Gallant knights, rabid werewolves, a brewing class war and plenty of steampunk — it sounds like a recipe for a great game. And at its core, The Order: 1886 ($59.99) would have been a great game — if developer Ready at Dawn had found a way to meld its tried-and-true, third-person-shooter mechanics with its breathtakingly beautiful backdrop. Instead, this PlayStation 4 exclusive comes off as a valiant first attempt at something revolutionary that falls short of the mark.
Story: It's Tropetastic
The Order: 1886 is set in an alternate-history, steampunk London. Gamers play as Sir Galahad, a member of the Order, an organization created from the original Knights of the Round Table that's a lot like the private spy agency in Kingsman: The Secret Service.
The clichés start flowing just after the game begins. Noble soldier Galahad is tortured by and escapes from his fellow Order members, who seem hell-bent on executing him. After Galahad flings himself off a wall into swirling brackish waters (remember The Fugitive?), you flash back to when he was in good standing with his fellow knights: father figure Sir Percival, love interest Lady Igraine and Lafayette, the brash new recruit with an eye for the ladies.
Over the course of the game, Galahad loses his mentor (Obi-Wan?) and goes on a revenge quest, only to discover that things aren't quite as they seem. Like Morpheus in the Matrix, the rebel leader reveals a larger conspiracy — one that has a hint of the classic science-fiction story To Serve Man and reaches to the inner circle of the Order.
Overall, the story is on a par with B-grade flicks such as Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, The Brothers Grimm and Van Helsing. It's fun if you don't pay too much attention, but it falters under closer examination.
The game's developer, Ready at Dawn, tries to flesh out the tale with strategically placed newspapers and BioShock-inspired audio recordings. Often, however, these tidbits only raise more questions: What happened to the Queen? Has she been kidnapped, or just hidden for her own safety? What about the brewing class war? Did that get pushed aside due to the abundance of werewolves? Who's that old man lurking in the shadows? What are those tantalizing scars running down Lady Igraine's neck?
Unfortunately, The Order doesn't shed any light on these questions, thanks to its rather abrupt ending. The story left me wanting more, but not in a good way.
Gameplay: Shooting Fish in a Shallow Barrel
If you've played a modern third-person shooter such as Max Payne or Gears of War, then you've played The Order: 1886. The only difference is that the older games delivered more stylish combat than this next-gen title.
The Order always let me know when I was about to enter a firefight by giving me telltale signs. After sneaking, climbing or running through a fairly linear path, I'd end up at either an open space or a narrow corridor with random crates or cement blocks to use as cover. Once I crossed an invisible line, baddies would come rolling out in droves, waiting for me to mow them down.
Well, not exactly mow. The AI was smart enough to have enemy soldiers attempt to flank me or keep me pinned down. If I set myself up in a cozy sniper's nest, it was almost guaranteed that someone was going to lob a grenade to flush me out of my cover, or an armor-clad heavy with a shotgun was going to unload into my side. However, I was very rarely in a position where I had to fight for my life. I took headshots at leisure, falling into cover to heal — rinse, wash and repeat.
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If I got bored with taking potshots, I turned on Black Sight. A form of the "Bullet Time" made popular by Max Payne, Black Sight triggers several seconds of slow motion, allowing me to shoot all of my enemies via auto-aim, clearing the room, if only momentarily. The mechanic regenerates over time, filling up after dispatching enough hostiles.
When I wasn't sending rebels and Lycans to the great beyond via the shooting gallery, I was doing it with melee or quick time events (QTE). Whether creeping up on an enemy soldier or engaging in direct hand-to-hand combat, melee attacks are nice and visceral. I sent a few enemies to their digital maker by plunging my blade deep into their necks or guts. Others fell prey to debilitating punches and kicks.
The two boss battles in the game use QTE, which is somewhat disappointing. Success hinges on flicking the right analog stick at exactly the correct moment, or risk being gruesomely mauled. It's a nice change of pace to the run-and-gun flavor of the rest of the combat, but I was disappointed that the game used what was essentially the same fight twice.
For those rare instances when I was near death, the game employed a mechanic in which Galahad drank his vial of Blackwater to restore his health. From there, I had to mash the X button to accelerate my healing.
Guns: Something Old, Something New
A first- or third-person shooter is only as good as its guns. The Order offers several innovative weapons mixed in among steampunk iterations of the sniper rifle, submachine gun (SMG) and semi-automatic rifle. You'll even have a turn with a crossbow to ensure quiet kills.
However, the fun really begins when you get to the fantasy weapons. There's the triple-barreled "Three-Crown" shotgun, and the Combo Gun, which merges two barrels — one for shooting bullets and another to discharge a stunning burst of air.
