The Order: 1886 is a weird thing. It’s one of those kinds of games that would normally make me wonder how it ever got green lit in the first place. It seriously feels like one of those largely lousy interactive movies from the dawn of the CD-ROM era. It wasn’t until I got further into it that I realised it was clearly supposed to be much more than it ended up becoming. It comes from Ready At Dawn Studios, a company whose work consisted of God of War PSP games and a Wii port of Okami before this. They went from that to making a showpiece PS4 exclusive using their own engine, quite a step forward. It’s unquestionably one of the best looking video games ever made from a technical standpoint. Had I looked at this not knowing it was a game, I would have thought it was actually a well done CG movie. That sounds like praise but the problem is, it pretty much plays like one as well.
The premise of The Order: 1886 sounds pretty awesome at first. It takes place in a steampunk version of London where you are a member of The Order, a sort of special forces group apparently made up from King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table that is fighting a rebellion against the Queen and also an infestation of werewolves and other supernatural elements that come into play later. If you’re wondering how that group of knights exists and is still doing stuff in 1886 like fighting werewolves, I’d love to tell you. Apparently these knights are several hundred years old and have access to a special vial of something called “dark water” they wear around their necks that when consumed, causes even severe wounds to heal almost instantly. Here’s lies the first major sign that this game had huge sections of it cut out for time, budget or both because I can recall no point when this is explained at all. They seem rather major elements to just expect the player to roll with but that’s what it does.
There are also huge sections of time between missions that just go unexplained. A mission will end after a huge firefight where you are getting chastised for not following orders, then it flows right into the next mission where you’re walking around your headquarters as if it’s all good. The lack of transition between these major events is jarring and at some points, straight up confusing.
Beyond that, the story takes an otherwise really interesting premise and somehow makes it progress almost exactly like your run of the mill modern military shooter. There’s backstabbing from within that’s telegraphed so obviously, you know it well before it happens, your character is framed, gets badly hurt, recovers and in the end, has to team up with who you have been told is the enemy to stop a plot that would end society as we know it, playing by your own rules. Sound familiar?
Your characters all have the equivalent of radios (which boy, do they love to use), different weapons that range from standard pistols, rifles and machine guns to sci-fi electric arc guns and thermite rifles (this one is actually pretty different and fun to use.) You’ll trapse through various locations in London and at one point, invade a snazzy air ship, trying to take out enemies and be the hero. All the mission checkbox types are ticked. Sometimes you just have to shoot everyone in standard cover shooter ways. Sometimes you have to remain stealthy, using the very clunky cover mechanics to avoid or sneak up on guys, with a frustrating lack of checkpoints. There’s even points where you have to use binoculars to locate targets from a distance and call for air support. There’s largely useless collectibles with trophies tied to them too. Everything is hyper linear and there’s no choices or consequences, you just follow things through until you reach your conclusion. It really feels like a Call of Duty campaign in a different setting.
If you’ve read how poorly the developers have responded to some of the criticisms of The Order: 1886, such as its permanent black bars, locked 30 per second frame rate, very short length (it took me maybe 7 hours) and total lack of replayability, it’s pretty clear this is a game created by an auteur designer. When you play it, you not only see these faults but it becomes abundantly clear that huge sections of this game were cut out for one reason or another. As I said above, all the backstory that would help explain the setting is absent. There’s several types of missions present but some of them are barely utilised. Perhaps worst of all, in a game that’s supposed to be about dealing with an infestation of werewolves and other such creatures, you rarely ever fight any. Aside from a handful of horrible dodge and shoot sections and two “boss fights” that are mostly just rhythm mini-games, all you’re fighting is plain old dudes with guns. That is, when you’re even doing that much.
The Order: 1886 loves its cutscenes, some of which are Metal Gear Solid level of wordy. When it isn’t showing you cutscenes, it loves having you walk slowly through an environment while someone else blathers on either in person or on the radio. Nothing can be skipped and many of the cutscenes are full of inconsistently placed quick time events that are just there to give you something to do other than watch. Everything looks incredible, the animation is some of the best I’ve ever seen and the voice acting is top shelf but the story and characters aren’t interesting enough to warrant sitting through it all. There are also audio logs you can pick up throughout the levels that are supposed to better flesh out the world but none of them tell anything interesting. Worst of all, you have to sit in a menu when listening to them and they’re all spoken so slowly, some take minutes to complete. Even Gone Home let you keep doing stuff while the logs played!
These forced passive sections indicate to me both a desperate need to pad out the length and a frankly arrogant attitude on the part of the developers. Aside from the fact that you could probably play it end-to-end in about 3 hours if you could skip all the cutscenes and walking sections, it’s clear they’re insisting that you take the time to see how incredible their art is and that you need to sit in the menu to listen to their pointless flavour audio logs because if they let you play at the same time, you might miss something. It’s disrespectful to the player’s time and frankly, a bit insulting to their intelligence. I have no problems with cutscenes, even super long ones. Hell, I’m a huge fan of Metal Gear Solid. However, the player paid for your game and it should always be up to them how to play it. Forcing them to sit through any of your non-interactive content they don’t want to is frankly just pretentious. If your stuff is good enough, they’ll sit through it voluntarily. If they aren’t, that says more about what you’re making if you ask me.
I blew through The Order: 1886 in two sittings and all I got from it, aside from some impressive nods for the technical achievement, was a clear message that for whatever reason, this game was pushed out when it was at best, two thirds of what it should have been and was probably intended to be. There were really cool ideas here but what we ended up with was a technically gorgeous wasted opportunity. It’s a modern military campaign with a different skin on it and was just as short but somehow, had even less to do in it and even less reason to go back. At least Call of Duty and Battlefield have multiplayer to go along with their campaigns. Once you’re done with The Order: 1886, there’s nothing left. If the setting still interests you, it’s a rental at best but honestly, this is one you’d probably be best off watching a Let’s Play of. Now that the framework is there, hopefully Ready At Dawn can get another crack at this and make a full-fledged game without having to worry about getting the tech done as well. This just isn’t worth it though.