The Order: 1886 – the new PS4 exclusive with a lot to prove

Tuesday, 18 February 2014 13:00 GMT By John Robertson

With interactive cut scenes, quick-time events and cover shooting, Ready At Dawn’s PS4 exclusive needs to offer a lot more than just a pretty face.

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Designing, building and launching a major new IP isn’t easy. Being a PlayStation 4 exclusive, the task facing The Order: 1886 is perhaps even more difficult – it’s not enough to be merely good, it has to be a system seller. If it doesn’t achieve its job of convincing people to purchase Sony’s console over and ahead of the competition then it will, at least in its publisher’s eyes, have failed.

“Much of the story and world is told and viewed through what Ready At Dawn is calling ‘interactive cut-scenes’. Over half of the 20 minute long demo we were privy to consisted of these sorts of moments.”

Developer Ready At Dawn has made that task slightly easier by taking The Order down the third-person shooter path… it’s easier to convince people to buy something within a genre they understand and have had a positive experience with in the past. The challenge, then, becomes one of convincing the potential audience that The Order is better and/or different enough from the competition to warrant investment.

Set in a heavily stylised variation of 19th-century, industrial-era London, The Order sets about trying to stand out from the over-populated shooter crowd through tone, place and presentation. Steampunk-inspired airships fill the skies, retro-futuristic guns fill the hands and the secret service-esque ‘The Order’ themselves are decked out in costumes lavish enough to make enough even Elton John turn his nose up.

Layered on top and throughout this undeniably eye-catching aesthetic is a story that melds politics, science and power. Over a millennium before the events told here humanity began to split into two; one side remaining fully human, the other experiencing mutations that gave them physical superiority. A war has been raging between the two sides and only now, with the onset of the industrial age, have humans the weapons capable of confronting the mutants head on.

The ancient and mysterious ‘The Order’ group is at the forefront of this war, having fought the mutants for hundreds of years already in a bid to protect mankind. However, to make matters even more complex, the subjugated poor of London have formed an organised rebellion and are not happy with The Order’s seemingly biased stance of protecting only the wealthy and influential. The human versus mutant war effort is being undermined by the human civil war.
Within in this you play as Galahad, a member of The Order and part of an elite four-man squad.

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“The game is certainly Galahad’s story,” explains game director Ru Weerasurya. “It’s viewed from his point of view. There are lots of things happening around him, and one of his roles for us is as a vessel for the player to really understand the story and the world. But you do see the evolution of his character throughout the game and throughout the plot.”

Much of this story and world is told and viewed through what Ready At Dawn is calling ‘interactive cut-scenes’. Over half of the 20-ish minute long demo we were privy to consisted of these sorts of moments, the longest showing Galahad and friend surveying the derelict district of Whitechapel from a rooftop – an area that they believe harbours high-ranking members of the rebellion.

Each time Galahad puts a pair of eccentric binoculars up to his face the player is given control of the camera and allowed to point them anywhere across the city. Focus on certain areas of interest and Galahad will comment on what you’re looking at in a bid to provide extra background on the narrative. However, this a linear rather than an ‘open’ game. No matter where you point you will always follow the same path and must eventually trigger Galahad to utter the correct words in order to progress.

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“We really want people to understand that what we’re trying to build are cinematics that are interactive,” Weerasurya tells us when asked about this design approach. “[We want] seamless movement between cinematics and combat, and between combat to movement and melee and back into cinematics.

“It’s that mix, and our pacing of it, that really is the game. That’s what we’re trying to do differently from what you’d expect from third-person shooter mechanics.”

Following the binoculars-on-a-roof scene, Galahad moves down through a few buildings to street level and, in the process, cuts through some of the most impressive beams of light ever seen in a video game as they pour in through small windows. It’s this visual quality that is The Order’s standout achievement upon seeing it in full action for the first time and it’s not misleading to describe it as the best looking game yet revealed for PS4.

Lighting, textures, along with more subtle elements such as facial expressions and fabric creasing through movement, are all of superb and distracting quality and demonstrate what the PS4 is capable of when a studio is given the time to create. Ready At Dawn, by way of reference, first began building The Order in 2010.

Unfortunately, the combat seems less inspired. Watching Galahad throw himself into cover behind a low wall, pop up for a few seconds to shoot and then move to further low walls invokes more than a few memories of Marcus Fenix and Gears of War. There’s a healthy and enticing chug to the industrial-looking weapons, with chunks of the environment being ripped off by stray bullets and enemies darting for safety when you get the upper hand, but it’s not dissimilar from what we’ve seen before.

This combat sequence comes to an end with a single enemy remaining, a cut-scene being triggered that sees Galahad dive into the ditch his enemy is hiding in. Hand-to-hand combat ensues.

Melee combat, in this instance, takes the form of another ‘interactive cut-scene’. Quick-time events pop up at certain key moments (land punch, avoid punch, grab nearby weapon etc) and provide you the chance to alter how the scene unfolds. Miss an input, for example, and the fight will play out differently than if you had achieved perfect timing. Ready At Dawn is calling this a ‘branching QTE’, with a single moment of failure not forcing you to restart and try again.

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However, Weerasurya is keen for such moments not to feel diluted or tacked on for the sake of adhering to universally accepted approaches to game design.

“QTEs for us are a way of delivering a different type of emotional experience to the player,” says Weerasurya. “They give us the freedom to get much closer to the character and to see things you wouldn’t otherwise see through an in-game camera.

“Our QTEs are different because they have branches to them. That means one player could see a moment occur one way, while a second player sees it a different way. Sometimes the result of the QTE itself is also different, but the storyline continues through that.”

“The driving force of this game specifically was to put the IP first. That, and the single-player story has to trump everything else and we didn’t want the team to be split between two things.”

Galahad being part of a four-man squad, it might seem from the outside looking in that multiplayer would be a perfect and comfortable fit for The Order – but Weerasurya sees it differently, although tellingly stopped short of ruling it out entirely.

“We discussed [multiplayer] very early on when we first started working on it. The reality of it, though, is that to achieve what we want and deliver the message we aim to deliver, especially with this being a new IP, we always felt like it would be great in multiplayer but that we weren’t sure it was the right way to introduce an IP.

“The driving force of this game specifically was to put the IP first. That, and the single-player story has to trump everything else and we didn’t want the team to be split between two things, because it really does take a whole team to do a great single player game and another to do multiplayer.”

Whatever the case, Ready At Dawn refused to properly discuss multiplayer. Whether that’s because they do want to make sure we understand this ‘new IP’ before talking about it, or because they’re not sure if they’re going to have time to implement it, remains to be seen.

As the only brand new and exclusive PS4 shooter with a triple-A budget behind it, there’s enormous pressure on The Order to deliver. What we’ve seen so far is packed full of potential, but we’re not yet convinced enough to let excitement get the better of us. We’ll have to go hands-on before that might happen.

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