It’s probably somewhere around the first on-rails ‘stealth’ section (complete with super fun insta-death cutscenes if you get spotted) that we started lowering our expectations of The Order 1886. The second time round, just a few chapters later, all hopes for true greatness are abandoned. It’s a shame because this PS4 exclusive takes a pinch of werewolf, a smattering of steampunk and big dollop of the Knights of the Round Table to create an atmospheric alternate history of Victorian London.
A third-person shooter, The Order 1886 liberally borrows ideas from previous games to the point where it can feel like a checklist of conventions from the last decade or so. Lock-picking mini game – check! Sticky cover – check! Slow-mo shooting – check! You can even collect phonograph cylinders to uncover more of the back story! What a novel idea!
A few arbitrary button presses are your only interaction for the first ten minutes or so. During this time you get to marvel at the graphics; the crisp lighting, detailed textures, lush facial hair, lifelike animations, and impressive lip-syncing. Wait, did we mention the facial hair? Moustaches and beards have never looked so cool in a computer game. Fact.
Having said that, the visuals don’t represent a vast leap from previous games (they won’t drop the jaw of anyone who’s played The Last Of Us Remastered, for example), but what makes The Order 1886 so damn sexy is its consistency. We didn’t notice any stutter (it runs at 30fps), shadows rarely flicker, and jagged edges and pop-in are almost non-existent. A slight grain that imitates film stock to create an added sense of depth and realism is the cherry on the top of the game’s distinct visual identity.
Character models get the most attention, and while the story never develops much beyond, ‘Let’s go to the next place to shoot more stuff,’ cutscenes are gorgeous with generally decent performances from the actors involved. The facial expressions convey emotions well, there are no scary dead eyes, and (as mentioned previously) the lip-synching is pretty spot on. Though we’re not quite in uncanny valley territory yet, if The Order 1886’s graphics are anything to go by we’ll be approaching its first peak soon enough.
While the story fails to conjure strong emotions, the atmosphere created by the environments is palpable. There’s a sumptuously downbeat Victorian squalor to the dirt on the walls, dust in the air and general deterioration of the slum and industrial areas, while the opulence enjoyed by the upper classes is suitably grand, shiny and architecturally arrogant. It’s unfortunate then, that most of the game is spent staring down the iron sights of your gun waiting for distant heads to pop out from behind boxes.
Once you properly take control of gravel-voiced, Clive Owen-a-like knight Galahad things soon settle into a cutscene, shoot stuff, cutscene, shoot more stuff, cutscene, shoot everything with a special gun that you’re only allowed for this section, cutscene, kind of flow. Shooting stuff is pretty fun in that familiar way shooting stuff generally tends to be, but enemy AI consists of shotgun baddies running forward, everyone else firing from cover, and little else. On normal difficulty we once spent a tragically entertaining minute or so doing nothing while a totally inept (or maybe just registered blind) enemy soldier failed miserably to end our life.
Inventive arsenals can save generic shooters from mediocrity, but despite The Order 1886’s insistence on making you pore over each new gun from every angle, there’s not much to see here. Apart from a cool thermite launcher and lightning gun, it’s standard fare with shotgun, pistol and rifle variants all present and correct. It’s extra disappointing when you consider the potential for inventiveness offered by the steampunk theme.
What makes the lack of innovation, reliance on worn conventions and slightly broken bits (AI and fiddly cover, we’re looking at you) so frustrating is this is a relatively short game (7-10 hours), with no multiplayer. People bemoan the shoehorning of multiplayer features into some games because it diverts resources and money that could have been used on the main attraction. Here, however, apart from the stunning graphics, it’s hard to tell what the benefit is. We like a lovely bit of facial hair as much as the next guy who struggles to grow their own, but we would swap it for some kind of meaningful gameplay innovation in a moment.
And so we come to the ‘stealth’ sections. Sorry, we’re being grumpy by putting that in quotation marks, but twice you’re subjected to tedious enforced creeping that’s so untrusting of you as a player that if a guard comes your way Galahad instantly ducks into cover. The punishment for being spotted is instant death and the first time it happens, dumping you back to the start, it’s hard not to feel underwhelmed by a game that Sony has backed so comprehensively as the first triple-A banger of this generation.
After all the hype, The Order 1886 is a cookie cutter shooter with some bad habits and well-worn mechanics buoyed by fantastic visual design. Not a spectacular experience, nor a bad one. It can feel as antiquated as the knights who star in it, but, crucially, never descends into blandness thanks to its beautifully dirty take on a steampunk-infused Victorian London.
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