Wednesday, March 11, 2015

REVIEW - The Order: 1886.

Warning: this is a very, very, very long review. 
For a short one, click here.

Quantum Break (2016)

I'm going to miss out on Quantum Break when it drops in 2016.  Kinda' sad about that.

Quantum Break, you should know, is made by Remedy - the crew that merged spectacular, showy third-person gun combat with painfully overwrought storytelling in Alan Wake, and stuck mostly to spectacular, showy third-person gun combat in Max Payne (2001) and its sequel (2003), back in the day.

Those guys can't tell a meaningful story well to save their lives, but they do visually spectacular third-person shooting very well, thank you.

Alan Wake (2010)

Of all the triple-A releases that came out on Xbox 360 and not the PlayStation 3, Alan Wake was the one I wished I could have played on my preferred console.  Not so much because it was an amazing cinematic experience with a finely-spun narrative (though bless its heart, it tried so hard), but because there is a special place in Heaven where the immortal souls of gamers can unwind on clouds shaped like Lay-Z-Boys, with stylish, cinematic shooters. With games that are both fun and obscenely gorgeous, recalling your favorite gunfights from your favorite gun-fu flicks.

I love games like that.  I liked (the pretty meh) Strangehold at the dawn of the PS3, and despite all its flaws I actually love WET... but Remedy aren't the only crew in the world who can make a successful, stylish, cinematic shooter.

Rockstar can do it.

Max Payne 3 (2012)

At this point, I feel, it would be fair of you to question when I'm going to start talking about The Order: 1886 and shut up about other games... but they are not, necessarily, separable.


The Order does a great deal that's quite original, quite fresh - but it's fair to compare a game that's quite-intentionally un-like most other games to most other games.  In order to explain The Order, I'm going to talk about a lot of other games.

I'm going to talk about God of War and Dead Space and any triple-A game in which a woman takes her shirt off.  I'm going to talk about The Last of Us and Metal Gear Solid 4, because context is important - and within the context of triple-A gaming as a whole, considered as a peer among titles which found the previously-understood edges of gaming and pushed them a little bit, The Order: 1886 is a landmark game.


I had nothing but fun with The Order, all the way through.  After completing its campaign, I've returned to it repeatedly over the past two weeks to play through my favorite shooting sections, to re-watch my favorite cutscenes.  I've yet to stop having fun with it.

Fun factor: check.

As promised, it introduces the player to a lushly realized riff on an alternate-history 1880s London, where the Knights of the Round table live semi-immortal lives in service to the titular Order, brandishing both traditional and hugely original weapons as they hunt for werewolves, rebels and the truth that lays at the heart of a conspiracy which threatens what they hold most sacred.  Its characters are well-realized, its world is one you feel you could reach out and touch, its narrative is... gripping.

I love the story.  I feel it stumbled a bit with extraneous dialogue or plotting that felt a bit forced, but the cast is pitch-perfect.  I love the characters, and the journeys they each have over the course of the story.

Achieves a unique vision: check.


Now... two weeks ago, you went to your most-trusted gaming reviews site and they told you The Order: 1886 isn't worth your time (GT aside).

My friends, I'm here to tell you.  They are wrong.  When so many voices echo the same sentiment, it's easy... it's convenient to take that consensus as truth.  But like The Order's hero - the stalwart, endlessly-serious, eternally prudent Sir Galahad - I urge you to ignore what you've been told.  There is a secret, here, that you will only accept once you see it with your own eyes - but to save you some time, I'll just tell you again.  The Order: 1886 is excellent.

...and I really don't get why a bunch of gaming journalists who endlessly berate triple-A development for trying nothing new would have such a problem with it.  But that's neither here nor there.  I'm not a journalist.  Neither are you.  We love video games, and I love The Order.

Let me tell you why.


Nine times out of ten, when The Order makes a choice - when The Order pulls a move a hundred video games have pulled before - it makes the right choice.  It makes the hard choice.  It makes it the best it can possibly be, and for that, I love it.

Now, nine times out of ten isn't always - but by God, that still represents something incredible.  In providing the examples I'm about to lay out, I am going to spoil some of the game's plot and some of its moments.  Fair warning.

First up, let's just talk about guns in games.  Let's start with something comfortable and familiar.  Let's talk about shotguns, and the rhythm of a proper weapon.

DOOM II (1993)

If you're a dedicated shooter, you have a shotgun.  It is a classic, comfortable weapon, which subscribes to a classic, comfortable rhythm of play, and the player can find themselves slipping in to the affectionate dance of Ka-BOOM, ka-chik, Ka-BOOM.  When it is at its best, it achieves the wonderful flow of that most-cherished of luminaries, DOOM.

That is, for the sake of clarification, what The Order's shotguns feel like.  They feel proper.

In any modern game that permits customization of your shotgun, the weapon will skew either towards a long-range, low-spread, lower-damage variant (long-barrel, high-clip) or reduce its effective range and ammo capacity and increase its damage and spread, enhancing both the weapon's natural strengths and deficits (eg, a sawn-off).

