The Order: 1886 isn't anything new, but man, is it pretty. Every review I've read mentions just how absurdly good-looking the PlayStation 4 exclusive is (out today); that praise is buried under heaps of valid criticisms regarding monotonous gameplay and hackneyed storytelling. Based on what I've played, I'm inclined to agree. Regardless of the pretty visuals, I've yet to be tasked with doing anything particularly interesting. The cover-based shooting is adequate, but I just can't shake the feeling that I've done it all before in better games. What's more, the narrative is incredibly dull: non-interactive scenes plod on for too long, helmed by characters I have zero connection with, spouting rote dialog that's difficult to decipher more often than not. Its just not very good. But it is pretty!
And The Order: 1886 isn't alone in the "pretty and boring" category. Remember Xbox One launch title Ryse: Son of Rome? How about Killzone 2 and Lair on PlayStation 3? Or last fall's PS4 racer DriveClub?
All these games were hailed for their visual prowess in the months leading up to launch because it's easy to portray how pretty a game is with a high-res image. That only tells half the story, though, because even reviews of disparate releases start sharing common narrative threads over time. Let's play a game: try to guess to which game each quote below belongs.
"A little bit of a hook or a gimmick would have been nice, even if it was something as simple as building a remotely compelling narrative. Half the time I wasn't even positive of where I was or what I was doing there."
"The career mode is old-fashioned and its AI is hopelessly ignorant, but the graphics and competitive jabs online feel perfectly fit for 2014."
"It's a real marvel to watch gorgeous locales get flooded with hordes of barbarians jostling toward our hero who fights them off with expert swordplay and brutal executions. At first, the experience definitely has the power to enrapture. But then, a few minutes go by and the seams start to show – and split. Combat never changes, offering all of its tricks up front."
Give up? The top is from Joystiq's Killzone 2 review. The middle? Their take on DriveClub, while the latter is pulled from their Ryse: Son of Rome review. Scrub a few words here or there and the review blurbs are more or less interchangeable.
The other commonality in these games? They're all titles published by console manufacturers looking to show off just how powerful their hardware is. But it comes at a price.
They're the video game equivalents of James Cameron's Avatar -- something you pull out when friends and family are over to show just what your new toy's capable of, but turn off as soon as everyone leaves because they're all style without substance.
Do developers expect us to keep coming back to admire a game's beauty when there's precious little else underneath the shimmering facade? I sure hope not.
After an hour of Ryse, I let a friend borrow it, telling him not to worry about when he got it back to me. Based the three or so hours I've spent with The Order, I can see a similar fate befalling it. Sure, the imperceptible switch between non-interactive story sequence and gameplay was cool at first, but then it transformed into me twiddling thumbsticks and hitting buttons out of boredom just to see if I could finally start playing again. And even then, when I was able to actually play, a majority of my time was spent slowly walking from one place to another and not doing anything particularly interesting.
The game somehow even manages to make a trip through Nikola Tesla's workshop rote and boring.
Case in point: The game somehow manages to make a trip through Nikola Tesla's workshop rote and boring. Move from one end to the other, inspect a few items along the way, and then let the father of the induction motor instruct you in a brief mini-game. It's a crime.
Let's not confuse things: I love exploring in games. The non-combat sections of The Last of Us are, in my mind, better than the combat. They work because the team at Naughty Dog is incredibly accomplished at creating meaningful relationships and memorable characters. The Order developer Ready at Dawn (responsible for the God of War games that appeared on Sony's PlayStation Portable) seems perfectly happy to push cardboard cyphers through a sightseeing tour rather than populate it with organic reasons to entice progression. Simply put: it's a game with lifeless characters and uninteresting interaction. But it's pretty!
When gameplay consists of walking around and inspecting newspaper pages and widgets that do little more than unlock an achievement for finding them all, cover-based shooting that Gears of War did with more excitement in 2006, or horror elements that Dead Space 2 bested in 2011, I'm not likely sticking around for long.
If the only factor to a game's success was how good it looked, the Sony PSP wouldn't have been trounced by the Nintendo DS. Same goes for the PS Vita in comparison to Nintendo's 3DS platform, the original Xbox versus the PlayStation 2 and so on.
How a title actually plays is what matters -- not the fidelity of a character's mustache or how intricate the stitching on a weapon holster is. Those are important, sure, but they should never come between the experience of actually making your way through a game. Sadly, with the PlayStation 4's big exclusive The Order: 1886, I couldn't shake the feeling that more attention was given to embroidery detail than making an enjoyable game.