I’ve been looking forward to this release since I picked up my PS4 last year and I’ve been following the coverage in the games press fairly closely the whole way. It’s always looked gorgeous.The commitment to storytelling has been notable whenever one of the devs sits down to chat with someone about the game. The game engine was a little clunky in the early showings, but developer Ready at Dawn seemed to have smoothed things out by the time they showed the full level demo at Playstation Experience at the end of last year. The games press, or at least the outlets I read regularly, seemed positive on it, or at least optimistic. Then it lands with a numerical splat on release. At present, it sits at a 65 on metacritic. That’s worse than Assassin’s Creed Unity, a game with serious, fundamental flaws at release. So what happened here?
Full disclosure: I enjoyed my time with The Order. My shorthand for the game is: think The Last of Us by way of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. It’s certainly not a perfect game, but neither do I believe it to be a bad one. I’m not even sure I’d describe it as a flawed game, for reasons I’ll get into below. Now we can debate the merits and drawbacks of Metacritic until we’re blue in the face. While it does allow you to get a general idea about how people as a whole feel about a game, it also leads to an overly reductive comparison between apples and oranges which is unfair to both games. But I’m going to do it anyway.
In some ways The Order is the opposite of Assassin’s Creed Unity. Stay with me here. Ubisoft wanted to make a benchmark game; a beautiful game that would take full advantage of the now current gen hardware. They created a new game engine, applied it to the largest, most expansive open game world they had yet created, and started having problems getting the game engine to run smoothly. The Order’s bread and butter is the visuals they needed for the cinematic experience Ready at Dawn wanted to create, which they achieved by constricting the experience around the player to optimize the things that are immediately in view. As a result, The Order is a stunningly beautiful game that runs smoothly; a nice, crisp apple rather than a badly bruised orange. For the crazy amount of cutscenes in this game, the fact that everything runs smoothly, loads seamlessly and transitions cleanly between cutscene and game engine is remarkable. I know it’s faint praise to say that it’s not a broken game, but look at the major releases in this industry over the past year. At this point, “Not Broken” could be a legitimate marketing strategy, or at least be listed as a feature on the back of the case. It’s worthy of note that in the case of The Order, the conversation has centered on the merits of its gameplay rather than it’s litany of bugs.
So it’s not a broken game, and I’m not sure it’s a flawed one. Sure, there are some annoyances from time to time, but I’m not sure there is enough fundamentally wrong with the game design to earn it the moniker of “Flawed Game.”
I think the main issue at play here is that The Order is not what people were expecting. Gamers like to categorize things. Watch_Dogs is a third person, open world, action adventure game with stealth elements and a cover shooting system. That’s a lot of hashtags. Sometimes we oversimplify things and begin to veer into inaccuracy. Destiny is an MMO shooter. Whoops. We all know how those expectations turned out. So when The Order is making the rounds on the conference circuit in 2014 what do the developers choose to show off? Sure they can talk up the world building they’ve done and the story they’re telling, but if gamers are going to watch them play on a live show post-conference show, you don’t spend the time showing off the conversations between characters, you show off the shooting and the stealth elements. The easily digestible gameplay. Familiar concepts people can wrap their heads around. Now everyone starts thinking it’s a stealth shooter, when that’s not by any means the entire picture.
The Order is first and foremost a cinematic experience. Some have described it – with some intended disdain – as one long, sometimes playable, cutscene. While overly reductive, in essence, that’s not far off. I certainly think that’s the unifying concept the design document was based on and I don’t think it’s a bad thing that it doesn’t fit neatly into a single, conventional box. There are three basic game designs The Order is trying to incorporate: it’s an interactive drama, not unlike any of the Telltale games; it’s a third person shooter, with occasional stealth elements, like <insert game here>; and finally, and most tentatively, it’s a graphic adventure, like Myst and its ilk. Each of these portions reaches varying levels of success as a separate entity, and the blending of them could have been smoother. The presence of all three gameplay types casts doubt on what The Order really is and causes people to complain that there isn’t enough of X portion in the gameplay mix.
The Order primarily wants to be an interactive drama. This is apparent from the first moment you start up the game and see the ever-present letterboxing. This is a big, beautiful movie that you will take control of from time to time. In contrast, the Call of Duty campaigns, while focused on telling summer blockbuster stories, are unmistakably shooters first. The amount of time you are in control of The Order and shooting Cockneys in the face has been the subject of much frustration in the reviews, no doubt from the crowd that thought they were playing a straight up shooter. It has also been generally understated.
I’ve never heard anyone complain about the amount of time you spend directly controlling Lee in The Walking Dead, Season One. So what’s the difference? Well, The Order isn’t too concerned with offering up interactivity options for you to participate during these portions of the game. Exploration isn’t discouraged, there just isn’t anything for you to do in that empty room over there most of the time. Linearity is the common theme here. There is a STORY that it is going to tell YOU and it leaves you to sit there and take it in. The Walking Dead games let you craft the story as you went along through your actions and dialog choices, tracking differing outcomes and character relationships all the while. While The Order didn’t have to follow suit and commit to a branching story paths, it could have employed a dialog system to at least let you participate in the more exposition-heavy parts of the game. Even if each choice led to the same response from another character – for the sake of moving the narrative forward long its predetermined path – it would be a step in the right direction.