In The Order: 1886, there are no upgrade trees.  There is no weapon select.  In its ambition as a "filmic" experience, it would make no sense for Galahad to spend his time mulling over shotgun chokes and barrel extensions (see: Uncharted, 2007).  He doesn't have time for that, as the narrative sweeps him from one emergency to the next, only receiving weapons from the hands of NPCs or the cold, dead clutches of a defeated foe - and from those avenues, you may acquire two very different shotguns.

Can you guess what type they are?  If you guessed a long-barrelled weapon with a nice range and a tight spread, you're right.  In fact, it's one of the better long-range shotguns you'll ever wield, smacking enemies square in the chest with a load of buck from ten yards, lashing out like a sword slash as you squat behind cover, slapping them back with its impact - and a nice, healthy five-round ammo reserve.  It recalls that lovely hunting shotgun from Resident Evil 2.

The other is the Three Crown Coachgun - a triple-barrelled monster with a very short range, a propensity for spitting fire and a reticle that takes up a full fifth of the screen.  Gather four or five enemies into that approximate area, pull the trigger and walk calmly across their corpses as you snap the breach open and load three more shells.  It is the alpha and omega of the sawn-off shotgun variant.

Ka-BOOM!

That design - two vastly different shotguns - is considered.  It doesn't bother with extraneous crap - if The Order is going to give you a shotgun, it's going to give you the only two shotguns you could ever want.

That's the right choice.  On the other end of the spectrum, if it's going to give you something different, it's going to be vastly different.

Consider its thermite rifle.


Like a great shotgun, it too subscribes to its own, unique rhythm of play - but it's so unique.  It's like no weapon I've ever held in a game, as you hold down primary fire to launch a series of pellets that piff into a hanging cloud of thermite dust at your chosen target.  At this point, you could tap alt-fire, but there's no need, yet.  Sweep the weapon over a group of entrenched foes so three, four, five of them are firing at you from behind a cloud of thermite haze along fifteen feet worth of cover, and then tap R1.

The flare leaps into the cloud, ignites it, and the blooming flame rrrips through the length of the groundwork you laid, incinerating them all.

The thermite rifle is a patient man's gun.  Conversely, consider the Arc Cannon.

Imagine a rail gun you didn't have to aim.  Or didn't have to aim well.


A charge weapon, it requires the trigger to be held down for a second or so before you unleash it - and when you release the trigger in the general direction of a sniper in the back, a machine gunner in the middle and a shotgun specialist bearing down on you, it will pick one at random and just - kzzap! - kill 'em.  Good thing that sniper's gone - whups, thre shotgunner's almost here - but fortunately, a weapon with such a unique aiming system works equally well when blind-firing from behind cover.

Visually, it recalls that wonderful weapon from Neill Blomkamp's District Nine.  It blows limbs and heads clean off its chosen target, but you'll almost never see it until you crack a man's arm off when he's within ten feet of you.  Blood and gore explode from the new stump in a dark, kind-of-blurry, grainy splat, and the ragdoll falls.  You didn't even know The Order did gore like that until you blow off a man's arm and find yourself marvelling at how amazing that ragged stump looks.

What's left of the arm is all limp and floppy.
Super-gross.  Love it.

Its charge time, strange aiming and (incredibly) satisfying release make it a weird, fresh-feeling weapon with a very original flow - cleaning rooms of terribly dangerous enemies while blind-firing from behind cover with its own charismatic rhythm of charge - kzzzap! - charge - kzzzap! - charge... hold it... someone poke their head out kzzzap ohhh that was messy.

Like its shotguns, like its fantastical sci-fi armaments, every weapon in the game is considered, often with a pleasant twist that makes it a bit more effective for a certain style of play.


The M2 'Falchion' Auto Rifle is your classic riff on the multi-purpose carbine you've held in so many military-themed games.  With a goodly range, it's ideal for lining up mid-range or long-distance headshots, but hold the trigger down and it goes full-auto.  It's also the choice of any player who prefers to lean on The Order's melee combat.

At closer ranges, with a tap of the alt-fire button, it releases a concussive blast of air that throws your foe off-balance, permitting you a few precious seconds to hold the trigger down and finish them off or, better yet, rush in for fisticuffs.   Its use essentially permits the player to be terribly aggressive, dashing out of cover in a berserk rush to take advantage of enemy placement like a kitted-out ninja

Ow.

You roadie-run (see: Gears of War, 2006) right up into your enemy's face, tap triangle and Galahad does the rest with a collection of context-sensitive, bone-crunching brutalities.  Similar to Joel's repertoire in The Last of Us, what, precisely, he inflicts upon your target is entirely dictated by what prop, wall, table or cover is nearby, and his attacks are such a bone-crunching sight to behold that it renders the otherwise entirely simplistic melee a satisfying treat.  Unlike Joel's repertoire in The Last of Us, it's a bit... distant, in that one single press of triangle is all it ever takes.

Should it be different?  I don't know.

