Over the next two weeks, USgamer will be looking ahead to the biggest games and most anticipated new from this year's E3. Today, we contemplate the familiarity of two new properties, Sony's The Order: 1886 and Bethesda's The Evil Within.
As a steampunk Victorian shooter and a modern-day survival horror adventure, Ready at Dawn's The Order: 1886 and Bethesda's The Evil Within would seem to have very little in common on their surface. Yet after spending time with both games recently, I came away from each session with the same thought: I know these games already.
Both The Order and The Evil Within represent that most precious of rarities in this franchise- and sequel-driven modern era, the new property. Still, despite the new names, the systems ticking away beneath the surface don't stray far from established concepts and brands. You don't even have to dig deep beneath their surfaces to hit familiar ground; the unfamiliar goes strictly skin-deep.
I can understand why The Order goes the direction it does, of course. It's very clearly crafted in the pattern of Gears of War, which Microsoft bought from Epic to cement as an Xbox-exclusive property. Ready at Dawn is one of Sony's go-to studios, of course, best known for a number of PSP titles (including Daxter and God of War: Ghost of Sparta) that pushed the handheld's visual capabilities to their limits; The Order is clearly Sony's preemptive strike against Microsoft's next Gears of War.
To that end, The Order plays very much like your classic Gears-style cover shooter. The characters move with a profound sense of weight and inertia, and combat consists of ducking behind scenery and gunning down foes. Unfortunately, in my brief experience with the game, I found it carried forward many of the frustrations found in Gears; the protagonist wielded a single weapon, which felt agonizingly weak and inaccurate. His machine gun spray missed more often than it hit at medium distances, and given that his opponents could already soak up tons of bullets before going down, it ultimately made the demo's shootout into a fairly tedious and protracted affair.
The hero's miserable firepower is somewhat balanced out by his ability to fire thermite "grenades," small projectiles that cling to surfaces and can be ignited to cause them to burst into flames. Gravity plays a big part in the use of thermite, as the projectiles' path has considerable decay over a short distance, and once ignited the white-hot sparks it bursts into fall downward. So there's not much point in aiming the thermite directly at enemies; rather, you're better off aiming over their heads and setting the stuck projectile alight with your gun, raining a shower of white-hot flames onto them — though admittedly this strategy would feel considerably more effective if the machine gun weren't so tragically imprecise that trying to shoot the thermite package you'd teed up to detonate feels like a roll of the dice.
I suppose the gross inaccuracy of the weapons is meant to tie the game back to its setting; as the game's title indicates, The Order takes place in the year 1886, and the player's squad consists of a group of immortals wielding technology well beyond the limits of the era. A lousy handheld machine gun in 1886 (with a thermite grenade attachment) was better than anything anyone else had, so we soldier on.
While the game's setting only seems to have moderate impact on the play mechanics — it still feels exactly like Gears of War, only with weak and grossly inaccurate weapons — it does exert more influence on the feel of the game. The raucous bro aesthetic that seemingly goes hand-in-hand with shooters of Gears' ilk steps aside for a more subdued vibe. After all, this is Victorian London, and shouty grunts wouldn't be proper; instead, the cast maintains a more measured tone, even in the heat of combat. It's a more genteel approach to the cover-based shooter... but it's still absolutely a cover-based shooter.
Conversely, The Evil Within may dress itself with the measured, low-key approach to survival horror of a Silent Hill, but underneath it all the game feels very much like Resident Evil 4. That connection makes perfect sense, of course; Evil Within is the work of Shinji Mikami, the mastermind behind RE4. In a sense, this feels like more a proper sequel to that game than Resident Evil 5 or 6; there's no cooperative play or (based on the sequences I've played) emphasis on action movie set pieces. Evil Within aims more for psychological scares than for adrenaline rushes.
It's also incredibly dark — almost oppressively so. At one point, I found myself wading through a sewer that felt more like an abattoir, with switches that served no purpose but to send corpses through grinders that dumped the chewed-up remains into the fetid blood-water that pooled between walkways. Gloom and darkness suffocate the atmosphere of the game. And a bizarre hooded specter appears at seemingly random intervals to stalk you, causing you grievous harm if it manages to make contact with you during its momentary apparitions but mostly serving to goad you into making a dash for safety... though of course rushing about in a zombie-infested mansion may lead to even greater danger.
Fans of RE4 will likely find much to enjoy about Evil Within. The over-the-shoulder combat feels very much like Mikami's masterpiece, and ammunition is as scarce here as it often was there. Headshots may pop zombie skulls, but once fallen the undead (even if missing their heads thanks to your ace marksmanship) need to be set aflame with your extremely limited store of matches in order to ensure their true demise. While you can level up your skills with a mysterious green goo collected around the mansion, that feature was unavailable for the demo, so it's hard to say how Evil Within's rudimentary experience system will affect your skills; at your base level, though, you move deliberately and reload slowly, making for one very vulnerable protagonist.
While Evil Within upholds the tension that makes for great survival horror, it also falls afoul of many of the genre's established pitfalls as well. The jump scares and scripted hazards in particular make for trial-and-error game experiences or suffer from awkward controls. At several points a freakish, indestructible creature that resembled a cross between Samara from The Ring and a spider chased me through the halls of the mansion — which was all well and good until the jumpy camera caused me to miss a contextual prompt to climb a ladder, resulting in a do-over through no fault of my own. And almost everyone I spoke to about the demo died at least once to an unavoidable hallway trap that snagged the protagonist with a rope and pulled him slowly into a grinder. Everyone's instinct was to try and shoot the rope, when the solution was actually to fire at a small light at the top of the grinder machine across the room.
Failing in the latter proved particularly annoying thanks to Evil Within's inconsistent checkpoint system; since that area of the game allowed us to roam freely through the mansion to activate switches in three different sections in any order we like, I'd been exploring methodically for quite a while without performing any of the actions that triggered a checkpoint. When the grinder shredded me the first time, I lost about 20 minutes of cautious progress. The open design of the area meant that I was able to go directly to the grinder puzzle once I respawned and sort it out before exploring any further, but it definitely took me out of the game. When I returned to repeat the sequences that had been lost by my death, there was no more sense of dread or uncertainty. I knew where to find the puzzle elements, where to aim to take down the handful of zombies that appeared before they even showed up. Evil Within emphasizes fear of the unknown and the prospect of danger over sheer combat challenge, so once the mystery has been swept away it can feel rather slight.
Even though I'd never played The Order or Evil Within prior to these recent demos, I couldn't shake the sensation that I had indeed played them before. By no means does familiarity make either game poor — they both seem like solid iterations on established franchises operating under different names. Still, the fact that these "new" properties walk so carefully in the footprints of other series we'll undoubtedly being seeing more of soon doesn't bode well for the new console generation's prospects for diversity. Does that matter, so long as the games themselves are good? I suppose we'll find out this fall, when both games make their debut.