For Honor, Ubisoft’s upcoming hack and slash fest, purports to answer a history nerd’s classic playground argument ”who would win in a fight? A knight, or a samurai? What about a pirate?”
Well, vikings are kind of like pirate knights so it looks like For Honor will see this quandary settled with cold steel, once and for all. Now, For Honor isn’t exactly historical, it has a ‘fantasy setting inspired by history’, no doubt helpful for preventing history-trained nitpickers such as myself from pooping on their parade. Nice try Ubisoft, but no dice. Prepare to be pooped on with some stinky, fun-ruining facts.
Just kidding, I’m actually really looking forward to playing For Honor and leaving my historian hat in the cupboard while I slice and dice my way to victory. But in the meantime, let’s take a look at what real world history can tell us about these very different types of warrior.
The cream of medieval European warrior culture, knights underwent a long evolution from their origins; simple horsemen in the early middle ages, to the social and military elite, steel-plated juggernauts of the late middle ages. From the character designs, the knights in For Honor are derived from late period knights, whose plate armor could render them practically invulnerable to melee weapons not specially designed to penetrate it (such as maces, halberds, or spiked warhammers).
As far as honor is concerned, knights were beholden to a culture of chivalry that attempted to marry Christian virtue to warrior prowess and encourage a sense of fairness and restraint in battle. Commentators of the day often pointed out that in practice, knights would often ignore their lofty ideals and commit atrocities in wartime.
On the other hand, some knights took their commitments very seriously indeed. French Knight Geoffroi de Charny, who literally wrote the book on chivalry, himself took an oath as a member of a knightly order to never flee from battle. Consequently, his order was annihilated to a man when they refused to retreat from a hopeless battle.
he signature tactic of the knight was a devastating close-formation cavalry charge with lances. For Honor doesn’t look like it will be featuring much, if any, horseback action, but the martial training of a knight was comprehensive and also included combat on foot with a variety of weapons.
Some knights, particularly the English, are noted for performing very well as heavy infantry. Of the three factions, the knight has the advantage of being the most ‘recent’ kind of warrior to evolve, and thus benefits from more advanced technology, especially when it comes to their armor.
For Honor‘s vikings seem to be more of the fantasy, heavy-metal album cover kind than historical vikings, which is probably for the best as historical vikings were typically not full-time soldiers, but rather opportunistic raiders who preferred to attack low-risk, high reward targets that could not fight back (famously, monasteries were the perfect prey for viking raiders).
Viking warriors typically carried an axe and/or spear, and were not well armored, but could use their large round shields to great effect in a defensive formation. Elites and leaders were more likely to have better equipment, including swords and mail.
When the Scandinavian kings embarked on wars of conquest in the British Isles, France and Russia, Northmen proved they could hold their own in a pitched battle just as well as anyone else.
Just as knights excelled as cavalry, vikings as a military force are done some injustice in a game without seafaring, as one of the reasons viking raids into Europe were so devastating was due to their ability to swiftly traverse both rivers and the open sea in their longships.
Samurai, much like knights, were originally low-class soldiers (both words, ‘knight’, and ‘samurai’ originally meant ‘servant’) who eventually became important enough in society to become an privileged class of warriors with a strict code of honor.
The samurai code, later formalized as Bushido, stressed absolute loyalty to one’s liege lord, to the point where the samurai should be willing to throw away their own life in service without thinking twice. Much like the case with knights, the warrior code is as notable for the frequency with which it was broken, and samurai switching their loyalty to the other side could decide crucial battles.
The samurai class rose to prominence during a vicious period of warring states in feudal Japan, and received well rounded training in the art of war, being skilled primarily with the spear and bow, but also with the sword, which, much like with the knight’s sword, was used more in duels than in battle and eventually became the primary symbol of their social station.
The main weakness of the samurai against either knights of vikings would have been in the quality of the arms and armor. While very well crafted, the fact is Japan was not a metal-rich nation, and even the heavier variations of samurai armor used metal only sparingly, in combination with leather, lacquer and silk cords. Even the famous samurai swords such as the katana were generally made from poor quality metal, with special folding techniques being employed in the forging to compensate for this.
Knights Vs. Vikings
Very early incarnations of the knight might have lacked the technological edge to break a well-organized viking force who threw up a shield wall. It wasn’t cavalry that won the battle of Hastings in 1066 for William the Conqueror. But when we’re talking about heavily armored knights like the ones in For Honor, the vikings would have lacked the discipline and technology to stand up to a knightly charge, or penetrate full plate armor. It’s safe to say if the late medieval period knights ever had a chance against the early medieval period vikings, the poor vikings would have been crushed.
Samurai Vs. Knights
Similarly, technology is a deciding factor in a speculative knight vs samurai battle. Knightly weapons evolved with armor, developing specialized weapons like maces, warhammers and versatile halberds to penetrate full plate armor. Samurai, without that history of fighting metal-armored opponents, lack the right can-opener for the job. The katana, while able to thrust as well as cut, isn’t up to the standard of a specialized steel plate-piercing melee weapon.
Vikings Vs. Samurai
Of all the potential match-ups, this is the toughest one to call. The samurai were more professional warriors than vikings, and generally more versatile, being able, for example, to operate as mounted archers. The viking weapons and body armor aren’t so advanced as the knight’s so as to give them an overwhelming advantage, but they do have something going for them with their shields. In a straight-up close combat battle line, it’s hard to see samurai, used to a looser formation, breaking through a shield wall. It’s a close one, but I’m going to go with…
These conclusions for hypothetical battles between warriors who never met can’t be more than an educated guess, but I am looking forward to living out the fantasy in For Honor. Hopefully Ubisoft will do a good job of balancing the different sides.
This article originally appeared on video games magazine site NowLoading.co. The site is no longer online, but I’ve uploaded a few articles from my time as a staff writer there (2016-2017) here as portfolio samples.