The Order enjoys a slower pace to its gameplay, which offers both more realistic animations, more time for tactical choices and more time to wallow in its orgy of excellent presentation - as such, it (again) recalls the slower pace and fantastic presentation of The Last of Us.  Why, then, has The Order not invested in a system which mimics Naughty Dog's new gold standard for cinematic brawling, that allows for spectacular presentation and satisfying, tactile gameplay?

It's one of those things you wonder if the folks at Ready at Dawn are really happy with.  As it is, it feels more like Galahad is one of the ninjas from Tenchu - dashing up and executing foes with a single, brutal strike because once he touches you, you're dead.

I've read a lot of complaints about the game's stealth sequences.  I don't know what their problem is.
It looks gorgeous and - once you get a handle on the game's expectations - plays well.
It's just shallow, is all.

If that is indeed the point of Galahad's kung-fu simplicity - that he is simply unstoppable once he lays hands on you - it would be nice if he were either a bit quicker to turn (as he can only melee an enemy directly in front of him, and you can find yourself missing your opportunity to press triangle and eating a load of lead to the back), or if the system were opened up wide to the point that a tap of triangle will begin a melee on any enemy in range, regardless of direction, so long as the analog stick is pointed that way.  Imagine Galahad reaching a hand out, behind him, to seize an enemy's throat before turning to make eye contact with his chosen victim and begin his dark work.

In order to pull such a multi-directional system off and remain in keeping with The Order's spectacular presentation, three or four times the number of available animations would need to be produced - but if you want to keep it so simple, Ready at Dawn, keep to your own tenets of making each and every choice the right choice, and flesh it out completely.

The melee feels (oddly) rewarding despite its simplicity and looks spectacular, and if you intend to keep going in this direction, just make it yet more accessible and yet more visually spectacular.  Again, it would also be fine to just rip off TLoU's melee, because - and I know I'm preaching to the choir, here - if you're going to lift another game's mechanics, you'd best steal from the greatest games in recent memory.

Dead Space 2 (2011)

It's okay to do what others have done, and put your own spin on it.  Heck, look at Darksiders - it can work out spectacularly well.  The Order, for example, uses one of those lockpicking mechanics where you have to set each pin before you can turn the lock - but it's also the only pin-based mechanic I've ever experienced where the player can actually accomplish success through touch alone, and the behaviour of their Dualshock's rumble - marvelously successful.  In some cases, though, Ready at Dawn's spin on the excellent groundwork laid by other games doesn't feel like it goes far enough in their own special direction.

The game was introduced to us at E3 2013 with the promise of grim steampunk-packin' badasses fighting werewolves in Victorian London - and you do fight werewolves - but it's in very prescribed ways.  First off, you'll find yourself trapped in a large room with a few lycans.  Those lycans will find a bit of cover twenty or thirty feet away, peek at you and then close the distance in a long, loping dash for a quick strike before scrambling back into the shadows.


Remind you of anything?

If you said the Clever Girl sequence from Dead Space II, you're right.  The lycan gunplay directly cribs that brilliant moment, but to less profound effect as there is no great mystery, here, what hunts you from the dark.  It's more stressful than scary until you get a handle on it, and the lack of Dead Space's strategic dismemberment (you can't shoot the foot off a werewolf) means you load up the thing with lead as it barrels towards you, tap X to dodge away at the last moment and repeat as the next one comes in for a bite.

It's pared-back, but conceptually, I love it - and it works really well, mechanically.  More than that, it feels like exactly how a pack of man-sized wolves would operate - dashing in to take a chunk of your health off and disappearing before you can counter attack, working in tandem to ensure you're scanning all lanes and slowly wearing you down before they go in for the kill - and when they kill you, it looks frickin' awesome.

Nooo my neccck...

The thing crashes into you as you hold up your rifle or machine gun to keep it at bay, mashing X to push it back - but if you've already taken too many claw-swipes, it crushes you down, clamps its jaws down on your neck, savages your tender flesh and snaps its head up to tear out your throat as you flail lamely against it.

When you kill them, it's also pretty cool.  After absorbing enough bullets, the lycans will collapse to the ground, where they can only be finished off with a stab of your great dagger to the heart.  This becomes a strategic choice, as if you don't knife a fallen lycan fast enough, it will get up and resume its attack - but by moving to it, you must leave the safety of your distant-lane location, where you can keep an eye out for its attacking friends.

Once you get to it (tap triangle) and sink your knife in, the game does this stylish thing where the beast morphs back into the guise of a man upon death, right in front of your eyes.

I call this piece All Dogs Go to Heaven.

There's no puff of red smoke as the game switches out the character models - you watch it change back. The bones shift, the hair recedes and the face shrinks back into place.

Ready at Dawn?  That's awesome. I just wish you let us hunt lycans with more weapons than the Falchion and the machine gun. I get that those are the most effective guns for maintaining tension while offering the high-damage precision required of these fights - but I also want to blow limbs off them with the arc cannon and enjoy the smell of burnt dog hair courtesy of the thermite rifle, thank you very much.

