How foolish is it to be amazed by a 'demo' these days?
In this case not even a hands-on preview, but a four-minute video, of which all the interactive scenes are carefully play-acted by a developer. Considering all the smoke and mirrors that inevitably come with such presentations, is it therefore wrong to be dazzled by them?
The problem we're having is this: The Order 1886 looks astonishing.
Watching it unfold on screen, ogling at its technical mastery and artistic majesty, marks it as the first PS4 game to deliver that next-gen "wow" factor. Slightly unfeasible PS3 games are no longer the visual benchmark for PlayStation 4; The Order has become the graphical barometer upon which all next-gen titles should be measured.
Have a look for yourself in the video below.
Although it is still unclear what truly defines a "next-gen" game, The Order argues it is the mastery of all production methods. Certainly it makes a convincing point. The video above showcases a harmonious unison of graphics, audio, acting, set-design, lighting and animation. On their own they are last-gen milestones, but together they achieve a filmic quality not seen to this extent before.
Perhaps the most obvious place to begin is the character models, which are staggeringly detailed and clearly a significant draw on hardware resources. Ru Weerasuriya, chief executive at developer Ready at Dawn, tells CVG that facial animation has become the biggest R&D expense for the project. Such investment has demonstrably paid off, with even the most subtle expressions from each character becoming noticeable indicators of their mood and personality.
This is enriched further by the body animations, which are a testament to the incomparable benefits of performance capture (a technique that Naughty Dog mastered in the Uncharted games as well as The Last of Us).
All acting is reacting, goes the phrase, and performance capture allows scenes to be played out 'live' in a mo-cap studio, which brings an organic quality to the way each character moves and stands in relation to one another.
This is complemented further by the cast, who do a tremendous job carrying the scenes. Weerasuriya says it took more than a year to find the right actors for The Order's four main protagonists (Sebastian Malory, Marquis de Lafayette, Isabeau D'Argyll and Sir Galahad).
What is remarkable is that one can already detect an underlying competition between Sebastian Malory and Sir Galahad. It wasn't about what either said, but in fact how they presented themselves, how they looked at each other, how they seemed in each other's presence. For a video game to portray this, without any such overly-expositional declarations, is perhaps the clearest sign of The Order's quality and ambition.
"I'm delighted you noticed those tensions between the characters," says Weerasuriya. "You are supposed to."
It seems unfair to have gone this far without even mentioning the audio, considering the work is outstanding. Re-watch the trailer with your eyes closed to sense the true depths of the audio detail, and the delicate effects on the voices, and how each character unmistakably sounds as though they are speaking from within the same room.
Meanwhile, the lighting is crafted so meticulously that it feels like The Order has its own director of photography. The demo's cover-shooting section, for example, is resplendent with numerous sources of lighting cast across the cobbled London roads. Its range and nuance adds a formidable presence to the location, and makes previous generation illumination look stark by contrast.
The final sparkle comes from a glorious array of special effects, from white-hot tracer fire to the exceptional depth and authenticity of the fog. The dazzling cloth physics, meanwhile, add a beautiful oomph to bullet recoils and a bring life to the costumes.
But it is how all these ideas, techniques and standards conflate so wondrously that makes The Order a project with such fantastic potential. All of it, by the way, presented in a filmic 1920×800 letterbox resolution with 4xMSAA.
One can sense the desire within Ready At Dawn to make its mark. Since it was founded in 2003, the Californian studio has gone through the unglamorous yet financially prudent work of console ports and handheld adaptations. Though it has built a solid reputation through such projects, especially because of the excellent proprietary tech it has built, no one wants to be in a tribute band forever.
Now given the chance to create an exclusive blockbuster IP for perhaps the most important console in games today, Weerasuriya and his 110 colleagues want to rock the industry.
"The Order has been in production since January 2011, and nearly all of the game has been built from the ground-up," Weerasuriya says.
