The Order: 1886 - Games Weekly

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Monday, January 26, 2015

The Order: 1886

When we think of The Order: 1886, it’s hard not to feel a certain sympathy for those who draw up game marketing plans. A couple of years out from release, with your work still taking shape, you have to decide how you’re going to explain your game, with no way of knowing how the world will react, or how that reaction will throw your plan into chaos. The Order was announced with a CG trailer in which four impeccably rendered Victorian-era Londoners defended a Whitechapel stagecoach from a half-seen threat with fantastical weaponry, suggesting it was a sort of steampunk  Left 4 Dead. When more details emerged, the game was portrayed as a linear, story-focused thirdperson shooter like Gears Of War. And when we got it in our hands at E3 2014, what was intended as a showcase of the Thermite Gun and smoke physics instead sold it as a shooter in which you shoot not the enemy, but at the clouds of powder around them. In between, there have been quibbles over its resolution and aspect ratio, loudly shouted concerns over its linearity, and opprobrium for developers who have seemed disappointed to be making games instead of films. In the year and a bit since The Order was announced, we’ve never been entirely sure about what it was trying to be. Now, having laid hands on  it, we know. Sadly, it’s not great news.


Linearity isn’t an instant black mark. Ready At Dawn is trying to make a visually arresting, story-focused game, and those two goals become more achievable the more you control the player’s journey. At times here, Ready At Dawn’s authorial control is absolute. At the demo’s outset, where the four-strong Order Sebastian Malory, Isabeau D’Argyll, Marquis De Lafayette and Sir Galahad stands atop the Agamemnon airship waiting to rappel over the edge, we’re invited to adjust the camera with the right stick. It moves perhaps 15 degrees to either side before slowly panning back into place, ensuring the studio can devote all the available processing power to the visible part of the scene by forcibly occluding the rest of the world. That’s fine, given what it has set out to do. But as soon as we start to move, our goodwill evaporates.

If you’re   going  to make a scripted game, your scripting needs to be absolutely perfect. If you want to craft something cinematic, then you must do nothing that breaks the player’s immersion in the story and the world, because that’s all you really have. When we press X to jump from the blimp and abseil down, it takes perhaps a second for Galahad to take off. When he lands, there’s an awkward pause while he shifts from landing animation to neutral stance, resetting and flattening his feet before finally responding to our insistent taps of X and setting off again.

Such awkwardness is a recurring theme. If you aren’t in quite the correct spot when you hit Triangle to open a door, Galahad simply slides into the right position. When you press the same button to pick up guns and ammo on a desk, he waves his left hand over them and they simply disappear. These are little things, sure, but such mistakes can have fatal consequences in a game such as this. We’re told Ready At Dawn’s current focus is on scripting events, and while it’s working on the transitions between cutscenes and gameplay right now, there may still be enough time for other, more pressing, issues to be addressed. 

It’s almost certainly too late for fundamental changes to the design document. With the quartet splitting up into pairs and spending the first half of the demo infiltrating the enemy airship, this is a sneaking mission at first, and not a good one. Approach a cor-blimeying guard who nine times out of ten has spent the preceding moments muttering to himself so you can tell where he is, just in case you can’t see him helpfully shining his torch and a QTE prompt appears, a marker moving towards the Triangle button and thus inviting you to properly time your slender interaction with proceedings. Get it right, and a canned animation shows Galahad plunging a knife into his neck; fail, and a different canned animation shows your quarry turning around and shooting you twice in the gut. There’s the odd variation on this most repetitive of themes in one scene, we have to line up some scenery in the centre of the screen before triggering a canned environmental kill with a button press but it’s not enough. This is a system in which every individual enemy is its own instafail stealth mission.

Happily, it’s all over quickly enough, and things improve markedly when we finally get a gun in our hands. The Three Crown Coach Gun fires three shells at once and packs unpredictable short-range oomph, while the C-81 Maschinenpistole is all over the shop in sustained fire, a believable depiction of a gunman’s lot had there been semi automatic weaponry in the time of cholera. The sound design of guns, too, suggests a sort of barely contained destructive power that fits with a parallel universe where engineers just getting to grips with gas lighting also started fiddling with complex weapon ballistics.

The AI is barely deserving of the term, though, either following a scripted instruction to head for cover, failing to put you down as you stand in full view carrying out a canned melee takedown on one of their number, or standing out in the open, staring at you sniping from the balcony and saying “fahk” a lot. But we are, at least, moving and shooting and doing something on our own terms. In the context of everything else, we’ll take it.
This is a system in which every individual enemy is its own instafail stealth mission
From that comes a much-needed glimmer of hope. Perhaps the stealth system is so rote because it is used only sparingly, and the full game will make more of the immeasurably more satisfying gunplay. Perhaps the obvious joins between animations will be improved. We hold out hope that the supernatural enemy threat will enforce a different approach to combat than the demo’s human aggressors (although trailers suggest we should expect more melee QTEs). Perhaps, when freed from the tight spaces of an airship’s corridors, The Order will open up a bit. And while the blimp is not without its visual highlights the seat fabric in a first-class cabin looks remarkable, while Galahad’s slicked hair is so finely detailed that you can almost smell the pomade Ready At Dawn will have more opportunities to showcase its technical talents at cobbled-street level.

Then there’s the story, Ready At Dawn’s focus all along, and of which its reticence to show or say much is, as such, understandable. For all the mechanical inanity, a steampunk Victorian London remains a setting that is hard to resist; that, and a decent yarn, may be enough to save this from mediocrity. But after this, The Order’s muddled messaging has become much easier to understand. After all, it must be hard working out what to say when there’s not a lot worth talking about.

Electric sheep
Ready At Dawn has resisted attempts to describe its game as steampunk, believing the term carries a comical connotation inappropriate to The Order’s story, but there’s no better word to describe the toys at Galahad’s disposal. He can scope out distant areas using the chunky, thick-lensed Monocular, and chat with remote colleagues using The Communicator, a speaker with a visible attached power cell
that sits on his right shoulder blade. The Hammer is a bulky lockpicking device that requires you to rotate the right stick until the controller’s vibration deepens to signify each pin’s sweet spot. Elsewhere you’ll overload circuit boxes using the TS-27 Inverter/Rectifier. They’re thematically appropriate spins on other people’s well-worn ideas, in other words fitting neatly in the context of the demo as a whole.

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