Originally Written for FlickeringMyth.com
With The Order: 1886, Sony owned studio Ready at Dawn strived to make the most seamless cinematic video game ever. But at what cost?
Set in an alternate version of London during the industrial revolution, the game follows Sir Galahad, a member of an ancient order of knights that have been around for hundreds of years. The knights themselves are all a lot older than they seem. They use something called the “Blackwater” which heals their wounds and grants them unnaturally long life. This has lead them to be hundreds of years old, some even over a thousand. They are the continuation of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table and still fight in the name of the British monarchy against enemies of the crown. Think of them as a kind of Victoria MI6, complete with their very own Q in the form of Nikola Tesla, making all of their gadgets and exotic weaponry. Although this iteration spends less time foiling plans of mad scientists, and more time hunting supernatural foes. In this instance being Werewolves.
Now, I might as well get this out of the way first. Yes, the game is short. My playthrough took me about 6 and a half hours. But the problem isn’t with the games length, you can have a shorter game that’s still an amazing and full experience. The problem here is that I think I was only an active participant in The Order for about 3–4 hours, and that times wasn’t spent playing anything particularly ground breaking. The developers have set up The Order as more of a book than a typical video game. The story is separated up into chapters, but not necessarily all of those chapters are playable. Some are devoid of action all together and are completely non-interactive. All of these cutscenes are even unskippable, in the same way that you can’t skip sections of gameplay. There are far too often moments in the game where you only play for a few seconds at a time between short cinematics that could of easily been integrated into the gameplay.
The game’s story is just as important to Ready at Dawn as any other part. Which makes it strange that its not very good at telling it. So much of its initial plot is told in seemingly throwaway conversations. So much so that I wasn’t 100% sure what was going on in the beginning. Even the Order themselves aren’t very well explained in the game. If I hadn’t been paying attention to developer interviews and trailers before the game’s release, I’m not sure I could have easily explained who they are. At least not until playing most of the game. This isn’t helped by its archaic language. I had to Google a few words to find out what they meant (apparently a Bedlamite is an old term for someone that’s mentally ill). I’m not saying stories with as much history as The Order need an introduction explaining their origins. But this game does such a bad job of explaining its plot, something like that might have helped me understand what was going on a bit better. Once you get past these shortfalls the story is actually quite interesting. It kept me intrigued through to the end, until it’s rather abrupt ending.
You’re probably asking yourself now “what exactly do you do in the game?”. There are a few very distinct types of gameplay. Fort starters there is a reasonable amount of shooting, but obviously nowhere near as much as expected. This combat for the most part boils down to trench warfare. You shoot from your cover at enemies, then move up to the next set of boxes and conveniently waist high walls. The environments aren’t very dynamic in these parts, you don’t have to worry about being shot from multiple sides, but the combat is still satisfying. Part of this comes down to the guns.
Most of them are fairly standard arms, although obviously futuristic for the time. I don’t think Silenced sniper rifles and fully automatic pistols were invented for at least another half century. It’s the more exotic weapons that are probably the most fun. These come in two varieties. The Thermite gun which shoots a barrage or flammable powder that’s then ignited with a flare, and the Arc gun. If you’re going to have Nikola Tesla making your guns you might as well have a portable Tesla coil. The gun shoots a charged bolt of lightning and is probably the most gruesome one in the game, exploding body parts upon impact.
Most of the rest of the gameplay is done via quick time events (QTE’s). They are used fairly often in cutscenes to make the action interactive. For the most part they work well and do a decent job of keeping you engaged in otherwise static scenes. As I said earlier, a major enemy type in the game are Werewolves, though they don’t pop up very often. There are two types of Werewolf fights, one that uses the shooting mechanics, and one purely using QTE’s. These fights are unfortunately duplicated in the game, just in different settings. Even the “final boss” is identical to an earlier fight from the mid point of the game. I wonder how much of that was down to development time restrictions rather than design oversight.
There are also a few stealth sections of the game that use context sensitive controls. When approaching an enemy you get a sort of countdown to a button press which performs a stealth kill. These sections, as with a fair amount of the QTE’s, are instant fail if you miss a button press, or are seen by an enemy. I got through them fairly smoothly, but I can see how others would find it annoying. If you are spotted you would have to replay from the last checkpoint, however far back that may be.
Finally, it’s the walking sections that become the most tedious in the game. You spend quite a lot of time seemingly walking from one cutscene to the next. The main annoyance is that the game controls what you can do during different sections. So during these parts, you can’t raise your gun or even use the sprint button to perform a light jog. And even if you could, when accompanied by an A.I companion you are tied to their pace. If you get ahead of them somehow they wont rush to catch up. They’ll still stroll to their destination, most likely a door or obstacle that you can’t pass until they reach you. This control of the pace seems, at times, to be in service of the visuals.
As you might be able to tell from the screenshots, the game is beautiful. If you ever want a game to show off to your friends what a PS4 is capable of, this is it. The setting is brilliantly realised in both art direction and sheer graphical power. The atmosphere, reflections, and even digital camera lenses really bring everything to life. There are a few draw backs. Some issues with depth of field in combat, an over use of motion blur, and the fact that the reflections only show the static environments, not any people or moving objects. Although these feel like nitpicking when it’s still probably the best looking console game I’ve ever seen. But while it looks amazing, these visuals have lead The Order‘s final flaw, it’s vanity.
The game seems to hold your hand and drag you through it’s levels, and as I said before, controlling how fast you walk to make sure you take it all in. This even spreads to the games collectables. Or rather, the interactables as I’ve come to call them. Objects scattered randomly throughout the world just for you to pick up and examine, moving them around in your hand, as if the game is shouting “LOOK AT IT! LOOK AT HOW BEAUTIFUL IT IS!”. These items really feel like a missed opportunity to flesh out the story. I think back to games like The Last of Us that used its collectables as an effective tool to not only flesh out the world but add entirely new plot threads. Galahad very rarely even comments on these items, leaving me to think of them as nothing but examples of the developers pride. There are audio recordings scattered around to collect as well, but they didn’t seem very well written and didn’t add much to the experience.
The Order: 1886 isn’t a bad game, but it’s not a particularly great one either. It sits firmly in the “OK” bracket. If you can borrow it from a friend or get a cheap copy it’s definitely worth playing (or watching, not sure about the right adjective here). But more than anything this game showed me the potential of what this franchise could become. The gameplay was fun, though quite unimaginative; and I liked the characters, but it’s the lore that interested me the most. So while I can’t recommend a full price purchase, I am looking forward to seeing where the team takes it, good or bad.
Alan Heath – Follow me on Twitter