When I initially previewed The Order: 1886, I was left dumbfounded. How could anyone think that Ready at Dawn, the people behind some of the best handheld games, have made such a misstep? “People obviously just don’t understand Ready at Dawn’s vision,” I’d mutter to myself, assuring nobody in particular that the game would end up being incredible. How could it not? A steampunk, neo-Victorian setting? An order of Knights fighting an ancient, supernatural darkness? My confidence was sorely misplaced, because The Order: 1886 is one of the most profoundly disappointing games I’ve played.
The Order: 1886 is set in an alternate history 19th century, beautiful and painstakingly recreated neo-Victorian London. It’s a world in which the Knights of the Round Table – the very ones of Arthurian legend – now exist as the Queen’s elite forces. Having actually discovered the Holy Grail, the Knights use it as a magical means to extend their lives. Since the middle ages, they’ve been locked in conflict with mythological beasts of Lycan and Vampiric variety – but now, there’s a new threat; a human rebellion, because that’s much scarier than actual monsters.
The game starts you off in the… well, barefoot feet, I suppose, of the excommunicated Knight of the Order, the dapper and moustachioed Sir Galahad. For some reason or other The Order has turned against the good sir Knight, using that tired literary device of starting at the end, and then coming full circle to the beginning, before plodding its way to a conclusion – much in the same way that high-school children are taught to write essays. A series of cut-scenes and barely-interactive quick-time events later and I was unceremoniously thrust weeks into the past, embroiled in a rebellion, a fight against werewolves and a great deal of political and conspiratorial fluff involving the “United India Company.” I found it rather difficult to care.
For all its exposition and meandering dialogue, it wholly fails to explain why any of that Steampunk window-dressing exists. There’s nothing telling us why everything’s electrically operated, or why it is that everything’s bedecked in brass, or how it came to be that dirigibles litter the sky. Presumably, it all has to with Nikola Tesla, the real-life visionary who gave us alternating current – but it’s really never explained.
The game’s running time has been much maligned, with early reports suggesting it would take just 5 hours to play through. While that’s certainly possible, my own play through was closer to 8 hours – but here’s the rub, much of it is unremarkable and uninteresting, spent watching unskippable cutscenes and walking from point A to point B, shuffled along a miserably linear path. Every so often, a scene will be punctuated by a few button-presses to remind you that you’re not in fact watching a very long, very slow movie.
Sometimes, you’ll find a collectible; a newspaper, photograph or some other document that you can pick up and move about in your oddly-articulated hands, as you did in L.A Noire. They make some attempt at fleshing out the world that Ready at Dawn tried to create, but much like everything else you come across, they’re uniformly uninteresting.
That would all be okay if the core game was fun to play. It’s a dark and gritty, almost singular-palette third-person cover-based shooter, drawing inevitable comparisons to Gears of War – but now that I’ve played through the game, I find the comparison unwarranted. Gears of War at least nails the fundamentals of a shooter. The actual mechanics of it are merely serviceable, complacently competent – and not the sort of thing you’d expect from a modern shooter. The contextual cover system is neither smooth nor accurate, and the enemy AI is frequently laughable, never flanking or trying to present much of a challenge. And they can’t; the insipid level design dictates it. You’re almost invariably shooting at proverbial ducks in a barrel; the complete antithesis to Gears of War’s bowl-like arenas.
They’re seemingly all clones too, with just a handful of enemy character models. Whether they’re escaped prisoners, company guards or rebels, the enemies within each group all seem to employ the exact same model. Some levels break up the monotony of the “walk-talk-hide-shoot” gauntlet by making you stealth your way through, sneaking up behind lantern-carrying enemies and offing them, one-by-one by virtue of a QTE stab. Get spotted, and it’s instant death, back to the last checkpoint to do it all anew. That’s exactly as fun as it sounds, and yes – every guard happens to have the same model.
Sometimes, the action’s slightly bolstered by some of the less-conventional, more fanciful weapons from Tesla’s armoury. It’s undeniably fun, zapping an overzealous enemy with a bolt of lightning, and equally as enthralling to pepper an enemy with incendiary Thermite, and then cackle in maniacal glee as you set it all on fire.
Crucially, though – and this is one of the more upsetting points – is that the supernatural stuff is barely there. There are exactly three encounters with regular werewolves, and they all play out exactly the same; you’re caught in a warehouse and have a handful of them charging at you one at a time, and you’ve either got to kill ‘em or tap X to get out of the way. Rinse and repeat. You’ll have two encounters with a bigger, badder werewolf, and both of these play out exactly the same as well; nice looking, but barely interactive, QTE-laden knife fights. There’s very little about the actual playable game that isn’t boring, unfortunately.
That would be mitigated somewhat if the story itself wasn’t so vapid and uninspired. Overwrought and filled to the brim with predictable clichés, The Order’s story doesn’t really go anywhere. Every plot twist, turn and betrayal can be seen a mile off. The rest of Galahad’s crew; the stern mentor, Percival; the ladies’ man, the Marquis de Lafayette and the Lady Igraine, the um…token woman, I suppose all lack personality right until the very end, when the game unceremoniously comes to a close – setting itself up for the quite obviously planned sequel. There’s no real resolution. It should leave players wanting more, but I certainly don’t want any more of this.
There’s nothing to really do once you’ve hit the credits, not that you’d particularly want to. There’s no compelling reason to hunt for collectibles, and very little to explore. Laughably, the “extras” menu item on the game’s main screen leads to nothing but credits.
If The Order: 1886 does have anything going for it, it’s in its visual resplendence. It’s difficult to state how good the game looks sometimes, bordering on photorealism as it does. Its foggy London, so intricately detailed is incredibly atmospheric and the level of detail is mesmerising – right down to the stitching on Galahad’s gloves. It’s a good thing it looks as good as it does, because you spend more time staring at it than actually playing it. It’s clichéd and rote – with just about the bravest thing the game attempts being a display of male nudity. Yup, it’s got dicks.
The whole thing’s unfortunately been muddied by its cinematic pursuits, prioritising style and atmosphere over substance. Shallow, slow and downright generic gameplay do little to hide The Order’s most egregious sin as a video game: it’s just plain boring.
Last Updated: February 20, 2015