For Honor, the hugely successful game from Ubisoft pits three factions: the aggressive Vikings, the disciplined samurai and the valiant knights in a free for all battle for supremacy. The game’s factions are fairly balanced against each other. However, in a real-life setting, we know this wouldn’t be that case. If, in a scenario, the direct historical counterparts of these heroes were to duke it out, who was likely to remain standing? Let’s find out!
This faction seen in the game is inspired from the Norsemen of the Viking age, a period extending from 8th to the mid 11th century of European history. Fearsome seafarers, they raided and terrorized coastal towns and settlements as far as southern Italy. Contrary to how they are popularly depicted, they didn’t have horns on their helmets. Also contrary, Vikings weren’t savage raiders with primitive tools and little armor. Vikings could field highly effective armies when they needed to and founded dynasties that went on to rule major portions of England, Northern France and Russia.
The “Raider” in the game is based on the Housecarl, elite guards of Scandinavian nobility. The “Warlords” are based on wealthy Jarls who could afford good armor and swords. The ‘Highlander’ is inspired by the Gallowglass, elite mercenaries of Norse-Gaelic descent. Lastly, the “Berserkers” and “Valkyries”, despite their names, are loosely based on well-to-do Karls (freemen) of Viking society.
Weapons and Armor
Spears and axes were the most common types of weapon carried by Vikings, being cheap and easy to produce. For those who could afford, the battle-axe was a favored weapon, being lightweight, well balanced and giving a good reach. The most expensive and prestigious weapon, however, was the sword and only the richest could expect to wield one. Better quality Frankish weapons from Germany were also highly coveted.
How rich was a Viking also determined how good his armor was. An iron helmet and a riveted wooden shield were common protection for professional fighters while men of high status came clad in chainmail or lamellar. However, the average Viking could not afford such pricey items and had to rely on offense as their best defense.
The Knights, as seen in the game, are based off their real-life counterparts from late 14th century Western Europe, when plate armor was being introduced. Trained from youth in the art of warfare, knights were the élite fighting force of any medieval army, mounted on horses and clad in the best armor the lands could afford.
The “Law Bringer” from the game is based off the Vögte of the Holy Roman Empire. The “Conqueror” and the “Warden” are based off the hardened veterans and noble knights respectively, of Germanic military orders. The “Centurion” and “Gladiator” take inspiration from earlier Roman times. Peacekeepers are fictitious.
Weapons and Armor
The primary weapon of a mounted knight was his lance, which he used to deadly effects. Once dismounted, the arming sword was the preferred weapon, usually accompanied with a heater shield. Others, more offense-oriented, tended to wield heavy longswords for greater reach and thrust. Against cavalry, a polearm was used. Archery weapons, while effective, were frowned upon as they were seen as “a coward’s weapon”.
Few things were imposing on the battlefield as a fully armored knight. A 14th century knight’s armor was composed of mail augmented with layers of plated armor, providing protection against a variety of weapons. Quilted garments such as a Gambeson were worn underneath to absorb concussive blows. Usually, a metal skullcap called a cervelliere was worn under a padded steel helm for added protection. Together, this made the knight a walking medieval tank. Some sets of knightly armor could weigh as much as 25 kilograms (55 pounds). However, this weight was evenly spread throughout the body thus, neither a wearer’s movement or his agility were compromised.
The in-game Samurai faction mirrors the Bushi warriors from the early Ashikaga era Japan. Adhering to the code of Bushido, they epitomized the virtues of reckless bravery, fierce family pride, and extreme devotion of to one’s master. Educated and trained in military tactics and strategy, the samurai were the officer class of Japanese armies.
The historical parallel to the “Kensei” would be a samurai of high status while the “Nobushi” is based off the Onna-bugeisha, its female counterpart. Similarly, the “Orochi” represents a lower ranked Samurai. The “Shinobi” is what its name implies, a professionally trained Ninja. The “Shugoki” is based off the mythological Oni, further corroborated by his weapon of choice, the Kanabō.
Weapons and armor
Contrary to popular beliefs, it was actually archery that the Samurai favored most and excelled at. Kyūba no michi or the way of the horse and bow was an important part of every Samurai’s life. Being skilled with the bow (Yumi) was a mark of a professional warrior. Any samurai who performed poorly was instructed to go kill himself (literally). Aside from the bow and sword, a
samurai also trained in the use of many different weapons such as a Naginata, Yari spear or even shuriken. The Katana and its intimidating variant, the Nodachi, were developed by this time and were a favored sidearm of the Samurai. A dagger, such as the Kaiken, was also carried, useful for self-defense in indoor spaces where the katana was impractical. This all made a samurai a very versatile fighter on the battlefield.