One of the other challenges of interactivity lies with the Quicktime Events. I’ve said before that whenever a game wants to have big, cinematic moments of badassery, I reluctantly acknowledge that QTEs are probably the best way to go, even if I find them annoying. Clearly that’s what The Order is striving for here (badassery, not annoyance) and, to its credit, there are a wide variety of QTE types at play here. The only ones that truly grate are the ones where the button prompts come completely out of no where. I actually enjoyed making silent kills during the stealth sequences because I knew which button to press and approximately when, it was just up to me to nail the timing. I can deal with that and, most importantly, when I fail I can accept that the failure was my fault. When I’m being mauled by a Lycan (werewolf) in a highly cinematic manner and I mash the wrong button leading to an instant death, I get annoyed. The button prompts in these QTEs are neither color coded nor shaped like the button I have to press, so unless you’re on try two, three or ten, you’re often caught flat-footed by them. On the positive side, I appreciate that when I have to play the same scene several times in a row to nail all the QTEs, each time the fight plays out in a completely different manner. If I felt there was a logic to the button presses in these instances, or a way to read the next attack ala Punch Out or Infinity Blade, The Order would be a better game for it. That said, by the end of the game and into my second playthrough for some trophy hunting, I had completely acclimated to most of the QTE types and could preform them on command. By then the game had taught me how to play it properly, I just needed to give it some time.
The Order also incorporates cover shooting and those sections are perfectly serviceable. Nothing earth-shattering, but I fail to see where ‘not outstanding’ = ‘bad’ as some reviewers seem to feel. Sticking to cover feels good, but it’s not a hassle to break away again like in some cover-based games. I appreciate enemy diversity in games, especially when the combat tactics change as a result. Having said that, a broad range of enemies is not a requirement for me. In The Order enemies are either a) humans, b) heavy humans, or c) lycans. It’s been suggested that because the werewolves were featured so heavily in the marketing, is a waste of potential to have so few of them in the game, and I get that. Shooting sequences play out as wave-based shooting galleries. Some variation would have been nice, but since the shooting gameplay is not as much a focus as, it doesn’t grow tiring. The weapon selection is great. The knight’s arsenal, as designed by Nikola Tesla, includes some pretty fun toys with distinct personalities and secondary functions. Even pistols pack enough punch to be viable alternatives. Ammo is plentiful enough for you to be able to resupply and stick with a weapon through the level rather than the old shoot-til-it’s-empty, pickup-enemy’s-crappy-gun, continue-through-level leitmotif. The only drawback is when the needs of the story force weapon changes upon you, as in an early section where you’re limited to pistols and unable to enter cover while you’re using your offhand to hold a lantern. There were no duct taped flashlights in the nineteen century (or this alternate version of it.)
The final gameplay type in The Order – and I realize I’m stretching here by calling it such – is the psuedo-graphic adventure portions of the game, where you’re asked to interact with various objects; sometimes for some light environmental puzzle solving, sometimes just to look at a photograph. I only dub it a full blown gameplay type because there are so many stretches of the game where that is all that you do – walk from point A to point B with no other task than to pick up any and all objects you can interact with. For a game whose presentation is so filmic, constantly cutting between virtual cameras to follow action, or cutting to a flashback, it is odd when these walking sections crop up and the game makes you experience every step of the journey to your next mission objective. At the same time, these objects are only found in their own sections of the game. I’ve never had to clear a room during a combat sequence and make sure to grab an object tucked away in a corner before continuing on; as I’ve had with the intel in every Call of Duty game.
While object interaction is a valid hook to base a game design around, when Myst used it, there was generally some greater purpose to you playing with anything that wasn’t nailed down. Therein lies the problem with The Order’s implementation of it. The cynic would say that these interactive objects are only in The Order because the designers want you to see all the pretty things they could model with their lighting effects and dirt mapping sorcery. There may be some truth to that. There is a limited purpose to it, in that interacting with all objects of each type will net you some trophies. The newspaper articles and wax cylinders provide some tangential glimpses into the world building that has been established, but by and large you could miss them all and not lose much of the experience. Direct references to the game world are mostly retrospective; a newspaper article reminding you that you just crashed an airship in the last mission, for example. It would have been great for The Order to utilize these collectible objects to advance their story objectives. Use the newspapers and wax cylinders for concrete backstory like in the Metroid Prime or Bioshock games rather than to sate my fix for a random nursery rhyme in the middle of a mission. Perhaps the random objects the game desperately wants you to rotate and look at from all angles could reveal clues hidden on the bottom, or puzzles to solve like something out of the Myst series or The Room. These clues might provide insight into the underlying mystery of the game, allowing you the player to put together what the baddies are up to before you the character realizes it in the due course of the story. Oh well. Maybe in the sequel.
Because there will be a sequel. Oh yes. As a new IP for Sony on a console that many still say doesn’t have many first party exclusives (no offense to Infamous, Killzone, Knack and LBP 3), I’m sure work has already begun on The Order: 1887, or whatever it will be. Like I said, I don’t think The Order is a bad game. The think developer Ready at Dawn accomplished what they set out to do. They intended to make a game whose differentiating factor in a crowded games market was a commitment to being as cinematic as possible. This led to them making various development choices – QTEs, varied gameplay, letterboxing, etc – to support that goal and it was met with mixed reactions. The next time around they’ll have the opportunity to consider consumer feedback, incorporate what they can and see if they can make the definitive cinematic experience they want to provide while also giving the gamers the cinematic game they want to play as well.