It could have been so much better. Too bad it's stuck in the past.
gameplay 55 / story 36 / graphics 99 / sound 93
Oh Ready At Dawn, how sad you make me. You guys are no stranger to good games, having made two excellent God of War games on the PSP, and this was your shot to really show off your talents on the newest generation of consoles. Unfortunately, what you delivered could’ve been made in 2007 and nobody would be none the wiser. I of course speak of The Order: 1886, the latest PlayStation 4 exclusive IP. I had concerns, but I was hoping those would be squashed after playing it. I wasn’t expecting a masterpiece, but a fun competent shooter with at least a fun plot to discuss with fellow fans. However, what I played was nothing more than a dull, yet interesting shooter that cares more about trying to tell a story than delivering a truly great interactive game along with it.
The setting is Victorian London in 1886 because of course it is. The only differences to the one of history are the fact that technology is based off steampunk aesthetics, and there are werewolves running amok. To fight the werewolves and a rising rebellion against the government, a group simply known as the Order exists, which has existed since the age of King Arthur, and all take names after the Knights of the Round Table. They drink from the Holy Grail, which contains a substance called blackwater, which bestows eternal life upon whomever drinks it, so long as it’s tied to the blood of the drinker. The current plot follows one of the knights, Sir Galahad, as he investigates the rebel incursion while also trying to understand why the werewolves, simply known as half-breeds, are decided to side with the rebels.
Now, as I’ve written above, that is the main premise, and it is an interesting one at that. We see glimpses of how the half-breeds operate and evolve, as well as get a few hints as to their motivations alongside those of the rebels. The problem here is that it isn’t explored at all. Where do the half-breeds come from? What’s their endgame? Why are they siding with the rebels at all to begin with? All of these are things you’ll be asking long after the game finishes, if you even care to think about them at all. A shame too, since the plot itself moves along at a slick pace, providing a well-told prologue for events yet to come that unfortunately are never going to surface until a sequel shows up. And with the game not lasting much longer than seven hours, even with its immersive blend of cinematics and gameplay – all of which seamlessly flow without a jarring interruption – all you get is the prologue and nothing more.
It’s an even bigger shame that all of the resources went to graphics, which are the most obvious thing to notice, and are the first thing I will praise about the game. The detail on the character models is almost uncanny, it looks so real. Watching smoke pass naturally into the wind, water dripping on the bulb of a gas lamp with a flame inside, even watching feet distort the fabric of a blimp as they land on top are all a marvel to behold if you’re a fan of that kind of detail. The game looks absolutely gorgeous on a technical level, and it really delivers the raw power that the PlayStation 4 has been holding back. It’s a shame that the color palette has to have so many shades of brown, gray, and an annoying blue grain filter that serve to hamper the beauty of this game, as it just makes every every environment blend together and look the same.
It also hurts that there are no real characters behind the tremendous voice acting, as the Order is full of nothing but clichéd and sometimes stupid character tropes. The female is the token hardened female fighter. The main character is the gruff voiced “obey orders until things go wrong” type. The other main character is the noble lady’s man. You’ve seen these characters before, and none of them do anything interesting with their archetypes apart from play them as well as they could, given the uneven nature of the writing. It just goes to show how much emphasis they placed on the plot rather than having us relate to the characters to give us more incentive to fight on, which also creates problems when characters behave in ways that service said plot instead of following what their characters feel like they’re supposed to do.
The sound design overall is praise worthy on its own. From the crisp powerful sounds of the guns you use, the accuracy of the voice synching – which helps support the absolutely fantastic voice acting – and the smaller sounds like paper rustling or boots stepping on cobblestone are just great to listen to and further draws you into the world that Ready At Dawn has created here. It’s even better that the soundtrack is beautifully crafted and helps to create a more immersive, cinematic world that you play in.
That being said, what you do end up playing feels lazily slapped together into what could just as easily have been a film. The developers obviously wanted to tell a cinematic story within the confines of a video game. It’s most blatant when you notice the letter bars on the top and bottom of the screen that make it seem as if you’re watching a widescreen film on a smaller screened TV. After a while, you stop noticing it, but that just begs the question: why are they there in the first place? It also doesn’t help that over two hours of the game are dedicated to non-interactive sequences (I don’t say cutscenes because they blend so seamlessly into the gameplay). And when you have a six to seven hour total session, that’s over one-third of the experience, and that’s just unacceptable in this day and age where people crave more freedom and interactivity.
What’s even more unacceptable is the design of the gameplay itself. There are three types of gameplay at work here: walking and exploring, cover-based shooting, and quick-time events. The walking and exploring sections are probably the most common gameplay type you’ll play, and it’s arguably the most dull and lazy part of the game altogether. It feels as though it was created to allow the player to take in the breathtaking scenery and admire the detail they put into making the game look great. All it does is guide you through hallway after hallway while occasionally finding audio files that you can only hear from the pause menu – thus killing the immersion – and looking at interactive photographs, news clippings, and other miscellaneous objects. You can even flip some over to look at the back, but even that’s pointless because there’s nothing behind the things you flip. No notes, no drawings, nothing; just blank sheets of parchment that at least look like real parchment pieces. If you’re going to all this trouble to make things interactive, give us a reason to actually interact with it all.
