If you have heard anything about The Order: 1886 it is probably that the game is short. A person willing to stare dry-eyed at the screen and mechanically mow down the dozens of enemies thrown at em can apparently finish in five hours or so. With rather frequent breaks for food, playing with a cat, and occasional snark-tweets, I managed the feat in about eight. This is not important data in my view; it didn’t take me that much longer to blow through Wolfenstein: The New Order and several other games I have loved. Admittedly, I’m in the lucky position of being able to spend $60 without much regret on a game I don’t value. It actually rather pleased me that The Order was so short, because it did so little with the time it had.
The part of The Order that will be broadly identified as “gameplay” is a pedestrian cover shooter with a familiar array of weapon options. This motif already sets the game up for some trouble, because the knight-heroes of the game are generally on the offensive and cover shooting broadly tends to tilt the other way. This creates a tension similar to what Mitch Krpata felt when playing Gears of War 2, where the character of the action seems at odds with the narrative surrounding it. In most of its segments The Order exacerbates this problem with the structure of the encounters. In most cases firefights take place in a set arena, with the knights coming in from one side and the enemies dripping in from the other. Most arenas have no way to flank, and many have no way to be flanked, so the structure encourages hunkering down except in the rare case of running out of ammo. To diminish the possibility of this outcome, the entry points are helpfully strewn with extra weapons.
Galahad’s frailty also pushes the player to hold position rather than advance. Enemies seem to have great accuracy and Galahad can quickly be picked apart from a distance. Worse, enemies equipped with shotguns can generally two-hit kill him, with each hit producing a powerful stun. In most encounters an ocean of ordinary mooks is punctuated by one or two of these shotgunners, who must be frantically shot before they knock Galahad out of cover or nail him outright. To encounter one of these while attempting to advance is invariably fatal, all the more reason to crouch behind the nearest bit of chest-high cover.
I enjoyed the game most when it broke out of this pattern. In the high point of the game, a rolling battle at the United India Company docks encourages forward motion and flanking, at least in a macro sense, in a way that makes it feel like an assault even though many of the individual encounters are characteristically defensive. Unfortunately, after this bit the encounter design really falls apart, and eventually the game just throws up its hands and tosses Galahad into a big room with a bunch of enemies and calls it a day.
Narratively the game is an even larger disappointment. This is something of a surprise, as it is a story about nigh-immortal knights fighting werewolves and vampires in a steampunk alternate history Victorian London. Unfortunately, all that stuff I just mentioned gets only the slightest exploration. The mythical monsters show up only to be unceremoniously lit on fire, shot at as they charge straight towards Galahad, or occasionally fought in QTE-heavy boss battles. Their attitudes about their nature, the characteristics of their secret society, and their reasons for occasionally just showing up fully transformed are never examined. London is full of zeppelins and steampunky devices, and automatic weapons have shown up a few decades early, seemingly without any transformative effect on society.
The game plays coy on any major changes to history that may have resulted from the empire having access to a force of nearly immortal soldiers. For instance, the existence of the United India Company and a few other bits of information suggest that America is still a colony, but certain things Lafayette says indicate that both the American and French revolutions occurred and succeeded. Lafayette’s presence in the game’s timeline is itself a mystery, given that he only receives his immortality juice halfway through the story.
The psyche of the knights, too, is largely unexplored. It seems that the Blackwater they drink from the grail comes with some cost, but this is only alluded to in the vaguest terms. By the accidents of the story’s fairly pedestrian twists it transpires that Galahad spends most of the game killing fundamentally good and decent people (he kicks things off by killing a bunch of escaped mental patients), but if this disturbs him he offers no sign of it. While this spares us the irritation of playing another charming mass-murdering sociopath a la Nathan Drake it does give the impression we’re playing a genuinely, irredeemably horrible person. The Order also lacks even the modest amount of active characterization that Uncharted puts into its non-combat moments. Drake’s constant quest for glinting treasures and his complaints while climbing are thin gruel, but they at least give him dimensions beyond Angry Murder Man, which Galahad doesn’t really receive.
The violence itself isn’t even used as the focus for anything. There’s certainly a lot of it, and plenty of material for metaphor in the Victorian era’s brutal imperialism, racism, and classism, but The Order doesn’t seem interested in doing any of that work. While the game is happy to use color and texture to contrast the sumptuousness of upper-class life with the grinding poverty of Whitechapel, it never draws the line that connects the knights’ full guns to Whitechapel’s empty pockets.
The violence doesn’t even seem to accomplish anything in terms of the narrative. The game’s story is serviceable, as far as it goes, but as happened with every other aspect of this game, the plot happily introduces elements it has no intention of resolving or even really examining. It ends with a major boss battle against an underling, leaving nearly every storyline of significance to either Galahad or the world at large hanging, to say nothing of minor mysteries like the unknown man who appears with Perceval and Nikola. That the game is obviously setting up a sequel is somewhat annoying; that it does so by failing to reach any satisfying conclusion of its own story is worse.
I’m not sure that making the game longer would be any remedy. I wouldn’t say The Order overstays its welcome in its short duration, but it never gives the impression that it’s going anywhere. The Order never seems all that interested in its own world, plot, or gameplay. It’s content to introduce ideas and play around with them a little bit, but never really gets after the core ideas or lets them connect with each other. The Order is beautiful and well-acted, and its construction is technically proficient, but these achievements seem to have been the developer’s only ambitions. Another five hours of hunkered-down arena fights and beardy men yelling at one another won’t fix that.