Playing through The Order: 1886, I couldn’t stop thinking about Resistance: Fall of Man.
That comparison works on more levels than just the aesthetic similarity between Ready at Dawn’s PS4 blockbuster and Insomniac’s PS3 launch title. European historical design is evident in both game’s environments—the brick streets and apartment buildings of both games could be freely swapped, if not for The Order’s Victorian trappings. A dirty color palette of browns, blacks, and muted primaries dominates. Each offers a well-thought-out alternate history where inhuman foes are meant to scare us and challenge us on the battlefield in equal measure.
Both games even share similar historical moments. At the time of each game’s release, we had yet to be truly wowed by killer exclusives for either platform. That’s even true for PS4, where it’s hard to point to a killer app you can’t play anywhere else that justifies, without hesitation, a console purchase. Just as many were looking to PS3’s first crop of games to demonstrate the wonders promised by a new generation, some of us are still waiting for this new generation to start in a way that makes us set down the controller, wide-eyed, and think, ‘Yeah. It’s here. The future has arrived.’
The Order: 1886 only goes some of the way toward this lofty ambition—the comparisons with Fall of Man continue. It’s not a system seller, nor is it the best game available on PS4 right now. But it does enough things exceptionally well to warrant an extended look and give a glimpse of interactive entertainment’s future.
The first of those things is its graphics. By multiple measures, The Order: 1886 is the best-looking video game ever made, by leaps and bounds. Jaw-dropping character models combine with unprecedented density of shaders, weather effects, and environmental detail. The results are nothing short of photorealistic. Arcing blue electricity is accurately reflected in the cornea of Sir Galahad’s eye. The fiery orange of a setting sun poking through clouds brings me back to staring out the window on day-long car trips as a child. Periodically, lost in the visual fidelity of cutscenes, I forget I’m playing a game and mistake the experience for a CG movie. When control is handed over but the unrivaled graphics remain, I feel like I’m playing a piece of video game history.
There’s no denying that The Order’s graphics pull you in and make the play experience reasonably exciting by virtue of its cinematic splendor. Mechanically, however, there’s little we haven’t seen before. A cover-based third-person shooter at heart, The Order has all the trappings of the genre with only a few noteworthy changes. Defensive play is emphasized a bit more here. Blind-firing is fairly accurate, especially when you peek around cover (still mostly safe) to line up your blind fire first. There’s a soft cover option that lets you move between objects without button presses while staying in a safer, crouched position.
It all controls smoothly and looks splendid, but a handful of missed opportunities make the moment-to-moment combat experience feel rather safe. Contextual melee animations are few and far between, so you’re mostly seeing the same throw-enemy-to-ground-and-stomp-his-face scene every time you’re close enough to pull one off. Enemy types are fairly slim: machine-gun grunts, shotgun rushers, snipers, and bullet-sponge juggernauts round out your human foes, while the hyped werewolf-esque Half-Breeds don’t appear often enough to be more than a gameplay novelty. Resistance: Fall of Man comes to mind again—the Chimera were largely defined by the weapons they carried, and there weren’t a lot of surprises after an in-game hour or two. At least Fall of Man’s weapons came out of left field—”alternate history” meant creative liberties could be taken, opening all kinds of combat possibilities. The Order, meanwhile, features several machine pistols, revolvers, and rifles whose biggest difference is rate of fire, with only a couple weapons (one that ignites clouds of thermite and another that shoots lightning) breaking from the mold in meaningful ways. At least smoke grenades make a comeback, useful as they for flanking particularly entrenched foes.
Again, it plays very well, like a synthesis of lessons learned from the last decade of third-person shooters. The increased efficacy of hip-firing and blind-firing is a nice touch. But like Resistance, which was an extremely polished and familiar first-person shooter, The Order doesn’t make any gameplay waves, and the playable action isn’t likely to be what sticks with you after the six- or seven-hour campaign.
For me, that memorable piece—the second thing The Order does exceptionally well—is the story. Ready at Dawn’s vision is compelling: Arthurian knights exist 1300 years after our own world says they should. Their gallantry and values contrast with the ugliest aspects of the Victorian era, maintaining old-world honor and mystique in a setting where we intuitively expect none of these things. Details fleshing out the backstory of the Order, its knights, and the world at large are well-paced. Throughout the game, you’re given just enough to understand the present situation and, with a bit of dot-connecting, build out the world for yourself. The game respects your intelligence, but also your limited time: audio logs and hidden documents flesh things out a bit more but are completely ancillary to a detailed understanding of the lore.
The narrative is paced similarly well. Sir Galahad’s growing distrust of the Order’s mission and values mirrored my own, with the same events that shook my confidence shaking his. Galahad’s three squadmates have distinct personalities that deepen with extended time in their company. Mid-gameplay conversations elegantly communicate the nature of their relationships, loyalties, and reservations. The only exception might be elderly mentor Sir Percival, who doesn’t get nearly as much screen time. But his mystery is to the plot’s benefit: not being able to get a good read on him casts shadows of doubt over later happenings. Each character is further brought to life by outstanding performances, with the only weak point being Galahad’s Christian-Bale-Dark-Knight gravel.
Beyond a slow first act, the campaign’s only misfire is its cliffhanger ending. It didn’t significantly affect my very positive feelings, but I’m a sucker for complete stories that can stand on their own. Meanwhile, I’m indifferent when it comes to the frequent QTEs, oft-cited as a way to inject gameplay involvement into storytelling whenever possible. By and large, I don’t feel like these contribute anything meaningful to the experience. When they work well, they’re a nice change of pace, but just as often, the timing and responsiveness feel off or the event feels a bit forced.
All of this makes The Order: 1886 feel like PS4’s Resistance: Fall of Man moment. Like Insomniac’s PS3 launch title, Ready at Dawn’s blockbuster adventure treats us to a compelling alternate history, here blending time periods and their aesthetics for a visually interesting story with creative lore. The Order is also a visual showcase, setting a new benchmark for current-gen games and the industry as a whole. But its polished gameplay is safe and familiar to the point of non-descript. For some, these will be killer-app qualities. It’s more accurate to say The Order: 1886 is excellent original fiction atop a competent video game.