At the beginning of Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s character tells this joke: “Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know; and such small portions.’” Well, that’s essentially how I feel about The Order 1886, a new action game for the PlayStation 4…just in reverse.
Set in an alternate history version of Victorian-era London, The Order 1886 is a third-person shooter in which you’re a special ops cop at a time when the city is suffering an armed rebellion, the murder spree of Jack The Ripper, and a plague of lycanthropy. Though, if I may be so cliché, there’s more going on than meets the eye.
At its core, The Order 1886 is deeply flawed. Its cover mechanics, for instance, are rather dated, like the good people at Ready At Dawn played the first Uncharted and Gears Of War games, but not the more advanced second or third installments of either. You can’t run and automatically go into cover, you can’t vault over cover and kick someone on the other side in the face, and you can’t use an enemy as a human shield.
This dated approach doesn’t just apply to when you’re ducking for cover, though. In one part, you have to shoot bad guys while dragging a friend to safety. But unlike similar moments in other games, you don’t control the dragging, only the shooting.
The Order 1886 also apparently picked up some bad habits from other games. Not only do you have to manually grab ammo off the ground like you annoyingly have to do in the Uncharted games, and contend with button-prompting boss battles that are far more tedious than the ones in the God Of War games, but you use the D-pad to switch to grenades instead of just being able to quickly toss them between shots, which was an issue in the first three Gears Of War games they thankfully corrected in the fourth, Gears Of War: Judgment. It even cribs the awkward, hit-the-button-at-just-the-right-time fist fighting mechanic from Beyond: Two Souls.
Even its attempts to be unique fall flat. In The Order 1886, you can drink Blacksight to slow down time. But while this should give you a tactical advantage in a gunfight, the effect only lasts a second, recharges way too quickly, and, most annoyingly, if you engage it while in cover, you don’t go back to being in cover when it wears off, you’re instead left standing around where anyone can shoot you.
The Order 1886 also has a problem so common these days that I now just cut and paste this paragraph into almost every game review I do (seriously, go check): some of the type is too small. Unless you sit really, really close to your TV — y’know, like your mama told you not to — you’ll have a hard time reading the button prompts (which is especially annoying when you’re learning a new skill) or the captions (which is especially annoying when they start speaking French).
Then there’s the length, or lack there of as the case may be. Even if you look in every nook and cranny for the occasional collectible, The Order 1886 is only a few hours long, and took me only five or six hours to complete. In fact, after starting with a full battery, I made it all the way to chapter eleven of sixteen before I had to recharge my controller (and that’s with frequent breaks to takes notes for this review, check my email, and heed the call of nature). Which, unto itself, wouldn’t be as much of a bother were the game good enough to warrant a second playthrough, or a third — especially since this doesn’t have any multiplayer modes — but as you’ve probably already surmised, it was hard enough getting through this once.
But the real issue with the length of The Order 1886 isn’t just the lack of it, but how so little of it is spent actually doing something. With many of the action scenes bookended by lengthy cutscenes (which you can pause but not skip), you spend half the game watching instead of playing. Story is never a bad thing in games, and many need more of it, but here, the storytelling totally overwhelms the gameplay. Granted some cutscenes are interactive, and some of those interactions are rather effective, but just as many feel like busy work.
As problematic as The Order 1886 may be, though, it does have some good ideas at work. Though, sadly, many of the pros come with some cons.
For starters, The Order 1886 has times when you’ll climb, shimmy across a ledge, and do a little jumping. Though this mechanic doesn’t vary much, isn’t all that elaborate or used to challenge you, and never does anything interesting like have you shoot someone while you’re hanging precariously off a ledge.
Similarly, while you have access to some interesting weapons — such as the Thermite Rifle, which shoots both a flammable cloud as well as a flare to ignite it — your arsenal is largely predictable: shotguns, sniper rifles, and so on.
That said, all of your weapons are rather effective (and yes, this includes the pistols), which is good because when you do get into a shootout in The Order 1886, you’ll find them to be as frantic and thrilling as in any top notch shooter. Which just makes that much more annoying that these moments are few and far between.
Things also get interesting when your enemy is a werewolf. Not only can’t you hide behind cover, but you also have to do an execution move after you wound them to make sure they don’t get up. Though, of course, you don’t fight them nearly enough.
Visually, The Order 1886 is stunning, and moves from cutscenes to action and back again seamlessly. Too bad the same can’t be said for the audio, which doesn’t really take advantage of your stereo’s surround sound capabilities.
The Order 1886 also gets points for its unique setting. While some have called it steampunk, it’s more accurately described as proto-steampunk, as it actually recalls the writing of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne that inspired the steampunk movement. In addition, its depiction of werewolves and overall Gothic vibe are reminiscent of the monster movies Universal Studios made in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, as well as the ones Hammer Studios made in the mid- to late-’50s.
But this ultimately just highlights the biggest problem with The Order 1886: it squanders these good ideas. While its setting and set-up are both unique, and its firefights are exciting, it wastes both by burying them in too much story, and by utilizing dated mechanics. Which puts The Order 1886 alongside such other good idea/poor execution games as Turning Point: Fall Of Liberty, Metro: 2033 (the botched original version, not the much improved Redux one), Darkest Of Days, and Homefront. And that’s a club no game should be a member of.