The Order: 1886, Review

New console hardware and let’s be honest, the PlayStation 4 is still new opens up a lot of possibilities for game developers. And one thing that the PS4 has brought with it is the potential for a greater degree of graphical fidelity. Here’s a platform that allows developers to squeeze all kinds of eye-candy into a game, including things like seamless transitions between game-action and cut-scenes, excellent character animation, highly detailed character models and settings, and much more.

I’ll not deny it graphics are important. Very important. But I still maintain and always will that they can only be part of the experience; other elements are equally important, not least of which are the dynamics of the game. The “game play”, to use a term that I detest. So when the balance between these elements doesn’t sit well, you end up with a game that either feels great but looks awful, or you get a title that is all style over substance. This latter case is exactly what happened with The Order: 1886.

Developers Ready At Dawn got one thing right this is a game that looks and sounds awesome. The settings, being a steam-punky version of Victorian London, is pitch perfect, a great mixture of grime and smog that feels almost as though this place could really have existed in exactly this way. Populating it are a host of beautifully handled characters that look not only convincing, but perfectly in place in this setting. These include some famous faces, too, like Nicolai Tesla and a number of others who students of history may well recognise. And at the core of those characters are the four main heroes of the title… these characters show a great level of individuality, and are absolutely beautifully portrayed, both in terms of visuals and voice acting.

These characters are members of a not-so-secret organisation called The Order. Initially created by the legendary King Arthur, the Knights of The Order still meet at his fabled Round Table, and are tasked with keeping humanity safe from a predatory group of lycanthropic half-breeds. These werewolf-like shape shifters prey on humanity, but their incursion are usually less noticeable. However, when a group of rebels surfaces in London, protesting the draconian government and their iron fist (The Order, that is) things start getting out of shape pretty quickly. It is the player who must unravel the mystery, in the form of the centuries old Sir Galahad (so named because the Knights of the Order pass their name down to their successor, and so old because the lives of the Knights are lengthened by the use of a mysterious, curative substance called black water).

This is the premise of a rather interesting story that is well told. But from this stems the first problem that The Order: 1886 encounters. It wants to tell that story, and it will sacrifice principles of modern game design to do so. One of the things that players shy away from these days are tightly scripted, linear experiences, and that is exactly what The Order: 1886 delivers. It feels, more often than not, like a well-crafted interactive movie, rather than a video game, and certain sections will have the player doing things that could be considered unnecessary, purely to create a higher level of engagement in what would otherwise be very lengthy cut scenes. Requiring the player to walk, for example, from one area to another (without the hope of exploration or action) seems like extra padding, rather than a needed level of engagement. And yes, the idea of a tight narrative combining with player freedom is one that has challenged game developers for some time now, but too much sacrifice in one direction or another results in a feeling that is either entirely too loose (in the case of too much freedom) or rather anachronistic (in the case of tight control over player actions). The Order falls into the latter category, and while it does allow for small amounts of freedom (particularly in combat situations) there simply isn’t enough exploration and activity potential to make it more enticing as a video game.

In keeping with the whole movie feel (which, it must be said, had an extremely positive impact on the presentation, particularly as far as changing depths of field and other visual elements) The Order is rife with quick time events. While QTEs still have something of a place in video games, they are also an old-fashioned idea, and are more of that possibly unnecessary padding. This is particularly true here, because The Order uses them far too often. They come up in boss fights which, to be fair, makes for a great sense of drama and urgency, but they also arrive in other places where they are less welcome. And sometimes the controls feel just a little too sluggish to effectively work through them smoothly.

And then there is the combat. Because of it’s strict, linear nature, the player will run into that old-fashioned idea of “open space with cover means a fight” time and again. That’s a little disturbing in this day and age, and it leaves the game with a distinctly p[predictable flavour. That predictability is further enhanced by the fact that some of the tougher enemies will attack in cycles. Much like a 64-bit boss. It means they can be beaten, but it also means that they have overly predictable cycles that diminish the challenge they pose.

Other combat, in which the player is armed with a host of weapons including the lightning throwing Arc Gun and the Thermite Gun, which charged the desired area with a flammable gas that the player can ignite, becomes text-book after a short while. It’s a generic pop-and-drop shooter, when all is said and done, and even if some fights are a lot more challenging than others, they all bear that same feel.

And then there’s the fact that the game allows for no player controlled character progression, or upgrading. Had the player ben able to at least change Sir Galahad’s abilities, it might have mitigated a few of the game dynamic issues that The Order: 1886 presents. But everything is simply too tightly controlled by the developers. It is less of a personal experience, and more like prescribed reading. You will do it the way Ready At Dawn wanted… there is no other way.

The Order: 1886 is full of great ideas, and it features a setting and presentation that is really quite remarkable. But by bogging the actual game part of it down in outdated ideas and stripping the player of all but the smallest amount of freedom, it takes a step backwards, rather than surging forward like it should have. The developers put all their eggs in the presentation basket, leaving the game dynamics to feel like an afterthought, secondary to the tale. And that, in the current video game market, simply doesn’t cut it. It’s sad, really, because the potential that The Order: 1886 brings with it was entirely scuppered by ideas that the developers should have known were bad choices.


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