Expand it.  Deepen it.

Elsewhere, there are lycan boss fights, and...

Well, do you remember the final gameplay sequence in Metal Gear Solid 4, in which Snake and Liquid Ocelot square off for their epic fisticuffs atop Outer Haven?

Metal Gear Solid 4 (2008)

It's this spectacular scene in which these two titans of legend throw down in hand-to-hand combat on a tower as the sun sets, the camera zoomed right in to capture every crunching blow and dazzle you with every high-res texture through mechanics you won't find anywhere else in the game.

That's what the lycan boss fights are.  Except they take place in gloomy indoor locations and are still about fifty times more gorgeous.


These Elder Lycans are not the dashing, feral beasts of their packs - they are as much man as monster, and will carefully square off with Galahad, conscious and fearful of the years of experience and wicked blade he wields.  They must be given equal respect and approached with caution, as being too aggressive and attacking without an opening will ensure you eat a faceful of claw.

Be patient.  Wait for it.  Wait for the thing to lunge and be ready to move in the right direction to avoid the attack before launching your counter.  These fights are brutal, gorgeous, gruesome, and - if nothing else - one never gets tired of seeing the thing lunge for you and receive an open-palmed smack in the puss for its troubles.

I'm not kidding.  Galahad slaps werewolves - and it feels like the correct choice, on the part of Ready at Dawn.

Could the game benefit all-round from some more robust melee mechanics that move effortlessly between the gunplay sequences and boss fights?  Yes.  Probably.  But the direction it takes - the tried and tested mechanics it lifts from some brilliant games - is quite clever.  Together, they cement Galahad's reputation in the player's mind as King of all Badasses as he unleashes his proper English martial arts on thugs, shanks beast-men and gives Elder Werewolves the saltiest of open-handed disrespect.


Spec Ops: The Line (2012)

All the above thefts work well, but one the one I'm most pleased to discover in The Order comes from a source you may have forgotten.  Remember Spec Ops: The Line?  In it, stereotypical hoo-rah army man Walker changes, over the course of the game, from a prudent military professional to a bloodthirsty maniac, and his incidental barks - "reloading," "enemy down," et cetera - change as well, to reflect his altered mental and emotional state.  Eventually he's cursing up a blue streak at the need to feed more bullets into his weapon. 

It was such a beautiful, thoughtful addition that I hoped other games would pick it up - and The Order has.  

It sounds like such a small touch, but it's a small touch with a major impact - ensuring Galahad comes across not merely as a player avatar for kickin' rebel ass, but a living, breathing man who can keep his cool in one scene but teeter on the edge of losing it by the next.  It invests him with humanity. These little touches... 

Little touches like this take something normal - something you've seen a thousand times in a thousand games - and elevate it.  Take it to the next level.  Make it something worth experiencing again, worth remembering, worth telling your friends about.  Things like the way the lycan's eyes actually have the tapetum lucidum programmed into them, but you'll only notice the reflection it produces in low light - little touches like something as simple as pushing a cart. 

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception  (2011)

Think of the first time you saw Kratos open a chest in God of War (2005).  Characters have been opening chests in video games for decades, but ten years ago when God of War happened, Sony Santa Monica used that moment to let their game, their vision, their character speak.  A tiny scene unto itself, in which this giant of a man bent his mighty back to an old reliquary, and, leveraging his unearthly power, strained against the ancient box, sinew tight, muscles knotting until finally, at the very limits of his strength, he flung the box open.  It was invested with drama and character.  It became a moment

In The Order: 1886, you will experience the most gorgeous chest-openings you've ever seen. Galahad will kneel before it and pull out his blade, tapping it under the lid.  He pushes down on the knife handle... pushes... and the lid pops open.  The chest does not glow for a moment before a few items appear up in your inventory.  Orbs don't spill out.  It opens to reveal a few sundries - blankets and boxes and... ah, that one thing Galahad wants.  

*also applies to drawers and cupboards.

He doesn't wave a hand over it to have the object disappear.  He reaches for it, grasps the object, picks it up and places it within his coat.  

It is a chest opening that takes zero video game corner-cuts.  Every moment of it is planned and framed and executed to the very pinnacle of presentation - beyond, in fact - because no one's ever done it as beautifully, as completely, as Ready at Dawn have, here.  

Similarly, we've been pushing blocks around in video games for decades.  It's old hat. 

In The Order: 1886, you will experience the most beautiful cart-pushes of your life. 


Like Kratos snapping that lid open in God of War, Ready at Dawn frames the classic cart-push and stages it just so, so you and your companion slowly move the object under swinging lights, watching the shadows lean and yawn across the game's impeccable geometry.  It allows this worn trope to become A Moment as you watch the shine on the character's hair move to reflect the light's source.  The player finds themselves luxuriating in its incredible textures and subtle film effects - but when you're actually playing the game, when you're watching it, you barely even notice them.  

