Arguably one of the most beautiful, photo-realistic video game ever created, the gorgeous The Order: 1886 looks like it should have been an instant top 3 games of all times. In fact, if you go by screenshots or gameplay trailers alone, you could even be duped into questioning anyone’s willingness to pan such a glorious achievement.
Unfortunately, the beauty with The Order is less-than skin deep, as the underlying game commits the unforgivable sin of trading style over substance. The repetitive action sequences, clunky controls, and infuriating missed opportunities doom the game, relegating it to the dubious status of the most beautiful shooting gallery game ever made.
This spoiler-free review discusses the game’s high- and low-water marks and how it could have been so much more.
The Order: 1886 Backstory
By all rights the premise of The Order is intriguing. Set in Victorian London in (you guessed it) 1886, nearly-immortal Knights of the Round Table traipse around the city with steampunk weapons designed by none other than a younger-than-his-30-years Nicola Tesla to fight a combination of Werewolves, Rebels, and Vampires. Well, sort of.
As staunch defenders of the crown, the Knights rely on the rejuvenating powers of Black Water to heal mortal wounds and defy death for centuries. Along the way, the hero of the story – Sir Galahad, who adopted the title from the first Sir Galahad during the middle ages – has stumbled across a massive conspiracy, one for which he has been wrongfully accused.
The player begins with his torture and escape from the hands of his former compatriots, and thus begins the long backstory to use the game to bring everyone up to speed.
Pretty cool, eh?
Photorealistic Video Games
Personally, I love the trend towards photorealistic video games. I just wish they were good. When you look at games like The Order: 1886 and Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, you can’t help but wonder if they locked up the writer(s) in some cave, shackled to the wall, and forced them to scrap idea after idea because it might take too much effort and they may have to back off the graphics to do something interesting.
This is, ultimately, the downfall of photorealistic video games. The amount of work to develop such high quality means that the trade-off tends to fall along the lines of storyline and/or gameplay and/or a complete failure to suspend disbelief.
Gorgeous to look at, they deny (at least as of this generation of games tends to do) actual gameplay choices and options – simply because there isn’t enough time or resources to create multiple options at such a high standard.
Ultimately, I think this is why The Order failed to deliver on such a beautiful premise. The story and the graphics promised so, so much more than it delivered, and I believe it was because they simply couldn’t maintain that level of quality for an actual game. There are moments inside the game when it seems like there might have been additional elements ripped out, with just ghostly hints of greatness left behind to tease us.
The Litany Begins
I only read a couple of reviews, and I have to say they were both spot on. In fact, as harsh as Adam Rosenberg is, writing for Digital Trends, everything he says is 100% correct. Erik Kain, writing for Forbes, aggregates a general malaise among pre-launch testers that the game just isn’t fun. Of course, he’s right.
Because of the need to adhere to the visual quality and restrict various options (which would require even more development and QA), The Order severely restricts what you can do. This is no open-world, choose-your-own adventure. You are a puppet on a string, forced to jump through hoops in a particular pre-determined sequence.
It just so happens that that sequence gets remarkably repetitive: move Galahad to the next shooting gallery and clear out all the targets.
That’s it. There’s nothing more to it. The levels are designed to move you from one place to another, whether it be the London Tube stations, stately Victorian homes, or even the Order’s own HQ. The hardest decision you’re asked to make as a player is whether or not you want to change the single one-handed or single two-handed weapon you’re allowed to carry.
Pretty soon the only thing you care about when making the weapon selection is how fast it can get you to finish the game.
This is not to say that there couldn’t have been better use of the limited resources. Throughout the game you find different collectibles. Recordings of audio, even music. You even find old photographs lying around on desks, sometimes with writing on the back.
The maddening part about this is that the game doesn’t do anything with it. There’s no connection between these items and the overall storyline, nor do they augment the backstory at all. When Galahad walks all the way across a giant room to pick up a shiny object (and it’s just as slow as in Gone To The Rapture, for crying out loud), only to have it be something utterly insipid, it tends to foster a sense of slowly burning and spreading rage.
The photographs could have been used to act as something to help the player understand the conspiracy, leave clues to the mystery (or better yet, misdirection, as the mystery behind the conspiracy plaguing the Order is as transparent as cellophane.
