The Order: 1886
The Order: 1886 might be named after the group of steampunky knights that stand at the centre of its tale, but its title could just as easily refer to how meticulously controlled your journey through their world is. The critical path here is so concertedly funnelled as to be suffocating, only occasionally ballooning out into spaces larger than the barely disguised corridors that link each cutscene and QTE – and in The Order, it feels like you rarely manage 30 paces before triggering one or the other.
It’s a frustratingly rigid template that’s all the more egregious when you realise it isn’t the price of The Order’s incredible visuals, but rather the cost of Ready At Dawn’s filmic ambitions. Other than the framing and some wonderfully detailed facial animation, cutscenes and realtime sections are all but indistinguishable, and yet this visual lustre never holds back the reasonably pacy action of the cover-based combat, nor sets limits on the size of environments. It’s only Ready At Dawn’s baffling design decisions that constrain proceedings.
Why, for instance, did no one think to include an evasive roll in the standard moveset? Early on, its absence doesn’t particularly register as you carefully move up through cover, bursting the seats of the cockney enemies’ bowler hats as you go. But once the game introduces armoured, shotgun-wielding aggressors that can kill you in three or four hits and who march unrelentingly towards your position, the game’s stodgy controls begin to take their toll. You do get to roll out of the way when battling the game’s inhuman enemies, the lycan, but only when a button prompt pops up onscreen and not a second before.
Such context-sensitive orders are how Ready At Dawn insists you interact with the majority of The Order, making it feel like the modern-day equivalent of a mid-’90s FMV game – all tech and no britches. It might be being rendered in-engine, but don’t expect to spend much time actually playing. Every time the game does hand control to you, it’s fleeting. Reach a door that needs to be opened or a ladder that needs to be climbed and the studio saves you the effort of doing so by thrusting yet another cutscene in your direction. The story itself, though vague and shot through with clichés, is delivered by a cast of fine voice actors – the facial-animation technology deserves special mention, too – but Ready At Dawn has rejected the ‘show, don’t tell’ mantra spectacularly.
Boss fights, meanwhile, along with the brutal melee combat, are handled with QTEs, which mix standard button prompts with timed Telltale-style cursordragging manoeuvres that ask you to look at one of several points of interest, usually soft spots on an enemy’s body, and then press a button. The fights themselves are well choreographed and remarkably violent, but their entertainment value serves only to underscore the paucity of combat mechanics elsewhere. Again, Ready At Dawn attempts to make fighting the lycan less rigid, this time by pitting you against the larger, more powerful elders in simple one-on-one brawls. You can squeeze the triggers for fast and strong attacks, and circle foes, but you’re locked together, and getting enough hits in only triggers more QTEs.
At least you’re given freedom over what you wield in firefights. The Order’s fine selection of weaponry was designed by the earnest Nikola Tesla, whose gentle nature belies his penchant for creating imaginatively cruel tools of death-dealing. The Arc Gun is among the most satisfying, halfway between a musket and a laser, unleashing a jolt of blue energy that incinerates limbs and heads. The Thermite Rifle is more barbaric still, first throwing out a cloud of flammable powder before using its secondary flare function to ignite the cloud and anybody standing within it. The imagination that has so clearly gone into the game’s ordnance hasn’t extended to the people you’re killing with it. The AI oscillates between circumspect and feckless, while battles often devolve into fatiguing slogs as wave after wave of enemies pours into the area with no particular sense of escalation. On a few occasions we died as a result of venturing forward to stem the flow of gunmen, hoping to trigger the next checkpoint, such is the confusingly lengthy nature of some battles. Only a handful of exceptions save the gunplay from feeling like a relentless duck shoot.
Things are worsened by the particularly close positioning of the game’s over-the-shoulder camera, which makes it almost impossible to spot enemies when you’re ducking behind cover and makes navigating tight spaces – which constitute plenty of the environments – a chore. You can switch the camera to the other shoulder, but only after activating the option in the main menu and then remembering which side of the touchpad to tap, since Ready At Dawn for some reason requires you to hit the opposite side of the pad to whichever shoulder you want to move the camera to. It’s symptomatic of a game that feels overengineered and underdeveloped simultaneously.
There are moments when the game hints at what could have been: a late-game stealth section delivers a prolonged stretch of divergent gameplay – albeit one still marred by brutal checkpointing – and the final climatic battle is an orgy of fizzing weapon effects and chaotic hunting. Ready At Dawn is obviously capable of making an astonishing-looking, action-packed shooter. And yet, despite the obvious talent at work here, the studio has chosen to bury The Order’s potential under a fug of dissociative, QTE-focused game design that’s as stifling as the smog that creeps through its Victorian streets.