All order and no chaos makes for a dull experience.
The first time I saw The Order: 1886, the PlayStation 4 exclusive by Ready at Dawn, I was stunned by the presentation. This was way back at a pre-E3 event in Santa Monica last year. The 19th-century Victorian England-era setting was super crisp. Every detail felt genuine; the heavy-looking clothes each member of the order wore looked realistically cumbersome. Though the game was set in an alternate steampunk-inspired world where thermite guns blasted iron wooden structures to pieces, it felt more real than most games.
The game’s developers Ready at Dawn expressed frustration that spatial relation in games tended to change and is often far from accurate. Think when a character appears disproportional in comparison to a hallway they walk through. They succeeded in solving this problem: the architecture of the rooms seemed more “right” than even in a Naughty Dog production. Ready at Dawn’s reps were also on deck to field questions, but since they had impressed me with their portable outings with its God of War titles on PSP, the only question I had was when The Order would launch.
I should have asked more questions…
It’s not a perfect comparison, but it’s hard not to look at the finished product and compare it to an indie filmmaker finally getting a big budget and not knowing what to do with all their newfound resources. Except that for Ready at Dawn, it wasn’t just more money, but more memory and more processing power by virtue of the powerful PlayStation 4. Instead of being hampered by RAM and other technical limitations, they could let their imagination run wild. Sadly, beyond a few rousing moments peppered throughout the campaign’s sixteen chapters, The Order: 1886 is a shallow experience.
The week before release, a leaked gameplay video seemed to prove that the entire campaign could be finished in about five hours. My time was closer to around eight, but the real tragedy is that I wished it was only five. I’ve never thought a game’s length should be much of a consideration in terms of its overall value. In fact, I think too many campaigns of late—The Evil Within, comes to mind—are bloated. Most likely, this is a result of players complaining about games being “too short” nowadays.
The bigger issue is that the characters aren’t compelling, and the story never takes off. I never imagined walking and shooting my way through gorgeous representations of White Chapel like a subway station, a factory, and a brothel could feel so tedious. Yet, chapter after chapter, there’s not much to do. To be more specific, how you interact with the world doesn’t hold any engaging possibilities. Though they might seem similar, there’s a vast difference between how Joel and Ellie traverses post-apocalyptic America in The Last of Us versus Galahad and Izzy’s stroll through England. Beyond just the better writing in TLOU, The Order can’t make its narrative click even with such amazing scenery. The feeling I had while exploring was closer to L.A. Noire. Yeah, there are things to look at, but why would you?
Set in an alternate 19th-century London during the time of the Jack the Ripper spree, you’re the quiet but passionate Sir Galahad, a high-ranking officer of The Order, a pseudo Victorian Knights of the Round Table society, complete with an actual round table for meetings. With your right-hand officer Izzy at your side, you’re out to track down who or what is leaving dead bodies in its wake across London. If you’re thinking this would become some cool alternate take on the notoriously unsolved Ripper case, you’d be wrong. The Ripper and other famous names from the era are only briefly mentioned. You do get cool gadgets from Nikola Tesla, but even those moments are few and far between. Most of the time you’re out to kill “those rebel bastards” that oppose the Queen.
The Gears of War-style duck-and-cover shooting feels uninspired which is as much a result of the gameplay’s age as to the fact that there’s no real AI. The rebels arrive in droves and mostly stick to their positions. Every now and then, a more heavily armored guy will come out to directly attack, but he just takes more gunfire to kill. Worse, the non-human beastie encounters are just as frustrating. They tend to come at you one at a time, attack fast, and are impossible to hit as they retreat.
Eventually, you riddle them with bullets, as they approach, and then hit triangle to deal the final blow. Not very memorable. Besides shooting and collecting ammo, you can pick up items, which you can turn with the left stick to rotate. There are plenty of old-timey photographs that can be turned over to see hand drawn notes by hitting triangle. Fun times, I suppose? But none of this rudimentary sleuthing goes anywhere. There’s never an “ah ha!” moment like in Bioshock.
Speaking of that classic, seven-year-old game, throughout the levels in The Order 1886 are tiny tin cans that have voice recordings on them, but they can only be heard when you’re in the menu screen for that item. Bioshock and countless other games since have used spooky recordings to advance the story. It’s a terrific device; unless that is, said recording can’t be heard while you walk around to further explore the environment. Am I really supposed to believe that tiny mp3 samples bog down the mighty PS4? Even weirder, since this is a PS4 exclusive, why aren’t these recordings heard on the DualShock 4’s speaker? An odd oversight to be sure.
The other way players interact are the numerous QTE events. I understand the hate whenever quick-time events are implemented, but I was fine with it. The Order’s biggest asset is the moody atmosphere that permeates every scene so I don’t mind that the QTEs allow every wonderful image to be front and center. A level that finds Galahad and his mates inside a zeppelin is amazing because of the mood and the QTEs. Because it’s certainly not the shooting…
Like Ryse on Xbox One or Heavenly Sword on PS3, The Order: 1886 unfortunately feels like that ho-hum action-adventure game that accompanies a console’s first-year launch. This PS4 exclusive is by far the most stunning visually of the bunch, but is that enough for players starved for something new and original for their console? A rental is certainly preferred, at least over just watching the leaked footage on the web. Perhaps some day, Ready at Dawn could develop a sequel that's gorgeous and fun, and lives up to the promises of The Order: 1886, fingers crossed. But today is not that day.