The Order 1886 has firmly positioned itself as the game that will set the bar for what 'next-gen' visuals can and should be like. The impressively detailed and intricate characters, the rich London setting, the organic fluidity of the motion-captured performances and the stunning sound make for a spectacle of technology - a real eye opener in a generation that has, so far, been populated mostly with mildly-impressive cross-generation performances.
The Order 1886 represents a true glimpse at what that new black wedge under your telly can do. Which is even more surprising when you consider that its creator, Ready at Dawn, is best known as a studio dedicated to crafting games for the lowly PSP.
We've already gone into great detail on how impressive the game looks in our eyes-on preview. You've seen the videos for yourself. Recently, however, CVG was invited to a special event at which Ready at Dawn was finally ready to hand over the controller and let us play the game.
The demo we sampled was very short. Over within a matter of minutes, we get the distinct feeling that the game's creator is still holding out for a much bigger splash closer to the game's launch.
The demo, which will be playable at E3 in June, throws you into the thick of the action. Protagonists Sebastian Malory, Marquis de Lafayette, Isabeau D'Argyll and Sir Galahad are engaged in a heated standoff against a band of rebels who hold a position on a roof across a cobblestone street. You take cover behind one of a series of pillars holding up the room above your head.
Immediately as we take control of the action, the Gears of War influence is obvious. Glaring even. The third-person cover system operates in exactly the same manner - you tap a button to tuck up against a wall. From there you can shimmy left or right, slide quickly to other points of cover and briefly peak out with the left trigger to pop off shots at the enemy before ducking back down.
Easily the most interesting aspect of the demo - incredible visuals aside - is the sole gun we used. Instead of firing conventional bullets it shoots a rapid-fire stream of thermite - an explosive mix of metallic ingredients. But the thermite is harmless by itself, simply dousing enemies in a cough-inducing powder and doing very little damage - until you shoot the gun's secondary projectile, a flair.
The flair ignites the thermite, triggering an impressive eruption of hot sparks that fizz and pop, burning your enemies to a toast, all the while even further demonstrating the PS4's GPU particle physics as the stream of yellow sparks shower down, bouncing convincingly off of the scenery below.
But it's not all for show. The gun and its clever physics allow for some intriguing shooting strategies because it doesn't force players to use its two ammo types in any particular order. For example you can douse a specific target with thermite before lighting him up with a flair. Alternatively, if you face multiple targets hidden behind cover, you can shoot a flair at a wall behind them, where it will stick, and follow up with thermite that will bounce off the wall and rain down on your hidden and unsuspecting victims.
After the initial shootout, which culminates in a spectacular explosion as you ignite a leaking gas pipe in the building where your enemies reside, one of your AI companions is injured and incapacitated in a vulnerable position.
"Easily the most interesting aspect of the demo - incredible visuals aside - is the sole gun we used. "
A brief action sequence has you dragging your ally to the safety of a nearby room. You pull him along with one hand as you shoot a pistol with the other to take out enemies emerging on yet another rooftop terrace.
Once inside, we're given our first glimpse of some explorative gameplay mechanics. In the impressively-detailed room a subtle on-screen icon indicates that we're able to pick up and inspect a piece of paper on a table, using the left analogue stick to rotate the player's hand left and right to get a good look at the artifact.
On this occasion the document, which appeared to show a map of some sort, was of no relevance to the demo, but its presence in the demo suggests that players may be required to investigate environments to uncover clues or secrets that could contribute to the their progress through the story.
Proceeding to a courtyard outside, we're faced with several more enemies, whom we quickly dispatched with a special power move which, once activated, slows time briefly, allowing us to target and shoot several enemies - similar in some ways to the 'Dead Eye' mechanic in Red Dead Redemption, or the iconic bullet time in Max Payne games.
That would be our last action before the demo comes to an abrupt end, not more than around five minutes after it started. Brief, it most certainly was.
First-play press events are undoubtedly tricky for developers to gauge. Show too much and you risk ruining the surprise. But show too little and you could end up leaving the attending media underwhelmed and knowing little more than before they arrived.
We saw an interesting gun and the ability to explore environments during predefined downtimes, but beyond that the demo showcased little more than the heavily Gears of War influenced cover-based shooting that we've seen in debut gameplay videos.
If nothing else, the demo confirms that The Order really does look as impressive in action as it does in those spectacular videos - there's no trickery involved. It's a visual masterpiece. But this was the E3 demo's only notable feature.
