The Order: 1886 is beatable in an afternoon. I can confirm that, now that its review embargo has lifted. The new, much-heralded PlayStation 4 exclusive from Californian studio Ready at Dawn will take up five to six hours of your time, assuming you repeat some of its cruel quick time event sequences (don't worry – they play the same every time) or fall under the gunfire of enemy NPCs (there's a shootout in a burning warehouse, fairly late on, that left me floored a couple of times). But if you've played a modern third-person cover shooter before – Gears of War, Uncharted, Binary Domain, Vanquish, Bulletstorm, Army of Two, Spec Ops: The Line, recent Resident Evils – you'll cruise right on through.
Drop-dead gorgeous visually, The Order: 1886 makes the most of its powerful platform in that respect, and its mythology-meets-science story and setting resonate with terrific potential. Its grimy London environments, from blood-smeared hospital wards to filthy Underground tunnels and the cobbles of a dilapidated Whitechapel, bounce from the screen. And it's well acted, too – Steve West brings a Mark Strong-like tone of upturned authority to the lead protagonist, Galahad, and Frederik Hamel has a ball hamming it up as French-American colleague-turned-pursuer the Marquis de Lafayette.
The steampunk-inspired, alternative-timeline Victoriana atmosphere is inviting, indeed – but the whole thing's over long before a number of narrative strands are tidied. It's a pretty ballsy – or, more accurately, entirely naïve – move given there's no certainty of a sequel, and it's greatly disappointing that Ready at Dawn didn't do more to make The Order entirely self-contained. A memorable story would have served it well, as its gameplay is certainly nothing to slap a seal of approval on. Shoot, duck, reload, repeat – save for the brief stealth sections with fairly poorly implemented cover, and a single instance of touchpad deployment, where a Morse code message is sent to a patrolling airship via a series of holds and pokes.
To me, it doesn't matter if a game is short so long as it's good. I don't agree with this idea of more gameplay hours representing better value for money, or that we, as gamers, are owed a certain amount of playtime for every pound we put in. The Order: 1886 isn't a great game. It's okay, perfunctorily engaging for a fleeting period, familiar to handle and possessing a few neat twists (and a couple of telegraphed ones) as it makes its way to an unsatisfactory conclusion. Would I pay £40 for it, or whatever retailers are asking for? Hell no. Halve it, and we'll talk. Wait for the sales, people. But there are plenty of other short games that I have loved, and even revisited for further playthroughs.
This is no definitive list of brilliant games that won't eat up your every waking hour, but off the top of my head Journey, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and the aforementioned, Platinum-developed bullet-hell-goes-Gears-of-War blast of Vanquish stand out as superb examples of games that get in, deliver maximum bang for moderate buck, and get out again before the sweat's soaked into your pants. I've played all three more than once. I'm still picking my way through the charming Wii U exclusive Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, and I'm reliably informed that's not a slog – I've put in maybe five hours so far, and I'm only a handful of puzzles from the end (albeit with a few of those diamonds yet to discover).
There's no equation for producing a perfect time-in-versus-money-out gaming experience. But I do know that, for me, life's cluttered with family, work and other responsibilities enough that devoting substantial time to any single game really requires effort. It can actually be an off-putting factor for me if a game is said to be full of hours-consuming content. I've had BioWare's critically acclaimed Dragon Age: Inquisition since it launched, but reports that it takes a good ten hours to even begin to reveal its sweetest charms is proving an obstacle. I'm slowly playing my way into Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate on the 3DS, but when you've an hour-plus train journey of a morning, portable gaming becomes an essential pastime. That's a game bulging with possibilities, and I'm only just beginning to scratch at its potential six or so hours in.
Perhaps it's a generational thing, though. Fellow thirty-somethings will remember completing games in a single sitting, the classic platformers of the 1990s. Maybe not Mario games, but certainly Sonic's top titles – you could easily wiz through the second game in that series inside an hour once you'd had it a while. It's no surprise that these retro games comprise the bedrock of competitive speed-running, even before their codes are exploited for cheat routes through proceedings.
Gamers who grew up during the PlayStation 2's period of industry dominance are used to deeper time-sinks: Grand Theft Auto III was a 20-hour commitment, and Clover Studio's magical Okami necessitated double that, at least. Neither wasted a second of their epic durations, either, which reinforces my argument that, so long as a game does everything it needs to, exactly how long it takes to do so really shouldn't matter.
The Order: 1886 does not achieve everything it should in its six-hour runtime. The criticism it's received pre-release, regarding its length, is entirely justified. But not because the hours are so few – more because they're so poorly used. Ready at Dawn had the chance to lay down a powerful precedent-setter for a new, eighth-console-generation franchise. The world they've built, and the characters they've created, are great. The story they've attempted to tell, though, is completely shot, a mess of open-ended arcs and unrealised redemption. It aims for Naughty Dog-style success: immediate gameplay matched with emotionally engaging drama. It succeeds as only an undeniably attractive but wholly hollow interpretation of that model.
Its fictional takes on real-life figures incorporates the Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla, who provides The Order's Knights with an array of gadgets and (some really quite brilliant) weaponry, and plays a big role in the game's underwhelming climax. He was in America in the 1886 that history documents, and is said to have called that winter a time of "terrible headaches and bitter tears". Perhaps he'd experienced a vision of future gaming framing his brilliance in such a disappointing manner.