The Order: 1886 dares to tread where so many others have fallen, by attempting to fuse interactivity with cinematic qualities. And in some ways, it succeeds: developer Ready at Dawn has clearly sipped from the Holy Grail of the graphics gods, as this is arguably the most technologically accomplished title ever released. However, in its attempt to marry movie-like storytelling with more traditional gameplay, it's committed a number of cardinal sins – and it's these which impede the release's pursuit of knighthood.
You play as Sir Galahad, a centuries-old servant of The Order tasked with maintaining the peace against an ancient threat. In this alternate history fiction, mankind has battled against a sub-race known as the half-breeds for hundreds of years, and this conflict has accelerated the industrial revolution. As a result, your Victorian avatar has access to various James Bond-esque armaments that didn't exist in the era, such as electrified arc cannons and explosive thermite rifles. It's this mix of antique with steampunk chic which is one of the title's greatest accomplishments.
The real beauty, however, is in the ease with which the Californian company sells the universe: London's smoggy skyline looks and feels familiar, but also harbours hints at a different city to the one that we know. Zeppelins loom perilously beyond sooty chimneys, for example, while monorails run in parallel with cobbled walkways. And, contrary to common opinion, you'll have plenty of opportunity to explore this adapted architecture, as the game isn't quite as on-rails as the pre-release critics would lead you to believe. Unfortunately, it's not always that interesting either.
You'll spend much of the escapade ghosting around gorgeously rendered corridors, soaking up the atmosphere. This isn't a bad thing per se, but a lot of the time it feels like you're a phantom, eavesdropping on a world that doesn't really know that you're there. Citizens will go about their business, picking apart the grisly murders that are occurring in Whitechapel – a major plot point, of course – but once they've completed their routine, they'll often pause, although stuck in time, urging you to move forward.
Occasionally there'll be objects for you to interact with; newspapers can be scooped up from sideboards and pored over for more information, while recordings can be listened to for additional narrative context. There's a lot of care and attention been put into these collectibles, but with so few of them to actually grab, the setting can feel a bit like a gallery, intended to be observed – but never poked and prodded. It's almost as though the outfit played the Tibetan village sequence in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and decided to build a game around it.
Not that you'll be purely soaking up the scenery, of course – there is a bit of gunplay thrown in for good measure. This is largely well executed, with imaginitive weapons that practically erupt each time that you pull the trigger – but the encounters that serve to justify them are poor. Braindead artificial intelligence is the biggest problem, as most enemies simply stick to one form of cover, waiting to be picked off. There are a couple of third-person archetypes – such as the daring shotgunner and the heavily armoured grunt – but these fail to inject any meaningful excitement.
Most disappointing, however, are the handful of half-breed encounters, which should have been among the game's greatest highlights, but are infuriatingly formulaic. Here, you'll often find yourself pegged in as the lycans charge you down, but they'll regularly run from the exact same direction each time that they approach, and while upping the difficulty adds a little more variety, you can often simply ready up and wait to pull the trigger. It's a bafflingly basic approach, and it's made all the more frustrating by the fact that these sequences should have provided the game's most pulsating moments.
It's left down to quick-time events to truly capture the horror of your mythological adversaries, then. There are several spectacular fight scenes littered throughout the eight or so hour campaign, and while these may amount to little more than button prompts, they're at least choreographed well. The problem is that, while some of these do branch, mistakes in places can lead to instant death, which actually has an adverse affect on the game's immersion. Fortunately, the title has stellar checkpointing and lightning fast loading times, so it's never a major source of irritation.
This frustration is instead reserved for the handful of stealth sections poorly incorporated into the escapade, which see you die the second that you're spotted – even if you're at a distance. One section sees you attempting to infiltrate a stately building in the driving rain, but if you venture too close to the proximity of a guard's spotlight – or fail the takedown prompt – you'll be shot in the head without an opportunity to recover. It's an example of the storytelling taking precedence over the gameplay, and it's a disastrous piece of design.
At least the plot is handled a little better. The developer deserves credit for straying into taboo territory – one cinematic involves full male nudity – without being gratuitous about it, and many of the characters are brilliantly written and acted. It's just a shame that the final act – which paves the way for a sequel on different soil – is rushed to a conclusion, with many loose threads left to dangle. The game allows you to pick up on many of the sub-stories for yourself, and that's good – but the narrative doesn't really come to a fulfilling conclusion at all.
The one flawless feather in its hat, then, is the presentation, which is staggering from start to finish. The title has a very authentic look to it, which can be attributed to its high quality textures and lighting model. The developer claims that it studied various lenses to nail the release's look, and that's pretty obvious from the fusion of soft focus, film grain, and chromatic aberration. But while the post-processing effects give the game its gritty look, the attention to detail is what completes the illusion, with every single corridor that you traverse lavished with love and attention.
The soundtrack's not too shabby either, using moody string-based melodies to add to the dense atmosphere. Unfortunately, it's just not enough to paper over the package's many problems. Ready at Dawn has crafted a world worthy of your attention, but it just doesn't do enough from a gameplay perspective to finish the job. And while the studio would probably argue that the story is the star of this Victorian show, we'd counter that the action, in areas where one minor misstep will result in a restart, actually detracts from what it's trying to achieve.
The Order: 1886 is an antique that's aged ungracefully. The presentation is sublime from the release's rousing start right the way through to its anticlimactic finish, but several shoddy design decisions detract from its otherwise exemplary gloss. The developer's crafted an incredible universe, but outside of the title's core cast, it's failed to do much of note with it. This is a property that's begging for a sequel to realise its undeniable potential – but only time will determine whether it gets that opportunity.