Before the demo of The Order: 1886 began at Sony's showcase event last week, Ru Weerasuriya, the game's writer and creative director, talked about creating the game's alternate-history version of London. The team at Ready at Dawn had done extensive research on the actual London of the period, he said, but then blended elements that are grounded in history with things that didn't yet exist in the late 1800s. Airships served as a perfect example. The golden age of dirigibles was the early 20th century, but Weerasuriya said that when airships were introduced into the world of The Order, people accepted it. Wait 50 years after a point in time has passed, he said, and you can rewrite history.
When The Order: 1886 is ultimately released, history may not remember its early showing at last week's event, because there was so little to it that it didn't leave much of an impression. I saw a brief sequence from the game that was interrupted constantly by characters talking to each other; as a result, the gameplay never built up any momentum, and I was left with no real sense of how the finished game will actually play or what the balance between gameplay and story will be.
I do know that I'm intrigued by the world of The Order. References to Arthurian lore are sprinkled throughout, with three of the four members of the Order (Galahad, Percival, and Igraine) having names that reference the legend of the once and future king. What I glimpsed of the game's version of London appeared believably worn and dirty and lived-in; it had the air of a real place despite the presence of airships and other technology that didn't exist at the time, such as the monocular that the player used to survey London from a rooftop at the start of the demo. Weerasuriya said that while the weapons and gadgets used by the Order didn't actually exist in 1886, the elements from which they are constructed did exist. I sometimes find the presence of what might be called steampunk elements jarring in fictional worlds, but my brief look at The Order left me feeling like the game is being careful to make sure that those elements are presented in a context that makes them believable.
One thing that was clear about The Order is that it's a narrative-heavy game; interactions between the characters took precedence over gameplay during the section I witnessed. Weerasuriya talked about keeping the player involved during the frequent story beats, with one example being to have the player use the controller's touchpad to send Morse code to allies, but this struck me as more gimmicky than truly involving. Shortly thereafter, the player became embroiled in a brief bit of standard third-person cover-shooter combat, though while the gameplay looked standard, the visuals were fantastic; the brick facades of the slums of Whitechapel were in dire need of repair, the air was thick with fog (or perhaps other, more rotten things), and the way Galahad's heavy blue coat flowed as he moved through the environment was thoroughly convincing.
After gunning down a few rebels, Galahad leapt onto an enemy below, beginning a melee combat sequence that seemed to play out automatically until a button prompt appeared telling the player to dodge a knife slash. Weerasuriya said that you can fail that button prompt and still win the fight, leaving me with the impression that melee combat in The Order might offer you little freedom and be reminiscent of gameplay in something like Heavy Rain. After this, the player acquired a fancy new weapon from a rebel storehouse, but as the members of the Order left the room, the screen faded to black. I was left wondering what this fancy new gun could do, and what The Order will really play like. Was the section of the game I witnessed typical, with action rarely lasting more than a minute or two at a stretch before a new story beat occurred? Or was this a particularly narrative-heavy stretch?
It's not that I came away feeling like what I saw reflected poorly on The Order so much as I felt like there wasn't enough there for me to get much of a sense of The Order at all. It may be that this intriguing game just isn't far enough along yet to make a strong showing at an event. Weerasuriya said that the people at Ready at Dawn are working hard to get the game out in 2014, but I wouldn't be surprised if it ends up getting pushed back. And if it needs extra time to make The Order great, I hope Ready at Dawn takes it. When I finally do get to visit neo-Victorian London, I want it to be in a game that is worthy of such an intriguing setting.