James Stephanie Sterling
The Order: 1886 Review – Short Order
Fantastic teaser… can’t wait for the actual game to come out.
Developer: Ready At Dawn
Released: February 20, 2015
Copy provided by publisher
If The Order: 1886 does one thing perfectly, it’s encapsulate exactly how homogeneous videogames have become in the big-budget space. Here we have a game set in Victorian London, a time when light bulbs were in their infancy, horses were still the primary method of travel… and there’s a hacking minigame. Yes, even videogames set in the 19th Century need hacking minigames, an obligatory compliment to cover-based firefights, futuristic automatic rifles, lockpicking sections, an inevitable slew of quick-time events, and rudimentary stealth levels. Ready At Dawn’s new shooter may wear the mutton chops of a period drama, but it’s as videogames as they come, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing – in fact, The Order is far from awful – it’s a beautiful example of how even unique concepts cannot be allowed to stray too far from familiarity.
The titular Order, to which protagonist Sir Galahad belongs, is an ancient clandestine organization dating back to the times of King Arthur. Styling themselves after the Knights of the Round Table, these secret soldiers slay monsters in the streets of London, extending their lifespan by means of the Holy Grail, and working with Nikola Tesla – because why not? – to produce highly advanced weaponry, because this is a videogame and we need our lightning cannons! Though the Order is concerned primarily with fighting werewolves (they only say “lycan” or “half-breed” since that’s the cool thing to do), the vast majority of the game is spent fighting men in derby hats. In fact, werewolves are fought maybe three or four times during the entire campaign, with most of the action dedicated to more standard third-person shooting against surly Londoners.
While 1886 does nothing to break the mold, its combat is nonetheless highly polished and engaging, with satisfying weaponry that spans historically accurate firearms and borderline sci-fi behemoths that spew electricity or spurt ignitable thermite powder. Comparisons to Gears of War are almost unavoidable, as Ready At Dawn has reproduced Epic Games’ formula almost entirely. The cover system, use of grenades, one-shot melee attacks, camera placement, everything is ostensibly identical to the Xbox-exclusive series, albeit dressed in the mustaches and frock coats of Imperial Britain.
Videogames uniquely get away with copying the formulae of their brethen provided they do it well – it’s why I adore Singularity so much – and The Order most certainly apes its predecessors with confidence and quality. One thing I admire is just how different each weapon feels, and how every single one – from the rustic single-shot rifle to the ninja-time crossbow – is effective in its own way. It’s one of those rare experience where I felt comfortable using almost any weapon, and couldn’t pick a favorite. The falchion machine gun is just as enjoyable as the sniper rifle, which packs just as much punch as the stagecoach shotgun. It’s rewarding to constantly switch out one’s arsenal and see how each gun works.
Outside of combat, things are little less enthralling. The game shamelessly opens with remedial quick-time-events through a network of restrictive corridors, all set at a plodding pace, and this framework comes to characterize much of the resulting campaign. Linearity is not a bad thing, but The Order has no interest whatsoever in exploration, curiosity, or player agency. You’re allowed to run only when the game tells you, your hand is held by immersion-breaking tutorial pop-ups that never stop and cannot be turned off, you’ll come to doors that you know you can open, but are barred from touching until the patronizing prompt appears.
Much of your progress is stuttered as you are forced to stop and start through a level constantly, with no real flow to the events that unfold – just as you begin to get into the action, another long cutscene will pull you out of it, or yet another door will bar your path and arbitrarily halt you until it’s ready for your prescribed interaction. The Order is a somewhat fitting name for the game – its sense of order is strict and unyielding, while the player is expected to follow its commands to the letter. Like so many games these days, it’s more interested in playing you than allowing you to play it.
Meanwhile, it paints by numbers as it goes through the checklist of standardized videogame features. Simplistic stealth chapters occur now and then, forcing the player to awkwardly sneak about and one-hit-kill grizzly men from behind. Galahad picks locks and hacks electricity boxes via primitive minigames. Fighting lycans is promising and paranoia-inducing, but all too brief and astoundingly infrequent. Meanwhile, the two battles that could feasibly be deemed boss encounters are, themselves, little more than QTEs of another flavor. All this, spread fairly thinly across a campaign that will maybe take five or six hours to get through.
