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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Preview: The Order: 1886 (Sony PlayStation 4)

Preview by Jedediah H.

When The Order: 1886 was announced around the same time the news of the PS4 broke, I was neither impressed nor disappointed. My reaction to the first teaser, despite the title being developed by Ready at Dawn, was a monotonous shrug followed by a response equivalent to “that looks pretty swell, I guess.” 

There wasn’t enough information about the game’s concept to really blow me away and off to a verdant realm of enthusiasm. And then about six months ago, when I was discussing the state of the gaming industry with my best buddy, he informed me of a rumour he’d been hearing across the digital grapevine. The Order, according to hearsay, was nothing more than an empty on-rails shooter. 

“I can’t believe it,” my friend said about the claim, “gaming’s goin’ straight to hell.”
Intrigued by my pal’s hyperbole and fuelled by a mug of warm beer, I donned my Internet sleuthing outfit (shirtless with poor posture) and did some minor investigating into this rumour, and what I found was an audience confusing an analogy for a statement. Commentators and critics weren’t actually describing the game as an on-rails shooter; they were - due to the confluence of the linear, choice-free, story-driven narrative; the “generic” third-person shooting mechanics; and the inability to discern cut-scenes from game-play - comparing its “hand holding” linearity to that of an on-rails shooter. 


It was an honest mistake.


A mistake this team is equipped to deal with.

After blasting and stabbing a knightly path through the preview build of The Order, not only has my impression of the game evolved from a monotonous shrug to an enthusiastic head bob, but I can understand how anyone watching a game-play video might consider the action to be completely scripted. Although the predestined stealth, shooting, and QTE mechanics may leave a desire for ingenuity, the graphical presentation - environments, visual effects, motion capture (and beard effects!) - make it difficult to tell when it’s time to observe and when it’s time to interact; cut scenes and game-play really can be indiscernible and graphically remarkable. It’s an attribute that Sony and Ready at Dawn can and should boast about.


In fact, as far as the preview attempts to go, with shoot-outs that are frenetic but familiar and a story that is largely still obscure, the graphics, character performances, and rousing soundtrack courtesy of breathless string instrumentation are the only components they, at the moment, really can brag about. 


Speaking of those delicious graphics, my brain was so entranced by the hovering Zeppelins in the opening scene of the preview (which is Chapter V of the main game) that for the first five minutes I completely blocked out the “cinematic” black bars haunting the top and bottom of my screen. It wasn’t until I paused the game and returned from a cookie break that I screamed “From what source didst thy black bars cometh?!!” Then, after admiring the effects of the wind on my, Sir Galahad’s, clothing and beard, I discovered my mission: I was to infiltrate, with my squad of presumed descendants of Arthurian legend, this Zeppelin, Flagship Agamemnon, for the purpose of preventing the assassination of Lord Hastings by disguised members of a rebel faction. 


And so I repelled down the envelope of the ship’s air-bag and into the gondola, the crew area saturated with the metal and grey that I assume laces the architecture of 19th century airships. Informed to take out every crew member - stealthily - in case they were in cahoots with the rebels, I sneaked upon the backside of my first victim and impaled him, by timing my button press in tandem with a pulsing indicator, with Galahad’s ornate sword-dagger in both the ribs and chest. Now, a debatable problem with this stealth section and others of its ilk is that I had no choice of whether to be clandestine or, if I made a mistake, trigger happy. If I failed the sneak-kill button prompt, the enemy would twirl around, block my stab attempt in the way a pro wrestler would block a flying paper bag from hitting his face, and shoot me twice in the tenderest parts of my chest. In other words, the game wants you to obey the narrative, and when the narrative calls for silent take-downs, you’d better comply if you hope to progress.


A nifty device Galahad employs to overload things that need overloadin'.

