Published Feb 20, 2015The Order: 1866 is built almost entirely out of blocks that I love — alternate history, Nikola Tesla, Arthurian legend, class struggle, steam-punk, monsters, cover-based shooting and narrative-driven gaming. And yet.
There's been considerable dismissal of the game as an interactive movie, but I applaud develop Ready at Dawn's cinematic ambitions, ranging from the 2.35:1 letterboxed visuals to the linear narrative to the relatively short game length. (I also think griping about replay value is absurd considering movies, TV and books aren't judged on such reductive terms, and there's room for both one-play campaigns and endless sports or multiplayer games.) Sure, wandering aimlessly about the Himalayan open-world of Far Cry 4 has been my favourite recent gaming experience, but variety is vital to the artform. Storytelling can matter as much as gameplay. But to pull that off, the story has to be more than a set-up.
The premise is that half-breed Lycans have been trying to take over England since the days of King Arthur, except his knights actually discovered the Holy Grail, and with it an elixir called blackwater that heals their injuries and extends their lives. When they do eventually die, their mantles are passed on — the Sir Galahad you play is centuries old, but also the fourth since the Round Table era.
We don't play the backstory, which is revealed through exposition; instead, we begin in a Victorian era that features Tesla-designed tech and zeppelin-filled skies, albeit with no indication of how this history diverged technologically from our own. From there, we battle both the werewolves of London and a proletarian uprising against the United India Company, an imperialist corporation with its own private army. Oh, and Jack the Ripper is slaughtering poor folks in Whitechapel.
All of this sounds cool, but the narrative promise is never fulfilled. The characters are barely developed beyond ours being a jerk and the Frenchman being a womanizer, and the overstuffed story is somehow undercooked. Plot threads are introduced and then ignored, as is the moral ambiguity of playing a state enforcer for a corporatocracy who spends much of the game bloodthirstily slaughtering working-class rebels. Oh, and Tesla winds up as little more than the Q to our Bond.
It is undeniably gorgeous — perhaps the best looking now-gen game yet, with wonderful art direction and next-to-no difference between the cut-scenes and gameplay itself, an impressive technical achievement assisted by the cinematic letterboxing — but you can't explore this steam-punk town, because the corridor shooter design doesn't allow deviating from the path.
The gameplay itself features run-of-the-mill, cover-based shooting with a few fantastical weapons and a lot of quicktime events during cutscenes and boss battles. While I'm usually fine with linearity, there's almost no agency here in how the goals are achieved beyond what order you kill folks in. There's also very little connection between gameplay and narrative, unlike classic story-shooters like BioShock.
It all boils down to unrealized ambition, made even more painful by an unresolved ending to set up a sequel. Still, the first Assassin's Creed similarly squandered its amazing setting and then knocked the next one out of the park — so fingers crossed for a better 1867. (Sony/Ready At Dawn)