Is Ready At Dawn holding back on us? Is it too early to be demanding bigger fireworks? Will it even matter? So impressive are the visuals of The Order 1886 that its technical prowess alone may justify dropping £50/$60. But we're really hoping that eye candy won't be its sole selling point.
Interview: Game director Dana Jan
Let's start with the obvious highlight of The Order 1886 - it looks incredible. Do you consider this the first true glimpse of what next-gen consoles are capable of?
We think it probably represents a glimpse of what the future could be visually, for games. I think with the PS3 being a pretty big graphical leap over the PS2, and the PS4 having even more power, I think if people choose to put their focus on that it can really be what we can expect out of these games. We're always going to be bound by some limitations on the hardware side, but I really think it's gonna come down to creative people really pushing the envelope on what they think is the most important thing for them. So for us, conveying on the visual side - we wanted you to live in this world with these characters and just absorb and feel like there's no barrier to accepting our reality. I think gaming visuals plays a huge part of that.
So of the three key aspects of a game - visuals, gameplay and story - which would you say was your priority with The Order 1886?
I think story and visuals are very high. Gameplay is something that... it's a game, we make games, we can't get around it. We love games, but we also love telling stories, so I think story is always going to be at the top because it's what we start with. It's at the top of the pyramid and everything else supports that. I think it'd be more challenging to make a game for the gameplay's sake, then try to make a story that fits in there.
The weapon showcased in the E3 demo is big on particle effects - almost like it was designed to be a technical showcase for PS4...
You know, when we developed that gun we had a few ideas we threw away before we thought of the thermite ammo. We thought it'd be a cool science. We got really excited in the design sense, but then we went to talk to a software engineer and they were like, 'that sounds really difficult to do'. And the effects artists were like, 'You wanna do what? You want to atomize a cloud of something that's all moving and floating and you wanna set it on fire and it's going to spark everywhere?'. I think when we started to tap into next-gen GPU particle systems we were more confident to try it out. We got excited about the challenge. Some of our best stuff comes from when we're scared of doing something, and then it's like, 'We gotta do this'.
So far, the short glimpses of gameplay that we've seen in The Order have been cover-based shooting stages. In gameplay terms, how much of the full scope of the game does this represent?
I think there's going to be a mix of this kind of gameplay scattered all over the game. Obviously, the cover-shooting stuff is the most central to most of the gameplay. There's melee that we're not showing much of here, and there's more of the custom stuff that we're showing that varies wildly all over the game. And there are some things that people are going to be surprised by - things that you might not necessarily expect from an action game. There's still some stuff in the story that's going to raise some eyebrows.
"The scope of this game is bigger than anything we thought we'd ever tackle"
Cover-based shooters really matured in the last console generation, and Gears of War largely led the pack in that regard. Gameplay wise, we see numerous similarities between Gears of War and The Order. Would you say Epic's game was a major influence to you?
Sure. I think when people talk about their craft and what influenced them, I think at the end of the day you're always gonna be able to see some of those influences and draw comparisons. I'm a big shooter fan, I've been playing shooters since Wolfenstein, and I used to make Wolfenstein, Doom and Quake maps. So I've always been an FPS guy and when the Xbox 360 came out and I bought Gears of War 1, I went home and played it with a bunch of guys from the office and I was like, 'this is awesome'. This was back when we were making PSP games.
Up until then I didn't really like third-person shooters. And it was always because there was something missing - you were outside of your character, and there's a disconnect from how I would actually move in a gunfight if I were actually there in person. But in Gears of War when people shoot at you, you hunker down, you get behind things, and you use the environment for safely. When I played that game I said to myself, 'this makes sense, this actually feels more tense and more realistic', because I'm being made to do the things that you would do logically in a gunfight.
So I feel like all cover-based games are where they are because of Gears of War for sure, and we looked at a bunch of other stuff too, from Tomb Raider to Uncharted. Assassin's Creed was an influence, even Mass Effect. This is not a Mass Effect-style game at all but we look at these games, and there's all sorts of things that you look at and acknowledge, 'These guys are doing something really interesting over here'. It's not like you then copy it, but certainly if you want to entice people to play your game there has to be some similarities and comfortabilities with controls and mechanics. So for a third person game like this, it doesn't make sense to start completely from scratch. We just ask, 'what is it about cover that works? What do we want do differently and what do we want to improve upon?' So that's where you can see - we're trying to evolve it.
This is a new IP that's obviously important to Sony. Do you focus on making a single game or do you approach design and storytelling with a view that encompasses sequels?
