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The Order: 1886 (PlayStation 4) artwork

The Order: 1886 (PlayStation 4) review


"It has pretentions to blending mediums and fails at two things simultaneously."


The Order: 1886 (PlayStation 4) image


We throw the gaming industry a lot of punches for over-franchising, but let The Order: 1886 stand as evidence that even an original IP by an up-and-coming development studio can feel just as rote as the latest Ubisoft release. It's garnered a few defenders, mainly for its production values, and I can't deny the exhaustingly researched level of detail that went into painting this steampunk, alternate-reality version of Victorian-era London. But if I were one of Ready at Dawn's artists, I'd be infuriated to see my work muddied by pointless visual gimmicks and wasted on a campaign that rehashes the same material we've been getting in AAA action games for nearly a decade.

The Order is a linear, cover-based shooter that does nothing new. That could have been the end of it. What drives it over the edge is that it has pretentions to being more. Ready at Dawn's self-stated goal was to blur the line between film and video game, yet The Order follows a basic alternation between cutscenes and gameplay with little question as to where one ends and the other begins. Its attempts the blend the two are laughably half-hearted. There are many quick-time events. There are also many, many instances in which you're forced to a walking speed as an alert that you're supposed to be laboriously examining objects. The Order's storytelling techniques are nothing that haven't been done countless times before.

That leaves us with only a handful of visual gimmicks implemented with the intention of capturing a "filmic look," the most controversial of which was Ready at Dawn's decision to frame the entire game in letterboxed 2.40:1. And as The Evil Within demonstrated last year, there's a very good reason that video games have settled on 16:9 as the ideal aspect ratio. A certain level of visual real estate is required to feel comfortable in situations where precision and reaction time are essential. Since this is a cover-based shooter, it stands to reason that I'll want to peek over cover quite a bit, and that's difficult to do when around a quarter of the screen has been chopped off. It's one of many stylistic quirks that actively detracts from the game's playability.

The Order: 1886 (PlayStation 4) image


But at least the game is impressive on a technical level, right? If you're okay with The Order running at half the framerate and three-quarters the resolution of what's actually impressive these days, then sure. The character models are exquisite, though they're notably the only thing we ever get close to; since The Order's campaign is so linear and contained, it's not hard to picture a lot of smoke-and-mirrors going on to trick us into thinking that this rendition of London is more sprawling than it is. The Order also uses a grain filter, a new idea that was a hair newer when Mass Effect did it seven or eight years ago. I turned it off then. I wasn't given the option to do that here, leaving me with a game that looks deliberately muddy and washed out. Between that, an over-emphasis on a sepia-leaning color scheme and a surprising number of chapters set in dark underground corridors, I can't remember the last technical showcase that looked this hideous.

The irony of this situation is that for as much as The Order strives to feel like a movie, it's got neither the script nor the pacing to rival a good one. It would seem that the only two steps to writing characters from the late 17th century are to remove all contractions and give everybody absolutely no sense of humor, so the game's overlong cutscenes – seriously, entire chapters go by with literally zero player interaction – are just full of dry, witless chatter about Lycans between individuals distinguishable mostly by how much facial hair they've got. Scenes are staged expertly, but there's virtually no character development and therefore no drama.

Not that The Order doesn't attempt drama. The plot concerns a league of knights who protect the world from supernatural horrors and follows a particular member, Sir Galahad, as he uncovers some evildoing within the institutions he holds dear. A flash-forward prologue informs us that Galahad's own comrades will sentence him to death at some point, so it will not surprise you that he unearths some nasty conspiracies (which is good, because he doesn't seem too phased by it, either). You'd think centuries of life would elevate Galahad's level of wisdom, yet he makes a number of rash actions in the campaign's second half and, most maddeningly, does nothing with the revelatory information he finds. When he's branded a traitor, blowing the whistle on the real enemies would solve every problem, but he just sits there and takes it like a silent protagonist with no say in matters. It's hard to stand behind a character whose problems are his own doing.

The Order: 1886 (PlayStation 4) image


Ready at Dawn plays a bit of "guess who" with the handful of famous historical figures from that era, so Jack the Ripper is one of the central villains, Arthur Conan Doyle is the police commissioner, and Nikola Tesla your quartermaster. (In an example of the game's sparkling wit, Galahad asks Tesla about his relationship with Edison, to which he replies, "Thomas and I are not on speaking terms. The man is an idiot!") One of your teammates is Lafayette, a good century after he actually lived. Members of the Order have access to an elixir that prolongs their life, see. Oh, except it's later established that Lafayette isn't a member of the Order yet. So I don't know, then.

The Order gained notoriety for running only five or six hours at the most, so you'd be surprised just how padded and uneventful it feels. I'd wager that less than half of the campaign is spent doing anything more engaging than watching unskippable cutscenes, scanning objects and participating in those go-to crutches for game developers who wish they were filmmakers, quick-time events. I don't know any video game enthusiasts who actually think that quick-time events are a good idea to begin with, but remember that The Order was meant to blur the distinction between story and gameplay, to make players question when they're in control. It seems counterintuitive, then, to constantly alert players to which button on the controller they're supposed to be pressing.

The game is full of audio logs, just like movies are (?), and some of The Order's juiciest period piece nuggets are hidden in those. Ready at Dawn didn't follow the crucial rule of audio logs, though, which is to let us listen to them while we're playing, instead relegating them to the menu. It's in keeping with The Order's running theme of sweeping its few genuinely intriguing artistic endeavors under the rug.

The Order: 1886 (PlayStation 4) image


And notice that none of this would actually matter if The Order was fun to play. But we are long, long past the point in which cover-based shooting can carry itself on name alone, with no innovation, and the handful of unique weapons that would have given The Order's combat a distinctive edge – like a gun that ignites clouds of thermite – are relegated to only a couple of sequences. The majority of the campaign's hectic bits are just nondescript shootouts with generic guns and no eye for momentum or territorial control; in fact, most gunfights can be cleared by simply picking off waves of enemies from a single spot. There's one neat set piece a third of the way through involving a zeppelin, but everything else is such an afterthought that it's not difficult to imagine the shooting mechanics only existing to avoid comparisons to David Cage's work.

I can't properly criticize The Order without also citing its awful forced stealth segments, which play like a crash course in how not to implement stealth. There's low visibility, for one thing – because the game is both dark and letterboxed, bear in mind – and the cover system doesn't always seem to hide you like it should, so there's constant ambiguity over what you can and can't get away with. This is infuriating because the stealth is insta-fail, which is both a pain and flat-out illogical. We're led to believe that Galahad is a top agent with centuries of experience, yet during these particular sequences, his reaction to being seen by guards is to grunt and hold up his hand like he can just knock the bullets away.

Had The Order been a movie, it'd have earned a 30% Tomatometer rating, experienced a sharp drop in box office earnings in its second week and been all but forgotten within a month. But since it had pretentions to blending mediums, it instead fails at two things simultaneously, pairing a lousy action game with an underwhelming story and failing to connect the two in any meaningful way. I'm a bit proud that critics haven't been biting with this one, because it demonstrates that empty production values and half-hearted marketing gimmicks don't cut it anymore. I got used to games being superficially "pretty" ages ago; I'll never get used to them not being good.

Rating: 4/10


Suskie's avatar
Freelance review by Mike Suskie (March 01, 2015)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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