Saturday, June 15, 2019

Console Corner: Review of The Order: 1886

If there are any trends in the evolution of video games, one would certainly be the shift toward story-driven, cinematic experiences (perhaps best posterized by the Uncharted games). Essentially playable action/adventure movies, modern gamers think nothing of numerous cut scenes, alternate and transitioning camera angles, lengthy cinematography, and other film techniques blending gun fights and puzzle platforming—a la a Tom Cruise or Jackie Chan movie. Content that was once a reward for completing a game or level is now integrated with standard gameplay. And it makes sense. With the exponential advancement in console technology, it’s possible to include scenes of a similar quality to films and movies, so why not? One such game, and perhaps the best filmic/game experience to be had on the PS4, is The Order: 1886, a fine steampunk action title by Ready at Dawn.

The Order: 1886 is set in an alternate-history London in which an Order of Knights, a secret society, has been in place for centuries protecting the populace from half-breeds—werewolf creatures that attack humans. Players start the game in media res as Sir Galahad, one of the members of The Order. Cold, starving, and locked in a prison cell, he is being tortured for info. Flashing back to the beginning of the actual story in the midst of his escape, the player learns London is under attack by political rebels upset at the Queen’s lack of blue-collar sympathy in the face of sooty, back-breaking industrialization. Galahad and his fellow Knights must fight off the insurgents and get to the bottom of the cabal before things turn even uglier with the werewolves.

If a game wants to be cinematic, a lot depends on story. So how is that of The Order: 1886? Put simply, it delivers in ways ’s the Uncharted and other such games don’t. Built on a solid setting, it twists and turns, constantly surprising the player. Blending together in my mind, Nathan Drake’s adventures are so routine by comparison. Each features the same formula: introduce numinous object, set Drake and bad guys on a chase for said object, mix and shake well, arrive in fantasy kingdom for a showdown, the end. While Soma, Nier: Automata, and The Last of Us still take the cake for me in terms of video game storytelling, The Order: 1886 is great is right behind, and is something that will stick in mind. Shifting underfoot as bits and pieces are revealed, the story continually unravels itself in unexpected fashion. Unlike Uncharted, I didn’t know what was going to happen next. Who among the Order is behind the cabal—if anybody? What’s the connection between the rebellion and werewolves? How did Galahad end up being tortured in a prison cell? These were genuine mysteries throughout most of the game, offering motivation the Nathan Drake formula does not. Considering the relative cheapness of many of its elements (werewolves, King Arthur’s Knights of the Roundtable, Nikola Tesla inventions, a holy grail, etc.) and the subsequent potential for cheap story, The Order: 1886 delivers a dynamic, exciting tale that paves the way for sequels.

The action cover-based shooting and traversal, The Order: 1886 still feels and plays like an Uncharted game, however, even if story is better and the look is entirely different. A classic British gentleman who finds the fortitude when the situation requires, Galahad is not the ultimate ninja gymnast Nathan Drake is, meaning there is less leaping handhold to handhold than one finds in an Uncharted title. When not fighting, Galahad wanders the beautifully detailed set pieces looking for clues and items that will progress the story more often than leaping ledge to ledge. What Galahad and Drake do have in common, however, is that both are crack shots with rifle and pistol, and do it in a cover-based shooting system. Other game modes include: stealth-only sections and a variety of quick-time events that show more creativity than the average ‘push square now’ (though those do exist, also).

Production values for The Order: 1886 are through the roof—as good as any top tier PS4 game on the market today. Facial expressions leave something to be desired, but the remaining graphics are superb (the set pieces look phenomenal—the scenes in the zeppelin particularly amazing), sound is great, the cut scenes are integrated seamlessly with gameplay, what little music there is appropriately rendered, the game never seems to load (meaning unnoticeable transitions), and the voice acting is wonderful. Nearly four years since release and the game still looks and sounds gorgeous. There is, however, something curious about the naysayers…

Looking through online criticisms of The Order: 1886, it seems a lot is directed at replay value, the “lack of action”, and cost vs. the quantity of content. I have to say, I disagree. Firstly, the Uncharted games are equally un-replayable. They are story-based, fun one and dones, just like The Order: 1886. A second runthrough of a Nathan Drake story doesn’t grant anything new. Yet few criticize this of Naughty Dog, so why Ready at Dawn? Regarding the lack of action, I don’t know what to say exactly. For me the game is as much a blend of action and sleuthing (i.e. walking around investigating stuff to progress the story) as Uncharted or Tomb Raider. I never felt the game inappropriately slowed. In fact, the ‘slow’ bits built the story in ways that only enhanced the tension, rather than relieved it. Regarding the cost complaints, I understand people always want to pay less, but sorry, more content doesn’t always mean better. Ready at Dawn are asking a standard price, and for certain the game’s 7-9 hours are better quality than a lot of other games which offer dozens and dozens of hours for the same price. Ghost Recon Wildlands, for example, boasts 40+ hours of gameplay, but nobody can tell me that it isn’t three-quarters copy & paste . In fact, I would argue that unless you are playing Ghost Recon: Wildlands co-op, then the game's length is actually a detriment to enjoyment—wash, rinse, repeat. Overall, The Order seemed to exact the ire of a lot of reviewers for reasons I can’t put my finger on when looking at the wider game base and how it fits within it…

In the end, if a person enjoys the Tomb Raider reboot games, A Way Out, or Uncharted, there is no reason they will not also enjoy The Order: 1886. Very similar in touch and feel, it offers the same cover-based shooting and focus on high-quality cinematic story-telling but in a far superior storyline. The aesthetics are, of course, completely different. Rather than exotic locations with fantastical treasures and loads of baddies trying to get the treasure first, The Order: 1886 boasts a wonderfully grimy 19th century London with airships and werewolves and secret Masonic-ish societies that looks amazing. It’s not the greatest, most intellectually challenging game ever created, nor is it incredibly unique or innovative in the wider context of video games. But it does satisfy that playable-movie itch—to be a silver screen hero—that some contemporary games offer better than most.

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