First, before you ask: it took me about 7 hours. Secondly, I really wanted to like The Order. I love alt-history stuff and it's a beautiful-looking thing. But whilst it's mildly enjoyable, it's also a thin and insubstantial experience full of constricted and limiting mechanics.
It's best to think of The Order as a film that you play. The shooting and walking is all yours to do with as you want (as long as its just shooting and walking). The rest involves varying levels of stilted interactions to progress the action and camera work, moving things by pushing forward on the pad, say, or fighting in an almost Dragon's Lair-esque melee mechanic, where you tell the game what you want to happen next from a tightly restrained set of options, rather than fully controlling the character.
The main issue that comes across throughout is that The Order doesn't seem to trust you to play it right. The defined and compartmentalised mechanics leave little room for you to add any of your own personality to the game. It's one thing to have a linear and finite story, but here The Order seems to have applied a similar straitjacket to the gameplay. What you can do and when you can do it is largely so hemmed in as to almost be on rails. Even a linear game like COD lets you create little emergent micro-stories as you dodge bullets or deal with troublesome enemies. It might be a corridor shooter but it still has the opportunities to create mini-stories around a tough battle or a fluky chance shot.
Not so much here. The gunplay isn't terrible but it lacks bite - you stand on one side of the room, the enemies on the other, and you have at it until one of you is done. I was never really aware of any, say, rapport with the opposition. They hid behind their conveniently placed things, and I mine, and we shot at each other. The cover system is also very gluey, almost as if everything's designed so centrally around the idea of using it that the game can't handle the concept of you not wanting to stick to the wall.
As a result I can't say I really experienced anything in The Order that I felt like I really influenced myself. Even the shooting sections, the most open part of the game, felt as if they were still being directed by Ready At Dawn and I was simply enabling it all. You can run between cover and choose whom to shoot, but seeing as nearly all these combat sections involve an area flooding with moving targets, there's rarely any undulation or variance. The last shoot-outs at the end are largely identical to the first. Outfits and motivations might change but otherwise the only noticeable textural shifts are the occasional appearances of 'Shotgun Specialists' (read: steadily advancing tank characters) and snipers.
Even though these sections are the most open, there are still issues. Things like avoiding grenades. It's another process that isn't really yours to control, triggered instead by a contextual 'X' that appears on screen when you're at danger. Tap it and you'll perform a scripted evasion roll you that have no say in. Chances are it'll take you out of cover and actually put you in danger. Stealth is a similar deal. For the few levels that use it, you just appear in stealth mode, hunched over and ready to sneak. There's no button, that's just what you do for that level. It's an odd experience to have such fundamentally basic actions not directly under your control in a genre where player-controlled movement is usually a given.
You can't even hide bodies, making each individual stealth encounter an enclosed and separate event. One level has you murdering a garden full of guards in search of a key. It's actually impressive from a design point of view that they managed to lay out all the patrol routes so no one would find a body. More bizarrely, it also involved a sniping crossbow - and Sir Galahad would gruffly claim "No key" instantly upon scoring a hit, even when killing from quite some distance.
The guns do add character. The arc cannon stands out as beautiful to use, if impractical - its flickering, searching tongue of lightning is one of the best things I've ever seen happen when I've pulled a trigger, but its usefulness is limited by the need to charge each shot. Then there's an incendiary shotgun, with the sort of flesh-rending blast that could give gentler dispositions nightmares. The rest are mostly chunky dangerous things to wield, if familiar. It's a shame you're limited to one handgun and one large weapon, because it means often ditching the more interesting choices in favour of the practical stuff.
Despite all these limitations, playing is still mildly enjoyable. As a whole the story, cut scenes and action create an entertaining time - I lost myself in a fight here and there, or watched on as angry people thumped desks or conspiratorially whispered. Its outstanding feature though is that it is a spectacularly pretty game. There's wonder everywhere and at any scale, from large spaces to the tiniest props. Ready At Dawn made a lot of noise early on about modelling materials and that effort is clear. Metals, glass, wood - whatever it's made of, it's crafted with such finesse that 'looking at things' is one of my favourite things to do in The Order. The environments are practically decadent: dripping with detail and depth, all rendered with lustre and detail that will make the average environmental artist weep.
Into this beautiful world, then, tumbles a perfectly functional potboiler of a plot. Knights wander, chasing down halfbreed werewolves and anti monarchist rebels. Moment to moment it all ticks along but can fall apart if you try to think about it too much. Things lead on coherently at the time but when you try to gather the whole thing up in your mind, it becomes unclear. I can tell you what happened in much the same way I can describe a cloud of smoke. There's also a stinker of twist halfway through. It's not a plot wrecking surprise, more something that seems like an act of wilful deceit.
The latter half of the plot does get more interesting as momentum builds, mainly thanks to a few new characters and arcs. But just as that all starts to draw you in, it stops. It doesn't really end in the traditional sense. It just sort of ceases to happen. There are loose ends, prominent people that just sort of disappear and the ending proper is muddy and unsatisfying. I didn't feel as if I'd won or lost, I felt like I'd run out of game.
It doesn't really end in the traditional sense. It just sort of ceases to happen.
The tatty plotting and lack of resolution makes it feel as if several elements of the game were rushed. There's a new gun, for example, that pops up near the end and has no real purpose. It has a clear function that is never really exploited, making me wonder the level it was meant for was cut. The final boss battle, the climatic peak, is also an identical mechanic from earlier in the game. I genuinely didn't know I'd finished The Order until it faded to black. I thought things were just starting to get interesting (the plot really revs up in final act) - and then, bam, credits.
The fact that Sony showed off so little of The Order always worried me, and playing it has left me wondering if it had a troubled life. The mechanics it has are well executed and polished to within in an inch of their life, but they're identical every time you do them. There's no growth or development. It's as if the studio locked down a selection of things that worked and then built the game the best it could from them, repeating and assembling the building blocks to fill the time. There are odd inconsistencies, such as an obtrusive battle chatter system where characters occasionally scream enemy types and locations. Given the lack of both it's an odd feature.
Whilst it has its moments - great looks, enjoyable guns and a really interesting world (honestly, I'm such a sucker for alt-history stuff) - The Order is somehow always somehow less than the sum of its parts. The story and ideas have so much potential. The game teases a level of cinematic action that could have had Naughty Dog looking over its shoulder - but it never delivers.