There seems to be a lot of grumbling about Ready at Dawn’s fantasy-laced, historically-set adventure, The Order: 1886 for the Playstation 4. I suspect that to many “hardcore” players, it’s not quite “gamey” enough; I, on the other hand, see it differently. To me, The Order: 1886 is a great blend of passive and active, mixing gorgeous sequences of storytelling with challenging game-play (that is scalable) to give players of all stripes a worthwhile experience, provided that expectations are set properly at the outset – and no, this is not about lowering one’s standards so much as it is about having an open mind as to what a game can be.
The story takes place in London, albeit one that occupies an alternate timeline in history. While the majority of the population of the world is made up of humans, there is a small part comprised of half-breeds (half-human, half-monster) that emerged in history hundreds of years before. King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table rose up to fight this new menace, but found themselves out-matched until they discovered Blackwater, a substance that extended their lives and healed their wounds. While this helped, it wasn’t until humans began to invent devastating weapons that the sides became more evenly matched. In 1886, a rebel uprising and increase in half-breed monsters threaten order, and Sir Galahad (the player’s character) investigates with the help of some of the other Knights of the Order – and makes a horrible discovery that will put all of them in grave danger1.
From the very beginning of the game, it is clear that this is not an experience that will grant you too much freedom of movement (which is what I suspect is sticking in the craw of many gamers). The general formula for the game has you viewing cut-scenes (some with quick-time events) and then moving about in areas with pre-determined boundaries (with some room for exploration and serious gun-play). It is because of this structure that the game may give players the feeling of being “on rails”. That being said, the plot is very compelling and exceedingly well-acted, and if you’re looking for a tight story experience rather than one in which you run aimlessly about an open world, then you will be very happy indeed. In many ways, this game reminded me of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, which seemed to go by a similar formula. Sure, the boundaries were set a little farther out, but your character was essentially on a linear path. If this sort of game-play does not appeal to you, then you will most likely dislike this title severely. However, for those of you who do like this style (or for those of you who can park your anal-retentiveness), there is much to enjoy.
For starters, it is obvious that Ready at Dawn poured a lot of love into establishing their own version of London. The city is bleak and depressing – but it is very much alive, and evidence of strife and conflict is written upon the face of every structure, thanks to the fantastically detailed graphics. On top of the geography, the Order of Knights is steeped in its own rich history, bringing a level of immersion to the game that is quite gripping, thanks to well-scripted dialogue between all of the characters (both direct and incidental). Sir Galahad himself is a very interesting character; his reactions to events around him will instill a feeling in the player that he is a little different than the rest of the Knights. Galahad’s closest associates (Lady Igraine, Sir Percival, and Marquis de Lafayette) provide him with stability and flesh out other aspects that we might not discover were he simply on his own, while other characters like Nikola Tesla (the inventor behind the technology that the Knights employ) elevate the fantastic nature of the game.
Graphics-wise, the game is a stunning visual feast. As I previously mentioned, there is a great amount of detail, so much so that it’s tough to know where rest your eyes – and you’ll want to look at everything. The relatively constant switch between cinematics and game-play is very smooth – in fact, there was a moment or two when a game prompt reminded me that I was not actually engaged in a cinematic, but rather an active game-play moment. One of the best examples of this sort of transition is a scene on top of a zeppelin, where the Knights are rappelling down the side of the large aircraft – it is an amazing sight. While the broad strokes on the canvas form a great picture, the subtle details are also impressive. For instance, walking along an underground tunnel and “kicking” a lantern will show you how robust the lighting engine is. All of these different aspects add up to make the overall experience all the greater. There were only a few glitches – but nothing that I would consider game-breaking.
Audio is also compelling, with a thorough sound field (including well-mastered occlusion, most noticeable when moving through tight spaces), great sound effects and a kick-ass score. Though these aural elements are all wonderful, it is the voice acting that reigns supreme for me. Ready at Dawn managed to create a more-than-capable ensemble of voice actors who sound great each on their own as well as in a group. In addition to this chemistry, the writing plays to their strengths, instilling life in the characters with every single utterance.
These basic elements, both obvious (aesthetics) and subtle (writing and planning), work with the game-play to deliver a great gaming experience for those who value a good story. The Wikipedia entry for this game classifies it as a “third-person shooter”, which feels like a slightly inaccurate designation given the amount of “expositive” cinematics and quick-time events. I personally consider it to be closer to an “action/adventure” game, though some may argue that, too, is not the best description. Pacing is interesting; for the most part, it is consistent, with give-and-take between passive and active controls. The control scheme is simple, effective, and precise, making the more interactive moments a lot of fun. New actions and abilities are accompanied by quick tips displayed off-center, and as with almost every game out there, a helpful control map can be accessed in the help menu. Running and gunning is easy to get the hang of – and if it’s too easy, the difficulty can be bumped up to make these sections more challenging. Finally, there are puzzle elements (usually when you’re using gadgets to do things like pick locks or jam electrical junction boxes) that round out the show.
There are few actual flaws in the game that I should point out. First of all, I found that the quick-time cues were a little too subtle. There were times when the prompts appeared and I failed to notice because they were too faded and I was so engrossed in the visuals. Missing the cue would usually result in a gruesome death for Galahad – thankfully, the game would restart at the beginning of the quick-time sequence. The greatest flaw for this game would be the fact that re-playing it to get all of the goodies can be a bit tedious, as there is nothing really new (aside from scoring some bonus objects for your collection). Of course, I fully anticipate playing this game again to see if I missed anything in the environments. Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t nit-pick; I found it impressive that reflections of the environment were rendered accurately in reflective surfaces – except for any of the human characters. Odd that they generate shadows but don’t actually show up in any mirrors!
Some reviews lament the loss of control and freedom. I, on the other hand, applaud Ready at Dawn for creating a fun narrative experience that will reach a broader audience. The balance struck between having control and watching things happen is perfect for those who might not have the chops (yet) to set foot into more advanced games, yet they don’t have to sacrifice a solid story. Even some of the hardcore set will enjoy this, provided that they don’t mind relinquishing a little bit of control. In many ways the game feels like an experiment, and given the relatively abrupt ending a sequel must be in the works that will take advantage of the results of the first. Needless to say, even with the occasional flaw or strangely difficult moment, this is one of my favourite games that leverages the power of the Playstation 4!