The Order: 1886 feels like a collection of half-realized ideas that are being presented in one of the most visually pleasing ways possible. It's a technical showpiece, a graphical powerhouse that, in some ways, is almost without equal. It's also a short and disappointingly straightforward cover-based shooter that offers little to no variety in its encounter design, a lackluster story that fails to make good on its initially compelling premise, and a set of jarring Quick Time Event setpieces that aren't especially interesting from a gameplay or a storytelling perspective.
From the second the title screen appears, The Order begins signifying that it's trying to be cinematic in its presentation. The game appears in a letterboxed format, one typically reserved for films. When applied to a video game, the forced borders make your view of the action look small. I felt a little claustrophobic in some spots, because it was difficult to get a bead on the action. Are the borders there for artistic reasons? Or are they there to prevent the developers from having to keep an often-terrific-looking game from running at full resolution? In the end, it doesn't matter. The letterboxing got in my way, made the action a little harder to follow (especially when enemies get up close), and lessened the overall experience. Not to soapbox too much about this, but games are capable of more than films. As games become more and more visually impressive, chasing after the silver screen feels like a weaker and weaker goal.
The Order is set in a fantastical, but somewhat grounded alternate take on Britain in 1886. In this timeline, the order of King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table still holds sway as men and women who have found ways to extend their lifespans to hundreds of years. Or, at least, that's the implication. In this take, the knights of this order are battling the half-breeds--Lycans, to be specific. That's fancy talk for "werewolf," in case you didn't know. To battle this threat, they'll use a lot of standard video game weaponry, like an array of pistols, a few rifles, and some more "science" weapons, like a lightning-launching arc gun or a piece that fires thermite dust at targets only to ignite said dust with a launched flare, burning your targets where they stand.
The fancier ends of the arsenal come courtesy of Nikola Tesla, who rolls with your order. The fancier ends of the arsenal also don't appear too frequently, either, so you're doing most of your dirty work with very standard-feeling weapons. Like a lot of other shooters, most of the pistols in The Order are quite accurate, making it easy to rack up headshots and take out most standard enemies before they even become a threat. Aside from fighting werewolves, which isn't nearly as interesting as it sounds and involves too many on-screen button prompts, the most dangerous enemy in The Order is an armored man with a shotgun. The shotgunners tend to flank you a bit, take more damage than most soldiers, and fire quickly enough to bring you down while you're still trying to get a shot off. It's nice that there's something there to keep you from getting too comfortable behind cover, but it's easy to adapt to once you know what to look for, and, generally speaking, the combat is a little boring.
You'll transition into and out of action in a completely seamless fashion. There's no difference in visual quality between the cutscenes and the part where you're walking around, occasionally shooting at things. There's no on-screen indicator that you're not playing, either, save for obvious touches like a change in the camera angle. There are no load times between these sequences. As such, you might find yourself standing still for a few seconds and have the dumb realization of "oh wait, I'm supposed to play the game now!" The Order also traffics in Quick Time Events, and at this point you've probably already made up your mind on those. They're relatively innocuous here, but they also come up a bit too frequently. Mashing a button to reach for a knife makes sense, and occasionally hitting a random button to keep what would otherwise be a cutscene from ending in your grisly death isn't the worst thing in the world. It just doesn't really add much to the action, either. It doesn't help that the game's two, roughly identical boss encounters are little more than slightly overblown QTEs. Nothing about it is exciting and the best thing I can say about the QTEs is that, should you fail one, the game will very quickly reload to the last checkpoint and let you try it again.
There are also a couple of stealth sequences in The Order, and these are lamely produced, but there's a timing mechanic to the stealth kills that is, at least, somewhat different than the norm. The stealth sequences are forced--there's no option to shoot it out if you get caught, so it's an instant failure and reload to checkpoint when you're discovered. The story backs up the reasoning for that and all, but the way failure is met with a quick angle of your protagonist getting blasted in the face by a guard makes the whole thing feel like it fell out of some strange world where Laser Disc games are still king. It's not difficult enough to make these stealth sequences a sticking point, but it's one of those things you can't help but look at and wonder why this made it into the final game. It feels about as half-baked as the way the game lets you pick up and examine objects, occasionally forcing you to examine them by moving the left stick around and rolling the item around a little bit before it'll let you put the item away and move on with the game. I never once picked up an item that was actually interesting to see from different angles. So I kept asking myself "is this truly the experience the developers were shooting for? And if so... why?"
At least it looks great. The Order features richly detailed environments that really sell just how busted up and broken this alternate take on Victorian London has become. The character models look nicely realistic and aside from a few weird in-game moments where the AI characters got stuck on corners or ran into walls again and again, the animation is positively top-notch. If you are the sort of console owner who needs to see a graphical showpiece, then you should see The Order. The characters and their effective animations are further buoyed by believable dialogue and quality voice performances from the cast. It's certainly one of the better-looking console games on the market.
But looks can only take you so far. The Order: 1886 feels like a bad value proposition. It's not that the short campaign is too short. It took me around six hours to get through it and I felt like I was meandering in spots, looking for collectibles and trying to find alternate paths or anything else that would make this campaign feel more dynamic. Even at that length, the game still finds time to recycle moments (like the aforementioned boss fights) that weren't that great the first time around, let alone the second. The story doesn't hold up its end of the bargain particularly well, either. By the time you get the info dump about what's really going on, you're already halfway through the game. And the whole thing stops at what feels like the ending of a second act. There's a bad guy still out there, but he isn't big and bad enough to hang a cliffhanger on. Instead it just feels like there needed to be another hour or so in there to properly wrap things up. On top of all that, there are no other options when it comes to The Order. It has a campaign that you can play alone. If you like, you can play it again once you're done. You can even select a chapter or checkpoint to replay a specific portion of the game. But there are no other modes or other reasons in place to keep you playing.
There are things here worth checking out, but the action feels half-cocked and you'll be finished with it in an afternoon. I won't pretend to guess at how much $60 means to you, dear reader, but I will say that The Order is a middling experience with a couple of bright flashes that only serve to remind you that this could be a more interesting game if more of its ideas were fully formed. If you're bent on seeing The Order for yourself, you should probably rent it.