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Upon completing The Order: 1886’s roughly seven-hour campaign, I was filled with an overwhelming feeling of disappointment. The kind of deep, dark disappointment that comes from something truly promising, utterly failing to live up to its potential.
Playing The Order: 1886 is a frustrating experience for many reasons, but none more so than how clearly you can identify what the game’s failings are and how easily they could have been avoided. Worse still is being able to recognise how slightly different design choices could have resulted in a truly amazing gaming experience.
The root of The Order: 1886’s evils clearly stem from its obsession with being a cinematic experience. This preoccupation is evident in every moment of the game, from the annoying aspect ratio to the gratuitous cutscenes. To be fair, the developer Ready at Dawn truly succeeded in this attempt. The game is a cinematic feat, gloriously gorgeous at every moment, slick and clean in its visual delivery. The trouble is that The Order: 1886 is not a film, it’s a game, or so it says on the box. But having completed the campaign, it’s not easy to call it a game. More apt would be a film with brief moments of poorly-designed and alienating interaction.
I can’t fault Ready at Dawn’s intentions; the cinematic approach was clearly implemented in an attempt to create an evocative narrative experience. In some ways they succeeded. I was often provoked by the story; I could appreciate its nuance and structure as well as its cast of interesting characters and relationships, but only as a passive observer. I never felt personally involved or responsible for the narrative—rather I felt frustrated at my lack of control and alienated from what could have been a rather compelling story.
After all, the The Order: 1886 has a fascinating premise, telling the story of an alternate-history Victorian London in which technology has progressed much faster than in our reality. Victorian London itself is still recognisable in its tone and figures, but in this reality there are gigantic blimps in the sky and people wield powerful weapons harnessing chemicals and electricity in ways we have never seen before.
You follow Galahad, a member of the Knights of the Round Table, or the Order, as it has become known. As part of this centuries-old society bent on maintaining stability and quelling threats, you are tasked with hunting down and putting an end to an insurgency of rebels who are somehow linked with The Order’s greatest and oldest threat: The Lycans.
Aspects of the story are as clichéd as they sound, but overall the assimilation of a completely new alternate reality, with a well-maintained tone, make the story itself quite interesting.
Though many may find the seven-hour campaign painfully short for a AAA title, it was actually a perfect amount of time to tell the story. The irritation I had with the game’s timing was much more a matter of pacing than of length. As I have said the game uses cutscenes abhorrently, often giving players minutes without any need to even hold the control. Though this is bad, what’s even worse is giving players literally seconds of control just to walk several feet before you are pulled into yet another cutscene. This is a large part of what makes the pacing of the game so bad; you are never comfortable in any given action knowing that you are only moments away from having control once again taken away from you.
However, in the end you are not missing much—The Order: 1886’s version of gameplay often consists of nothing more than largely boring environment exploration or two-dimensional cover-based shooting. The environment exploration could have been interesting, but, as with every other moment of the game, you are given no control over discovery. You can pick up objects, but the objects lack any content to discover, rather Galahad just tells you what is interesting about it the moment you pick it up. The cover-based shooting is equally unimpressive, often feeling more like a way to pad the game out, rather than a fun experience or compelling way to progress the story.
The way to make this game an exponentially better experience is clear. Ready at Dawn should have focused on making a narrative experience for the medium they chose: video games. They should have realised how key interaction is to this medium and forgone lengthy cutscenes and visual prowess for meaningful interactivity and fun gameplay.
The Order: 1886 had every opportunity to be amazing: a world-class developer, a financially generous publisher, and some really great narrative ideas. Yet these factors were squandered on an overly cinematic experience that should have been vetoed early on in its development. But it wasn’t. And now all we have is disappointment and the bitter question rolling around our minds—what if?