You acknowledge that the game is ridiculously good-looking, but how Ready at Dawn pulled it off and what, precisely they're doing to achieve it seems mysterious - until you snap a screenshot of an action sequence and notice how blurry it is. 

It never looks less than amazing in motion, but its individual frames mostly look like this: 


It's easy to forget Tex Murphy (1989), Phantasmagoria (1995) and their ilk - those old "interactive movie" FMV games - but gaming has not forgotten what they were trying to accomplish.  The idea of a game that really does feel like an interactive movie has inspired some of the greatest developers in the world (and the not-so-great) - but for some reason the game The Order's presentation reminds me of most is The Getaway.  

Remember The Getaway?  A dozen years ago, The Getaway was a game which understood that sometimes, to make itself look more like a movie, it had to tone down how pretty it could look in pursuit of precisely how pretty it should look.  Characters animated a bit slower - they walked only as fast as people tend to walk.  There was a kind-of-intense blur effect used to soften edges when looking at things up close.  

It was, as Ready at Dawn would say, filmic. 

The Getaway (2002)

Creating a game that successfully looks, when still and in motion, like a motion picture means throwing out a lot of what most games try to accomplish - specifically a completely clean, crisp image.  Movies aren't made up of clean, crisp images.  When things begin to move, it looks like this: 

The Raid 2 (film - 2011)

When things are still, there remains the grain effect any physical film will produce, and the subtle impact the curve of a camera's lens will have on the image it captures.  

These are tiny things - things our brain is entirely unconscious of, when viewing a movie - but when they're missing we know it's not... quite... right.  We're taken out of the experience, and it's like you're watching that Beowulf CGI movie.  It needs to look dirtier.  It needs to look more hazy, more broken, more real.  

The Order is, to put it briefly, the closest action games have ever come to photorealism, by investing every frame of their effort with the the haze, the blur, the ocular bend, the imperfections an image will gain and suffer when captured on film.  

It's absolutely gorgeous, and that statement is not limited to its technology.  Native 1080p, subsurface scattering on digital actors, multiple-layer surface textures, physically-based rendering, realistic cloth physics, dynamic light and shadow, volumetric light and fog, zero load times (or five seconds if you skip to a chapter) and a rock-solid thirty frames per second - that stuff's all awesome.  It's very impressive - but it's meaningless if it's not used to create... 


...art. 







But being good-looking with lovely art direction isn't enough.  Beyond: Two Souls was also a very, very good-looking game and it couldn't tell a decent story to save its life.   The Order does suffer extraneous writing, in places, but it's too rare to consider a real detraction.  The only example that sticks out is when you watch a rebel drag a hostage into a building just before Lady Igraine, Galahad's protégée and perhaps love interest, approaches the doors to announce that there are rebels inside, with hostages. 

I know, Isi.  I just watched that rebel take a hostage and go inside.  You're not helping, get out of the way.  

Elsewhere, the writing can be a bit... forced, as this can occasionally feel like a story in which none of the crazy/awesome stuff would happen if the characters could just take thirty seconds and trust each other not to freak out - but even then, I never felt as if any character was acting out of character.  Galahad never delivered a line that felt like it was being spouted off just to advance the plot - he only ever said what I believed Galahad would say.  


Every single scene - every single scene in The Order has a narrative purpose.  It's presenting Galahad with a new tool.  It's showing just a tender slice of the youthful Lafayette's joie de vivre, it's exploring and revealing character, it's making us suspicious of everyone, because who knows what their true motives are or if they are the betrayer?   

But that's just writing 101.  Show - don't tell - let your narrative be driven by your characters, and cut everything extraneous.  That's tradecraft, and any idiot can pick up a how-to book for writers and figure that out (still, the fact that Ready at Dawn have nearly mastered it speaks highly in their favor). 

If a game which leans heavily on its narrative - as The Order does - is to succeed, it must tell a good story, and it must tell it well.  It needs to... make an impact on the viewer.  It needs to be something you can't forget. 

For example, remember that scene in The Dark Knight Rises where Batman is beating the crap out of Bane towards the end, smashing his mask up and everything, and he's like "where is the trigger?  Where is it?!"  

The Dark Knight Rises (film - 2012)

You remember that scene.  You may remember little else about the movie that surrounded it, but you remember "where is the trigger?!"

We all do.  Bale was extra-hammy, but it's kind of indelible. 

There's this great scene in The Order, in which Sir Galahad, semi-immortal Knight of the Round Table, has come to accept that his fraternity has no interest in discovering the truth behind the conspiracy that claimed the life of his mentor.  Driven to near-madness by the injustice his sworn allies are prepared to accept, he fights his way across an enemy-encrusted bridge without sanction and spies The Indian Woman - an agent of the rebels who beset the London government's and the United India Company's interests, and may be the key to unravelling this mystery - or at least bear the brunt of his revenge. 

After shooting and judo-ing his way through a small army, he lands atop the last surviving rebel - a captain or somesuch - and starts just beating the shit out of him, like Batman did Bane, shouting "where is The Indian Woman?"  WHAM!  "Where is she?!" CRUNCH!  "WHERE?!  Tell me!  TELL ME!"