Playing on the steampunk influence is the T21 Arc Induction Lance, which discharges a massive blast of electricity after a quick charge, essentially making it a lightning gun. My favorite gun, hands-down, was the M86/FL Thermite Rifle. The gun shoots out a cloud of metal shavings followed by a superheated flare, raining down molten death on everything in its path.
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It's not very precise, but it's super-effective for crowd control.
As cool as many of these guns are, you spend far too little time with them. I spent most of the game doling out headshots with a revolver or the semi-automatic. Since the game is so short, I would have preferred running and gunning through London spraying fire and lightning like a neo-Victorian god. But that's probably not the gentlewomanly thing to do.
Graphics: You Won't Believe Your Eyes
The Order is as pretty as a picture — a moving picture, that is. In fact, it's the best-looking game on the PlayStation 4 by far.
The graphical consistency was fascinating. I was transported back to my childhood, plunking quarter after quarter into 1983's Dragon's Lair to marvel at Don Bluth's beautiful artwork. The Order transitions smoothly between the actual play and cutscenes — sometimes to the game's detriment.
There were several instances where I was watching a cutscene, only for a prompt for a mini-game to suddenly appear. After having been lulled into a false sense of security, I was rarely fast enough to input the right button. The end result was my swift, and usually grisly, demise. The experience is jarring and frustrating, to say the least, and instantly breaks the atmosphere developer Ready at Dawn worked so hard to set.
Traveling the streets and alleys of London allowed me run across many an explorable item. Newspapers found throughout various buildings can be read for further insight into the plot. If you have time to smell the gunpowder, you can examine the filigree engraved along the stock of the rifle's gold plating.
As detailed as the scenery is, I really wish the game could have taken place in a more vibrant world. As is the trend with steampunk-inspired games (think Dishonored or Thief), The Order is awash in dreary browns and grays.
Flashes of color are fleeting; the most compelling set piece had me rappelling down the side of a dirigible against a midday sky. (Spoiler alert: Yes, the airship does go down in flames. No, I guess they couldn't resist. Insert Hindenburg jokes here.) Before I started my descent, I couldn't help but take in the white billowy clouds against the crystal-blue sky.
However, I did run into a few graphical hiccups. Lafayette's face did a disappearing act, à la Assassin's Creed Unity, during one mission. The glitch cleared up almost instantaneously, but for a hot second, the Frenchman almost caught one between the eyes … because his eyes were all that was there.
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The vanishing-visage trick only happened once during my playthrough. There was one other nagging detail — or lack thereof — that followed me throughout the course of the game: None of the mirrors in The Order: 1886 cast a reflection. No matter how I maneuvered, or at which angle I stood, Galahad's powerful pornstache was nowhere to be seen.
I initially thought this might be a hint that our hero might be a steampunk version of a day-walking vampire (think Blade, but paler and with a more prominent mustache). However, as I progressed through the game, I learned it was just a sloppy oversight on the developer's end. Someone else in the cast of characters has vampiric tendencies, but it's not Galahad.
Sound: Can You Hear the Atmosphere
The audio of The Order: 1886 is heavy and palpable, like a velvet cape. The music is often tense and somewhat oppressive, employing a robust string section to set the mood. As in a movie, the music dropped out until really dramatic moments, such as a battle or a cutscene.
That was fine with me, as it let me enjoy some of the excellent sound effects, including the low hum of the Arc Induction Lance as it charged, and the subsequent dry crackle as a winding beam of electricity jumped from the gun to its target. Explosions had heft and dimension, allowing me to enjoy the tinkling sound of falling shrapnel.
Replayability: Onto the Next One
It took me 6.5 hours to complete The Order: 1886. As an adult with responsibilities, I appreciated the title's brevity. Instead of artificially expanding the game with inane sidequests, Ready at Dawn has produced a tight, lean game. But I can definitely understand gamers who would want a longer runtime.
Since The Order doesn't offer any online play modes, or any playthroughs with an alternate character, the game doesn't have much replay value. Normally, a completionist like myself might be tempted to give the title another go-round in order to find all the collectibles. However, this time around, I wasn't so inclined.
If I were reviewing The Order: 1886 as a movie, I would note its slick, gorgeous cinematics and its solid acting. Then I'd tear it down for its formulaic archetypal roles and for being held together by several pieces of stringy plot.
As a video game, I give the title points for the innovative guns and meaty melee combat. However, the game uses the guns too infrequently, and the repetitive, narrow shooting gallery can take the fun out of decimating a whole battalion.
Overall, if you're looking for an interesting take on the third-person shooter, The Order: 1886 can be a joy. But because it has little to no replay value, I would recommend renting the title so you can save your $60 for a more worthy game.
Sherri L. Smith is a Senior Writer at Tom's Guide. When she's not reviewing the latest headphones and speakers, you'll find her gaming on her Xbox One, PlayStation 4 or PC. Follow Sherri at @misssmith11. Follow us @TomsGuide and on Facebook.