As it is, there’s just nothing at all, and it’s difficult not to get a little peeved that the game keeps wasting the player’s time with yet-another, “look at how beautiful we made this game” moment.
All of this is even more frustrating when you take into account that there were several missing pieces in the game.
Arguably the most interesting character of the game, the Marquis de Lafayette, he is lamentably avoided at the most critical and pivotal plot points in the game. He makes a decision to trust Galahad when the order has betrayed him, but the player never learns of the consequence of this action.
Likewise, Galahad’s compatriot (and suggested love-interest) Isabeau, the daughter of the leader of the order and a strong character in her own right, devolves into a brain-dead, revenge-oriented, conspiracy harpy when Galahad removes his uniform to go undercover. For all the years that they’ve been alive, it’s almost impossible to think that the Knights – with their secrecy – haven’t gone undercover once.
When Galahad does this, however, Isabeau instantly distrusts the man she’s fought beside for years and considers herself the victim of the ultimate betrayal, as she believes that he has “gone over to the other side.” The player has to suffer from not one, but several exchanges where the only explanation he gives is, ‘Izzy, you just have to trust me.”
This insipid interaction only furthers take the player out of the realm so carefully crafted. Add to this that 1886 London appears to be deserted (where are all the people?), mutated beasts terrorize the city (let’s not forget it’s 1886 and you must throw in a useless Jack The Ripper tie-in at all costs), and giant Order airships dot the sky and drop bombs (this is supposed to be a secret order?).
Then there’s the nature of the Order itself. How does it work? What’s Black Water? They have lived for centuries, but they act as if their comrades-in-arms are often rookies. What is the nature of their relationship to the crown? The local constabulary appears to know about them – somewhat – so the degree of their secrecy is unknown. The game showed early promise when a captain of the Metropolitan police was able to bring their arrogance down a notch by figuring out a useful clue, but the relationship with the local authorities never moved beyond that moment. In fact, it’s dropped altogether.
What you get is a completely insane wreck of disbelief, to the point where the so-called dramatic tension about the nature of the order and the need for secrecy is little more than an awkward joke.
The Rebellion and the Evil Company
You can’t have a video game nowadays without rebels and an evil company attempting to take over the world. The Order takes these tropes and flattens both of them to 1-dimensional caricatures. Actually, that’s really giving them more credit than they deserve.
In the beginning of the game, the Rebels – as they are only known throughout the game – are fighting for… um… you see they have been oppressed by… um… well, I’m sure they’ve got a good cause in there somewhere.
All we really know as the player is that they are bad people and The Order needs to stop them. After all, for Queen and Crown, right?
As they fight the rebels, Galahad notices that his friend and mentor sometimes talks with a strange woman. He must find out what this is all about, and thus the drive to go undercover.
Here’s the thing: once Galahad goes undercover, all of the rebels disappear. No, I’m not kidding. For the first half of the game they’re the only residents of London, it seems. Afterwards, the hordes of combatants simply cease to exist.
As far as the evil company is concerned, there really are no spoilers here anyway. After all, would anyone ever be shocked by the “true evil nature” of the Victorian-era East India Company? The real twist might have been if it turned out the company actually had noble motives, but we can’t have that, can we?
Falling in line with the waste-of-time problem, there are two microgame elements to The Order that, quite frankly, are totally useless. Each is used only about four or five times, and all they do is slow down the game’s already lethargic pace.
The first of these mind-numbing games is a lockpick device that requires the player to balance the joysticks in just the right position against a vibrating controller. Pushing the R2 button at the right time injects a puff of air into the lock, jimmying it.
The second microgame is an excuse to use one of Tesla’s gadgets to do something to an electrical grid. What it does isn’t completely clear, and quite frankly it’s not important. You just do it to get to the next area.
If this sounds familiar to, oh, say Fallout or any other game with this mechanism, you’re not wrong. Here is the problem, though: it doesn’t matter.
There are zero consequences with these microgames. You can’t lose. You mess up with the lockpick, and you go again. You get the timing off with the hacking device, and you get a vibration “shock” in the controller, and go again.
Just do it, get it over with. Eventually you will get it.
In any other game, though, the consequences are much clearer defined. In Bioshock you can set off an alarm and find yourself faced with tons of baddies. In Fallout, you can permanently lock yourself out of an area.
