The Order: 1886 / 27th of February 2015
With a relatively small back catalogue, primarily made up of PlayStation Portable games, Ready at Dawn Studios wasn’t a name synonymous with triple-A, first-party exclusives. However when The Order: 1886 was announced at E3 back in 2013, it was clear from the production values of its trailer alone, that Ready at Dawn we’re getting the chance to lead the way on this latest generation of hardware. Now that it’s arrived we’ve finally had the chance to see what they’ve managed to do with such an opportunity. The answer unfortunately is that The Order doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its original trailer, and may not be the console seller Sony will have been hoping for. But beneath its many flaws and questionable design decisions there still lurks a game worthy of your attention.
If you’re wondering how that’s possible for a game that launched riding one of the biggest waves of pre-release criticism in recent memory then I’ll elaborate. But first it’s necessary to address that announcement trailer. From what we originally saw The Order: 1886 looked to be a game centred around a clandestine organisation and their age-old charge of hunting werewolves - or in this case ‘half-breeds’ - set within an alternate universe style Victorian London. Although this is still the case, to an extent, the truth is the game’s storyline actually revolves around the politics of the Order itself and an intricate conspiracy that threatens to destroy the long standing establishment. It’s a story that some have derided but I personally rather enjoyed, though that may be more down to the quality of the world building rather than the plot itself.
Because it is a world full of depth and fascination that Ready at Dawn have created, and something that I’m sure anyone who enjoyed the game will want to see elaborated upon should a sequel get the go ahead. Utilising the King Arthur mythology, the Order began as Arthur’s Round Table of knights, knights who - thanks to the effects of the Holy Grail - have extended lifespans and the ability to recover quickly from practically any wound. It’s here that Ready at Dawn have then taken the grail mythos and given it a practical application within their world. Each knight uses the grail when first inducted into the Order, its effects enhance their blood which is in turn used to replenish a vial kept round their necks, one that can be carried into the field and used when necessary. It’s something that has the in game application of allowing players a single chance to resurrect themselves should they go down in a fight, without the need to wait for an A.I. companion to assist you. However its overuse during or shortly after several climactic moments effectively neuters those scenes and occasionally serves to underwhelm any tension the game tries to build.
Aside from this overuse of a single good idea, everything else, from the streets of Whitechapel to the character of each knight, all feel as if they’ve been created with a clear focus and awareness of the world they’re supposed to inhabit. The particular knight whose story players witness first hand is one Sir Galahad. Not much is told of each character’s backstory, even the lead protagonist, instead it’s primarily their actions that lead you to discern what kind of character they are. Even notable historical characters such as Sir Thomas Malory or the Marquis de Lafayette - who have major supporting roles - are defined by what they say and do, rather than by exposition. It’s videogame storytelling done incredibly well, an average storyline told with a lot of skill. And those who appreciate the cinematic style of games, such as Kojima productions’ Metal Gear series, will appreciate The Order even further thanks to its borderline obsessive attention to detail and general high standard of polish.
However that kind of narrative approach comes with its own set of drawbacks and challenges, and it’s these that The Order fails to overcome. As I mentioned earlier the plot primarily concerns untangling a web of conspiracy, and it’s so caught up in telling this story as well as it can that The Order often forgets it’s supposed to be a game first and foremost. It’s too keen to wrestle control out of the hands of the player and resort to quick-time events and button prompts, rather than devise a more creative way of engaging the player whilst still retaining that cinematic effect. Sometimes it does work wonderfully, the first major boss fight starts off as a suspense raising escape, before transforming into an excellent close combat duel. However these instances are rare and it’s obvious that Ready at Dawn were starting to run out of ideas when they repeated this scene for the game’s final battle.
As for the rest of The Order, it’s more traditional third-person combat that makes up the majority of the game. Generally speaking it sees players fighting anti-monarchist rebels, or the private army of an expanding global corporation, not the supernatural monsters we expected. They’re still in there but encounters are sporadic at best, and when they do arrive they’re restricted in such a way that anyone hoping for action packed encounters with creatures moving with fluidity, reminiscent of the mutants in id Software’s Rage, will be sorely disappointed.
Instead The Order is a game that really, really wants you play it at a slow - rather reserved - pace, and you’ll need to be able to get on board with should you wish to start having a good time. You won’t be nervously peaking round corners in an attempt to squeeze of a few shots without going down or charging up to enemy cover a la Gears of War, even on the game’s hardest difficulty. Gameplay is more measured as shootouts revolve around hunkering down and stopping enemies from overrunning your position. And for those more desperate moments when a situation get out of hand; tapping L1 enters you into a sort of sepia toned slow-mo that allows you to flick the right stick from target to target and down any onrushing threats. It’s all admittedly rather wonderful when it comes together, and at such a pace it allows players to truly revel in the fantastic array of inventive weaponry on offer. Courtesy of the Order’s resident armourer, a young Nikola Tesla, guns such as the thermite rifle - a machine gun capable of firing a hail of combustible ammunition before being ignited by the weapons secondary function - are a joy to use. They’re impact is further emphasised by the visually staggering effects like clouds of silver smoke erupting into fireballs, that then dissolve into sparks and set fire to the environment. There’s a whole host of these sort of non-traditional weapons to play with, whilst still others simply feel incredibly satisfying to fire.
Other than the narrative, the context specific quick-time events and the third-person combat, there’s one other portion of the game that needs mentioning, specifically the stealth sections which are undermined by one genuinely baffling design decision. For some reason Ready at Dawn have opted to integrate a quick-time event into every stealth takedown. Something that when it first appears is thankfully rather brief and doesn’t hamper the game too much, but during a larger section later of the game can be a real irritation. A beautiful moment roaming a manor garden on a rainy night, where you must identify enemies via subtle lamp lights bobbing in the darkness, is completely hamstrung by this mechanic and - as being spotted leads to instantly failing and restarting - does nothing more than blight a potentially excellent section of the game. Instead of carefully making your way from one guard to the next with confidence, you’ll be permanently wary of approaching a guard when he can easily turn and shoot you whilst the QTE winds up. That and my own personal bugbear of not having a dedicated crouch button are what detracts from the game’s two stealth sections and will leave players feeling as if the game could have done without them altogether. Perhaps had a little more feedback been listened to during play-testing such an obvious problem could have been avoided.
But maybe it’s these sorts of instances that sum up The Order perfectly, Ready at Dawn have built a great world for you to inhabit, presented in in a compelling manner and made it look absolutely beautiful, and then undermined all their hard work with a few half-baked ideas. It’s not a perfect game by any means but it undeniably has something great within it, whether they’ll get a second chance to rectify such mistakes is a hard one to judge however, especially with the current cost of triple-A development. The one thing I can say - and I’ve held off from mentioning it up until now - is that although it may be flawed and it may be a short, narrative driven, single-player experience, the seven or so hours I spent with The Order were infinitely more enjoyable than the thirty or so I spent with Assassin’s Creed Unity. Like those certain types of films The Order is good and I’m glad I had the chance to play through it, it’s even a game I’d enjoy having in my collection, but not something I’d go back to for a second sitting anytime soon.