Developed by Ready at Dawn, SCE Santa Monica Studio. Published by Sony Computer Entertainment. Released February 20, 2015. Available on PS4. Review copy provided by Publisher.
If you've been following the gaming space over the past few days you already know there's been a lot of back and forth on The Order: 1886. For those who missed it, the short version is that a full playthrough was leaked to YouTube before review embargo and the game was completed in under six hours. Once games started to move away from their simplistic, but highly replayable roots, the debate on acceptable game length found its beginnings. Let's face it, video games are not cheap, and for most of us that means being careful consumers in order to get the most bang for our buck. Whether it's trying to rationalize the value against another medium, like a movie ticket, or arguments of quality vs quantity, this is an issue that's not going away any time soon. This is largely because it's a value judgement, not something that can be easily quantified. With this in mind, I'd like to step away from that debate and simply relate what the experience of playing The Order: 1886 was like.
Let's start with the good. It's not surprising, given The Order: 1886's tent pole status as a PS4 exclusive put out by one of Sony's first party developers, that everything involved with The Order: 1886 production quality is absolutely top-notch. The Order: 1886 is easily the best looking game currently available on next-gen consoles. A dirty, rain-blustered, and grimy post-Industrial-Revolution-era London has never looked better. Given the settings, you might be inclined to harsh on it all for being a bit drab, but I found the color scheme appropriate and only helped to make the figuratively, and literally, more colorful elements - such as the steampunk weapons - more fantastical. Of particular note are the lighting and water effects, all too often you'll be inching along in the dark with only a gas lamp to guide you, and it just wouldn't be London without tons of rain leaving puddles all around. The graphics really do go the extra mile in building up this setting and world, and the game manages to almost seamlessly transition from cutscenes to gameplay. When I say "seamless," I mean there's no loading between the two. The game switches back and forth flawlessly. On more than one occasion there would be an awkward pause when I hadn't realized that a cutscene had finished and I was given control back. The Order: 1886 really does look that good.
While the graphics are obviously going to get the most attention, I would be remiss not to point out The Order: 1886's strong aural endeavors. A sound designer or composer might not get a lot of credit when it's all said and done compared to a game designer or graphics artist, but there is plenty of craft and talent applied to it. Both the musical score and sound design are really well done, from the clatter of a horse-drawn wagon pulled down a rainy street to the satisfying thud of weapons fire. These are the little details that can make or break an experience, sometimes without even being fully aware of it. The Order: 1886 keeps you immersed, heck I'm reasonably certain they sound sampled some of the firearms from real muskets and even a crazy, lightning-bolt-spewing Arc Gun sound appropriate. The game's composer Jason Graves was the man behind the award winning score of Dead Space, and the music sets a perfect eerie mood throughout the game. The dialogue and voice acting are similarly impressive, though I do have a minor gripe with the sometimes anachronistic words and phrases characters occasionally spout. Yes, this is alternate history. No, that doesn't make it ok for your turn of the century character to use "stealth mode" in conversation.
What I really wished there was more of in The Order: 1886 was its setting and world building. It's a shame that the Wikipedia plot synopsis ends up sounding more interesting than the window dressing that appears in game. What we were teased was steampunk monster hunters, with Nikola freaking Tesla on staff, using their weaponized scientific contraptions to dispense with mythological terrors in an alternate history, turn of the century London. What you really get is shooting at rebel humans almost exclusively the whole game, with mundane firearms that are roughly half a century ahead of their time. Unless I miscounted, you can virtually count on one hand how many times you encounter non-human enemies, and if I wanted to play a game with a bunch of vaguely World War II-era weapons, I'd just play one of the many, many, World War II games. Maybe my expectations were never in line with the developers' vision for the game, but it feels like there's all this elaborate backstory about who the knights of The Order are, the greater conflict between the knights and the half breed monsters, and so much more that's potentially way more interesting than what The Order: 1886 frames its narrative around. There's something to be said about not over elaborating on every little thing, but there's a problem when I found myself way more interested in the details of world than the plot itself.
I certainly wouldn't say that the story of The Order: 1886 is bad, though we'll get to the ending later. You'll spend your time in The Order: 1886 as Grayson, aka Sir Galahad or simply Gray depending on who's addressing him. He reminded me of Jack Bauer, but with a dapper mustache and mutton chop sideburns - which already makes him way more likable. The characters that Grayson interacts with are interesting, and the game does a good job of eluding to their deeper relationships without being completely forward about it. I even really enjoyed the stereotypical womanizing Frenchman, Marquis de Lafayette, as he added just the proper dose of comedic relief to the adventure without being too ridiculous. Without revealing too much, Grayson and knightly friends start out dealing with some rebels in Whitechapel, but the narrative quickly spirals into larger conspiratorial issues. Put it this way, the Jack the Ripper murders are just a related side detail that the game casually drops an explanation for.