Review: The Order: 1886 – A Beautiful, Emotional and Ultra-Polished Heresy
I have been sitting here for quite a while, just looking at the screen and collecting my thoughts after finishing The Order: 1886.
This is going to be a difficult review to write, because Ready at Dawn’s new game doesn’t just break many seemingly sacred concepts of game development, but intentionally flies in their face shoulder-first, requiring quite the shift in mindset for its potential to be thoroughly judged.
The Order: 1886 tells the story of Galahad, veteran knight of an ancient order created by King Arthur himself to fight the half-breeds, a new genetic stray split from humanity in ancient times and what we fight a bitter war against ever since.
The conflict has been in precarious balance for centuries, but with the outset of the Industrial Revolution, humankind seems to be having the upper hand, aided by technology and powerful weaponry. But as usual in this kind of situations, there is more to it than meets the eye.
Galahad is part of a team of four, accompanied by the stern and beautiful Igraine, his wise but stubborn mentor Perceval, and the younger knight apprentice Lafayette, who brings a bit of levity into the group.
The knights are quite different from normal humans as well. While they aren’t superheroes, they can live longer due to the Black Water, an ominous liquid that extends their lifespans and heals their wounds, but stops short of making them immortal.
Galahad himself is probably one of the best written characters I’ve seen in a long time. He’s stern, but he’s definitely not perfect.
His morals often create inner conflict, further weighed down by centuries of battles. At times his humanity seems to be slipping, and how can you not understand that, considering how many lives he has taken?
The grizzled protagonist isn’t your typical hero but he isn’t even what you’d expect from an anti-hero, which is what makes him so interesting and easy to connect with, despite his mindset that can result slightly alien due to his particular situation. Ultimately, he has a real edge, and following him on the screen is a true pleasure.
The other main characters are almost as well rounded as Galahad is but they don’t reach his level of depth simply due to less screen time. That said, the quality of their writing is still top-notch.
Without a doubt, the story is The Order: 1886‘s strongest point, and that’s exactly what Ready at Dawn aimed for. It includes just the right mixture of plot twists, intrigue, action and introspection, and it leaves you curious to see more. A lot more.
It also includes deeply emotional moments. I will not mention the specific situation, but it managed to make me cry, and not just a little bit.
There were also quite a few other moments in which the title awoke strong emotions in me. To be fully honest, a game that manages to turn the pressure of a single button into something that tears at your heart, is doing something very right from a storytelling point of view.
Since we’re talking about the story, let’s get something out of the way: my playthrough spanned about twelve hours and a half. I took quite a lot of screenshots, but even if I didn’t waste that time, it wouldn’t have lasted less than eleven hours. I didn’t even die that much, aside from a few failures during the stealth sections.
You can surely finish the game faster than I did. Much faster, as a matter of fact, but I don’t advise it. The Order: 1886 is a game that should be flavored at a steady but calm pace, taking in every moment. As the credits were rolling on the screen, I definitely didn’t feel like it was a short experience. It was certainly fulfilling.
The game’s visuals are also absolutely stunning. Together with Driveclub, it is without a doubt on earth the best looking game on consoles. Considering the enormously different genres, it would be difficult to decide which one looks better between the two, but nothing else comes close.
The character models are absolutely incredible, and the fact that the same assets are used during cutscenes and gameplay makes the transition almost perfectly seamless. While the game doesn’t quite cross into CG territory, it gets dangerously close.
You can add to that beautiful physically simulated cloth and hair, and some of the most life-like expressions I’ve ever seen in a game, enhancing the superb acting and storytelling even further.
Environments are no less impressive, with London basically taking its place as another character of the game. The attention to detail is staggering, and you’ll often find yourself just walking around and ogling at the minute details Ready at Dawn’s designers filled every corner with.
Everything is bathed into masterfully crafted lighting, mostly trending towards cool, lead-colored lights that creates the perfect London atmosphere.
