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The Order: 1886 Hands-on Preview: Judging a mysterious book by its gorgeous cover

on 27 May 2014

Out of all the announced PlayStation 4 titles, The Order 1886 certainly holds the allure of being one of the most mysterious. Much of the PlayStation nation is hoping it could be the console’s first exclusive-IP hit. This is a game, after all, that many are touting as the PS4’s Uncharted--a title which will beat Uncharted to the punch in demonstrating the prowess of Sony’s latest platform and sell gamers on the system. To say The Order 1886 has high expectations to meet is an understatement. Two week ago, I had the privilege of getting hands-on time with the game at a pre-E3 event in Santa Monica, California, and my cautious opinion of the game hasn't changed much. Even so, it’s not hard to see the pockets of potential for The Order 1886.

You assume the role of Sir Galahad, a knight of England in 1886, who is tasked with upholding order in a nation wrought with conflict. In this world, human-beast hybrids appeared centuries ago and began decades of war. The tide began to shift when King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table discovered "black water," a liquid capable of healing and extending the life of its drinker. However, mankind was not able to truly gain the upper hand until the industrial revolution brought a new arsenal of technology and weapons effective at killing the hybrids. To maintain security, the British rule instigates martial law and wartime brings a gap between the haves and have-nots. Many citizens of the lower class begin to rebel and become yet another enemy for England’s steampunk knights.

When picking up the DualShock 4 controller and settling into the shoes of protagonist Sir Galahad, my eyes couldn’t help but gaze at the crisp visuals of an alternate Britain of the past. The setting is nothing short of atmospheric, setting a dreary feeling with hues of gray under a cloudy sky. There was no time for leisurely sightseeing, though, as the demo promptly threw me into the middle of combat against rebel fighters. Galahad was equipped with a weapon named the thermite rifle, the primary fire of which blasts away like an assault rifle. Thanks to tight shooting controls, I was able to pick away at the first several enemies quickly. As more rebels appeared and fired away, the necessity for Galahad to find cover arose and The Order 1886 provides two different ways of accomplishing that. One is through a contextual trigger where the game will automatically place the character into cover when pressed up enough against an object. The other method places him into cover with a more traditional button press. The latter is arguably the more reliable option from my experience, especially in heated firefights.

With the mounting number of enemies, I knew it was time to use the thermite rifle’s secondary fire, which launches potent grenade projectiles. The effects artists spared no expense with the grenade launcher explosions: spectacular sparks disperse as enemies are hit and dynamic smoke drifts into the air. If the particle effects for just this weapon’s alternate fire look this fantastic, I can’t wait to see the visual flair in bigger set-piece moments and climactic battles. As I eliminate the rebels, a cutscene plays where my comrade Constable suffers a direct hit from gunfire. Quickly, control is given back to me as I carry the injured Constable while shooting my pistol at the last remaining few enemies.

The seamless transitions between gameplay and cutscenes are partially thanks to the cinematics being rendered completely in-engine. During the firefight, the oldest member of my team, Sir Percival, was grazed on his neck by a bullet as the team enters a nearby storefront for shelter. Percival pulled out and drank a small vial of black water and his wound rapidly healed. Constable is less lucky, however, and dies from his serious injuries. The developers from Ready at Dawn point to this as an example of black water's limitations: it cannot make you immortal, only extend lifespan and heal less serious injuries.

Galahad and his friends leave the building only to enter another firefight. During this section, I am able to activate Galahad’s enhanced combat reflexes, a side effect of consuming black water. For lack of a better description, it’s bullet time, but taking out rebels with it felt satisfyimg nonetheless. Soon, the knights are trapped and Galahad must use a round of his ammunition to blow up the side of a building. A glimpse of more rebel forces is shown beyond the rubble, which signals the end of the short demo.

When all is said and done, was The Order 1886 fun? Somewhat, I suppose--the game never felt boring, though a demo lasting less than fifteen minutes likely won’t. Gameplay mechanics were solid with responsive shooting, yet nothing stood out as superbly unique. Likewise, the same sentiments can be applied to the characters, the world, and the story. I expect there is more to The Order 1886 than what was shown from my hands-on time. Perhaps the human-beast hybrids make an appearance later on to mix up the story and provide for more interesting combat encounters. How entertaining the gunplay ends up may also rely on the other weapons Galahad is allowed to wield. What you CAN count on from The Order 1886 is stunning graphics that take advantage of PS4’s hardware. In its current state, the visual fidelity is a welcome sight and astounding when you realize nothing in the game--not even the cutscenes--is pre-rendered. If The Order 1886 was a book, its cover would get people to open it up. Now Ready at Dawn and Sony Santa Monica need to fill those pages with an experience to sell us on a generation.