmental hazard should just learn to stand in a better place. It’s one more thing to manage, a macro game on top of the intense micro game of blocking, attacking and dodging, and I guess that’s right. But from a design perspective, it makes so much more sense to me to free up that 15% of brain space that a player has to expend to know that any given wall is an “instant death if you bump into it” wall. Let the player concentrate on the battle itself, not the terrain.
Where do the hazards come from? Maybe they’re a holdover from the very Dark Souls-ish combat core of the game. Maybe they’re part of some primordial skeleton. Maybe everyone just thought they looked cool, and to be fair, they do. They make for dynamic encounters when I watch my teammate chuck people off a bridge to their death over and over again. Are they entertaining? For sure. Do they punish a lack of situational awareness? Absolutely. Do environmental hazards make For Honor better in any way? Nope.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.