The Order: 1886 is the most controversial video game of the generation. Many argue that a seemingly ceaseless slew of negative headlines prior to the game’s launch are partly responsible for the lukewarm critical reception. Averaging only a mid-6 and earning mediocre scores from some of the industry’s largest and most respected sources, Ready at Dawn’s PlayStation 4 exclusive has fallen shy of expectations. And while I will agree that it’s not the AAA Game of the Year contender I’d hoped it’d be, I’ve come to the equally unfortunate conclusion that so many of my peers really handled this game poorly. Almost to the point where I think the critic community owes the developers a heartfelt apology.
First up, there’s no denying that this title is a graphical tour de force. Character detail is exquisite and the virtual world through which we travel is wonderfully designed. For those who have at least some semblance of artistic sentiment, they will appreciate such an atmospheric environment. The animations are beautiful as well, although I will say that at one point, the game’s frame rate basically broke for a couple minutes. Perhaps it’s an isolated incident but hey, I can only score my play-through and as such, that blunder keeps the visuals from earning a 10. It’s easily the best-looking game of the new generation thus far, as everything, from the subtle details of an alternate reality London to the intensely sharp special effects, is just a sight to behold.
The sound is almost as good; players should note and enjoy excellent voice performances throughout, along with a creepy, fitting soundtrack that enhances the atmospheric feel. In so many ways, the game plays like an action-based third-person shooter mixed with horror and suspense, so haunting effects are critical for the experience. Speaking of which, it’s that intended combination of action and horror that is reflected in the gameplay and I’ll get to that in a moment. For now, let me add that in addition to stellar voice performances we get a musical score that, while it doesn’t always play a big enough role in my estimation, is remarkably pretty. On the downside, it seemed like a few of the weapons sound too tinny.
Now, before diving into the nuts and bolts of the gameplay, let me add an important point: Gameplay will always be king. This is an interactive medium, first and foremost, so without solid and well-implemented gameplay, a bunch of pretty pictures are borderline useless. That will always remain true. However, to completely dismiss technical aspects like graphics and sound, to pretend they have no significant impact on a player’s enjoyment and immersion, is equally inane. It almost seems as if all these negative reviews have a tagline that would read, “oh, it looks great, but…” Quite frankly, there are some reviews that spend almost no time discussing the top-notch graphics and sound, which is not only unfair to the developers, but ultimately, unfair to the consumer.
There appears to be a nasty little secret floating through the critic community today. It says a reviewer can dock a game for having poor or mediocre graphics, but that same reviewer is not allowed to raise the score of a game for excellent graphics. It’s the offspring of the incessant “graphics don’t matter” horsesh** that often pervades so-called “enlightened” gamer forums. I will be the first to condemn a game for only looking good because again, this is an interactive venue. But to say some of the best graphics and sound the industry has ever seen is essentially meaningless is just beyond idiotic. What we see and hear contributes to sensation. “A picture is worth a thousand words.” So it is.
If you’re telling me the game deserves a 5, one of two things has happened: Either you completely ignored incredibly important parts of the game (graphics and sound), or you took them into consideration, scored them appropriately, and concluded the gameplay was no better than a 2 or a 3. Either way, it’s wrong. If Ready at Dawn’s technical accomplishments don’t mean anything to you, or they don’t do enough to override the gameplay’s shortcomings in your opinion, that’s your business. Don’t try and pretend that suddenly, graphics and sound don’t matter in the least. What if the game just looked okay? Do we give it a 2? Based on what I’ve been reading, that appears to be the argument some critics are trying to make.
Now, about that gameplay. Right off the bat, I was not encouraged. The first battle was quite disappointing. There were a bunch of low-IQ rebels I had to take down and the entire encounter felt forced, awkward, and utterly unimpressive. Strangely, however, it turned out to be by far the biggest letdown of the entire adventure. I’ll address the positives in due time but for now, let’s stick with the negatives. It’s true that there are too many drawn-out battles with faceless foes, and some of the battle arenas aren’t exactly inspired. The lamebrain AI doesn’t help matters although in point of fact, there are instances where the AI performs better. It’s not often, though, and that’s unfortunate.
One could also argue that the game is too QTE-heavy and I do agree; there are a few too many. Ready at Dawn’s writers also lose the thread of a decent story toward the end, and the avid reader and astute lover of storytelling will note clichés and predictability in the plot. You can’t say anything against the acting and the corresponding visuals always make every cut-scene better, but the story is not a top-tier literary achievement. It’s quite intriguing and it has its moments, but we needed another step in the right direction. Lastly, the whole “magic bullet” phenomenon is in full effect; in that enemies will never fire a shot that doesn’t hit you if you’re not in cover. Yeah, it’s an outdated drawback to an otherwise solid third-person adventure.