The Order: 1886 also pushes physically based shading to a level few games managed to achieve so far, resulting in materials that seem to come straight from a pre-rendered CG scene made to order by an artist, even though they’re indeed displayed in real-time.
Incidentally, forget aliasing and jaggies. The anti-aliasing solution adopted by Ready at Dawn is nearly perfect, making nearly everything smooth as silk. This is definitely the game with the least jagged edges I’ve seen in the current generation of consoles.
I’ve only seen a few cases in which the scene was affected by flickering shadows (but that’s unfortunately a rather common problem when the envelope of graphics is pushed really hard), and a couple situations in which small objects were hit by lighting aberrations, but I had to squint to spot that.
Some clipping is also visible with the physically simulated cloth, but again, squinting is in order if you want to notice that kind of slight imperfection, which doesn’t even come close to marring the visual delight of the game.
The Order‘s beauty isn’t just a matter of squeezing every pixel-worth of power out of your PS4 until it bleeds from its air vents, but it’s also about art direction. Everything in the game is designed with an attention to detail that can nearly be defined insane, starting from costumes and going into furniture, weapons and accessories.
Everything looks great not just because of technology, but also because a great deal of artistry was poured into this game, turning every single scene into something you could easily print, frame and hang on your living room’s walls.
If you thought moving on from graphics would make me stop gushing, well…You were quite mistaken. The audio aspect of the game is just as fantastic as its visuals. The soundtrack by Jason Graves is nothing short of award-worthy. It creates the perfect atmosphere in every single moment, and never once it goes even slightly out of line.
It actually isn’t overpowering. At times you’ll even consciously forget that it’s there, but it subtly enhances every scene with exemplary efficacy and expressiveness. I can easily say that it’s one of my favorite soundtracks of the last few years. And no, I’m not talking just about games.
Voice acting is close to perfect as well, with actors that prove just spot-on for their roles. The extensive use of motion capture creates a sense of identity, matching voice and expression with impressive accuracy and transmitting those small nuances of acting that are difficult to perceive from voice alone. The characters really feel alive, and that’s a great testament to the talent involved.
A great story, great graphics and great audio would feel incomplete without matching gameplay, and in this case The Order: 1886 is a bit hit and miss, even if it luckily hits a lot more than it misses.
The game is still mostly a third person shooter, and that’s where the real surprise lays: the shooting gameplay is just delightful. Responsiveness is absolutely top notch in a way that you wouldn’t imagine for a game that runs at 30 frames per second. It’s so excellent and precise that I just went ahead and got rid of the aim assist, improving my enjoyment of the shooting parts of the game massively.
By contrast, most of the guns (besides the sniper rifle and the crossbow, which are designed for sharpshooting) lack precision by design, creating an interesting conflict between extremely responsive controls and weapons that can be hit and miss. The resulting concoction is extremely fun, and it may very well be one of the best shooters I’ve played in quite a while.
There’s a wide variety of guns, ranging from quite a few different handguns to rifles, assault rifles and the exotic inventions by Nikola Tesla. They’re all very fun to play with, and they’re wisely positioned and paced through the game to encourage the player to enjoy them all.
That said, I have to be honest: I had the most fun with the M-82 carbine, which is basically your old ultra-basic single-shot rifle with zero frills. That’s possibly another testament to the quality and responsiveness of the shooting gameplay.
The only odd part of the shooting mechanics is the Black Sight. Theoretically it’s a sort of bullet time in which you select where you want to hit your enemies and then just strafe away.
In practice, however, it’s quite redundant. I got to the end of the game, and I noticed that I used it only once. Shooting is a lot of fun, so why would I give up control for a few seconds of slow motion and a sepia effect?
I went back afterwards to test it out and unlocked a couple of related trophies, but I really don’t get the mechanic’s practical use.
Cover mechanics are just as tight as the shooting, with Galahad fading in and out of cover responsively and seamlessly. Maybe cover is even a little too perfect.
