After a somewhat stagnant 2014, where much of the games I was looking forward to were pushed back, 2015 has been a killer-year for videogames so far, at least for me. Behemoths like Bloodborne and The Witcher III: Wild Hunt had been on my radar for a long time and in a slightly slower and less cram-packed year I might have*really* been looking forward to The Order 1886, a first party title by Sony for the PlayStation 4. To be honest though I really didn’t give a s**t about it, and when it launched back in February to lukewarm reviews it completely faded into the background for me. It didn’t help that in previews, and after a first-hand look at it during the EGX Expo last year, it just seemed like another third-person shooter; a genre that I have become increasingly disillusioned with alongside first-person shooters. As a school teacher I’m used to my students going ape-s**t over really vacuous ‘AAA’ games, but I was surprised when one of my pupils highly recommended this to be, largely because of its story and setting. It didn’t fit the mould of his usual style of game and he seemed to be enjoying it so much that my interest was piqued. I checked my Amazon wishlist and there The Order 1886 was, still on there after all this time, and listed for under £20. I picked it up prepared for a QTE-ridden third-person shooter lasting about 5 hours.
The very first thing I did though, upon firing up the game, was to try and scrap my slathering jaw from off the floor: The Order 1886 is *gorgeous*. I’d read articles on Digital Foundry about how amazing the graphics were meant to be for this game, but hadn’t given it much credence as (while good looking visuals certainly aid immersion into a game world) the visual fidelity of a game isn’t the be-all and end-all. But, jeebus steampunk christ, this videogame is probably the best looking piece of interactive entertainment I’ve ever played!! It is often *insane* how realistic and film-like The Order 1886 looks, and this is compounded by the cinematic aspect ratio. It bugged me and felt cramped in The Evil Within, but here it actually does what the developer intended and tricks you into thinking you’re watching a movie. The developers, Ready At Dawn, have applied a cinematic gamma curve to the colours and temperature of light, as well as copious post-processing to give the game a very soft image. The result is that it perfectly apes 35mm film stock, and is completely free of ‘jaggies’ without a harsh AA solution, and the geometry, lighting, textures and bump mapping are extremely robust and work together to create a true photorealistic image. What is even more surprising is that this all runs at a solid 30fps, with motion blur enabled, and in my playthrough I only encountered a single texture glitch in what is otherwise the best and most solid tech-demo the PS4 could ever ask for.
So, what is The Order 1886 actually about? The setting is an alternate Victorian London infused with steampunk overtones as well as doses of the supernatural; think Dishonored but photoreal rather than cartoony. You play as Sir Galahad, a knight of the round table and member of The Order, who has cheated death for hundreds of years using the Holy Grail and is on a constant mission to protect the innocent of England from the “things that go bump in the night”. The Order’s recent efforts are unfortunately being thwarted by a rebellion breaking out in Whitechapel, amidst the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders, as they fight against the “half-breed scourge”. This scourge is a sudden outbreak of werewolves terrorizing the citizens of London, however there also seems to be something amiss within The Order itself and slowly plots-within-plots start to unravel as you work out who is loyal to the crown and who isn’t. The setting and characters are, along with the sumptuous graphics, the real highlight of The Order 1886 and all people in the game are well-written with *excellent* voice acting (I had to look on the internet to see if one of them isn’t played by Jeremy Irons.. they aren’t, but they could be!). Over the course of the game I came to really engage with and enjoy the company of some of the characters and it’s not often that you find a strong Indian female character in modern videogames, especially one that is a capable fighter and doesn’t need saving; infact it’s refreshing that in this case she saves you on multiple occasions.
When it was released back in February, The Order 1886 came under a lot of fire for its lack of interactivity, short length, pacing issues, etc. and I think a lot of this came from the way in which the game was marketed as well as general misconceptions over the experience playing. Basically, if you’re looking for a third-person shooter, you won’t enjoy the majority of this game as really the shooting sections are secondary to the interactive story, which plays out more like Asura’s Wrath than Heavy Rain. I.e. you watch a cutscene and might occasionally have to hit some QTEs rather than the game running with context-sensitive controls. As a huge fan of both aforementioned games, I had no problem with the way that The Order 1886 is presented, in fact my only problem in gameplay terms came from the shooting sections. The third-person combat in the game is certainly serviceable and well-made, with all the usual cover-based shooting mechanics intact as well as an interesting selection of weaponry to keep things exciting. Thing is, a lot of the time I just wanted to get back to the story, and the shooty bits felt like padding for me, which is ironic as the walking-simulator parts of the game are what feel like padding for most other reviewers. It’s also important to realise that this is not an open world game or a game with a lot of interactivity from its environments, and while there are objects to look at and fiddle about with, they’re only really there as collectibles for trophy hunters. Most of the time the game would rather you just rushed through environments and keep up the pace of the story, which is damaged somewhat if you stop and look about too much.
Once I’d gotten used to hitting the “slow down time and shoot at parts of enemies” button if I was pinned down, or one of those asshole shotgun baddies turned up, the third-person shooter sections became a lot more fun. It’s also quite effective in this game to run forward and shoot from the hip when navigating cover. In the end, I liked it quite a bit. The only persistent let-down that never improved were the werewolf encounters, which are universally *meh* and involved avoiding their attacks whilst pot-shotting at them over and over until a QTE is triggered to kill them. Lame. Also, the final boss is really just a rehash of an earlier battle, and this smacks of the developer being short on time as the release date loomed. In fact, The Order 1886 feels very much like the prologue to a larger and more complex videogame series, which to be honest I hope we get! It’ll take you about 7-10 hours to play through the story, and by the end you’ll have resolution to some of the events and character arcs while several plot threads and conspiracies are left dangling in the wind, teasing a sequel. When it was originally released, the criticism it received for being short and low on replayability for a £40+ title were completely justified, and I too would have been more harsh on the game. But for £20 or under, the length of The Order 1886 seems reasonable, even if you’re not getting one hundred percent of the story.
The soundtrack for The Order 1886 is, like its visuals, utterly stunning and there are some standout themes and musical queues that suit the dank and dark ambience of Victorian London very well. In fact, the overwhelming impression from this game is of “quality”, and this is certainly a labour of love for Ready At Dawn, albeit one that faced several delays before having been rushed out the door. With even more time we might have gotten a longer and fuller experience, and I can’t blame people for thinking that there simply isn’t enough here to constitute a great game. In this case I give the game 7.5/10, a score of “very good”. However, I was *engrossed* in the story, loved the characters and setting, was blown away by the fidelity of both the visuals and music, and even grew to enjoy the shooting galleries that pepper the flow of the storyline. For me, this is deserving of another half-mark, and I was pleasantly surprised with what an enjoyable experience I had playing The Order 1886. A great but flawed PlayStation exclusive.