In the first chapter of The Order: 1886, Galahad — the player character — slowly walks through a beautiful and meticulously crafted environment. You can see smoke plumes billowing off nearby roofs and dried paint cracking under the sun. Galahad moves through an attic, complete with a beautiful white wooden horse and a plush 19th century couch stuffed in the corner; a mannequin stands in the corner wrapped in a corset and a mirror casually reflects the room.
Only there’s something off here, something is missing and it only takes a second to place it. With all the beauty of an alternate-history London, all the majesty of pixels and power backing the environment, the little things tend to stand out ever more: the oddly flat, almost paper-thin cardboard rugs that litter the hallways and the lack of natural shadows in most interiors, and that damn mirror. For some reason, there was no reflection of Sir Galahad in the mirror, he was a facade, a ghost to the world. Not for any story-based reason, mind you; Galahad is one of Her Majesty’s Knights of The Order — he couldn’t be some filthy half-breed vampire or lycan, he’s just a normal guy who also happens to be hundreds of years old. And yet, he doesn’t have a reflection.
This happened in the first chapter and for some reason I couldn’t get the image of a reflection without him out of my mind. Why go through the trouble of simulating a reflection (something most games don’t even try to do, they just dirty up the mirrors) if you don’t simulate the player character? Even more odd, going down the next flight of stairs there are two more mirrors, neither of which reflect Galahad. Then, suddenly, no more noticeable mirrors through the rest of the game.
The Order: 1886 is a reflection without an identity, a vain facade of all the other cover-based shooters in the world — it has nothing to differentiate itself from games of its ilk except its beautifully crafted world.
You will still take cover, move between cover, peek out of cover, shoot some enemies, and pop back into cover. You will still have a normal array of weapons: pistols, revolvers, machine guns, rifles, grenades. The Order isn’t without a casual spin on some weapons, like the thermite gun that sprays thermite into the air then ignites it with a flare, but you don’t have much access to these weapon types. So you’re stuck running through the cramped hallways with the same weapons, fighting the same guys, and then running through some more cramped hallways.
The firefights themselves are actually some of the laziest bits of The Order. Conveniently placed waist-high barricades and barrels line the small combat arenas in strategically placed zones for optimal view to shoot guys in the head without getting shot yourself. Nothing disappoints me more in a third-person shooter than lazy cover placement with no regard to the world and space where the combat occurs. The only place that truly feels like an organic battle environment is a kitchen inside a zeppelin — everywhere else is a video game. So much work was put into making an incredibly detailed world, and yet it’s just patternable cover placement with the exact same objects littering the environment.
The Order also lacks a firm cohesion between narrative and gameplay. Most of The Order is spent slowly walking around claustrophobic environments; when you can engage in combat walking speed suddenly becomes unruly and fast, with no discernable ramp up on the character. Galahad will only move at either a casual stroll or a full-on sprint — anything in between is unbecoming for a Knight of his stature. I never felt like I was actually engaging with a video game — I was just going through the motions. There is no urgency to movement and no agency to combat.
Even moving in and out of cutscenes is visually jarring. Galahad plops into an environment, losing any kinetic motion he had coming out of the cutscene, like he is waiting for the player to take control, while all the other characters keep moving naturally.There’s no style to the action, no rhythm to the direction. For a game with a cinematic aspect ratio, heavy film grain, and a reliance on cutscenes, it all feels so sterile and lifeless and video game-y.
And what’s more sterile and lifeless in 2015 than a heavy reliance on quick-time events. You punch buttons and a thing happens — if you miss, you immediately die and start the whole sequence over. QTEs are boring and only draw attention away from the actual action on screen with the large graphic button overlays telling you exactly how to win. They don’t connect players to the world, they distract them from it.
But anything to distract from the dreadfully boring story is better than nothing. After a sort of interesting set up where you play as Galahad, a Knight of King Arthur’s Court in an alternate-history London with zeppelins and lycans, the whole story falls flat and never really goes anywhere. In fact, the game ends in a place where none of the threads started actually conclude — it all fizzles out. Most of the story gets lost in endlessly stodgy bureaucracy about what the Order stands for and the chain of command and some kind of rebellion and werewolves.
Even the interludes between characters never flesh out who these people are or their relationships with each other. Sure, Galahad and Isabeau are in love or something, but they don’t seem to have any chemistry with each other. Not to mention everyone looks so damn similar and they all have three different names they call each other. They don’t earn any of the emotional beats they try to hit, nor do any motivations exist beyond morality and duty. Character morality and plot contrivances flip all too often. It all just runs together and washes away.
Really, The Order feels like a polished-up relic ripped straight out of the late 2000’s when everyone copied what Gears of War was doing yet no one understood why. Ready At Dawn’s unflinching insistence on never letting go of the player’s hand makes the entire experience tremendously boring and robotic.
But I guess it looks pretty.