People have already made up their minds about The Order: 1886. They debate on arbitrary things like speedruns, graphical changes since E3, and whether the game’s cinematic nature classifies it as a game. It’s going to be hilarious watching those same folks eat their hat.
The Order: 1886 comes to us from Ready at Dawn. The team, to this point, has worked almost exclusively on portable platforms, delivering Daxter, God of War: Chains of Olympus, Okami on the Wii, God of War: Ghost of Sparta, and finally God of War: Origins Collection on the PlayStation 3. From outward appearances, this is not a company you’d expect a new AAA blockbuster franchise from as they have been doing more port work than creation till now. But there is a lot more here than it seems.
Back in 2009, Ready at Dawn began to build their own engine to create what would eventually be revealed as The Order: 1886. The reveal was met with wide skepticism. Many flatly stated that the footage had to be entirely CGI, and that there was no way the PlayStation 4 could deliver that level of graphical fidelity. Admittedly, I was even a skeptic. This is one instance where I am very glad to be wrong.
The old order changeth, yielding place to new
As the title suggests, The Order takes place in 1886. The fabled Knights in Arthurian legend are charged with the task of protecting London from a rebel uprising that threatens the city. King Arthur and his retinue must now face a new threat — half-breeds (read: Lycans) that have begun to savage the denizens of London. You play Sir Galahad, one of the Knights of the Round Table in this alt-steampunk setting. Paired with tech luminary Nikola Tesla, you’ll need to unravel the source of this grave threat while holding back the rising tide of rebels that threaten the safety of the citizenry. Can the steampunk-inspired technical wizardry of Tesla, combined with the life-extending powers of the Blackwater (read: Holy Grail) bring these vaunted soldiers victory, or will London succumb to darkness forever?
The Order is very much a cinematic game, but we’ve seen those before. Games like The Last of Us have brought us immersive and interactive worlds that rather seamlessly transition between story and gameplay, but even on the remastered edition of that title there is still a marked visible difference. Ready at Dawn has erased this line, creating a game that flawlessly moves between controlled actions and cinematics in such a way that I found myself occasionally waiting for a scene to continue only to find that it was my time to act.
The first and most obvious thing about The Order: 1886 is its meticulous approach to presentation. Steampunk-inspired London is a world with Zeppelins (a full 30 years ahead of their time), guns that fire thermite that can be ignited with a flare, repeating self-loading pistols, as well as wireless communication. Many of these things were being worked on in real life by visionary Nikola Tesla, so it feels like far less of a stretch than I would have imagined. Each and every inch of The Order is lovingly crafted, and it shows. Clothing rustles and moves the way you would expect, people move in a (mostly) natural way, and the environments are heavily varied. Airships, sewers, tight-quartered back alleys, and the wide open spaces on a besieged bridge are just a few of the locations you’ll do battle in The Order.
I did want to take a moment to call out one area above all others — facial animations. The Ready at Dawn team have created character faces that are simply astonishing. When a game gives you hyper-realistic faces, it’s usually dead eyes and awkward movements that drop us right into the middle of the uncanny valley, but The Order crosses that valley with flying colors. Sir Galahad, Sir Percival, Lady Igraine, and Knight’s Apprentice Lafayette look amazing, but that’s expected as they are the main characters, right? Well, every other character in the game received a near equal amount of work as everyone in this game is CGI-quality. I have never seen a game pay this much attention to its peripheral characters. During the cinematic moments, the incredible graphical fidelity sucks you in and locks you there in a way that few games ever have. Ready at Dawn better make some room on a shelf for some awards — The Order: 1886 is absolutely gorgeous.
Amazingly, with this level of graphical fidelity I never saw a single framerate hitch during any cutscene or gameplay. Hilariously, the only place I saw frame stutter was during the final credits! No game has ever looked this good, so to get this amazing an experience with a rock solid framerate was a welcome surprise.
While I was reviewing the game and more than halfway through completion I had somebody ask me if the letterboxing during cinematics bothered me. Frankly, I was confused as I hadn’t noticed any letterboxing. In point of fact, the cutscenes do have a top and bottom black bar to create a cinematic letterbox effect, but its completely transparent to the feel of the game. Had that Editor not pointed it out, I’m not sure I would have even noticed.
There is one area that does pull you out of that immersion, however. Occasionally you’ll need to give somebody a boost, open a door, or wait for an NPC to clear a path for you. Sometimes they’ll blankly stare at you before the engine rights itself and they continue on with their task. It’s truly a nitpick, but it did happen a few times during my playthrough.
Why is all around us here. As if some lesser god had made the world
As the folks are clearing space for their achievements on the graphics side of the house, they might want to clear some additional trophy room for an avalanche of audio awards as well. Composers Jason Graves (Dead Space, Evolve, Tomb Raider), and Austin Wintory (Journey, The Banner Saga, flOw) teamed up to create a soundtrack with incredible depth for The Order: 1886. Recording with a full orchestra at historical Abbey Road Studios, the team put together an incredible authentic period soundtrack unlike any other. Featuring throaty contrabassoons paired with equally deep cello, staccato violin sections, and some incredibly low vocal work, Graves and Wintory built a sound that is melancholy and carries with it a weight that matches the darker tone of The Order. More than just background, the music sets the tone here, evoking both horror and dread, and enhancing the cinematic and victorian feel of the game without resorting to the rote harpsichord and brass-heavy sounds we normally hear in a ‘period’ game.