I call this piece Man on Fire.

"Whitechapel," the rebel whispers through his broken jaw.  

This is not the Galahad we met, at the onset of the game.  This is a man who has permitted himself to become a monster, driven by love for his mentor and hatred of those who would ignore the mounting evidence that something is very rotten in the state of England.  Galahad has a real and true arc, over the course of The Order - and that's not something that even story-driven games will always provide us. 

Consider Uncharted - often considered a high-water mark for narrative presentation in gaming.  Each game has (almost) the exact same arc for its hero (Drake insists he's not a hero and is in it for the money, becomes a hero by the end), and none at all for the supporting cast.  I cannot say the same for The Order.  Each significant character really... grows over the course of the game.  Their personalities take them in vastly different directions as they cope with what's happening around them, and not a single one (psychologically, emotionally) ends where they began - and in telling a story, that's often the most important thing.  You need to have character-driven writing (check), you need to limit yourself to what advances the plot or informs your audience of character (check), but those are largely ineffectual if your characters don't meaningfully evolve or otherwise change through the events of their story.  

Like they did in The Last of Us

The Last of Us (2012)

Ready at Dawn aren't quite there, yet.  The Last of Us is a master work of narrative in gaming, without a shred of misplaced dialogue, and the arcs of its two leads are earth-shattering in how significantly each changes over the course of the game - but my God, The Order makes a great go of it.  

This is where it gets spoiler-heavy


There's an early moment in The Order in which Galahad catches the Marquis de Lafayette - his latest student - putting the moves on a lovely young woman when he should be out hunting dissidents. Galahad has no patience for affairs of the heart - anything disconnected from his duty, in fact - and politely chastises the Marquis before getting back to work.  

A beautiful moment of character revelation, for both men, as it poses Galahad's central question - and, in a way, the central question of all three of The Order's leads. What would it take for this man, introduced to us as the epitome of proper, grim professionalism, to shirk the expectations of his office and indulge in his own needs - and once freed from those bonds, what is he truly capable of? 

By the end of The Order, the answer to that question has torn down his proper societal trappings, and Galahad comes to realize that the only authority worth recognizing is his own. 

He's positioned to take on the role of Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo, of Clint Eastwood in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, of Roland in The Dark Tower saga - the legendary archetype who ignores society's crippled laws in favor of justice, above all. 

Wonderful.

"Give yourself up, M'sieur.  My next shot will not be a warning."


The Marquis de Lafayette, a man of the world in his mid-thirties but a child by the standards of the Order's immortal knights, establishes early that he takes joy in life and his work.  He is not above skirting his duty to attend to his own appetites - and his question, then, is the mirror of Sir Galahad's.  What it will take for him to toe the company line instead of worrying about his own?  How much of himself is he willing to sacrifice in the process? 

There is a scene, late in the game, in which Galahad's loose-cannon exploits have earned him the wroth of the Order's council, and his comrades are forced to pass judgement upon him.  As each of his old friends, in turn, judge him guilty and condemn him to death, only Lafayette pauses as he stands. 

He takes a breath, and a good long look at the men and women who have chosen to cast Sir Galahad aside in order to maintain their place at the round table.  You can taste his disgust in them - and himself - before he mutters "guilty," and takes his seat.  

You loved truth and liberty above all else, my dear Marquis.  What has the Order done to you? 

It has not taken all, we know.  The good man we met at the beginning of the game still lingers beneath his military culottes - we can see it in his eyes - and we know that, in the future, the Marquis de Lafayette may yet serve as a trusted ally and fierce enemy to his old friend.  

Lovely.  

Finally, let's talk about Igraine.  She's got these three big scars on her neck that you can sometimes see when she cranes her head just right, so you know she got in a scrap with a werewolf or somethin' once, but it's never actually explained (that would be extraneous exposition, given the game's cast), and... 

Okay, let's back up.  Igraine is a wonderful character. 

GALAHAD: Will there ever be a time when you will heed my advice, Isi?
IGRAINE: You know the answer to that question - but you would have to obtain father's blessing first.

Isabeau D'Argyll, adopted child of the Order's Lord Chancellor, student of Sir Galahad and the youngest warrior ever inducted into the Knights of the Round Table, shares Galahad's central question, but offers the opposing response.  The two are in love, you should know, but the above conversation is as close as they ever get to admitting it.  

Like Galahad, she is introduced to us entirely bound by her training, her professionalism, her allegiance to law and the Order, and her pride in her work.  Hoping to protect Igraine and Lafayette from the inevitable fallout of his risky investigation, Galahad fails to entrust Isabeau with his evidence and intentions, and seals his fate. 

Lady Igraine's concern for her beloved Knight drives her to follow him as he descends into rebel territory, and bears witness to what she can only interpret as a betrayal of their sacred order.  

Her love, her passion for Sir Galahad ruptures into a heady mix of adoration and hate, and she exposes his activities to the council, ensuring his execution.  Upon his escape, we know she will hunt him to the ends of the Earth - that she must see him admit that he was wrong to betray them, and beg their forgiveness.

