The first recorded mention of steampunk was by K.W. Jeter in the April 1987 letters column of Locus magazine. Jeter used the conjunction “steam-punks” to describe himself and other writers who were creating Victorian fantasies. He enclosed his book, “Morlock Night” to prove his early commitment to what he felt might be “the next big thing” in fantasy. By way of appreciation, he was acknowledged with a genial editorial response that included a thumbnail description of his book. It called Jeter’s 1979 novel a mélange of “H.G. Wells, Arthurian fantasy, and Victoriana.” This summary could cover “The Order: 1886” just as well.
Set at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders in the Whitechapel district of London, the game follows Sir Galahad, a member of Her Majesty’s Royal Knights otherwise known as The Order. (The Ripper murders actually occurred during 1888, though, not the 1886 of the game’s title.) Aided by a life-extending elixir capable of healing grievous wounds, The Order – founded by King Arthur, naturally – are charged with hunting down villainous, shapeshifting creatures called “half-breeds.”
The game opens with a cutscene involving waterboarding that sits uneasily in the mind considering the recent past. When you first take control of Galahad, it’s with the performance of a QTE. (During a “quick-time event,” the player taps a button sequence into the controller after it’s flashed onscreen.) There are a number of these throughout the game. Though some people balk at such Simon Says-like gameplay, it didn’t bother me until the very end when it’s used to deliver a groan-worthy finale. Beginning and ending with a QTE need not in itself be enough to sink a game but “The Order’s” questionable allotment of cutscenes to gameplay does it no favors, nor does its overall plotline that sees Galahad pushed from an insider to an outsider.
Although the storyline invokes weighty subjects like colonialization and socioeconomic inequality, it fails to address these topics in any substantive way. Ditto the game’s dialogue, which contains flourishes of eloquence that founder because, as pleasing as the words are to the ear, the actions they affect have no bite. The silvery-voiced, fetchingly mo-caped actors who lend their talents to the game can only do so much to enliven the narrative’s treadmill pace. Thus, when the inevitable betrayal occurs, it does so with awkward punctuality.
It matters that “The Order: 1886” can’t marshal its plot points into an interesting whole since one spends so much of the game watching the story unfold during cutscenes. So many are the cutscenes that there were times when I felt privileged to be playing the game. (And this is from a person who likes cutscenes!)
“The Order’s” interactive segments are mostly divided between shootouts and calmer moments of simple exploration. Anyone who is used to third-person-cover-based shooters in the vein of “Gears of War” should have little trouble knocking off the game’s humble cast of adversaries. It’s a shame that “The Order” doesn’t provide more in the way of its off-kilter “science weapons,” like the thermite rifle, which doles out a cloud of flammable gas as well as a separate charge to ignite it. An added selection of interesting weapons might have distracted one from the game’s flatfooted A.I. (I once saw a fellow knight staring at a wall while I was being shot at.)
In truth, none of the action sequences provide any water-cooler anecdotes, not in the way the game’s exploratory sections do. It would be hard to oversell the beauty of the game’s graphics and art direction, which hit a new mark in console gaming. “The Order” is at its best when it leaves you to walk around its small resplendent environments. The garments and fabrics depicted in it are more interesting than any of the enemies.
“The Order’s” use of volumetric lighting is startling. So subtle are the game’s reflections and lighting effects, they made me think of Renaissance paintings like the Arnolfini Portrait by Jean Van Eyck. The real star of “The Order” is the camera mapped to the right thumbstick that allows you to sweep around what’s usually a narrow panorama and ingest the sights.
It is an unfortunate irony that a game offering a glimpse into the future of video game graphics should be so hamstrung by its limited, conventional gameplay. This is one anachronism too many — even for a steampunk game.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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