The Order: 1886
The concept of cinematic videogames has always been an odd one for me. Why would a developer restrict themselves by trying to emulate the silver screen when videogames are capable of so much more? It’s a question something like the Uncharted series answers with a brash confidence, banishing doubters of its filmic spectacle by making the player an integral part of its breathtaking action – meticulously scripted as it may be. Games like Beyond: Two Souls, on the other hand, fall on the opposite end of the spectrum, laden with cutscenes and minimal player input beyond some dreary QTEs and rudimentary engagement. In recent years, the inclusion of player choice has somewhat alleviated the lack of agency in dialogue-heavy games like this, making it feel like you actually have an effect on the narrative. In that sense, The Order: 1886 feels like a relic of the past, its mixture of engaging combat and dissociated storytelling falling somewhere between the likes of Uncharted and Beyond: Two Souls; where every step of the way is predetermined and rigidly structured as it dictates proceedings with its hand firmly clenched around yours.
This kind of tightly scripted experience can work exceptionally well when the various pieces collate into one cohesive whole, but The Order: 1886 stumbles far too often; its uneven and disparate parts formulating a disjointed flow that disrupts the potential teetering below the surface.
This begins with the story, an integral part of a game that is roughly 50% cutscenes, at least by my estimates. Filling in the sturdy boots of one Sir Galahad (Grayson, to his friends), you’re part of the titular Order, an ancient organisation that dates back to the times of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. With London’s murky underbelly besieged by werewolves (called Lycans and half-breeds here) and a rebellion of angry men in derby hats, your job is to clean up the streets and uncover the capital’s various mysteries across this six-to-seven hour adventure. It’s a fantastic concept and the intrigue therein is consistently engrossing, with Ready at Dawn bringing its alternative take on Victorian London to life with some consummate world building. The narrative can be dull at times and the script is often clichéd, but the superlative voice acting kept me interested throughout, and few games have managed to mesh fantasy, horror and science-fiction together with a historical setting quite as superbly as The Order: 1886.
“The transitions in and out of gameplay may be silky smooth, but they nonetheless hamper the moment-to-moment flow of things”I constantly wanted to know more about this clandestine group, how the mysterious Black Water they drink has kept them alive for centuries or how the core conspiracy at the narrative’s heart was going to wrap up, so provocative is its foundation. Yet once the credits started rolling and my initial confusion subsided, I came to the stark realisation that nothing in The Order: 1886 really matters. Everything is inconsequential until a late game revelatory exposition dump reveals what’s really going on, and then it’s all over. I genuinely thought I had reached the end of the second act and things were about to kick into high gear, only for events to hastily wrap up, leaving many questions unanswered and a satisfying ending the furthest thing from reality. The whole game is nothing but a big tease; a prologue for a sequel years down the line, opting to tread water for future endeavours rather than fulfil its potential and craft a finished story.
It’s a crucial shortcoming because the narrative encompasses so much of the overall experience. When you do get to play it’s broken up into brief chunks. The transitions in and out of gameplay may be silky smooth, but they nonetheless hamper the moment-to-moment flow of things, constantly ripping control away so you can watch a cutscene of Galahad doing something that could have feasibly been incorporated into the mechanics.
It’s a shame because the Gears of War-inspired combat is rather enjoyable. Shooting these burly bastards as they yell “cor, blimey!” is engaging thanks to an arsenal of historically accurate firearms and some underused sci-fi doohickies (courtesy of Nicola Tesla, of course). The shotguns and rifles bark with an explosive bite befitting of the era, while Tesla’s thermite gun is a particular highlight, coating the air with a thick thermite cloud you can then ignite for glorious results. It’s all rather one-note as you move from cover to cover, popping up to shoot when appropriate, but the flanking shotgun guys add some much-needed immediacy to proceedings, and testing out the plethora of delightful weaponry never grows tiresome. I only wish there was more of it.
Each combat scenario is unbelievably brief as you haphazardly bounce between cutscenes, QTEs and parts where you just walk around for a bit. There’s nothing wrong with The Order: 1886 wanting to soak up the atmosphere, but these walking sections are so dull and plodding. It forces you to move at a snail’s pace and there’s no character building dialogue or mounting tension to speak of, so there’s nothing to really grab your interest. You’re just left to wander as it has determined you should, foregoing any meaningful exploration or player agency in favour of a stifling linearity. Being linear isn’t a bad thing on its own, but it’s so restrictive here. You’re only allowed to run when it says you can, or open doors when the prompt eventually reveals itself. Incessant tool tips regularly break the immersion, too, appearing throughout the entire length of the game to tell you how to do something you’ve already done countless times before. Yes, I know the left stick lets me move!
Rudimentary stealth sections fill out the package, featuring a dreaded instant fail-state whenever you’re spotted that cuts to a shot of Galahad taking a bullet to the face each time as if it were a laser disc game. There’s not much more to it than that. Fights against Lycans are similarly disheartening, consisting of some humdrum shooting and dodging that’s over in the blink of an eye. That your encounters with the most powerful of the species are relegated to two identical QTEs is the icing on an abhorrent cake.
Sony’s marketing campaign has certainly tried to steer the conversation solely towards the game’s visuals and cinematic panache, and it’s easy to see why. The Order: 1886 is a stunning looking videogame, perfectly capturing the filmic quality Ready at Dawn no doubt strived to achieve within a divisive 2.35:1 frame. The sooty streets of Victorian London are brought to life with a graphical fidelity that has arguably no equal, from the grimy back-alleys of Whitechapel and its depressing human squalor, to a grandiose airship soaring above the clouds. It’s all coated in a thick veneer of film grain and motion blur to mimic that celluloid splendour.
“The sooty streets of Victorian London are brought to life with a graphical fidelity that has arguably no equal”Sure, some of these technical accomplishments are rather superficial – a breathtaking balcony view of central London, for example, features a lavishly detailed street whose cobbled stones you’ll never set foot on – but the quality rarely wavers once you get up close and personal, even if it is on a smaller scale. They say the devil is in the details so Beelzebub must have had his mitts on every facet of The Order: 1886’s visual presentation. There’s an astounding amount of detail on absolutely everything, it actually forces you to pick up various items (L.A. Noire style) and examine them until it deems that you’ve stared for long enough. It’s like Ready at Dawn are constantly telling you “Look how good these textures look!” until they’re satisfied you recognise their craft as much as they do. There’s really no other reason for it.
But looks can only take you so far. Much has been made of The Order: 1886’s length, and there’s certainly a value proposition to take into consideration for those who would rather not pay full price for six-to-seven hours worth of playtime. But I think the more pertinent issue is what a game actually does with its time. In The Order: 1886’s case I simply wish there was more of it. Not necessarily in terms of length, but more combat, a more fleshed out story and more player agency. It has the ingredients to be great but it’s too restrictive and the positive aspects of its design are used so sparingly or aren’t yet fully formed, that it’s simply disappointing. I’m sure the inevitable sequel will build on these concepts and we’ll have a much better game as a result, but they didn’t have to sacrifice this one to get there.