Article Last Chance to Play

Last Chance to Play | The Order: 1886

A critical retrospective on Ready at Dawn's 2015 PS4 exclusive.

Last Chance to Play” takes a retrospective look at the hits and misses of the eighth generation of consoles.

The following contains spoilers for The Order: 1886.

Though it didn’t necessarily carry the same weight as a launch title, The Order: 1886 wasn’t without a burden of expectation. Released in early 2015, less than a year-and-a-half from the PlayStation 4’s own launch, it’s reasonable to suggest that The Order was tasked with finally realizing the eighth generation’s potential for “next-gen” visual presentation and technology, packaged in a definitive, narrative third-person shooter.

It’s arguable that, at this time, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were yet to find their “killer app;” the generation wasn’t yet fully voiced–it was still built on considerable amounts of promise and hope. This was before games like Bloodborne, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and others, landmark titles, would start to define the next few years on these platforms–and The Order also launched just months before E3 2015 and the announcement of Final Fantasy VII Remake, which itself would define a significant chunk of the expectation and hype for the eighth generation.

By early 2015, launch titles performed about as well as one could reasonably expect, while first-party exclusives such as Infamous: Second Son may have only appealed to a dedicated fan base that was already invested in the series. Third-party games, however, were either niche sleeper hits (The Evil Within) or were like Destiny and Evolve, struggling with somewhat of an identity crisis; here, one would only see serious success after major updates later on, while the other would just die. Other anticipated next-gen-defining experiences like Watch_Dogs also came with heavy disappointment, at least as far as their original expectation was concerned. Still yet to be released, however, The Order: 1886 kept the promise of something new and something only achievable with new hardware alive; it was to be one of the games that proved why we needed to move to a new generation, not just to solve the hypothetical (and in some cases very literal) problems aging hardware presented, but to show us experiences that would push the envelope and elevate us to a new standard. The PlayStation 4, positioned as the more powerful console at the time, was then the gateway to this new realm of visual fidelity and performance–perhaps even a new standard for the third-person shooter experience in this steampunk portrayal of Victorian London, sending players on the hunt for werewolves as a part of a secretive order in service to Queen and Country.

Shooters at the time–and still very much today–have the capacity to define a generation of gaming, or at the very least maintain the mantle of responsibility for identifying a brand–as Halo and Gears of War have done for Xbox. The PlayStation brand, however, was arguably loved for (at least here in the West) titles like God of War and rich, narrative experiences like The Last of Us. Few, we might argue, would take interest in PlayStation’s offerings if they prioritized shooters over anything else. This presented an opportunity, though, as Sony had yet to really find a shooter that rivaled Microsoft’s offerings in terms of popularity–though Killzone, Resistance, and even SOCOM arguably matched the quality, they always struggled in the shadow of others when it came to name recognition and mainstream appeal. But beyond an opening on the Sony’s platform, The Order: 1886 could’ve moved into the silent wake leftover from Gears of War 3‘s ending (and Gears of War Judgement’s poor reception) and defined cover-based third-person shooter experiences for the next generation.

Leading up to release, however, things went a little off the rails. The first and perhaps the only thing that began to kill the hype was the “controversy” concerning the game’s length. Though length as a measurement of “value per dollar” has likely always been a concern among the gaming community–and has always been a complicated metric to boil an experience down to–recent generations have seen it become one of the most pervasive issues, virtually becoming the only “objective” means of measuring a game’s worth. Whether this is the promise of “400 hours” of content in Fallout 4, or the concern surrounding the length of Final Fantasy VII Remake’s first entry and that of what its later installments may include, duration of play and “things to do” never seem to escape the focus of how we consider a game’s quality.

