The Order: 1886 has been widely previewed since it was first unveiled, and although I hadn't looked at it personally, I have to say I wasn't wildly enthused by the game. It looks good, sure, but I didn't think it looked incredible. It had an interesting setting, granted, but it never grabbed me as truly original. It felt like a typical launch title, something that should have released at the same time as the PS4 last year, a visual spectacle, but one with a largely forgettable story and fairly generic mechanical parts.
Having played the game now I'm much more interested in taking a closer look. The demo that I played was set on a zeppelin, high above solid ground, and it started with a squad of Victorian-era secret agents rappelling down the side of the airship. It looked like a cutscene, and although there's zero player agency during that opening sequence, the graphical fidelity is hugely impressive. It's a great showcase for the power of the PS4.
But I already knew it was a decent looking game, and I wasn't moved by the opening section. Past the sumptuous opening and the cinematic insertion into the airship proper, there's a series of corridor stealth sections, punctuated by mildly frustrating quick time events and mini-games. The stealth takedowns, initiated via a timed button press, are brutal, and a mistimed action results in insta-death, and these deaths are also on the heavy side, with enemy guards happy to offload a pistol shot in your face at point blank range.
The AI of the soldiers didn't feel very advanced. The patrolling guards weren't particularly alert, and there wasn't - as far as I could tell - a huge amount of options when it came to choosing how to take them out: just sneak this way or sneak that. I wanted a bit more verticality, or the option to hide and spring traps, but I didn't find them during this demo. If you're discovered, it's punishable by a quick execution and a restart.
Having said all that, the stealthy movement feel quite intuitive, and on more than one occasion my character - the wonderfully named Sir Galahad (real name Grayson) - snapped into cover automatically. You can crouch and scurry through sections, avoiding the guards, and while it didn't feel particularly refined, it looks like a solid set of mechanics.
The stealth section was punctuated by mini-games, but these weren't hugely engaging. The Victorian-type setting and the juxtaposition of sci-fi tech is a bit jarring, even though I came in knowing that the game is set in an alternative vision of the past. Using arcane tech to unlock magnetically sealed doors and the like took a little longer than I wanted it to, although I'm sure extended practice will speed up these moments.
There's a lot of story in the opening section, and although it wasn't the first level in the game, it was definitely still early on in proceedings. Exposition is delivered by cutscenes, and while there was a bit of stop and start during this mission, the lore seems to be interesting and I'm actually intrigued now having seen this one part of the game. I think I'll avoid spoilers from here on in, and find out as little as possible, but from the mission played I was able to ascertain that there's the titular Order and their struggle with some kind of rebel force, and we already know about the third faction, the supernatural antagonists in the game. I can't wait to see how it all fits together.
Interesting story beats, great visuals, and some intuitive movement around the environment kept me interested during the very linear opening to the mission. About halfway through things got a lot saucier. A sniper set-piece, where I had to clock enemy troops before taking them out and foiling their planned attack, was the first part of the demo that I actually thoroughly enjoyed.
Staring through the scope I was able to take out a string of enemy soldiers, and as more and more flooded the environment, things got more frantic. As is the way with these press events, the difficulty wasn't too harsh, and we passed through the following combat sequences without the need to restart once, indeed, the only times we died during the demo were when we mis-timed QTEs, and as such they felt like the weakest part of the game; it's a shame that they're littered throughout.
The sniper section spilled out into more conventional cover shooter territory, but I enjoyed the subsequent exchanges of fire. The enemies didn't do anything that surprised me during the fights, but they do jump in and out of cover, sticking their guns around corners and firing blindly, with just a hand available to aim at (and their aim's good considering they can't see). For the most part it felt like a turkey shoot, so it'll be nice to see how it plays with the difficulty turned up a notch or two.
Beyond the sniper set-piece there was a series of shootouts across internal environments including, for example, a kitchen. Nothing too tricky, but they looked decent enough, convincing (unless, of course, you remind yourself that the gunfight is taking place onboard a zeppelin). Towards the end of the demo I was chasing an enemy through the internal structure of the airship, trying to stop them from reaching their ultimate objective. There was a nice moment later - a cutscene admittedly - where smaller air balloons were sliding away as part of an evacuation following an explosion, each stocked with NPCs floating away to their safety. Of course the squad stayed on board, because where's the fun in escaping in one piece? It wasn't long after that that the demo came to an end.
After putting down the controller my initial impression was a positive one, certainly more positive than I thought it would be before I started. This is a fairly standard cover shooter in many ways and like its Victorian(-esque) setting there feels like a lot of conservatism in its design, but when it opens up the gunfights feel good, there's a nice kinetic energy to the weapons, and choosing different guns will inform your moment-to-moment experience. Hit detection seemed decent, and the reward for accuracy is speedier progress. Grenades are another option, although I largely forgot to use them (we were, after all, on an airship, it didn't feel right). But there's options here, not masses admittedly, but there was enough to keep me engaged and wanting more.
The linear sections are not the highlight here, and even the more open areas are still limited, but that didn't stop them from being fun. The setting of this particular level - the airship - was certainly an intriguing one, and we enjoyed the slightly implausible backdrop, even if it did feel a little weird to be having a gun battle that high up above the clouds while surrounded by some many highly flammable gasses. There was plenty of stealth, more, I'm told, than there was in the E3 demo, which was much more action-focused. Not having played that build it's impossible for me to compare, but GRTV's Nick Holmberg has played both, and for what it's worth he preferred the more action-centric E3 build. Given my own reservations, I can understand why (and this comes from someone who loves a good stealth game).
If Ready At Dawn can find a nice balance, if they can mix up the different mission types, they could well be onto something. At the very least they're making a better game than privately I had given them credit for before trying it for myself. There's too many QTEs for my liking, and the mini-games aren't brilliant (when are they?), but the rest of the game was largely entertaining, even if it didn't strike me as a classic-in-the-making. Ultimately I'm looking forward to playing the whole thing through in February when it launches, which certainly wasn't the case before I got hands on with the demo. Much will depend on how consistently the studio can hit the high notes, because during the lulls it's weighed down by some generic design and a few too many quick time events, however, when they're on target, when there's a little more freedom and the bullets hit home, the various component parts come together and it's a blast.