Instead, the majority of interaction is used in combat, and even then it feels somewhat underdeveloped. This is a third-person cover shooter, and that’s the only part of the game that actually has some form of effort thrown into it. It utilizes the sticky variety of cover, but it doesn’t feel as obvious as other games of that ilk. You can fire from cover blindly or through aiming, and the weight of each gun feels appropriate for the type you use. Shotguns have the appropriate level of recoil, automatic rifles must be kept in check, etc. You even gain access to science weapons, courtesy of Nikola Tesla. There’s an arc gun that fires lightning at your enemies, which is every bit as fun as it sounds, and a thermite gun, which fires a thick fog of ignitable oxide that can render enemy cover useless once you light it up. The biggest problem is that the camera always stays close to Galahad. While it’s great for taking cover, allowing you to feel more desperate and challenged in locating enemies, it remains that way throughout the entire game, which feels like the camera man is trying to give Galahad a hug the entire way through. I really don’t want to count every strand of hair on Galahad’s head, guys, as impressive as it is that you can see all of it.
Instead, the count that should matter is the body count, as the rebels are looking to protect themselves. While their AI isn’t terrible – in fact, it’s actually competent in defending itself – they never utilize cover or their arsenal to the fullest. What ends up happening is you constantly picking off the runners who attempt to take cover, and those who do take cover don’t seem to stay in cover long enough to stay alive. But at least they’re not unbalanced like the shotgunners, who wear improbably thick armor that makes anything other than explosives or science weapons useless, and will easily drop you in three well-placed shots if you’re not running to the farthest corner of the map – which isn’t far, as battlegrounds are painfully small.
You do get some help from your friends in the Order, but they might as well not even exist, they’re that bad at their job. Most times, they’ll just stay in cover even when an enemy is right in front of them, waiting to get killed, leaving you to finish the job for them. They have no sense of strategy, and the few shots they do take against foes rarely, if ever, progress into a kill. If the game just left you by yourself as a one-man army, nobody would’ve noticed the difference, they’re that useless.
To mix things up, however, you get to fight werewolves every now and then to change the pace a little. Unfortunately, they follow a strict, easily overcome pattern. They charge at you, allowing you to dodge with a QTE, and then run in a straight line ahead of you, giving you ample opportunity to shoot them before they charge again. Rinse, repeat, and finish them with a QTE to keep the fight from getting monotonous. Even in areas where you fight multiple half-breeds, the pattern is so predictable and simple that any challenge werewolves should present based on their lore is severely crippled.
Speaking of quick-time events, they’re everywhere! I mean it, there’s not one level that doesn’t have a few QTEs sprinkled around here and there. How do you do a melee finisher? Do a QTE. Helping someone up a ledge? Do a QTE, that’s how. Even with something as mundane as picking up a key on the floor somehow requires a pointless QTE sequence, and it gets a little old after a while. This isn’t Heavy Rain, where the entire game is focused on QTE sequences, so why are they putting so many here? And the worst part is that the only two boss battles in the game are extended QTEs, making them entirely disappointing affairs instead of challenges of skill. This is a shooter, meaning that all of your skill should center around…well, shooting. If you’re using quick-time events to compensate for the lack of polish in the actual game, then why not center those efforts on the core gameplay rather than filling it with a few button presses?
There are also stealth segments, but they’re few and far between, and even there they couldn’t be bothered. They’re about as basic as you can get. Just sneak past some guards with predictable paths and reach your destination. If you get caught, it’s an instant failure, and you get thrown back to the beginning of the section, increasing the frustration level tenfold with the way this game is designed.
There’s little if anything to unlock while playing the single-player campaign, which, as stated earlier, will last you around six to seven hours average. Aside from the audio files, there’s nothing else to gain. Not even unlockable costumes, weapons, easter eggs, etc. Just finish the campaign, and play again, if you feel so compelled. With a lack of multiplayer, which I feel would work considering the solid shooting here, and no real incentive to replay the story, I see no reason to pick the game back up after it’s been completed.
I really wanted to be wrong. I had heard all the concerns about this game, and came in with the possibility that perhaps it wasn’t as generic, lazy, or forgettable as had been claimed. Alas, every complaint I’ve heard is justified. I enjoyed the actual gameplay elements apart from the quick-time events, and there’s a genuine attempt here to create a unique and interesting narrative to explore and experience. However, the issues listed above just make all of these attempts fall flat on their face. We want QTEs to make sense within the gameplay. We want games to be engaging without using the familiarity of cinema as a crutch against a lack of entertainment. We want a narrative that begs to be explored. Had this game come out a few years ago, all of these aspects would be praised, even if mildly. As it stands, however, times have changed and standards have improved. There’s nothing worse than settling for a standard experience and praising it as something safe. We can do better than this, and as other reviews will tell you, this is the general sentiment in the gaming community lately. Don’t play it safe; play it smart.
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