A half-baked PS4 launch game…15 months late
We expect certain corner-cutting measures to come with console launch games. Back in November 2013, we saw these design shortcomings in action on the PS4 with Knack and on the Xbox One with Ryse: Son of Rome—two titles that were more proof-of-concept than complete, well thought-out adventures.
We don’t expect that from high-profile system exclusives 15 months later.
Yet that’s more or less what we’ve gotten with The Order: 1886, which curiously feels more like it’s designed to sell players on the power of the PlayStation 4 than provide them with a cohesive third-person shooter.
Granted, the Zeppelin-filled vistas of this slightly ahead-of-its-time, werebeast-infested Victorian London are as impressive as anything seen on Sony’s latest console. That attention to detail extends down to street level, where vintage posters, storefronts, and even the iconic Underground itself provide an impressive level of character to this 19th-century fog-enveloped marvel.
As someone who took a trip to London a few years back to explore its rich history (thanks, severance package!), the scenery comes off as authentic and meticulously researched. This is the only game where I’ve ever been distracted by a majestic statue of King Alfred the Great in the middle of armed combat—and gladly took a few bullets to the face so that I could bask in its glory for a few more seconds.
Developer Ready At Dawn, in their first full-fledged home-console effort after close to a decade of shepherding Kratos on Sony’s portables, should be commended for crafting such an intriguing setting. Everything else in the game, however, receives surface-level polish at best—including, astonishingly, the titular organization ostensibly at the heart of this adventure.
As a Knight of the Order, protagonist Galahad is part of a clandestine society pledged with protecting humankind from inhuman threats. In the game’s mythology, this oath stretches back to King Arthur himself thanks to Blackwater of the Grail, an elixir that grants these modern Knights of the Round Table the gift of eternal life (so long as they aren’t riddled with bullets or ripped limb from limb). Meanwhile, Nikola Tesla provides the Order with their future-tech guns and gadgets. (And this is only the second-most bizarre, out-of-nowhere gaming appearance for the eccentric Serbian inventor after 2010’s Dark Void, where he rigged extraterrestrial technology into a Rocketeer-style jetpack for a pilot in the 1930s.)
Of course, The Order doesn’t actually bother to tell you any of this until several chapters in and instead spends its first couple of hours on one of the most aimless opening jaunts I’ve had the displeasure of enduring in recent memory. It was a good 40 minutes before I felt like the actual game had started, and it’s not even like The Order sets the scene particularly well with these sequences, either—Galahad simply ambles slowly through Victorian mansions, alleys, and gates…to add ambience, perhaps? That’s the only thing I can figure.
From there, however, things follow a mind-numbing formula for the rest of the game: Press a couple of buttons during an “interactive” cinematic sequence. Get ambushed by hordes of rampaging Victorian gents in newsie caps and bowler hats. Use the game’s cumbersome cover system to hide and deliver headshots as necessary. And when all that’s over, watch a bunch of stuffy talking heads with immaculately groomed mutton chops and handlebar moustaches drone on and on to set the next scene.
Not that the game does a particularly competent job of that. Either I’d expected the “twists” all along, or the reveals were so pedestrian that I couldn’t be bothered to care. The Order fails to tell a cohesive, focused story, which is inexcusable given the history of England, both real and mythical, readily available to spin this tale. You wouldn’t think it’d be difficult to grab someone’s attention regarding werewolves in London—for crying out loud, Warren Zevon did it in just 3 minutes and 27 seconds—but The Order somehow manages to botch it completely in about 10 hours.
And on that note, yes, much has been made of the game’s length. That isn’t an issue at all with me, and while some will take longer or shorter than I did, the problem is that The Order simply doesn’t respect your time. Too often, you’re perusing empty hallways, fighting the same group of marauding foes over and over, and exploring a world that just doesn’t seem interested or invested in illuminating any details that might shed some light on the characters or setting.
I’m not necessarily the biggest fan of audiologs as a storytelling device, but if you’re going to put them in your game, make an effort to ensure they truly augment the narrative. The Order offers just over a dozen phonograph cylinders that don’t expand upon the world in any meaningful way, and it’s baffling that Ready At Dawn seems so content with letting the surroundings feel so utterly barren. The game offers the potential for the spectacular, such as an airship-infiltration sequence that starts with promise above the London skies, but the game consistently whiffs on the follow-through—even when all the elements are set up on a tee for an exhilarating rush.
Furthermore, I uncovered every in-game item and stray newspaper in my initial playthrough without expending much effort, and hardly any of them added anything to the experience. (And when one of those newspaper headlines reads “District Paralyzed By Power Failure,” using the American spelling, it makes me wonder how much effort Ready At Dawn put into crafting and checking these particular elements of the game.) And why let me turn over the various photographs and posters I see…and then almost never put anything of interest on the back?
