I’ve long grumbled about PlayStation joypads. I absolutely despise them, and always have. My dislike for them goes all the way back to the early days of the original PlayStation, and I’ve always felt that the subsequent iterations of the design have all failed to address their single biggest (and most obvious) shortcoming - that being the position of the thumbsticks. They’re a massive part of the reason that I’ve generally gravitated toward Xbox and Nintendo over recent generations - playing games with a joypad that makes my hand ache soon stops being fun, regardless of how good the game I’m playing is. It’s quite telling that there are lots of pads available for PlayStation with offset sticks... and that I’ve never seen a pad with symmetrical sticks for the Xbox. Anyway, I’ve finally bought one of those PS4 pads - and armed with it I plan on smashing through some of my pile of shame.
Looking at the games on the pile, it didn’t take long for me to conclude that the best place for me to start was with the oldest game there. Firing up The Order: 1886, I found that my save game dated all the way back to August 2016. I started again.
So, where to start? It's set in a beautifully realised spin on Victorian London, in which the Knights of the Round Table (granted immortality by the Holy Grail) protect the city from werewolves, vampires, and rebels by wielding enormous video game style guns - some of them designed by none other than Nikola Tesla. Is it silly? Absolutely. But it's also endearing and interesting, and hints at a world with a lot more depth than we get to see during the short time we can spend exploring it. The game got a lot of flak for its brevity on launch - that and the fact that for a sizeable chunk of that comparatively short run time, you're watching cutscenes rather than actually playing the game. The criticisms are, for once, fair.
Playing it now, with almost a whole console generation between its launch and the moment of writing, it feels like a throwback to when games (especially PlayStation games, let's face it) were making a special effort to fulfil cinematic goals - often at the expense of the video game ones that players expected. The game cuts seamlessly from gameplay to cutscene to quick-time event and back again, all the while keeping you glued to the screen by how it looks (did I mention that it's still gorgeous?) and with the enthralling tale it's telling.
It's a bit hard not to see it as Ready At Dawn attempting to provide Sony with an antidote to Gears of War here - most of The Order 1886's core pillars are the same as those of the Gears series. They're both stunning to look at and listen to, they both feature an interesting group of characters that you'll share missions with and get to know fairly well over the course of the campaign. They both tell a strictly linear story, and both of them benefit from not offering the illusion of player choice. They both feature brutal, gory cover-based shooting combat with a variety of weapons that allow you to engage in the corrider based combat scenarios in different ways. The Order 1886 features an abundance of QTE's though - to the point where some of what could have been the biggest battles in the game are reduced to them. That was probably a poor choice at the time, given how ubiquitous they were in the earlier games of the generation - but experiencing them in such quantity now, they feel anachronistic; like seeing a character in a period drama zipping up their boots. The world, while large enough to serve the story and blessed with a level of detail that a lot of more recent games would be envious of, is strangely lacking in items to interact with. The tale is fleshed out with the occasional audio recording and newspaper article - which also feel very much 'of their time' as mechanics go. Maps and posters on the walls all help to lend the game a feeling of time and space, along with the outfits of the characters. They're supposed to feel like medieval knights operating in the late 1800's - and they absolutely look the part.
In the short time it lasted, it's a game I've enjoyed an awful lot. Bits of it haven't aged as well as others (at the risk of sounding like a broken record here, it doesn't look like a game that's 5 years old), but the story it tells is worth the cost of entry - especially as you can now pick it up for less than £10 pretty easily. The shooting mechanics get the job done even if they don't set the world on fire. The fights with lycans are the best thing in the game, and don't happen anywhere near often enough. Yes, it has problems. And yes, I can forgive them all.
Most of all, The Order 1886 feels like a beta test. In the same way that the original Assassin's Creed game felt like a test bed for a handful of game mechanics - all of which were expanded on and improved in its sequel, The Order 1886 feels as though its primary concern is in establishing a world and a lore, and telling a tale that could easily spin out both forwards and backwards in time. It feels like a conspicuous "first game in a franchise" - and it certainly ends in a way that's set up for it to continue. Will we get that sequel? At the moment, it's anyone's guess. Ready At Dawn were purchased by Oculus a couple of years back, and are now hard at work making VR games for Facebook's favourite little earner (outside of bent political adverts and the flogging of personal data, that is). Sony own the IP though - and that makes me optimistic for the future. A sequel to this is something I'd consider buying a PS5 for.
But only once I can buy a joypad for it that has the thumbsticks in the right place.