Is The Order: 1886 a Case of Style Over Substance?

The Order: 1886 is a beautiful game, but will its action match its potent visuals?

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Let's get this out of the way now: yes, The Order: 1886 is the most beautiful game that I've seen on the PlayStation 4. What developer Ready at Dawn has managed to do, and that few games thus far really have, is capture the grainy imperfect look of film. It's those very imperfections, along with some spectacular depth-of-field effects, that make The Order's visuals so believable. But from what I've played so far, these beautiful visuals are being married to some dull action.

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But the positives first. The Order not only pulls off the filmic trick, but it does so with an incredible level of detail. Its pseudo Victorian-era backdrop is a stylistic triumph, or at least it has been so far in the times I've got a healthy hands-on with the game. Everything from the period costumes of its protagonists (the titular order of knights tasked with protecting the world from half-breed werewolves), to their steampunk weapons and gadgets, to the gritty streets of Victorian London are there to be ogled and studied and lusted after. The character models, too, are similarly impressive, with every creek and crevice on their faces brought to life with an eerie level of accuracy--and just wait until you get a load of that sweet lip-syncing.

So there are lots of things to like, and lots of things to make you think, "hey, this game is going to be awesome." The mission I played recently, set aboard a mighty airship, started promisingly enough, with the order rappelling down the airship's balloon in an effort to sneak inside and protect one of its passengers from rebels.

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But as soon as I was inside, things quickly devolved into standard cover-shooter fare. I followed my fellow compatriots through the airship, who led me down the correct path and opened locked doors for me and told me who to shoot when I had to. Where there were doors that my partner couldn't open, I was tasked with opening them via a hacking minigame. And where there were enemies that threatened to raise the alarm, I was tasked with performing stealthy kills. It's the latter that proved to be the most grating aspect of The Order, not because they were hard as such, but when I did make an honest mistake and peek from behind cover a tad too early, I was treated to a frustrating insta-death before being sent back to the last checkpoint.

There's always going to be a battle between presenting a compelling story and giving the player freedom, but this level of enforced stealth in a game that's built upon such a rich (and dare I say realistic-looking) world just sucked me out of the moment. Sure, I shouldn't have alerted the guard, but why not give me a way to fix my error instead of sending me back to the last checkpoint in shame? With the Order it's very much its way or the highway. Later, after making my way through the ship's galley, I was tasked with assassinating rebels disguised as official guards, who, I was told, could be identified by the lack of a shoulder patch on their uniforms. Easy enough, but the game refused to let me go out on my own, instead pre-highlighting the guards I needed to inspect, and sapping all the fun out of the mission.

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This would all be somewhat forgivable if the shooting itself was especially exciting, which sadly, it wasn't. The feeble weapons and slightly iffy cover-system didn't make the shooting bad as such, but after running through the corridors of that airship, trying to chase down a rebel assailant while fighting off a stream of armed guards, The Order so far just wasn't hitting the tight, mechanical joys of say a Gears Of War, or a Vanquish. Maybe the drive of the story (obviously not part of an isolated demo) will be enough to push players through the combat. Certainly, I want there to be more to The Order: 1886 than what I've seen so far, because it really is a beautiful thing to behold. A lot of love has been poured into those visuals, let's just hope by the time it sees release the same can be said for the rest of it.

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