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The Order: 1886 Preview: This could be the reason to own a PS4

on 18 February 2014

Last week, I went behind-closed-doors for a sneak peek at The Order: 1886, one of PlayStation 4's most anticipated--and most mysterious--exclusives. Indeed, before Ready at Dawn walked me through a roughly 15-minute section of live gameplay, I had little idea what The Order actually was, let alone why anyone should be excited for it (save Ready at Dawn's impressive pedigree of PlayStation exclusives). I went in thinking, 'Third-person shooter set in alternate-history Victorian London.' I left thinking, 'This could be the reason to own a PS4.'

That's lofty praise, I realize, but it's absolutely heartfelt. The Order fits pretty squarely into the action-adventure genre--the spot on a PlayStation owner's shelves likely occupied by Tomb Raider, The Last of Us, and Uncharted--but the mysticism afforded by the game felt much like my first encounter with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. PlayStation enthusiasts know that revelatory moment: Naughty Dog's globe-trotting sequel married gameplay brilliance, cinematic wonder, and incomprehensibly gorgeous visuals in a way we'd simply never seen before. It's a legendary game (some say, unmatched on PS3), and while it's too early to say whether The Order's final polish will meet such a lofty benchmark, it seems to have all three aforementioned pieces of the holy gaming trinity--plus something extra, to make the whole thing feel like the revelation Uncharted 2 was in its time.

That extra, revelatory thing is what writer and creative director Ru Weerasuriya calls "moment-to-moment gameplay," and it's one of five things you need to know about The Order: 1886. But first:

1. Its photorealistic graphics are unrivaled

Aesthetic preferences aside, it's impossible to deny just how good The Order: 1886 looks. Last year's E3 debut certainly caught our attention with lifelike animation and astonishing weather effects, but with more exposure, I was completely in awe at how photorealistic The Order: 1886 looks. I think one screenshot in particular, directly below, demonstrates this visual splendor better than any other:

Cover Lady Igraine's face and eyes with your hand (the eyes always give it away). From the tight, not perfect, weave of individual hair fibers to the shading inside her ear--one could put the face of any real-life actress on that head and suddenly be staring at a movie still. The depth of field and lighting are impossibly precise. The heroes' clothing looks pulled from a museum closet. The dusty fog of war has settled over a backdrop so detailed it borders on unnecessary.

Impossible though it may seem, the whole game looks like this. There is 1:1 parity between cutscene and gameplay, from the film grain effect to the almost-imperceptible moles on characters' faces. To prove it, our demonstrator stopped to rotate the camera for an up-close of Galahad's face. There it was, in all the hyper-detailed, highly expressive, PlayStation 4-powered glory you see in a cutscene below. All the while: Coats flap in the wind. An orange light on Galahad's uniform casts glow on the surrounding fabrics. Ornate symbols and artistry suitably decorate the armor of an Arthurian soldier (more on that in a bit).

PlayStation owners are somewhat accustomed to being visually wow'ed. But just as Uncharted 2 elevated graphics in gaming to unseen heights in 2009, The Order: 1886 has, five years later, changed what I deem visually possible in a medium that has firmly obliterated the uncanny valley. And it's in 1080p.

2. King Arthur legends meet "neo-Victorian London" in The Order's setting

Alternate-history stories in games are fairly infrequent, but The Order: 1886 nevertheless ups the narrative ante by not only drawing inspiration from Arthurian legends, but incorporating them. The four main characters of The Order--what we know as the Knights of the Round Table--have adopted the names of staples in Arthurian lore. There's Sir Galahad (Grayson, the player character), Percival (Sebastian Mallory, the wizened descendant of Le'Morte d'Arthur author Thomas Mallory), Lady Igraine (Isabeau, Galahad's former apprentice and rumored love interest), and a fourth hero--Lafayette--who has yet to earn his adopted name (the smart money's on 'Lancelot').

But these are just names until the backdrop lore becomes apparent: in The Order: 1886's telling of history, King Arthur formed the Knights of the Round Table to combat a breed of half-man, half-beast creatures. The conflict has waged for centuries, with Galahad and company being the latest in a heritage of Order members dedicated to fighting this threat. The impetus of this conflict dramatically affected what we know as the Industrial Revolution--apparently, it's easier to invent things like wireless communication and thermite guns with a bestial army breathing down your neck.

We've yet to see what narrative themes The Order: 1886 will borrow from the legendary texts it pays homage to, but I'm anxious to see how the romanticism and religious undertones of le Conte du Graal, Le'Morte d'Arthur, and other Arthurian texts are honored and reflected in relationships between characters and events of The Order. This is practically non-existent stuff in video games, so the unpredictable interplay of homages paid and liberties taken should make for fascinating storytelling. At the very least, this reinterpretation of 19th-century London allows for all kinds of interesting gadgets and weapons that use real-world, period-centric materials to do things like channel electricity and ignite molten metal.

More things you need to know about The Order: 1886, overleaf.