"But even before that there were ideas and concepts that we were throwing around. In fact, even before 2011, I was working on stories, not exactly for The Order, but for all the kinds of narratives I wanted to explore."
"The Order considers nothing sacred in its pursuit of making a game feel undeniably cool"
The Order takes place in semi-fictional 19th century London, with players controlling one of four relatively unknown characters. Their story is hazy, for now, though they appear to be an amalgamation of templar knights, modern weaponry and equipment (including radio transmitters), and costumes that generally fit with the Victorian age. The quartet of heroes are also fairly reminiscent of the Knights of the Round Table - they appear to be democratically equal overseers of society.
Even more uncertain is their mission. During his presentation, Weerasuriya spoke of some "half-breed threat", which appears to cover the wider narrative arc, as well as the short-term problem of a bloody rebellion grinding the capital to a halt.
In keeping with the pioneering Gothic fiction of the 19th century (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Tell-Tale Heart), there is an unmistakable supernatural, even hallucinatory, element to the narrative.
Historians, no doubt, hate the game already. Aside from the obvious MacGuffins of modern technologies and weaponry mixed with authentic London landmarks from the 1800s, there is also a deliberate blurring of time in order to craft as interesting a world as possible. Zeppelins, which first began to fly no sooner than the twentieth century, hover in The Order's London skyline. At worst, it feels like misinformation for the sake of entertainment.
"I used to have concerns about historical inaccuracies, but I've lost that now," Weerasuriya says.
"As a writer you always have to adhere to some sense of truth, but the reality of it is we rewrite history all the time. History is written from one point of view, and so it can be rewritten from another."
The more obvious answer, evidently, is that The Order considers nothing sacred in its pursuit of making a game feel undeniably cool. It melts various ideas together, from the historical interventions of Assassin's Creed to the cover-shooter mechanics of Gears of War. It's probably just us, but perhaps there was also just the faintest hint of Half-Life's Combine to the noises that the radio transmitters made.
"On the gameplay side, absolutely The Order is different ideas mashed together," Weerasuriya says.
He also reveals that the project had a fairly unconventional birth, being a gradual consolidation of numerous ideas floating around the studio at the turn of the decade.
"The question at the beginning of projects is always whether you should start from an IP or from gameplay. The Order, in some ways, started with both," he adds.
"I was working on the IP side whilst we were also making various other games, then the gameplay discussions began, then over time the whole team began to fold these ideas together into one project. So then I told the team to give it a break and I'll come back to them with this IP, which is what you see today.
"So it is a lot of ideas mashed together, I'm not sure I could count how many, but I should add it has a core idea holding it together."
But as is often the case, when one idea clashes with another, a compromise is required. In this instance, the smooth swing from gameplay to cinematic means that QTEs are brought in to bridge those gaps. They are proof that even a remarkable looking game can be somewhat spoiled by flashing letters.
Weerasuriya remains upbeat that the idea, which really has never worked, can work.
"There are ways to address QTEs that does not deter people from playing the game. For example, our QTE scenes are branching paths - there are fail points, sure, but we don't make it so punitive."
Another technique used to bridge the gameplay and cut-scenes are interactive spots. At the start of the demo's opening scene, for example, the player is invited to peer through a telescope - effectively stopping the in-game cinematic until the player uses the device. Later, in a smoke-filled cellar, Sir Galahad cracks open a crate to find a weapon inside, which for a limited period he is able to interact with. So far, these ideas have not proven to be particularly interesting, and feel a little jarring when placed within the beautifully crafted cinematics.
Then again, anything short of immaculate feels out of place in The Order 1886. Granted, its true value cannot be measured until the game is played, but the production values alone suggest the project has been painstakingly constructed by perfectionists who want to make a mark on the industry.
It is an extraordinarily beautiful video game that sets new standards of cinematic qualities. No matter how foolish is it to be amazed by a demo, at least The Order gives us hope.