Or at least beg hers. 


She could never betray the council.  She could not bring herself to see the corruption that lies at the heart of the only place she's ever called home.  

She is Galahad's equal, and opposite.  Brilliant. 

She's also a woman in a video game, which has been a topic of some discussion, as of late.  There aren't many games, in the triple-A space, that you can point to and say "this is a game that is conscious of the female gender's often-problematic representation in games, and makes sure it's not a part of the problem."  The Order is definitely one of those games - and it does it in fine form.  

inFamous: First Light (2014)

Igraine's gender comes up once, in The Order - a moment in which Galahad permits her to go ahead of him into danger, while offering a polite "ladies first."  She is on an entirely even keel with the men who surround her, and it's worth noting that she is not the only woman sitting at the Round Table - just the only one who's part of our story.  She has agency.  She's never objectified, never sexualized - and she's one of three major female characters. 


The Indian Woman Galahad was so desperate to meet turns out to be Devi Nayar, the sworn guardian of Lady Lakshmi - leader of the force he knew as the rebels, fighting a holy war of her own.  The two are - like Igraine - capable warriors, never objectified, swathed in combat gear and strapped for battle.  Lakshmi fights alongside our hero and opens his eyes to the truth of the conspiracy that threatens his beloved Order.  

Having a cast with a near-even split of men and women - that's the correct choice.  Investing your characters, regardless of gender, with their own motives, their own style, their own arcs - that's the correct choice.  There's no character in the game that doesn't feel appropriately fleshed out. 

Speaking of flesh, addressing the problematic treatment of women in games is a complicated thing.  Very complicated.  We can acknowledge that there's a problem, but in addressing it - in expecting developers and creators to address it - we are tacitly endorsing censorship of art.  Censorship of art, most will agree, is abhorrent - but equally abhorrent is the culture-wide objectification and stereotyping of half of our population, to the degree that it's so widespread and normalized that we often fail to even notice it.  

Something must be done - but don't do too much!  Something has to change, but please stay true to your vision.  It's okay to have male characters who are sexy, and it's okay to have female characters who are sexy, just don't... don't be weird about it like Metro: Last Light or The Saboteur.

The Saboteur (2009)

There's something skeevy and uncomfortable about the depiction of sex or sexuality in a lot of games. There's nothing wrong with a woman's exposed breasts or a man's visible penis, but rare is the game that permits you to consume such adult-minded entertainment and not feel like it was aimed over your shoulder, at a furiously masturbating teenager beyond.  The women onstage in The Saboteur's midnight show (and traditionally, in most of gaming and popular culture) don't look like women so much as they do someone's idealized sexual object - and that's a problem. 

You're totally allowed to show boobs, game developers, in the same way you're allowed to show wangs.  Just think about how you usually see a wang in a video game.  It's not some perfect, idealized, turgid ultra-dong.  It's just a dick - just this little thing danglin' kinda' comically between a dude's legs.  Half of us have 'em.  Nothing particularly special or spectacular about that.  

Similarly, if you're going to show breasts in a video game and expect us to take you seriously, don't make them the perfectly-teardropping ideally-round globes of the goddess Aphrodite.  Make them look like breasts tend to look, in... 


...in exactly exactly the same way Ready at Dawn does in The Order: 1886.  

This is a game which appreciates that you can include mature content - you can include sex, sexuality and nudity in your game - without objectifying half of the world's population.  They're just breasts - drooping breasts - and half of us have 'em.  Nothing particularly spectacular.

You've probably already seen The Order's brothel scene on YouTube - again, nothing spectacular about it, nothing problematic - just one exposed breast and a bit of comedy.  
Ready at Dawn?  You handled this perfectly.  You didn't shy from it.  You didn't censor yourselves.  You just made the right choice.  Again.  

The Order is a title rife with correct choices.  Even its quicktime events are smarter than average. 


You have, perhaps, heard that the game has a lot of quicktime events.  I don't feel that's true - or at least, they're not as bothersome here as they are in almost any other game that leans on the mechanic.  

In the above image, for example, Galahad reaches out to catch Lakshmi as she throws herself across an impossible gap.  This was a moment repeated ad nauseam in Uncharted 2 - to the point that it lost all sense of danger - but it only occurs once in The Order, and retains its urgency.

It uses a gameplay language Ready at Dawn have woven throughout The Order, in which time will dilate and a reticle will appear onscreen.  The player must guide the reticle to the object they want to interact with (sometimes there are more than one), and tap square to win the day.  This occurs in major moments of hand-to-hand combat, in clutch, quick-reaction situations, and to catch a fair lady's hand.  

By not just making it a random button press - by turning it in to a moment of instantly-understood gameplay expectations - these "quicktime events" don't feel as frustrating as their namesake would imply.  It works really well, and it's yet another wise choice from Ready at Dawn. 

I just wanted to get another werewolf shot in.
This is one snapping its neck up after ripping out Galahad's throat. 