Unless you’re hiding behind destructible soft cover, it feels a bit too safe. There might still be the occasional shotgunner and grenadier ready to punish your overconfidence, but I would have liked to see way more to push the player out of cover.
Melee combat is probably going to be quite polarizing. While killing random goons is limited to a single triangle press, more climatic fights are a pretty large sequence of button prompts, with a few variations on that theme, often mixed with semi-free action and some shooting.
I’m hesitant to call them full-fledged quick time events, as they are a little different, but if you don’t enjoy QTEs, it’s unlikely that you will enjoy this design as well.
I can definitely understand why the melee mechanics are designed this way, as this allows for a much more cinematic approach compared to what can be achieved with more free form gameplay, but it’s difficult not to be conflicted on whether a better balance could be found.
That said, the game’s melee mechanics do succeed in being a feast for the eyes, and if you really suck at quick time events like I do, you’ll probably breathe a bit easier after learning that they’re quite lenient, timing-wise.
The third basic type of gameplay is infiltration, with a few stealth sections where you’ll be prompted to avoid discovery by patrolling guards.
The prowling itself is quite fun, especially thanks to the tight cover mechanics mentioned above (and in one case thanks to the crossbow, which is massively satisfying). Unfortunately being discovered means instant failure, with the potential of creating quite a bit of frustration.
Personally, I would have preferred a more seamless transition between stealth and firefights, with the former turning into the latter when discovered, instead of being forced to prowl with instantaneous death as the sole penalty for a wrong move.
The game alternates different gameplay types in a quite deliberate and well paced way, and while the forced stealth may prove a little annoying, this ensures that there isn’t a single moment of boredom.
There are even slower parts in which you’re asked to do completely menial actions like pushing a cart out of the way, but thanks to the tight narration and dialogue, even those strangely don’t feel out of place or tedious.
The Order: 1886 provides a small degree of exploration by offering a wide variety of fluff items that you can examine, often providing interesting insight on the setting and on the story. That said, they really aren’t too hard to find, as most are pretty much in your way and well indicated.
One can easily say that 99% of the game is a quite linear experience, and honestly there really isn’t anything wrong with that. As a matter of fact, it allowed the developer to interweave story and gameplay in a nearly perfect way.
There is another definitely pleasing factor in Ready at Dawn’s new title: it’s the most polished AAA title I’ve seen in years. Almost everything is so refined and carefully crafted that it’s almost surprising, especially considering the semi-recent trend of releasing rather glitchy games.
Ultimately, The Order: 1886 is a stunningly beautiful, ultra-polished and deeply emotional experience. While the gameplay shows room for improvement in some areas, the main shooting element is so good that it mostly makes up for the questionable design choices in other parts of the title.
It’s is also a highly heretical game. It intentionally goes against most of what the industry has shown in the past few years.
The popular trends dictate games to be giant open worlds with several square miles of terrain dotted with tens of relatively boring and repetitive fetch quests, linked by often weak stories that definitely take a back seat compared to gameplay. They also include systemic elements that add up to the sheer size in increasing complexity tenfold, often inducing the presence of glitches and problems.
On the other hand, Ready at Dawn’s latest labor of love is very compact, heavily scripted and story-driven, and so polished that every pixel shines. This, unsurprisingly, will cause many not to forgive its nature as a heretic game in a triple-A industry that has become more and more focused on the polar opposite.
Personally, I can only welcome this kind of variety. There’s plenty room in gaming for both enormous open worlds and compact story-driven games, and a million of shades of grey in-between.
The Order: 1886 offers one extreme end of the spectrum, and despite a few flaws and questionable design choices here and there, it’s a highly enjoyable take.
Ready at Dawn definitely succeeded in laying the foundations for a potentially very special franchise, with an absolutely charming setting and lore. Whether a possible sequel will allow The Order to fully bloom or not, time will tell.
Yet, this is a high-quality first chapter of a promising new IP that fully deserves a chance from all lovers of an exceptional story and tight, fun cover shooting gameplay.