Galahad's Thermite Rifle might be one of my favourite virtual weapons of all time.
Rather than firing boring old bullets, this steampunk boomstick throws out hundreds of fragile iron oxide and aluminium shells, which shatter on impact and flood the stage with thick clouds of choking gas. However, secondary fire lobs in a magnesium flare, which sets off a chemical reaction that reaches up to 2500°C.
In layman's terms: everything burns.
As such, using it is an absolute blast -- pun most definitely intended -- when The Order: 1886 actually lets you. Fighting through the neo-Victorian London streets as a latter-day Templar Knight requires you to keep your head and push forward, throwing up billowing thermite smokescreens to cover your approach and igniting them to wreathe entire squads of cockney rebels in flames.
Unfortunately, The Order 1886 is also very keen to be as "cinematic" and "filmic" as possible, meaning that much of your time will be spent gawping at what amounts to unskippable cutscenes.
The shooter gameplay is solid and enjoyable while it lasts, evidenced by the Gamescom 2014 build. Though certainly no pioneer on the AI front, as foes pour out of doorways and pop their heads up from behind cover as they do in practically every cover-based shooter since Gears Of War, the Thermite Rifle brings a new rhythm to these combat encounters. Less 'whack a mole,' perhaps, and more industrial-grade extermination. Using pre-existing flame sources such as gas lamps and explosions to prematurely detonate clouds adds an interesting extra dimension to the combat, while other weapons included a powerful tesla cannon and other outlandish alternate history tech.
Cor blimey love a duck, guv'nor, how I wish that I'd been able to keep using them. Annoyingly, The Order 1886 basically rips the controller out of your hands every minute or so in order to show you a cutscene. "Stop all that shooting, " it seems to say, just when you're hitting a groove, "I've got something to show you." Hectic thermite-cooking gameplay melts away into stodgy dialogue, followed by trudging around a house and helping to move an injured police officer into cover.
Which, like so many shooters from Gears to Ghost Recon Future Soldier, involves controlling Galahad's pistol arm in a drab rail-shooting section. Shoot some grunts in the face. Then some more run out. Great. Much of the demo seems to have been ripped out of 2006, let alone 1886, while the fact that cutscenes are seamlessly rendered in-engine and threaded into the action means that they're likely to be unskippable. This proved to be a real bugbear when a clipping bug (it's still in development, these things happen) forced me to reload and sit through the same wad of glum exposition again.
At least The Order 1886 is a bit of a looker, to put things mildly. Or bloody gorgeous, to put things more realistically. The visuals certainly makes the cutscenes more palatable, but I was more impressed by how they made the gameplay feel more visceral, more pulse-poundingly urgent, as smoking embers, dripping liquid sparks and shards of glowing metal filled the air with each thermite blast.
All of which leaves me fiercely ambivalent about The Order 1886. See, there's no way we can base any form of judgement on ten minutes of preview build, especially one that's likely cut and condensed to push more punters through Sony's consumer booth. The impressive graphics and brutal street fighting could well be blown-out into a more expansive finished product, which uses its cutscenes to seamlessly tell a strong story rather than annoyingly breaking up the action.
Or, perhaps, the gameplay will be a slave to the storyline rather than a storytelling tool in and of itself. Due to the delay, Ready At Dawn still has several more months to polish things up (and sort out that clipping bug), so it will be interesting to see whether The Order 1886 becomes a must-have PS4 exclusive or shiny February shelf-filler.
Naturally we've got our fingers crossed for the former. The world-building is great, the setting is seamy and the guns are fiercely cathartic, so here's hoping that The Order throttles back and lets us use its excellent tech for more than a few minutes at a time.