The Order: 1886 has been the subject of fierce debate this week, but one thing that cannot be disputed is that from a graphical standpoint, it is a work of virtuosity.
Striding confidently over the uncanny valley without so much as breaking a pixellated sweat, it pushes frame after incredible frame of astoundingly vivid images that deliver on the promise of The Sorceror tech demo that wowed audiences at Sony’s E3 presser in 2013.
The player is Sir Galahad, a knight of the titular Order which until the Industrial Revolution was fighting a losing battle on behalf of humanity against werewolves. The knights of the Order don’t just have technology on their side though, they also possess a mysterious liquid known as Black Water, which allows them to quickly recover from wounds that would ordinarily be fatal.
However, the lycans are becoming bolder with their attacks on London’s citizenry, a working class resistance movement is threatening revolution, and the leadership of the Order is acting with strange timidity. Is there some larger conspiracy here? Yes, of course there is.
The lengths The Order’s marvellous visuals go towards selling the authenticity of its steampunk world are immense, with an OCD-level of attention to detail the key. Test tubes realistically reflect their lab surroundings, mud and water discolour the cobblestone streets, and the smoke rising from hot ashes in a pipe coils perfectly as you move it from side to side.
From the polished wood interiors of an airship to the immaculate gardens of a palace, the swaying robes of a Knight to the game’s uniformly awesome facial hair, every square inch looks handcrafted and tremendously realistic – good enough to make you forget about the game’s letterboxing, even.
These astonishing visuals are bolstered by a terrific score, alongside the typically underappreciated work from the sound effects department, which has lent even the game’s pistols a hefty and satisfying punch. Despite heavy visual filters the world feels tactile and immediate, the dour mood thick as cockney brogue.
Ready At Dawn leans heavily on these visuals too, encouraging the player to luxuriate in this dense, well-realised world with up-close Gone Home-style item inspection and frequent and impressive in-engine cutscenes.
Unfortunately, all this glorious fastidiousness has come at a heavy cost. It’s impossible to know whether Ready At Dawn simply ran out of time to fully develop its already-delayed title or whether it kept things simple to appeal to the broadest possible audience, but whatever the case, the gameplay in The Order is disappointingly shallow.
The core is third-person shooting from cover, and it’s fleetingly enjoyable (the sights! The sounds!) until you realise you are essentially playing an extremely pretty but very directed shooting gallery.
To call it on-rails is wholly unfair, but The Order is to shooting what Crytek disasterpiece Ryse is to melee – beautiful but utterly braindead. Too many enemies eshew cover in favour of buckshot to the face, and those that do seek temporary refuge from death are far too predictable with their noggin exposure. To defeat these chumps it’s literally a case of leaving your crosshair where a guy’s head last appeared.
The only enemies that will kill a player even passingly familiar with the concept of video gaming are the Irish guys with shotguns as they actually bother to do something other than bob about in the middle distance. The tactics employed by the rest make Zapp Brannigan look like a strategic genius, and that the small number of enemy models all strike the same shooting pose only enhances the rifle range feel of it all.
So too does the way moving forward in a firefight is generally punished, making hanging back in cover the optimal solution in every single firefight. There are a number of weapons, but the best (thermite rifle, induction lance) are so overpowered that the game only grants you access to each a couple of times, and any of the rest will kill with efficiency.
These shooting sections may be hollow, but they shine when held up against other parts of the game, which simply feel unfinished from a mechanics standpoint.
The strangest sections are the werewolf battles. The Order insists that the lycans are fearsome creatures that are more than capable of overwhelming a knight by themselves, but when Galahad faces off against multiples of them, they are polite enough to rush at Galahad one at a time, before quickly scurrying back to the shadows.
Then there are the two boss battles, which are little more than the same oddly stiff quick time event-style sequence repeated in a different setting with different interstitial cutscenes. It’s galling to master the mechanics of a game in anticipation of a huge battle only to have the mechanics switch to unfamiliar, unsatisfying stuff for climactic battles.
The way stealth sections are handled is equally strange: you must time a button press when close to your intended target or he turns and shoots you in the head for an instakill. This is especially weird given how many bullets it takes to put you down in regular play. And why can Galahad drink Black Water to revive himself once downed, but not if he’s just really really hurt? Even the button used to climb up something doesn’t remain consistent throughout the game for some reason.
The game’s non-combat sections don’t fare a whole lot better. Most simply require you to walk to the next marker and press X, then repeat the whole process until a cutscene is triggered. There’s no exploration here, all that’s required is the ability to walk slowly to the next arrow.
You are funnelled through The Order in this way because you don’t have to deviate far from its narrow guidelines for its immaculately-realised world to betray its lack of interactivity. NPCs stare past Galahad and into the distance even as he treads on their toes, and very little is interactive beyond the odd destructible items placed in the middle of some firefights.
Not much of this would matter if there was at least a compelling story holding everything together, but what’s presented is the worst kind of boilerplate writing where characters behave inconsistently to suit the plot, and most plot cornerings are telegraphed long before they are taken.
There’s not a hint of subtlety here, and players will quickly tire of the super-serious tone and gruff whisper-shouting. The cast are given little else to do, so it’s hard to care about any of them. Most annoying are sections where several characters refuse to explain their perfectly-reasonable behaviour – even when it would remove them from harm’s way – simply so tension is maintained. It’s manufactured drama, and frankly, it’s insulting. Even the game’s main twist doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Much has been made of The Order’s slim duration, and I can confirm that despite numerous cutscenes and forced-walk passages of play, most will get through the whole game comfortably in under seven hours. It will be seven hours of lavishness in an intoxicating setting, but the high bar set by these elements dwarfs the game’s achievements in other areas.
In the end, the brilliantly-realised environments and the game’s flawed intrigue might pull a few players through, and those after a truly resplendent graphics-driven experience they won’t have to think hard about will find much to love here. It is akin to a playable cinematic experience, after all. But a hardcore shooter with a decent narrative this is not – a damn shame because the setting is a doozy.