In the case of The Order: 1886, however, it perhaps eclipsed the other issues worth raising over the game, as Jim Sterling rightly noted in his video on the subject some time ago. It was so pervasive in the coverage of this title that Ready at Dawn’s creative director was moved to emphasize the game’s “quality, not quantity” and that he had “played games that lasted two hours that were better than games [he] played for 16 hours.” While this was perhaps a much-needed response to a bout of hysteria growing over just one of this game’s individual aspects, it would fail, perhaps, to describe what players may have actually had a hard time appreciating in The Order–something that requires a more nuanced discussion of game design which is just easier to shortcut by focusing on “length.” Sterling’s own conclusion of The Order is perhaps the most succinct in outlining its issues, that “it does very little with itself” and despite “combat [that] is solid and satisfying, [its] pacing is ruined by hacking minigames and QTEs and endless doors that won’t open until the prompt appears.”

Playing The Order: 1886 in 2020, five years after its release, I’m moved to say that length is barely a concern; it’s only by imaging a longer game could we assume its fundamental problems wouldn’t be an issue–that by the grace of there just being more hours, everything wouldn’t feel so abbreviated, prematurely cut off.

The game took me an entire weekend to get through (whether a weekend’s worth of gameplay is worth $60, however, is really a subjective matter) and while I think a lot of what weighed down my playtime was fatigue over having to go through countless quick-time-events, pointless meandering through rooms to pick up and examine objects (not to mention what I find to be an arduous and lethargic opening), I’d argue that the timeline of events that happen in the game is otherwise reasonably paced; it’s just not presented very well–or, rather, there isn’t enough to do in these moments; the actual gameplay just comes up shallow as a result. Or, perhaps, they took the British film experience a bit too literally.

Enough things “happen” in the story to warrant a single, full-featured entry; had the game actually allowed the player to play in its environments and make use of its interesting and uniquely designed arsenal, history might look a bit differently on this title. We may have already seen a sequel or two. Furthermore, its narrative struggles to elevate itself above being anything more than an outline; returning to one of Sterling’s main points, it feels more like a “prologue” than a full game. Regardless, there’s no reason that with this amount of time, with this pacing and these story beats, that a more satisfying experience couldn’t’ve been had.

What’s more unfortunate about The Order: 1886, however, is that it is so weighed down by its own shortcomings that it struggles to be a game that one should put up with for any of its particulars; it fails to be the game with the “bad story but amazing gameplay,” the “incredible graphics but lackluster narrative.” Crysis 2, for example, is mostly an on-rails-paint-by-numbers-shooter in many instances, but it is more than worth the trip for the visual presentation alone, or even just the gun design. The Order actually has something going for it, but it just refuses to lay into its own strengths at almost every turn.

The most obvious merit of The Order is its visual presentation, which I’ll get to last, but when examining its shooting and cover mechanics, its surprisingly competent, potentially great even. The issue, of course, is that the game never seems very interested in letting you do any of this. Had there been longer playtime, it’s foreseeable that simply by extension of more hours with a controller in hand, we would get more time with this game mechanic; this could be what we really mean when we say an experience like this isn’t “long enough.”

Few were probably bothered by the revelation that The Order would not have multiplayer. After a whole generation of tacked-on multiplayer and co-op modes in games like Dead Space and Mass Effect, it was likely a breath of fresh air to hear that this game would exclusively focus on its single-player experience; this likely communicated a dedication to a specific vision, but perhaps what it didn’t communicate was a lack of dedication to a shooter experience–or at least that’s what one might assume after playing the game. It may want to be a shooter in the end, but it doesn’t get there often enough.

The Order: 1886 is less of a shooter and more of a “shoot out” game. Combat tends to, mostly, be quite brief, with only the later chapters featuring any kind of extended gunfights, most of which end up being kneecapped by claustrophobic environments where one fails to enjoy the mostly solid cover and shooting mechanics; regardless, these moments reveal a glimpse of “what could’ve been” as the sounds, animations, and gun designs are satisfying. I’d go as far as to say that the greatest tragedy of this is the lack of time with the game’s apparent main assault rifle: the M2 Falchion Auto Rifle. With a simple and elegant design, satisfying rate of fire, interesting secondary defensive mechanism, and great sound design, it’s a shame the game doesn’t let you use this rifle more often (or any rifle, for that matter). One level, in particular, has you pick up said rifle to kill two enemies before shuttling you off to a QTE-heavy showdown with one of the game’s monsters. This is very similar to the game’s more experimental weaponry, including the electric Arc Induction Lance and the M86/FL Thermite Rifle. These guns appear momentarily, in scripted, limited sequences, and seem to always leave the player wondering “why can’t I use this more?”