The Order‘s real problem, however, isn’t that it’s short – it’s that it does so very little with the time it has. Narratively, the game is a prologue as opposed to a full-fledged story, concerned only with building to a crescendo that never comes. Just as things finally get interesting and the plot unfolds… the credits roll. In the final chapters of the game, we deal with revelations that would occur halfway through any complete story but are instead used here solely to set up a sequel, to the point where I’d say 1886 is nothing BUT one big teaser for a presumptuously pre-planned franchise.
Five hours of tight storytelling can be justified, but this is all just a big tease with no payoff. The whole thing comes off more like the first installment of an episodic series than a complete title in its own right, and I was shocked when the game ended as I genuinely thought I’d hit the halfway point and was about to start kicking things into high gear. Forgive the turn of phrase, but if any other game has given me a bigger case of the proverbial blue balls, I certainly cannot recall it.
“But… the game’s just started,” I stammered while The Order: 1886 told me it was all over. “Oh wait, here’s a new cutscene, maybe the credits were a red herr… oh… more credits.”
For what it’s worth, The Order: 1887 or whatever the sequel eventually calls itself does look like it’ll be awesome, judging by this interactive trailer. The villain it’ll have certainly seems promising, as do the fact that more than just werewolves and serial killers are shown lurking the streets of Whitechapel. The world built by 1886 is an engrossing one, and if nothing else the way it’s presented is fantastic, especially when it comes to the strong vocal performances and beautiful character animation. As burly English people yell at each other, one could feel they were watching something from the Sharpe series of televised adaptations, even if the dialog is intensely cliched at times – for example, there’s a cringeworthy “not so different” speech from an antagonist, including a bromide, “maybe one day you’ll understand.”
I admire the purity of The Order‘s overall intention, that much I’ll afford the thing. To see a game of this caliber and genre dedicated to a single-player experience, eschewing multiplayer entirely, is a rare and welcome sight. The confidence in its narrative potential is exuded by such a contextually bold move, and judging by the foundation laid throughout, it’s a confidence that’s well founded. All the pieces are in place for this game’s world to be provocative and enthralling, to tell some astounding stories that’ll blend horror, fantasy, and science fiction into an authentic historical setting.
Indeed, the atmosphere and detail exuded in every scene is palpable, and Ready At Dawn clearly has the skill needed to make an engrossing world of mystery and intrigue. At points, it seems as if 1886 is capable of verging on the kind of universe presented by White Wolf’s World of Darkness games. There are shades of Hunter: The Reckoning, Werewolf: The Apocalypse and even Vampire: The Masquerade flitting in and out of the adventure, but the frustrating reality is that they stop at merely shades. Nothing is fleshed out, as the production painstakingly treads water to serve as a mere primer for whatever this series has in store later.
So, if that’s what it all boils down to, and The Order is designed to keep our fires stoked for a sequel, then I can at least say it’s an unequivocal success. I want to see more of a London beset by mythological horrors, protected by a steeled enclave of latter-day knights. I want to know how Sir Galahad’s late-game revelations spur him onto new endeavors, how Lady Igraine’s resolve to crush the Whitechapel rebels may put her at odds with comrades, and I simply want to see more of Marquis de Lafayette because he’s a wonderful character. Between these elements and the many, many other unresolved portions of 1886, I see big things for The Order as a series. I truly do.
This game, however, is naught but a glimpse of all that dormant promise. The Order: 1886 is a primer, not a story that feels complete or particularly worthwhile. When it allows itself to focus on action, it can provide a stimulating round of pop-and-fire combat, at least before it allows itself to drown in common distractions and intellectually insulting button prompts. While clearly assured in itself as a concept, it doesn’t extend that same faith to the player, so eager it is to hold its audience’s collective hands and guide them through corridors of patronizing tutorials and arbitrary gates to progression.
The sequel that Ready At Dawn is so desperately gunning for has a wonderful stage set, and I have a feeling it will be pure dynamite. When it comes, this will look even more like what it is – a sacrifice of a game, thrown out and burned simply to allow the real show to begin.
Oh, and what’s with the needless L.A. Noire bits where you have to keep holding things and swiveling them in Galahad’s hand? Are they that proud of the texture on his gloves, or what?