While mounted, the O-yoroi was the armor of choice for a Samurai. However, this type of heavy armor was impractical for infantry combat and the lighter Do-maru was worn for such situations instead. These were examples of Japanese lamellar armor, comprised of hundreds or even thousands of individual leather and iron scales laced together into strips. Drapes of Kusari (Japanese mail) was used to cover the most vulnerable parts of a samurai’s armor while a Mempo (Facial armor) completed the set by providing protection to the face. Additionally, a garment called the Horo also was worn for protection against arrows and other projectiles from the sides and rear.
Now that you know your factions, let’s determine the winner….
It’s not the Vikings by any chance. Their obsolete armor (or lack of it), weapons and tactics are just no match for the more technologically advanced knights and samurai. This leaves us with the choice between those two. Both products of their feudal system, highly trained in warfare, processing the best equipment in the lands and adhering to a warrior’s code of conduct.
Let the fight began!
A knight riding through the countryside stumbles across a corpse riddled with arrows. On closer inspection, they looked of foreign origin. Just then, an arrow zooms through the air and makes contact with the knight’s armor but barely manages to make a dent.
While the samurai could take to the bow in a way a knight himself could never imagine, the evidence states that it was extremely – and I emphasize on extremely – difficult for a bow to fatally penetrate a 14th century Knight’s harness. While it is true that English longbows were used to great effectiveness against French armored knights at battles such as Crecy and Agincourt, their purpose was to disrupt, slow down and dismount enemy troops. Most casualties among the French knights occurred when they charged en masse through difficult muddy terrain at the English lines under a sustained hail of arrows, becoming utterly exhausted and not in the condition to even “scarcely lift their weapons” when they met their foes.
A trained English archer could fire 10 arrows per minutes. Imagine thousands of such archers firing tens of thousands of arrows at your head while you slogged through mud and you still being able to reach the faraway enemy lines. A samurai wielding a Yumi on horseback (much-decreased draw weight) could throw a knight off his horse but very unlikely to finish him off at bow range.
With the samurai emptying his quiver in vain, he charges at the dismounted knight with his yari spear, ready to deliver a fatal blow. The knight raises his poleaxe and braces himself. The spear hits the knight’s cuirass and lodges into it, penetrating the plate but not the mail and padding underneath. The knight’s own weapon then does quick work of the horse, throwing the samurai off his saddle.
The medieval poleaxe was a versatile weapon, dangerously effective against heavy cavalry. Medieval knights and other men-at-arms while fighting on foot preferred to use it. The blade of a poleaxe was used, not only for simply dismounting an opponent but also for blocking his weapon, disarming, blocking his blows and hacking him to pieces. A knight’s armor was designed and intended to deflect strikes and absorb powerful thrusting blows from lances and swords alike. Even a Sankaku yari, designed for penetrating armor, would have had little luck against such defense.
A little dazed, the samurai regains his composure and gets up on his feet. The knight with his long sword now drawn taunts the samurai. Unsheathing his katana, the samurai prays to his ancestors to grant him an honorable victory and fearlessly, he lunges towards his foe. The knight thrusts his sword forward, the samurai parries and slices at the Knight’s less protected neck. However, the steel mail does a fine job of protecting the knight from the katana’s cutting ability.
The Katana was an exceptionally sharp blade. However, its thick wedge shape design meant it had to move aside material as it cut. Though devastating on a draw slice against flesh and bone, it was less effective against armors. Because of this, Japanese swordsmanship devised specific techniques not to cut at armor, but to stab and thrust at the more vulnerable gaps and joints. Nonetheless, a knight’s mail protected his most vulnerable parts; this made him nearly invulnerable to all cuts and slice draws.
The samurai back steps to draw some distance and re-strategizes. He sheaths his katana – to the bemusement of the knight – and suddenly, hurls shuriken at him. The knight instinctively bends his head and raises an arm for protection. Seizing the moment, the samurai leaps at the unaware foe with his Kaiken, which jams into the knight’s arm. The knight grabs hold of the samurai, savagely pummels his head with his pommel and finishes the samurai off with a thrust of his long sword.
Knights fought against a greater diversity of enemies than did the samurai, as such their arsenal evolved to be counter such a great variety of foe. Their weapons such as the long sword and the poleaxe were developed specifically in response to the advancement in plate armor. No such equivalent existed in Japan at the time. Against a powerful strike from knight’s long sword, lamellae composed of leather and iron was unlikely to hold. With factors such as experience, health and age being equal, in a showdown between a late 14th century samurai and knight, the latter would likely be the winner.