The Order squanders the potential of its fascinating setting like no game I can recall. Why is Tesla in London working for the Order? (Did The Oatmeal get partial writing credit here?) What is the United India Company? Where is Queen Victoria? The game raises questions, but it seems so uninterested in answering even the most mundane queries—not because it feels like it’s got a secret to keep, but more that it simply can’t be bothered.
And I still might be able to forgive all that to an extent if the core gameplay managed to make trudging through the slums, side streets, and brothels feel worthwhile—but combat is usually just as dull as the rest of this tepid affair. The game throws the same encounters at you again and again, and the aiming system feels curiously off, even when you’ve got foes dead to rights. (Who knew Christian Bale’s Newsies attire would prove so effective at defending live gunfire?) The targeting reticle would line up with an opponent’s face several feet in front of me and they’d shake the bullet off, while I’d pop a sniper perched in a window from 50 feet away and they’d crumple into a heap. The gunplay was often so frustrating that I sometimes resorted to rushing the enemy with melee moves just so the agony wasn’t prolonged.
The Order isn’t content to simply offer subpar gunplay, however. At no extra cost, it also throws in sneaking sections straight out of 1998. I’d be wary of spoilers, but absolutely nothing here is worth keeping a secret—certainly not some of the worst insta-fail stealth sequences I’ve played in years. After all, nothing protects the mystique of a near-immortal Knight of the Round Table like a random Englishman in a bowler hat gunning him down like it were nothing, right?
That’s hardly the only time our hero comes off like a wimp, either. Galahad consistently feels weirdly lumbering and cumbersome, and for all the talk of Tesla tinkering in his lab, his weaponry feels woefully undercooked, too. As a modern-era Knight of the Round Table and a literal hero of legend, Galahad should feel immensely powerful—like a 19th-century Solid Snake crossed with Marcus Fenix. Games like Bayonetta prove that it’s possible to take control of an over-the-top action hero while also facing stiff competition. In The Order, even the outcome of a one-on-one duel with the Artful Dodger seems like it would be in question.
As Galahad, I didn’t feel like a legendary knight. I felt like an outgunned 19th-century cop constantly under siege and overmatched by caricatures out of a Thomas Nast cartoon. The game just loves to snatch away your weapons at inopportune times, too. I never really got comfortable with any of them simply because the plot constantly dictated what I used at a given time.
Not that The Order’s overhyped villains, the lycanthropic Half-Breeds, feel all that threatening themselves. Every fight with the Lycans feels the same, and once I figured out their patterns—which happened within minutes of my first encounter—they ceased feeling like any sort of threat and were instead a rote exercise to complete.
The game’s frustrating missions aren’t difficult, but they’re often confounded by explanations that are too often unclear and obtuse, sometimes magnified by the whole “two countries separated by a common language” deal. (I’m just glad my Anglophilic temperament means I know the difference between an American “first floor” and a British one, or I’d have been particularly frustrated by one mission in particular.)
And all that exasperation is amplified by The Order’s less crucial but still annoying elements. You can’t remap the controls, which always bugs me. The game often forces you into sequences where you can’t sprint but doesn’t make it obvious that’s the case. Galahad’s time-slowing power, Blacksight, can turn the tide of battle, but it’s useless if there happens to be cover in the way. The pointless letterbox format doesn’t add anything to the presentation, and the unnecessarily tiny text makes following the dialogue a pain. It’s also not always clear when the game is showing you a cutscene and when you’re in an “interactive” cinematic section—a couple of times, Galahad perished simply because I wasn’t aware I was supposed to be moving him.
The issues, large and small, just pile up, and The Order ends up feeling like a game where plenty of manpower went into making sure it looked good—but no one bothered to check if it might actually be any fun. Outside of its admittedly superlative visuals, The Order doesn’t do a single thing well. Not one gameplay element stands out as superb—merely mediocre or substandard.
It’s also clear that Ready at Dawn wanted this to become a franchise in the worst way, and as the curtain falls on The Order: 1886, in “cliffhanger” fashion (and I use that in the most generous possible way), it becomes painfully clear that they rushed to build a shoddy foundation in a frantic chase to ultimately craft their Empire Strikes Back.
But they forgot one crucial element: You need to make sure you earn the right to do that with your Star Wars moment first.
|Developer: Ready At Dawn, SCE Santa Monica • Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 02.20.2015|
The Order: 1886 is a paper-thin PS4 launch title delivered 15 months behind schedule. It’s nowhere near as profound or innovative as it thinks it is—the epitome of all style and no substance.
|The Good||The spectacular visuals, as impressive as anything on the PS4, paint an ahead-of-its-time Victorian London that feels researched and authentic.|
|The Bad||Merely competent, mediocre, or outright bad in everything else it does.|
|The Ugly||Britain still colonizes India even in this alternate timeline. (On a positive note, does that mean a werewolf-slaying Gandhi in the sequel?)|
|The Order: 1886 is a PS4 exclusive. A retail copy was provided by Sony for the benefit of this review.|