Beyond the amazing soundtrack, the actors behind our Arthurian Knights turn in very believable voice work. Steve West gives us an incredible performance as Sir Galahad, bringing a wearily-stoic gravitas to his performance without resorting to the usual growling business. Graham McTavish plays Sir Perceval, and from the moment he speaks you can hear the authority in his voice, making his senior position in The Order very believable. Alice Coulthard plays Lady Igraine, the only female member of The Order, embodying patience and wisdom coupled with a ferocity and deep caring for Sir Galahad. Frederik Hamel plays The Marquis de Lafayette, an Apprentice waiting to become a Knight. He is easily my favorite character, bringing levity to a grim situation in a believable, albeit somewhat melancholy way. Together they feel like companions, not just tacked-on puppets barking out their parts. It’s always difficult to bring chemistry to life when you are simply adding voices to somebody else’s work, but this team does it brilliantly. There are a few other characters in the game that I won’t mention for fear of spoilers, but those two additional ladies should find their way into more work and soon.
Adding to the auditory feast, the ambient and weapons’ sounds in The Order bear mention. The usual carbine and pistol sounds are present and accounted for, but this is Steampunk / Victorian Tesla-inspired gear! Lightning crackles the air from the tip of the charged TS-23 Resonant Circuit Arc Induction Lance, and heavy rounds land with every shot from the Essex M2 PN83 ‘Falchion’ Auto-Rifle. Saving the best for last, though, is the Thermite Rifle that I mentioned earlier. The Essex M86 FL Thermite Rifle is a longer weapon with a wheel of ammunition on top. That wheel is packed with strips of aluminum iron oxide that, when fired, explode into a white cloud around the target. Left alone, that’s enough to choke a man, but when you fire a flare into that cloud the chemical reaction is explosive. Fire consumes the target, leaving them screaming and flailing. Cover is ineffective against this weapon as it can be fired above said obstruction and then ignited. Many times I was given the opportunity to switch out to other weapons, only to carry the Thermite Rifle all the way to the end of the chapter. Every one of these weapons sound fantastic, making it clear that Ready at Dawn spent as much time on their sound as they did on the visuals.
Ready my knights for battle. They will ride with their king once more
Much has been said about the cinematic nature of the game, but thankfully The Order is not a one trick pony. When you engage in combat you’ll find that Ready at Dawn has created a very capable cover-based shooter. With a button press you can put your back against obstacles or entrances. Leaning out with your rifle exposes you to incoming fire, or you can blind-fire around objects. The camera pulls in tighter when you are in cover, meaning you don’t get the usual omnipotent isometric view that lets you ‘cheat’ your way through a firefight. It’s refreshing and adds to the challenge of the game. I do wish that there was a mechanic to move from cover to cover safely, but it does work very well.
There are a number of quicktime events in The Order, but I’m going to classify them a bit differently. You’ll engage in combat up close with enemies and the world will slow down, placing one or two dots on your target. You’ll select one of these dots with the right thumbstick and then a button press prompt will appear. This will allow you to resist a hold, break a wrist, stab a target, and more. Because the button is not revealed until you select the target, it creates what I’m dubbing ‘purposeful quicktime’ events. These tense moments feel like they add more depth than the usual ‘push X to not die’ to which we’ve all become accustomed. Failing these events is often immediately fatal, so you’ll need to pay attention. I do wish that the team had given us more options with the target selection moments, but I’ll have to hope for that in the sequel.
Beyond combat, there are a great many collectables in the game. With a little bit of exploring you’ll find newspapers with readable text, pictures that have a matte finish that reflects the light and shows pressure where your thumb holds it, and other objects of interest in the environment. These are entirely optional, but it adds a great deal to the story setting. Additionally, there are wax phonograph cylinders which add a bit more flavor to the narrative.
Nikola Tesla has outfitted The Order with quite a few gadgets to help them in the field. These provide a few minigames to occasionally break up the action. I won’t ruin some of the surprises, but an example might be a lockpick that uses air to help lift the lock tumblers, or a cathode tube-based electrical ‘hacking’ device that can short circuit a power box. I wish some of the one-off items had been used more often, but they make sense in the context of the game. It never felt like the team said “I have a gadget, let’s build a section around it”, instead letting them find their use naturally.
Through the use of the Blackwater, Sir Galahad can unleash a skill called Blacksight. Blacksight is a slow motion mode that allows him to hip-fire with his pistol, flicking between targets with the right thumbstick. Playing the game on Medium difficulty, I never found that Blacksight was necessary to win any particular battle, but it certainly helped in a pinch. It’s fun to try to use it to shoot a grenade out of the air, and you’ll pick up an PlayStation Trophy for your efforts.
With a game clocking in at 50GB, you’d have to imagine incredibly painful load times, but The Order, even the initial load is extremely quick. Once you get into the game, all other content streaming is hidden behind the cutscenes. This means the cutscenes are unskippable, but never staring at a loading screen with a spinning logo is a far better experience.
The final elephant in the room is the game length. While we will be doing a Metatheory Podcast soon to talk about game length, I’ll state plainly that it took me about nine hours to finish The Order: 1886. I didn’t rush, but I also didn’t waste any time, playing it on Medium difficulty. You can expect roughly the same amount of gameplay. That said, as my friend David Roberts said recently “it goes on as long as it needs to.” It doesn’t overstay its welcome, and none of the content feels superfluous. When every moment of a game feels meaningful, nine hours is the perfect length for an adventure / shooter game.