The game’s “shoot out” segments also suffer in other key areas: namely level design and AI. Rest assured you’ll never wonder if the enemies you face are developing any kind of self-awareness. Enemies mostly bunch up and shoot in very standard, predictable ways, and are easily disposed of–and the monsters always appear in strange, truncated sequences, rushing at the player, with only repetitive and frustrating windows of opportunity to take them down; the monsters are in fact too limited, calling into question whether the Order itself represents a greater threat to humanity than it does to the so-called “Half-Breeds,” which in fact may be an interesting intra-narrative political point, but such a conclusion would be accident more than anything else; I don’t think the game is working with narrative and gameplay in that way.

The experience, then, ends up being not too different from an arcade light gun game–some segments literally lock the player to a single area and allow for the use of only one weapon, such as a sniping run that appears just past the half-way point of the game’s length. Had level design been more interesting, that it would’ve allowed for greater play sessions, perhaps best described as “longer,” there’d certainly be much more to enjoy in this game; the fact that finishing its campaign doesn’t give you any loadout or weapon selection freedom across its chapters really mutes what strengths its gameplay already has.

The Order: 1886’s narrative, perhaps, represents its weakest moments. It isn’t without an interesting premise or two, however. I personally dig the idea of King Arthur’s knights living on as some kind of secretive order where the names “Galahad,” “Percival,” and others are titles passed down through the ages; it represents a great opportunity to dive into some clever linguistic and etymological play while also toying with cyclical patterns of history and society, as we can speculate how the concept of “order” and “authority” shift and change over the course of a civilization’s evolution and growth–especially when moving from feudalism into capitalism. How would, for example, an ancient order of knights, with all its authority, customs, and perspectives, mesh with the 19th-century state of the British empire and a world moving into the industrial revolution?

There’s some opportunity here to meditate on what a society hangs on to–whether or not we literally are just recycling the dead in the same way the knights of this game consume the ancient blood of past knights to both earn their title, as well as heal their own injuries–it is literally the revival mechanism in the game. Given that vampires show up in the latter half of the narrative, this could also work in step with the history of this monster’s portrayal in media, seeing the subject of the vampire as a kind of sublimation of power into physical form, of giving us a way of clearing out a false consciousness to focus larger concepts of power into one form–of abstracting capitalism’s power to extract value from a labor force into the blood-sucking nature of the vampire; then, we might give pause as to ask who and what the vampires are, what any of these “Half-Breeds” or monsters are and what is meant by the Lord Chancellor’s insistence that the “balance” between humanity and Half-Breeds must be kept. What is this “balance” and “order” even for? What is “natural” and what is “monstrous?” There’s certainly hope and promise that this game might provide the mind an opportunity to wander into and explore these spaces, but once the characters start speaking, despite their somewhat appealing personalities, a lot of that hope is lost.

The narrative is confusing from the very beginning. It’s never clear what the Order itself really does aside from…maintain order? There’s talk of a balance between “humans and half-breeds” needing to be kept–but what does that even mean? It refers to this balance as if it were a self-evident fact–as if the player should know all of the backstory beforehand. It’s similar to reading a piece of expanded lore out of sequence–as if there’s a book or a comic, or series of them, that you should’ve read before playing this game.

