‘The Order 1886' Review: The Best-Looking Console Game Ever. And Yet...

'The Order 1866' is out on PS4 from 20 February.

Victorian knights should not shout “FRAG OUT!” when throwing grenades.

In most video games this wouldn’t be too much of a problem. It would be annoying, boring and moronic, but you’d probably not even notice.

For ‘The Order: 1886’, it is a problem. Because if you’re going to make a video game like ‘The Order’, which is explicitly made to look, feel and resonate like cinema, it better be damn fine cinema.

And... it’s not.

The problem is not that games cannot tell stories. That argument was settled long ago. The problem is that making a game that is fun and clever while also explicitly attempting to look and feel like a film is really, really difficult.

Most recently ‘The Last of Us’ proved that it was possible, but also showed that there is no straightforward formula for repeating the trick. It’s not a case of just mixing together a decent story, well-directed cut-scenes, plausible characters and a rich setting - all of which ‘The Order: 1886’ has. And it doesn’t mean layering-on ‘depth’ in the form of optional-reading diary entries (which it also has). It’s about character and story. It’s about combining elements and taking chances; it’s about consistency and pace. Ultimately it’s about art.

The fatal flaw with ‘The Order: 1886’ is that it’s almost entirely a decent, if straightforward game. It just isn’t honestly a work of great art.

Graphically, at least, ’The Order’ is an incredible achievement. In fact, it is probably the best-looking non-basketball console game ever made. There are some oddities - like no mirror reflections, which you’ll only notice, or mistake as a plot-point, because there are two mirrors in pretty much the first 60 seconds of the game, and black bars above and below the action. But its ability to switch from cutscene to gameplay, with no loading screen, and have them appear as identically rich and believable as each other is remarkable. And in terms of core mechanics - mainly stealth killing, gunfighting and quick-time events - it’s completely solid and enjoyable if pretty straightforward and, in the case of the latter, a bit lazy.
'The Order' is also compelling-enough, as games go. Set in a version of Victorian London, twisted by both Arthurian legend and the ahistorical presence of Nikola Tesla and his apparently god-like command of electrical power and weaponry, you’ll travel between the slums of Whitechapel-ish and Westminster Palace-ish, via steampunk airships and Blackwall Docks.

As Galahad, a centuries-old, almost-immortal defender of justice, you’ll face werewolves and other evil whatnot in a fight to uncover a conspiracy at the heart of Her Majesty’s round table. It’s dark, silly and fun.

And yes, it plays like an interactive movie. There is little exploration, there are no side-missions or quests, and you’ll have very little agency in almost anything you do. You fight a battle, there is a cut-scene, then a corridor, and another battle. There is one story, and the game will tell it to you. It took me about eight hours to get through. It might take you less. Some players will hate this, others will love it. For myself, I enjoyed knowing I got everything out of a game without having to pour hundreds of afternoons into grinding out new stats and equipment. I came out of it in a daze, but satisfied and impressed. It’s expensive compared to some games, but not compared to any other form of entertainment.

Except… there’s that niggling issue I mentioned earlier: is this great art - even great cinema - or not?

Some will probably dismiss this as pretension. Or point out that for obvious reasons it can't quite be cinema - it's much longer, played more or less in real time, and so on. But to me it's a valid, perhaps critical part of how to appraise this game precisely because there is no excuse for ‘The Order’ not to be a work of art. In taking control over every story beat, camera angle and line of dialogue, and wrapping it all in genuine technical excellence, the game has no excuse for not leading you by the hand through a story and experience equivalent to at least a decent movie, and ideally a great and memorable one.

And it doesn’t. There is way too much indiscriminate killing of lower-class Cockneys for the constant talk about “honour” to make any sense, for one. And this alternate London is not well drawn, it’s only hinted at in tiny glimpses and shades. But it's as a grand arc that it really falls over. The pacing is odd and elusive. The characters lack heart and frailty. The story is intriguing at first, then a bit unbelievable, then nonsensical and - taking The Avengers as its cue rather than The Godfather - concludes at best half-told. It's just good enough. And that's not good enough.

‘The Order’ is still more or less essential playing for PS4 owners, just because it might be the first game to show what’s truly possible with the console. It’s also nothing less than a very entertaining, very exciting mixture of action and stealth gaming, which intoxicated me for the best part of a solid day.

But is it a game I will play again and again, for years to come? Will it stand in memory alongside the very best novels, films and podcasts as a landmark work of fiction? Does it, in the end, achieve what it sets out to achieve - which again, for a game of this style, is explicitly to be a cinematic-style narrative worthy of all this technical effort?

For me, the answer was no. Which is a shame. But then, that’s art for you.