In The Order, there is no risk, and there is no reward. It is simply an obstacle to prevent you from continuing in the game. As beautifully rendered as the sequences are, they are pointless and dull.
Beyond anything else, the most frustrating part of the game was the mechanics of moving around. Galahad walks as if he’s wearing deep-sea diving boots, and one can’t help but wonder if the developers slowed him down deliberately to extend the game duration.
Combat mechanics are even worse. Galahad’s entire body is magnetized, and if you get too close to any cover whatsoever he slams into it like he’s body-checked by a pro hockey player. This can happen when you’re aiming at a target and bump the stick just a little too much, or when you’re trying to dodge from cover to cover and the game simply decides on your behalf to stick him behind the closest piece of cover. This is particularly frustrating if you need to bypass cover that is being destroyed at the time, but the game decides that it’s a reasonable time to leave you stuck out in the open.
The hand-to-hand combat is equally frustrating. Pulling its cues from TellTale Games’ The Walking Dead or the much, much better Heavy Rain, The Order will try to switch things up by shifting to a “hit-the-right-button-at-the-right-time” or “match the two points on the screen and hit the trigger before the arbitrary timer ends” method.
But don’t worry, if you don’t get it the first time, or even the fiftieth, it never changes. It will reset you back to the start of the fight and you only have to memorize the sequence a little better.
It becomes tedious.
Galahad, it appears, simply isn’t a very good fighter, tactician, shooter, or sneak. He constantly thrusts himself out into the open, is horribly slow at reacting to threats, and hesitates to pull the trigger on far too many opportunities.
In one memorable (for the wrong reasons) example, the player is taken into a forced-Stealth mode with a crossbow. On numerous occasions I aimed the crossbow and fired at nearly point-blank range, but the guard suddenly saw Galahad, shouted, “Hey!” and fired his pistol into Galahad’s forehead. The bolt never flew. Then the entire sequence had to be started from the beginning.
This happened numerous times. The only way to deal with the problem was to ensure that you fired with nearly a full-second lead time.
The game also loved to decide what weapons you were allowed to take with you. It’s not uncommon in games to find yourself getting a different loadout from previous chapters, as you are going to be tasked with different missions.
With The Order, however, the game can change your loadout in the middle of a conversation, without warning, usually immediately after a cut-scene. In one memorable moment the Order is fighting rebels, and Galahad got his hands on a much-desirable sniper rife (as he was high above ground). One dialogue cut scene before the battle was to begin between characters, and then I was shocked to find out that the precious sniper rifle had been swapped for an assault rifle.
Puppet on a string.
While I don’t agree with the harsh scores of the reviews I linked to before, I do think their observations are correct. I spent the first half-hour to 45 minutes marveling at the technological achievement of the game, the visuals and sound were beyond comparison.
Soon, however, I started to lament the repetitive gameplay, the maddening controls, the repetitive combat, the prolonged cut scenes, the repetitive shooting, and the constant, ongoing, and unashamed waste of time.
At one point in time about three-quarters of the way through the game I was frustrated enough to simply avoid picking up the controller again. In fact, it took over a month before my curiosity to see whether the game ever wrapped up its gaping plot holes enticed me to try to finish the game. Well, I did, but the game didn’t. Shame on me, I suppose.
I have no doubt that the ending of the game left the plot holes open on purpose, intending to close them off under the assumption that players cared about the characters enough to do so. Unfortunately, they don’t. Moreover, I’m not inclined to spend any additional money to wait until the developers decide to finish the story by way of a sequel.
I bought the game at a severe discount – $15.00. For that amount of money it certainly does not deserve the “terrible” title that has been thrown around. However, even at any amount of money the distractions and poor implementation of the mechanics are painful to endure.
Overall, If you find the game for $10, it is worth the purchase just to see how beautiful a game can be, both visually and aurally. There’s enough of a story and a gameplay to make that dollar figure work in the game’s favor. Even at $15, though, I had a hard time justifying finishing the game at all, and my anticipation for a disappointing finish didn’t, well, disappoint.
Throughout the entirety of the game, I couldn’t help but wonder what might have been had Ken Levine been able to get his hands on this kind of hardware for Bioshock.
I suppose it might have looked something like this:
The above clip is of actual Bioshock render elements from 2006 being re-rendered with the Unreal 4 Engine.