One of the PlayStation 4's two big exclusives in the first quarter of 2015, beside the upcoming Dark Souls successor Bloodborne, The Order: 1886 needs to comprise a cornerstone release for the system, bringing newcomers to Sony's core console and rewarding earlier adopters who've hardly been treated to platform-specific essentials so far.
Exactly how it fares with reviewers remains to be seen: an embargo restricts that kind of coverage from running until the 19th of February, the day before the game's release. Adopting cinematic convention, where movies with no press screenings are usually best left unseen, this could imply that The Order: 1886 is going to blow – and holding reviews back until the last minute prevents a rush of pre-order cancellations. Its chances aren't helped, either, by lukewarm preview coverage in the gaming press.
'The Order 1886', Conspiracy Trailer
Praise has come the way of developer, Californian studio Ready at Dawn, for the game's visuals. Its television advertising features quotes claiming it's the best-looking console game in history, and there's plenty of in-game support for the standpoint. I've played it from start to finish, and it consistently impresses with its attention to detail, the time and effort put into each and every environmental asset, not to mention the key characters and their array of weaponry.
But The Order: 1886 is a third-person shooter with fairly frequent quick-time-event (QTE) sequences and plenty of waist-high cover, a gameplay formula that can feel incredibly tired unless matched to more compelling elements of the experience – like, why am I shooting all these people? Hands-on advance sessions with the game didn't give much away about the story, set in an alternate-timeline Victorian London threatened by werewolf-like "half-breeds" and shaded with steampunk influences, so while the gunplay was adequate and the atmosphere inviting, the stunted narrative provided nothing of substance to chew over.
I can't tell you if the final story does enough to make the routine gameplay worthwhile, because of that embargo (though if this was a movie, Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale would feel at home in leading roles). But I can confirm that Ready at Dawn know they've a divisive end product on their hands.
Ru Weerasuriya, CEO and co-founder of the studio, is creative director on The Order: 1886. We meet in London, exactly a week before those reviews will be published. He's accepted that some critics are going to delight in rounding on his new release.
"You take risks when you begin a game's development," he tells me. "When we started this game, in January of 2011, we had to look four years into the future. Can we tell then if our game is going to be successful? We just don't know. We just have to keep making the games we love. We didn't have an idea of what route the industry was going to take. I know people today are clamouring for very specific things, like connectivity and multiplayer, and that's great – but diversity is the number one thing that we need to make sure we keep alive in this industry."
What The Order: 1886 offers that many a big-budget, "triple-A" contemporary doesn't is a strictly single-player campaign. That's it: there's no alternate modes, no "horde"-style challenges, no multiplayer. As I'm waiting to meet Ru, I overhear someone describe the game as "classically old school".
"Well, that's kind of cool," remarks Ru when I tell him. "Honestly, there's a lot less of that out there, now, but we take a certain pride in knowing that there's still an audience for this kind of game. Those people have been supporting this industry for such a long time, and you do have to do justice to that audience."
While the gameplay is resolutely traditional, which will likely appeal to players and turn them off in even quantities – "We can't be liked by everyone," says Ru; "We would have to make an utterly unplayable game to satisfy everybody, equally" – the look of The Order: 1886 is striking in the extreme. You've never seen hoary, hirsute men rendered with such fantastically realistic facial furniture, enemy muscle so convincingly mangled, and when the game's not suffocating in darkness – much of it is set at night, in lights-out basements and within the bowels of a nascent London Underground – its really a marvel in motion.
Point your character, Grayson (aka Sir Galahad – "the order" of the title is a militarised semi-secret service with Arthurian roots), at the first mirror you find and you'll be disappointed to not see his frame reflected, but that's a rare instance of the game dropping its uncommonly corporeal aesthetic. There are mood-breaking moments, including the discovery of a familiar sackcloth figure (there's crossover DLC available for LittleBigPlanet 3) and lazy, misdated references to a certain Whitechapel serial killer (I get the "alternate timeline" angle, but come on). But while games cannot be "cinematic" there's no doubt that Ru and his team have achieved what so few peers have delivered: truly next-generation graphics that intermittently come incredibly close to imitating film.
"We wanted to blend gaming with the cinema experience, and we have been discussing how great it would be to give people the opportunity to play this game in a massive theatre, perhaps even an IMAX. But we knew it couldn't just be a case of watching and pushing buttons when required. I know people were worried that it'd be all QTEs, but most of the game has nothing to do with those, at all. But the only way to convince people of that is to have them play it."
The Order: 1886 is a more rewarding "interactive drama" than anything David Cage's Quantic Dream has yet produced, cutscenes bleeding into gameplay with near-unprecedented smoothness. But how it's going to go down as a game – which it is, after all – is tough to call.
Ru's ready for some unfavourable write-ups: "Even bad games in the past have spawned many good ideas," he says, as if accepting that while The Order: 1886 does innovate in areas, its more rudimentary qualities will hinder those high scores. Yet he could permit himself a little optimism. I can't go into the game's plus points in detail – again, embargo – but I know that players of a particular persuasion will find several appealing facets to the game's campaign.
I don't really do multiplayer, couldn't give a shit about pre-order bonus guns or deluxe-edition statues, and I love game worlds where the setting's so believable you're halfway towards wiping your screen before realising that's digital dirt. The Order: 1886 ticks a lot of my boxes, then, but it also misses just as many. "The big thing is expectations, as they're always hard to match," says Ru. "We're in a strange industry where people have expectations of a game as soon as they know its name, before you're shown anything."
That's true enough, and many of you reading this will have already made up your mind on The Order: 1886. But Ru's right when he says it has good ideas. It does push its hardware, and it's doing a lot of things right. But some of those things were being done just as well ten years ago and more. Gaming's moved on, leaving one question vital to this title's success: have you?