For two generations, we used to attribute the staggering beauty that The Order: 1886 evinces throughout to pre-rendered cutscenes. Now the hope is that, one day, someone will put all that time, effort, and horsepower into a decent game. Really, though, the correct term is “decent movie.” There’s a game to be played in The Order, a gorgeous but uninspired duck-and-cover shooter that plays like a cumbersome Uncharted, punctuated by a few awkwardly placed quick-time events that don’t integrate as well into the cinematic storytelling as they do when David Cage is on his A game. Even though The Order has plenty of issues, we live in an age where a relatively inoffensive shooter could garner a pass if we care about who’s doing the shooting, who they’re shooting, and why. Ask the Spec Ops: The Line folks about how that works. The Order wants desperately to be that kind of game. But taking the visual element out of the equation, it tasks players with pretenses that remain above its reach. For all of its technical bravura in aping the style and conventions of a decadent award-winning period film, the story and script behind the pretty veneer is thoroughly shot-on-a-Canadian-backlot Syfy, the kind of thing you’d see advertisements for when you’re catching a Sharknado rerun at three in the morning. It amplifies its faults as a game, not erases them.
The Order’s opening hours promise a cool pastiche of Hammer horror and BioShock-style gallivanting, an alternate history wherein the Arthurian Knights of the Round table survive into the late 19th century as the sworn guardians of the populace against the supernatural threats of legend: werewolves, vampires, and the like. After the initial wow factor, a sickness sets in that the game has dealt all the cards it’s got, and the story settles into an excruciatingly slow burn. The hunt for werewolves gives way to a hunt for plain old hackneyed Cockney humans, a predictable plot that a member of the Order may not be what they seem, that the conspiracy goes all the way to the top (which, thankfully, nobody actually says), and the traitor will be someone “not so different” from the hero (which, cringingly, somebody does actually say).
If not for the fact that Nikola Tesla makes his nerd-cred cameo here as, essentially, the Order’s Q branch, allowing the knights to use lightning-infused weaponry and radio equipment, a long stretch of the game is little more than a British cop drama, so much so that when the latter game twist happens, revealing the villainous supernatural plot that’s driving rebel forces to revolt in the streets against the Order, it feels laughably out of place. The game occasionally shows signs of life when Lakshmi, an Indian warrior queen leading the rebels, shows up with her daughter, but she’s given tragically little to do aside from lead Galahad/Grey, our requisite grizzled white-guy hero, around by the nose. The rest of the time, it’s characters running into rooms, telling the player things they could see miles away if they’re old enough to be playing this game.
The quiet irony of the game is in granting those Syfy masterpieces of cheese a grudging respect. They can get everything done in 90 minutes. The Order blathers on anywhere from five to seven hours, and leaves things on a hamfisted hook for a sequel. The broader irony of the game is that it really is a success, as it has indeed broken the barrier separating film and gaming. Conceptually, it’s proof positive that there’s life in the idea, that the tools are there to start messing with the mediums. The game is our best example that we can play a movie. The fact that the movie in question is a leaden, unimaginative waste is almost incidental.