The progression of the narrative doesn’t answer these questions, though; rather, it just presents more of them. If the Order itself is a sort of secret police force, an apparatus of power, to control monsters, why are they called in to deal with the human “rebels” in the game’s opening moments? Is this a question we the players are expected to be asking? It’s not clear. Is there something “unreliable” going on here at the narrative level? Is our paranoia and suspicion of the presentation cutting to the revelation of the game’s central conspiracy, or is it a sign of clunky writing and a plot that is revealing its secrets way too easily?

Instead of “werewolves” or even “monsters,” we’re told that the Order is a covenant sworn to defend humanity from the “Half Breeds,” and what they are “Half” of is anyone’s guess really. The game rarely even indulges in its own fantasy and lore–which is just bizarre for a video game. Though some “growing up” of most game narratives is certainly in order, it doesn’t mean we ought to abandon the concept of explaining things to the player. Literally, thirty seconds of exposition explaining something about what the origin of these monsters are could’ve cleared this up. By the time the vampires show up, there’s nothing left to do but shrug and say, “Oh, okay, I guess they’re a thing too.” The game isn’t interested in telling you, the player, what you’re doing or why you’re doing it; instead, you’re just doing it because you’re a guy in a fancy outfit with a fancy gun. Your appearance seems to just dictate and explain what your role is.

Again, this might’ve presented some interesting narrative play had that been a part of the revelation: that the Order itself is really just a meaningless front to give the illusion of control; only the most optimistic reading of the game’s plot suggests this is what it may be trying to communicate–and if it was the point, I don’t think it delivers it very well; it’s mostly a bunch of confusing silliness.

The dialogue is perhaps the most revealing in this instance. Characters seem to just talk at one another, with dizzying and pointless exchanges of words. Take, for example:

Lafayette: Most fetching, was she not?
Galahad: I hadn’t noticed.
Lafayette: That is because you are not a Frenchman.
Galahad: You are the most American Frenchman I have ever known.
Lafayette: I am a lover of liberty, mon ami.
Galahad: A proper knight must learn to curb his passions.
Lafayette: Without passion, monsieur, a man cannot fight.
Galahad: We do not fight men, Marquis.
Lafayette: Men, Half-Breeds. What does it matter? Vive la liberté!

I’ll admit that had the exchange cut off at “you are the most American Frenchman I have ever known,” it would’ve been pretty amusing–but then there’s this weird talk of passion and men and not fighting men and just…I don’t know! When Lafayette says “what does it matter?” he may as well be talking about the very conversation he’s having–literally, what does this matter? And when the dialogue doesn’t consist of odd, aimless, talking, it hovers around tired cliches, such as:

Lafayette: Do you trust anyone, mon general?
Perceval: Never accept, always question. It’s motto that’s seen me through the centuries. Stay vigilant, all of you. We can expect hot work here.

It’s not all misery, however, because somehow, despite a clunky, uncertain plot and even clunkier dialogue, the characters are somehow charming. The manifestation, no doubt, of some great casting, directing, and acting, each character feels quite believable, even if what they say half the time is nonsense. When it finally comes time for there to be a great line, it manages to deliver it quite well. Take this exchange starting at 0:40:

Aside from minor moments like this, the game is quite humorless and characters speak and behave in ways that seem to only make sense as to usher the plot along, or to deliver a trite cliche. This is the ultimate problem with the dialogue in The Order; one can tolerate clunky lines and the presence of cliches in most media as they’re sometimes unavoidable, but when those become the only reprieve from character actions and speech that do nothing more than reveal the skeletal structure of the plot–characters announcing why they do what they do in order to serve the story more than anything else–the experience, for all of its promise, is watered down. The Lord Chancellor rants and raves about secret revelations “shaking the Order to its core,” but never actually does anything more than that or indicates what “shaking the Order to its core” would actually mean; and the emotional investment he has in protecting his secrets is only spat out at the end in a moment of rushed exposition as if to say: “This is why you had to get to the final boss: to learn this secret!” His secrets and stonewalling make him seem so comically guilty and suspect that it’s a wonder the conspiracy wasn’t revealed earlier.

