With top-shelf console releases these days – and by “top-shelf” I mean “full-price” – there’s an expectation from buyers that the game must hit on all cylinders. For popular genres like RPGs and action/adventure shooters, the game has to have state-of-the-art graphics and gameplay – along with impeccable atmosphere and production design, an engaging story, superior sound and voice acting, and strong replay value.
Because such games are issued with a list price of $60 and up, the expectation is valid in theory, but rather unrealistic in practice. Usually, you have to pick your battles, as it were, and select games that put their resources into the elements that you find most rewarding as a player.
An excellent case in point, “The Order: 1886” ($59.99; rated M) is the sort of game that will be savored by a certain variety of player, while it will leave others wondering what all the fuss is about.
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Full disclosure: This is my kind of game. “The Order” is a single-player, third-person shooter that puts heavy emphasis on cinematic storytelling techniques and a busy speculative fiction plot. The Victorian-era London setting borrows from a dozen genre traditions – horror to alternate history, steampunk to Arthurian legend.
The set-up (minor spoilers ahead): Players assume the role of Grayson, aka Galahad, a mysterious enforcer in 1886 London tasked with protecting humanity from savage “half-breeds” – lycanthropic baddies with superhuman strength and speed. If that name sounds familiar, early disclosures confirm that Galahad is a veteran warrior indeed. His service record goes back to the Knights of the Round Table.
As the story unfolds, we are introduced to the detailed and stylish world of “The Order.” Zeppelins and dirigibles fly over the grimy cobblestone streets, and the dank London underground festers with Gothic horrors. Ancient conspiracies are unveiled, and you get to shoot rampaging lunatics with bizarro steampunk energy weapons. What’s not to like?
Oh, and watch for some subplot material concerning Jack the Ripper. And Nikola Tesla.
All of the above is rendered in impressive detail as the designers take advantage of the PS4’s hardware capabilities. Cutscenes abound, with detailed facial renderings and cinematic letterbox framing. Music and voice acting are terrific, too.
Then there are the trade-offs. “The Order” is an extremely linear game in which your agency as the player is limited to the cover-based shooter sequences – turkey shoots, essentially, albeit ones in which the turkeys are aberrations and bedlamites. Later in the game, you get some interesting new weapons that riff on alternate-history 19th-century technology.
Combat sequences are interrupted regularly with quick-time events that require the mashing of certain buttons when prompted. The rest of the time you’re walking to the next encounter, watching another cutscene, or picking up and examining objects that fill in the back story and milieu.
The pace will likely be tiresome for players who value the frantic tactical excitement of a pure shooter, or the open-world expansiveness of heavy-duty RPG and adventure titles. But it’s really not a problem for those of us who like basking in immersive and imaginative virtual worlds. I like hanging around in baroque Victorian chambers and steampunk laboratories, parlaying with mysterious women and mad scientists. I should have gone to Duke, probably.
The replay value issue is a genuine concern, though. There are no multiplayer options in “The Order,” and the story will take 10 hours or so to meander through at leisurely pace. “The Order” sets itself up for a sequel, and offers an engaging enough world to warrant one. Hopefully, the design team will invest in a little more substance to go with all this impressive style.
“The Order: 1886” is available on PlayStation 4.
New this week: Battle beasties and pathogens in the action RPG “Bloodborne” or relive post-apocalyptic glories with the next-gen console compilation port “Borderlands: The Handsome Collection.”