Let me repeat that: An otherwise solid third-person adventure. The control is almost perfect, despite Galahad’s stickiness when it comes to cover. And actually, if you really think about it, he’s only extra sticky during the stealth sequences, when he automatically puts himself against walls without you pressing the Circle button. Not every shot will hit the target in your aiming reticule but personally, I find that realistic. It’s not fair at all that every shot of your opponents will hit the mark but I already mentioned the flaw above, and I won’t keep kicking the dead horse. I do think the camera is simply too close but this is more of a subjective complaint; in my view, the camera sits way too close in most games I’ve played in recent years. I kept thinking it especially restricted by scope of view in The Order , though.
The game is played in the letterbox format and initially, I thought I’d really hate that. Surprisingly, however, I didn’t even notice it after the first half-hour or so. The game is so gorgeous and I’m always so interested in what’s going on around me, the black strips at the top and bottom cease to exist in my vision. That may not be the case for everyone, though, and I acknowledge this. The best combat involves inspired encounters with werewolves, which are always tense and challenging. In the first, you’re dodging multiple werewolves in a dim engine room; later, you take on an “elder” werewolf with nothing but a big ol’ knife (is that the Victorian version of a Bowie Knife?). This leads me to the QTE issue.
Yes, I do believe there are too many of them. But it’s not like they come on the heels of each other and I have to say, they’re exceedingly well done. In fact, they may be the best-designed QTEs I’ve ever seen. Basically having the prompts show up on screen to match the controller is a great idea; it means you don’t really have to see what the prompt is. You sometimes just have to know where it is. For instance, during that battle with the elder, if the right analog stick popped up on the bottom of the screen, I knew I had to press down. I also don’t believe that pressing the Triangle button to interact with a collectible or a door is a “QTE.” It’s not. I think too many people are lumping these actions into the Quick Time Event segments.
Now I feel compelled to clarify various points, most of which spread by false headlines: 1. The game is not 5 hours in length. It’s a legitimate 8-12 hour quest. 2. The Black Water doesn’t make the main character “invincible” nor does it make the game too easy. He needs time to ingest the cure and then you need to get him on his feet by repeatedly pressing X. A shotgunner standing by your fallen body won’t wait for you to heal yourself, and neither will any werewolf. 3. You absolutely do not watch more than you play. This has always been stupid; I’ve yet to play a game where it’s even close to 50/50. Even the old Metal Gear Solid s never had more than a few hours of cut-scenes and gameplay well exceeded a couple hours. Most cut-scenes in The Order clock in at only five or six minutes.
I have also seen widespread complaints concerning the pacing, and herein is the most damning evidence of the gaming community’s inability to focus. The pacing in this game is actually excellent. It breaks up scenes of intense battles with slower segments that involve exploration, dialogue, and stealth. The stealth segments aren’t bad at all; they’re relatively straightforward and aren’t overtly mediocre in any way. They’re not exceedingly well developed but it works just fine. Anyway, I’ve realized that pacing complaints don’t really involve pacing of the overall adventure…the complainers just can’t stand the slower segments. They can’t stand being made to walk when they want to run; they can’t stand the idea of not hammering on buttons for a few minutes to watch a brief story scene.
Well, that’s fine. Some of us appreciate the finer things, and those can indeed be on display in video games. You can call it “useless” to look around for some photographs, and you can say it’s “boring” to explore Nikola Tesla’s lab, looking at inventions and blueprints. That’s you . That is a subjective complaint that has no bearing on the quality of the game. These segments don’t last long; they don’t drag and they don’t feel tacked on. They’re here to break things up, to give us a respite from a recent battle. That’s how you’re supposed to do it. You can fault this game for a number of things, as I’ve done here, but you can’t criticize because you haven’t the inclination to appreciate the product for what it is.
The Order: 1886 is an example of dying linearity. The worst part is that this style of gaming is dying, not because it’s inferior, but because there are those who want us to believe it’s inferior. It’s just different. It’s a different way of telling a story and no, it’s not inevitable that you would tell it better if the game was more open. In fact, the overwhelming majority of games with the best storylines in history are linear. There’s a reason for that. The AI kinda sucks, sticky cover can be an occasional problem, they could’ve gone lighter on the QTEs, and the story is in fact somewhat clichéd. But this remains an extremely enjoyable, wonderfully produced game that should be rewarded for what it does well. Maybe some critics forgot that part.
The Good: The best graphical presentation we’ve seen yet. Excellent voice performances and a gorgeous score. Solid third-person control throughout. A well-paced and involving quest. Some really cool weapons. Werewolf encounters are fittingly intense and well-designed. Meticulous attention to all details.
The Bad: Mediocre AI. A few too many QTEs. Story is a little predictable and clichéd. Not much reason to replay after completion.
The Ugly: “The only thing ‘ugly’ about this game is the way it has been treated by so many.”