Perhaps the strangest and weakest moment is Galahad’s decision to leave Igraine, his protege, someone he truly seems to care for and value, out of his attempts to unravel and expose the conspiracy; completely ignoring, it would seem, that his nebulous actions would raise so much suspicion as to thwart any of his attempts to expose what’s going on and risk the very trust of someone he values, reveal him to be a man without much consideration for others, an inability to think two steps ahead of what he’s trying to do, or, perhaps, is just stupid. Sure, maybe he’s been driven to make rash decisions after the death of his friend, but this doesn’t feel like it’s communicated well, at least not in terms of it being tied into his actions. Instead, he chooses to confide in the guy who just happens to be the double agent because the narrative just wouldn’t reach its conclusion otherwise. His apparent justification, that he needs to keep Igraine out of this, and that “what she doesn’t know cannot hurt her,” is just a lame, paternalistic cliche, and thus round and round we go, circling cliches and exposed plot structure.

The reluctance to deviate from the predictable also exposes the derivative inner workings too much. Characters say things like “I’m as good as dead anyway” when they’re facing a wall of rifles pointed at them, and the relationship between the primary antagonist and the double agent just screams an Anakin/Palpatine dynamic but without any of the character development that makes it believable (mostly) in Star Wars.

This leaves the graphical presentation to be addressed; in all honesty, there’s not much to say, since the game does a great job of showing itself off on its own. Suffice it to say, The Order: 1886 is a fantastic visual experience. Even by 2020’s standards, it still looks great. An entire generation’s worth of amazing visual experiences on the same platform, such as Uncharted 4 or Death Stranding as examples, do make the game’s rougher edges a bit more apparent to me than they were in 2015, but it almost doesn’t matter when considering the excellent artistry at work here. I genuinely don’t think Ready at Dawn gets the praise they deserve not only for how good the game looks but also how lively and organic everything feels. It’s not a matter of how “good” it looks, but really how rich these environments feel.

The density of the experience is, in some ways, still without rival. While it’s not necessarily a question of “better,” there are few games that feel and look quite like this one–and zooming out in the game’s photo mode can reveal much of how simple the construction of these environments is, revealing that these developers know how to make a 3D experience sing.

The graphical fidelity, however, does reveal a dark side, or perhaps a cost. The player is often left with sequences where the only thing to do is pick up and examine an in-game object; one can almost see these as speculative moments, the game perhaps glancing in on itself to ask whether or not this is what the industry demanded of it, whether this is what gamers demanded of it. Whether it was worth the fidelity of the object it is, or the player is, currently staring at.

There’s an inescapable emptiness to this. It’s monotonous in its repetition: rotate the object with the left thumbstick, press triangle to turn it over–again and again and again. A hollow feeling fills these moments, and we might ask if this is what a $400 console is worth; here we are given visual fidelity that we could only hope to imagine ten years before The Order arrived, maybe even unthinkable in decades prior. We stare into these objects with a sense of nothing: it’s a digital abyss that has been created by our apparently insatiable appetite for processing power above all.

Even now, with the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X on tomorrow’s horizon, there brews a useless debate over processing power; these are machines that equally outpace what most could reasonably assemble in a custom PC, with access to some of the world’s most powerful components, and it seems like they won’t be good enough–that there’s rumor of a sequel for The Order as an early title for these machines seems to indicate that, once again, this world might be a sacrificial lamb for the slaughter, robbing it of its otherwise strong potential–and that’s a fate that not even King Arthur’s Knights may be able to fight off.

Copies of The Order: 1886 are easy to score, and for a decent price in 2020. It’s worth noting that the game came with a few different collector’s editions, some of which may be of interest to collectors. The collector’s edition advertised in this trailer actually reveals much of my own frustrations with the plot, as there’s apparently a “rebel insignia” that I can’t recall ever seeing in the game.

Depending on the locality, there were a couple of other editions worth keeping an eye out for since the packaging and bonuses are quite nice.

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