“The Order: 1886” wants to be a popcorn flick as badly as it does a video game.
It’s a hybrid of interactive and cinematic techniques, putting forth the thesis that someday the two media will be intertwined. The game tells old tales — the Knights of the Round Table and werewolf-like creatures make appearances — and it does so with new twists, such as transporting the medieval and the supernatural to a technologically advanced Jack the Ripper-era London.
But let’s back up.
Within “The Order” is a gun. This gun is special. It fires a round of bullets that leave clouds of smoke, clouds that could be ignited into gloriously bright flames. “The Order” is a lot like this gun. It takes its aim — ambitiously so — and then blows it up.
Often, this story of class warfare and the knights who must battle a secret war against werewolves is a fast-moving affair. Its great achievement is that it makes an intimidating video game genre — shooters — accessible to everyone.
The game, developed by Irvine studio Ready at Dawn and exclusive to Sony’s PlayStation 4, tells a relatively linear story. This gives players clear ideas about what they should be doing and when. Better, a Steampunk-enhanced Victorian London is a fun world to toy around in, and the protagonist, Sir Galahad, is a clichéd but cool leading man in a classic Hollywood mold. It’s James Bond meets the Arthurian legend, that is if the latter was initially set in Britannia under a full moon.
The game opens with London in disarray. Whitechapel has become the breeding ground for a revolution; only now there’s a serial killer and monsters on the loose. The city is a mess, and Galahad would prefer to retire with his bolder better half, Lady Igraine (a shame, in fact, that she isn’t the main character).
But riding off into the sunset isn’t an option, as Galahad is sworn to the lineage of the Knights of the Round Table and cursed with everlasting life thanks to the discovery of the Holy Grail. He also senses early that something is rotten in Whitechapel, something his bosses would prefer he leave alone.
This is where “The Order” becomes exciting. Galahad gets the sense that the rebels — London’s lower class, essentially — may be working in tandem with the folkloric creatures the knights are dedicated to fighting. It sets up a richly political tale that wants to serve as a parable for our modern, economically polarized times. Here, a centuries-old war of man versus creature has unwittingly created a military industrial complex that’s resulted in an unsustainable caste system. Technology is the privilege that has created a class divide.
The political intrigue thickens when “The Order” introduces the villainess to British command, an Indian queen, Lakshmi, who wants to tear down the United Indian Co. and free her native land from British rule. Only now “The Order” is juggling colonialism and the supernatural, as well as Jack the Ripper and a class rebellion. Oh, and then there’s the occasional gunfight.
Ultimately, “The Order” suffers from taking on too much and then not knowing what do with it all, dissolving from a seemingly complex political story to one built around personal revenge.
The plot has too many twists, and too many characters in the fourth act eventually muddle its populist message. From a pure game standpoint, there are a few too many times in which the player is forced to do little more than press buttons on command. The result is that this risk-taking game becomes more familiar as its 10-or-so-hour story evolves.
The game also starts to take shortcuts to get the action, as dialogue becomes one-liners and “The Order” struggles to justify how shootouts become massacres. An ensemble game at the start, “The Order” zeroes in on Galahad, who was calm, measured and slightly jaded until bitten by revenge when the chaos in Whitechapel hit too close to home. He proceeds to kill hundreds of likely innocents, often without a good reason.
The game re-rights itself when a relationship between him and Lakshmi develops. In fact, this is where “The Order” is strongest, as it sets up a second half full of socially conscious nuance as two sworn enemies learn to trust one another. The shooting stops (a little), and the two explore a London still under construction.
Except one by one “The Order” lets its plot points drop. The rebellion becomes a footnote, the Jack the Ripper killings come to an anti-climatic conclusion, and the once-tantalizing idea of a British civil war between the politically vested Knights of the Round Table and a working class aided by werewolves is never explored. It’s ultimately good versus evil, even if the good are just a handful of people.
Still, after finishing “The Order,” I can’t help but feel it’s an important game. Though it doesn’t see its way through to a conclusion, the questions it raises about wealth and poverty (werewolves are bad, I think, is the conclusion), few games attempt to juggle as many characters as “The Order” does. Early moments are especially appealing, as cameras glide from character to character and battles shift from player-controlled to computer-controlled without much, if any, notice.
These are the kinds of cinema-ready scenes that make “The Order” more likable than not. It’s not just that it looks great; it feels movie-smooth and lays out the mat for nonplayers. Games too often overwhelm, layering mission upon mission until it’s an overstuffed 80-hour journey, one complete with an overwhelming array of weaponry and character traits.
“The Order” deviates from this path by having a singular, forward momentum, resulting in a game that feels directed by one rather than crafted by an army of technicians. It’s relatively breezy, and at 10 hours it’s like investing in a $60 boxed set for a the first season of a television series.
I like that it’s a game that believes story and character are the future — it just doesn’t believe in it enough.
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