Next, it was time to secure the cockpit using the infallible art of Quick Time Events. Now, I understand that there’s an unfathomably large and opinionated population of gamers who loath QTEs (unless said QTEs are facilitating a Telltale Games experience), but I don’t mind them if they’re used to compliment sequences of skill for additional visual flair. In The Order, though, the QTE is used purely for cinematic precision, to show off Galahad’s speed and resourcefulness with an auteurist level of detail. And, unless QTE’s are the bane of your daily leisure, it was appealing from a visual standpoint and familiar from a functional perspective: Galahad tossed in a smoke grenade and entered the room, time slowed to a crawl as the button prompt transitioned near the force of the attack, then I responded to the button prompts and observed as Galahad bashed the I.Q. out of three men with his feet, fists, and a fire extinguisher. It’s a blast to watch, but you’ve most likely experienced the functional aspects of scenes like this in other action games. 


The final section of the preview went out with innumerable bangs, because this section was, indeed, focused on gunplay. But before I could shoot indiscriminately at all men whose hats I deemed a threat to Victorian era fashion, I had to perch atop a balcony with a sniper rifle and comb the ballroom for rebels disguised as guards. An absent decorative patch on the right arm was the give-away. (Why no one from ground level or the second floor was able to spot me propped on the balcony with a monster rifle was a mystery I was willing to overlook in the interest of getting to try out my arsenal.) Once I identified the rebels and loosed the first bullet, the hail of gunfire came pouring in my direction. 


The first detail I noticed when the bullets began striking the railing in front of me was the lack of destructible cover. This isn’t because I feel that all games developed from now until I perish unhappily in a candy factory should have some form of terrain deformation; it’s because the sound of the bullets colliding with the wood were so authentic, it felt as though the cover in front of me could collapse at any second. The fact that the environment felt like it should be destructible purely because of the sound design is a testament to superb sound mixing and implementation.


And the weapons! Each one sounded and felt appropriate, the latter generating a vibratory feedback that was unique to the force and firing rate of each firearm. My two favourite guns: the Three Crown Coach Gun (a triple-barreled shotgun) and the C81 Maschinenpistole (a machine-gun pistol with a kickback that sends Galahads arm vertical when the trigger is squeezed for too long). When the power from these weapons struck their intended target, said targets’ bodies fittingly twirled and crumpled to the floor.


"If you can't see me up here, you deserve to get shot."

Regarding these shoot-outs, my biggest issues were with the cover system and the enemy A.I. In terms of the cover system, I’ve been spoiled by Tomb Raider and The Last of Us’ fluid, automatic cover mechanics, where you lean or duck behind an object, and the character automatically conceals the parts of her or his anatomy that could prove vulnerable to wandering eyes and projectiles. Galahad, on the other hand, entered and exited cover via a button press, which cursed the encounters with a very slight awkwardness that takes a few minutes to adapt to. But on the positive side, it added heaviness to Galahad when he collided with cover that, with a less intense weightiness than the stop-and-pop mechanics of Gears of War, contributed a sense of urgency to his movements. 

Concerning the A.I., these guys were accurate but mostly mindless. Yeah, they could pop me in the left eye at 100 meters with flailing blind-fire from behind wooded decorum, but not once did these agents of incompetence attempt to flank my position or charge when I was vulnerable or retreat when they were severely wounded, even on the harder difficulty. As I said, they were accurate and able to shoot me whenever I popped out of cover, but it would’ve been a sweet surprise if one of them could’ve, I don't know, elbowed me in the side of the neck as his buddy disoriented me with a smoke grenade. 


As it stands at the end of the preview, I am more excited about this title now than I have been in the last year. The graphics and soundtrack are stupendous, and the game-play that comprises the stealth, QTEs, and the gun battles are enjoyable and familiar. Unfortunately, that familiarity may prove to be the flaw with The Order: 1886 when it releases 20 February 2015. Gamers and critics are so hungry for that defining next gen moment of novelty and creativity that they may dash afoul of The Order’s mechanical derivativeness. But I have hope. Even though this fleeting demonstration told me almost nothing of the conflict or the protagonists' motivations, I’m levitating in my skivvies to see how Ready at Dawn handles the ambitious unification of alternate London history, fantasy (werewolves!), science, and Arthurian legend to concoct a narrative that will have me shirtless and in poor posture, researching all the developer's influences. Sure, it may be formulaic in end. But at least it will be beautifully entertaining.
 

-Jedediah H.
News Editor 
I'm generally shirtless with poor posture on Twitter
I fail at being beautifully entertaining on Twitch  
Preview: The Order: 1886 (Sony PlayStation 4)
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