The Order: 1886 is a serious game. Its characters take their jobs seriously, they take their combat chatter seriously, and the game’s color palette tells players to take it seriously. Ready at Dawn, the game’s developer previously known for its God of War entries on PSP, was handed an opportunity to dabble in the AAA game space with a new IP, a high honor for a studio hoping to break into big budget blockbuster console games. It’s akin to Colin Trevorrow getting the call-up from indie flick Safety Not Guaranteed to Jurassic World. They took this transition seriously. The end result is one of the biggest high-profile flops in recent memory and a game that exemplifies the very worst perceptions of AAA games.
The Order: 1886 focuses on an alternate history late 19th century London. The Order is a group of knights sworn to protect the land, and each are named after the original knights of King Arthur’s round table. These knights live centuries through the use of “Blackwater”, an elixir that grants long life and heals all wounds. Sir Galahad is the game’s protagonist, a rugged hero who personifies masculinity and sports a moral compass permanently affixed true north. Remember this is a AAA game and Ready at Dawn knows there needs to be a male hero people are familiar with (eye roll).
The game opens with Galahad escaping the Order’s imprisonment, a seed planted to encourage players to see how the yarn unfolds. Almost immediately, the game lays out its minimal threshold for death, as a torture scene ended with me pressing triangle to kill someone. Repeatedly pressing X brutally killed another guard nearby. The Order: 1886 doesn’t have time to mess around with non-lethal take downs, that’s not serious. Death is serious.
Soon after this escape scene, they flash back in time and show Galahad as a prime Knight of The Order, the arbiters of morality who’ve battled rebels and half-breed werewolves in London for centuries. From there, you play through the investigation of these purported rebels as the story hints at questions over whether the Order is really as wholesome as Galahad believes it is.
The story is rote, the kind of B-movie blockbuster plot you expect in the doldrums of late July from a DC castoff superhero flick. Despite this, the gameplay is the nadir of the entire experience.
Combat is more droll than the story. Its archaic gameplay conventions defy comprehension. It functions as a cover shooter, and by that I mean you have to be in cover during combat or you’ll die almost immediately. The game plays like a laundry list of outdated AAA shooter features: A cover system that isn’t intuitive, whack-a-mole AI popping out of cover (at one point I entered an area and eight different enemies popped out of cover at once like a Three Stooges sketch), and map triggers that you have to trip for new enemies to flood in. When you’re not busy shooting enemies, you’ll be doing any number of minute tasks including unlocking doors, shoving carts forward, overloading circuits or climbing on ledges. Their idea of gameplay diversity is an eight weapon armament, quick-time events, and unlocking mini-games. This is gameplay functionality AAA games were lampooned for even a decade ago.
The Order: 1886 is a dinosaur. It seems like Ready at Dawn looked at common practices from five years ago, threw them all into a bag and started randomly sprinkling them throughout the pristine world they crafted. And that’s really the only highlight of The Order: 1886, it is a technical masterpiece.
The Order: 1886 is like a beautiful bauble your grandmother has but never lets you touch. Perfectly rendered corridors contain only a single element of interaction. The character models are creepily lifelike, dynamic lighting shifts minutely as you saunter through a hall, lamps elegantly reflect off windows. Literally everything looks like something polished beyond exhaustion. Ready at Dawn knows it too.
This is gameplay functionality AAA games were lampooned for even a decade ago.
I can’t recall a game that’s been more obnoxiously transparent in its fascination with itself. Oftentimes Galahad will only be able to move slowly in new areas just so you can admire every little detail in the environment. If an area is too dark to properly appreciate, don’t worry, they’ll hand you a lantern. The world even contains tiny objects to pick up and examine so players can truly appreciate the precise level of intricacy Ready at Dawn etched into everything. Despite their obvious attempt at environmental storytelling, these trinkets and documents added literally nothing to the story. They even instituted a full-blown camera mode, replete with features down to the lens length of the shot you want. The entire game feels like an aesthetic circle-jerk.
Despite this overzealous gloss, the world itself leaves a lot to be desired. Its gray tones bring to mind the type of “dark” blockbuster that has commandeered the summer box office since Nolan’s Batman films landed. DC steered into this skid with their cinematic universe, and The Order: 1886 takes its cues directly from that. There is no time for banter in this world, there are freaking werewolves to kill. The game is so devoid of levity, the only respite I found was in this entirely out of place SackBoy prop I could pick up and examine.
The characters seriousness is unrelenting as well. Galahad scowls constantly. I don’t recall even a smirk from any characters within the game. Most of the dialogue involves shouting, which must’ve made for an interesting recording session. Even when Galahad just needs a drink, he doesn’t hold back as he shouts at the bartender, “A drink goddam you!”. And don’t worry, in case you fall into a haze and forget the seriousness of the situation, Galahad will remind you. “I’m in no mood to jest,” he bellows at one point to a fellow knight following a firefight. Woah dude, I get it!
If the setting and characters weren’t serious enough for players, Ready at Dawn even manipulated historical figures to lend credence to the time period they chose. Nikola Tesla pops up as your version of James Bond’s Q, although he provides little to no technical assistance. He mainly serves as a prop to justify some of the more technically majestic weapons in the game. Even Jack the Ripper is shoehorned in through an egregious plot twist.
The Order: 1886 will stand as an exemplar of the worst of AAA games: all gloss and no substance. Ready at Dawn seemed far more preoccupied with making a film than trying to create compelling gameplay, and the resulting story was uninspired at best. Cutscenes make up probably 1/3 of the game, and what little gameplay there is remains woefully devoid of imagination. The game’s technical mastery is overcome by a self-indulgent title intent on showcasing the developer’s hard work rather than letting people appreciate the world’s intricacy on their own.
There’s a point in The Order where Galahad insists that you don’t kill guards you believe to be innocent men. Within 30 seconds, he’s opened fire on a crowd and stabbed a guard in the face. And why wouldn’t he? What kind of hero just chokes someone out? Remember, this game is serious.