Yeah, I mean our hope is always to create a story that's worth telling more of. I think that this is something that we set out to make with this game, not just something that would be a one-and-done flash in the pan. To put this much effort into these characters, the backstories, and everything that goes into this, we want there to be more of it and we think that was the driving force behind the richness that we put into the characters and their stories. There's so much there to explore, and should we get the blessing to have a second game we'd love to expand upon this universe and keep going.
Is The Order 1886 being treated internally as the flagship PS4 exclusive of the next year?
I dunno. I mean, I would love to say yeah, but I actually don't know. I know that from Sony's standpoint it's a very important game to them, and they're constantly working with us on making sure this is the best game that it could possibly be. But I would never be so bold as to say, 'My game is the flagship game of the year'. I wish I could say that!
I'm really interested this year to see what the lineup is going to be, because I think we're now into the cycle with this console where they're in people's hands, there are games for them, developers are figuring out how to do cool stuff with it - it's going to be an exciting E3.
Sony's Morpheus VR headset is an exciting prospect for future PS4 titles. The Order probably isn't an obvious fit for VR, but could it be compatible with the headset just as a stereoscopic head-mounted display?
That's something that we're not actively looking into right now. I'm really excited about Morpheus too. And 3D is something that we had to work with on bringing the God of War Origins Collection to PS3. We learned a lot of the challenges behind doing stereoscopic stuff and it's not easy. But for The Order, at least for the first installment, we're really focused on getting this one right. I really like 3D, so in the future who knows? But for us right now, with it being third-person, I don't think we're thinking about Morpheus yet.
How hard is it to transition from being a portable game developer to a full home console studio?
It was hugely difficult. When we were working on the PSP we were very limited, but we had the mindset of 'Look, let's not use the limitation as an excuse, let's push it as far as we can push it, let's try to make the games people are saying can't be made on it. Let's try to do the things that people are saying isn't possible.'
That taught us a lot about ourselves and how to really squeeze the most you can out of anything. So when we made the jump to home console, there's all sorts of different challenges - the scope of this game is bigger than anything we thought we'd ever tackle. It's like a dream and a curse at the same time. Growing our staff as a studio, from a group of like 30 to like 130 - it's a massive [infrastructural change].
But I think what was really fortunate for us was that people have figured out on PS3 how do do a lot of bare-bones stuff that everybody has to struggle through - some of the best practices. And so we talked to a lot of other big developers like Naughty Dog and Guerrilla Games, Sucker Punch and Insomniac - we have a lot of friends in the industry being Sony-exclusive. We all talk, and when we had early prototypes of the game we showed a lot of our technology to other studios. And when they saw what we were doing they were both impressed and they had a lot of questions. We saw it as a good opportunity to share knowledge. I think we've been very fortunate to have people internally and externally help pave the way for the success that we now have.
Did you share technology or is everything in this game built by yourselves from the ground up?
No everything is ours. We have a lot of really talented artists, and programmers and animators and software engineers. It was a matter of picking and choosing and being very focused on what we thought was really important in the game - as you asked earlier about graphics, story and gameplay. Arguably we worked hard on all three, but graphics was something that we spent a lot of effort on early in the project. It was a situation where, can we, as a PSP developer, do this? That was a huge thing to swallow at first - it was like, 'You're gonna tell us that you make handheld games and now you're gonna make a defining PS4 game?' It just sounds crazy to say out aloud.
So that fueled us - we can prove it, we can prove it's possible. We always said we're gamers, and we're game developers - don't pigeonhole us by the console. PSP was an awesome console but we can do other things.
Not so long ago there was widespread skepticism surrounding the future of console gaming as a business. Now, in 2014, PS4 has enjoyed a phenomenal launch. Did you expect it to do as well as it has, and particularly to have the lead it has over its rivals?
Yeah, I was a little surprised. I think people around the office we like, 'What do you think, is it because [Sony] is getting the console out head of Microsoft this time? Is it because the hardware is arguably better? Is it because some of the things the PS4 does differently from the new Xbox puts it at a slight advantage?' There are all sorts of questions about it.
But I was surprised. I thought it would take longer for people to adopt a new console. Because, let's face it, PS3 is still an awesome machine. It's been around for like 8 years and it's really powerful. I played Tomb Raider and The Last of Us and those games are awesome. So, is it really the system? Is it the developer? Is it the content creation? What is really the limit? I feel like PS4 empowers us to do some things that are new, but I think the leaps that we're making aren't necessarily the technology that's important, it's about unlocking certain boundaries creative people were bound by, and now they're not. These systems are going to last much much longer, because it's like a high-end PC - if you had a really powerful PC, unless you're the guy that must always have a few more frames per second, you could play a lot of games on it for a very long time.