They've made so many brilliant moves, with this game - but The Order isn't perfect.  It's merely excellent - but a title of this calibre, coming from Ready at Dawn, is stunning.  

Their last game was a (gorgeous) brawler for the PSP back in like 2010.  The leap between this game and that one is a quantum leap.  This is like Naughty Dog going from Jak 3 to Uncharted - except this is better than Uncharted.  It's a spectacular success, from a developer we could not have expected this from - and I want Ready at Dawn's Uncharted 2.  

I'm salivating for more, and, Ready at Dawn, you've proven yourselves more than capable of asking the right questions and coming up with the correct answers - so riddle me this. 

What is The Order's genre?  It's not an interactive movie.  It's not an adventure game a'la Telltale Games or (ech) Quantic Dream.  The Order is

(specifically a supernatural steampunk stylish, cinematic shooter)

What it offers works - works really well, in fact - but it can go deeper.  We - gamers - love games like The Order and Max Payne and Alan Wake - just flesh it out.  Make the right choice where your core gameplay is concerned, because this is a game, a world, a cast so much grander than the few hours of playable content we received.  I love what we've been given, here - I feel like it works brilliantly, in fact, and have yet to tire of shooting rebels/lycans/company men.  Taking cover feels natural, reloading is natural, swooping around or over cover to blitz up to the next cover point is smooth as silk - but there's not enough of it, and not really enough strategic choice for the player to sink their teeth in to. 

The fact that Ready at Dawn pulled this off on their first attempt in the triple-A console space is astounding.  The Order's gameplay is fun and it looks incredible - those two things, alone, would earn it high praise from here to Albuquerque if it had, say, twice the amount of stylish, cinematic third-person shooting.  But it's 2015 and the game had to come out - what can you do?

The blacksight mechanic permits Galahad to slow time, and a tap of the analog stick will auto-target a nearby enemy so you can rapid-fire pistol rounds into them.  It's boring.

Do what you've done brilliantly, so far, and look to the best.  Look to Max Payne 3.  Look to Alan Wake.  Heck, look to WET and ask yourselves how you can out-shine the shiniest stars in that corner of the gaming sky - because if you think it's happening with your Blacksight mechanic, you're wrong. 

Go further.  Time dilation is a huge part of any cinematic shooter (the Hong Kong flicks, anything since The Matrix) - look at incorporating new camera angles and dynamic time dilation.  Take what you've made, what you've learned, and push it yet further.  Pull a Naughty Dog and create a gameplay language (stealth, shooting, brawling, platforming) the player can take with them through your entire game. 

Blow our minds. 

The Order: 1886 is excellent in nearly all ways.  
  • The weapons are big, mean, barking, brilliant crystallizations of classic, familiar forms 
  • or super fun original designs with very unique rhythms. 
  • Bone-crunching, brutal, satisfying melee - despite its simplicity.
  • Comfortable, fun cover-based shooting that's gorrrgeous. 
  • Lycan combat that riffs on clever mechanics to feel vastly different than the rest of the game. 
  • Boss fights that recall some of gaming's all-time greatest moments. 
  • Sky-high production values that turn classically throwaway moments into graphics porn.
  • Fully fleshed-out heroes who meaningfully evolve over the course of the story. 
  • An involving, character-driven plot.
  • Every scene has a narrative purpose. 
  • Excellent performances from the entire cast (special nod to the three leads).
  • A fascinating, fully-realized world.
  • (Almost) never encumbered by extraneous exposition. 
  • Entirely successful in its bid to look like a film - the closest any game has come to photorealism.
  • Beautiful art direction.
  • Great female characters.
  • Mature content that's actually aimed at a mature audience. 
  • Quicktime events that feel better than quicktime events have any right to. 
It's disappointing in three ways. 
  • The game-to-cutscene balance is skewed heavily in favor of cutscenes. 
  • Blacksight is not fun. 
  • The stealth mechanics are shallow.

This is a game that's taken everything we know about triple-A gaming, about high production values, attention to detail, and nudged the bar up - just a little bit.  It's incredible.  Eye-popping.  A blast. Smart.  Progressive.  Boundary-pushing.  Imperfect. 

Excellent. 

4 comments:

  1. http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/91%2BrG4eRdhL._SY355_.jpg

    Other than the bureau I've never gone so far against the critical grain. I feels good doesn't it? To see the art and purpose behind something so many others judged too quickly.

    No one can take that away from you. That blast you're having is all yours... everyone else is just jealous!

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    1. Going into the game after all the reviews came out cast it in a different light, I think. I went into it expecting to be very disappointed and instead it was like "wow, these shotgun choices are super-smart. I need to point that out in the review. Wow, these are great characters - I'll need to mention that."

      ...and by the time I was done mentioning everything The Order does well, I was just shy of eight thousand words. That ain't a bad game.

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    2. And I ALSO have nothing against a solid quicktime event.

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    3. fonzie_thumbs_up.GIF

      Eyyy.

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