When a publisher says increasingly little about a game, it sets off alarm bells. Sony's The Order: 1886 originally arrived with a 'holy shit look at our next genz' trumpet blart and then proceeded to show less at every turn, ending the other week with a trailer about music.
I was worried. It's been playable before, but the amount of millage Sony's been getting out of the same short gameplay segments, the initial reveal trailer and occasional brief extra clips has been testing me. I'm sold on the concept: I love anything with an alternate history set up. I love games set in atypical locations (which a steampunk Victorian London definitely is). I like horror, I like sci-fi, I like monsters and weird Tesla guns - the list goes on. The Order ticks just about every box for me. I'm in, I'm sold. The game just has to work at this point and I'll be happy.
I was relieved to find it does work when I finally played a good half hour chunk. It's not exactly revolutionary: it's a cover shooter. No more or less. It's mechanically sound and with some great, weighty guns but it is basically all about popping up to take shots and looking for another box to hide behind. I'm okay with that. As long as the story's halfway decent and the action well paced, I'll happily chase werewolf things around Victorian London. It has lost a tiny bit of its initial next-gen wow factor though. It still looks great, but now at a level I'm expecting a PS4 game to reach, whereas before it was edging into 'I don't believe that's real' territory. So, on that front at least, the delay has cost it.
The level I played involved infiltrating an airship called the Agamemnon, an immediately interesting set up as the knights of the Order abseiled down its sides, high over London. The inside of the ship was an industrial mess of girders, high tensile cables and canvas. It's a design idea that runs throughout the game: a weird mix of advanced tech with old world materials. It's all brass dials, bobbing mercury meters and glowing filament bulbs. Even with the delay and other games catching up visually, this is still a handsome looking thing. Moving through the cabins and store rooms of the Agamemnon reveals a lot of lovingly built environments and I lost plenty of time exploring or looking at stuff. At one point I wasted a good few minutes marvelling at just how metally a tin cup was.
A lot of the action in among the gas bags was exploratory - hacking doors and locks in search of something (not made clear because of muted cut scenes, either to keep spoilers at bay or just early code). Doors can be picked with the usual vibrating stick twiddle followed by jerk on R2 to pop the lock. There was also a hacking mechanic using a wonderfully archaic wooden box full of mercury barometers, coils and an ornate glass bulb. That involved clicking the sticks to lock the mercury within certain boundaries in order to overload some electronics. It all falls into the functional mini-game territory of Batman or Splinter Cell, and the sort of ideas those titles likes to use when pressing a single button isn't enough.
Much like the hacking mini-games, the combat is also dependable, if predictable. That took place in an impressively lavish ballroom (think of the stairwell in the Titanic movie and you'll get the idea), making up for the lack of progressive mechanics with its good looks. It began using a sniper rifle to quietly locate and tag enemy spies, before erupting into a full shoot out. The guns were the real stars here. From a thudding, slow-firing machine gun that felt like it was hurling ingots rather than bullets, to a shotgun that filled the screen with smoke like the old fashioned gunpowder flashes used by photographers of the period. Squeezing the trigger was rarely a disappointment.
The enemy aren't super challenging, unfortunately. Demonstrating the kind of skittish, cover-to-cover AI that felt unpredictably dangerous rather than challenging. Occasionally enemies appeared practically on top of me, apparently as surprised as I was about it, and without it ever being clear how they got there. I never managed to work out if they were spawning nearby, or running around so erratically that they got behind me and didn't know what to do. It definitely kept me on my toes, but inconsistently so. I'd like a longer combat section to really get a feel for the balance of the gunplay. So far: it's okay, but no more.
There's also a stealth section that was even more hit and miss. There's the feel of a game that was never designed for sneak kills having a sneak kill mechanic worked in - prompts appear, as you close in on guards dutifully following invisible tracks, that lets you messily stab them. It works but I never felt safe doing it. Not because there was a sense of threat, but because I wasn't sure if it was going to work.
Mechanically, The Order feels a bit 7/10: good but not overwhelmingly so. However, you could argue the same for something like Uncharted, a game that makes up the deficit with great characters, spectacular set pieces and a sense of wonder to the proceedings. The spectacle is half the fun, and without a chance to experience more of The Order, it's hard to tell if it has that same magic to buff the action.
There are hints of that potential here, both from the richness of the world and the interesting settings - abseiling down the side of a Victorian airship, for example, as a grim 19th century London passed underneath the clouds, isn't the usual level opener. Later, when the airship had been scuttled, there was a nice section where passengers escaped in Jules Verne-style balloon lifeboats, detached from the ship via a violent mechanical release. If the promise of this setting delivers, and the set pieces wow, then the otherwise serviceable action won't have to worry about carrying the whole game.