Sony and developer Ready at Dawn have delayed PlayStation 4 exclusive The Order: 1886 from late 2014 to early 2015.
Speaking at a pre-E3 Sony event in Santa Monica, Ready at Dawn chief Ru Weerasuriya tells Eurogamer the decision was made so the developer could try to make sure the entire game was at a high quality level, rather than just certain sections.
"We want to hold true to something we've talked about in the past," he says, "which is delivering the experience without having this ebb and flow of: oh, this was really great and that was kind of meh, because we sacrificed a little time on it."
The Order, a single-player-only cover-based third-person shooter set in an alternate Victorian London, was set to be the PlayStation 4 tentpole Christmas 2014 game. But, after what Weerasuriya describes as "an open discussion" with publisher Sony, it was agreed the game should be pushed back by a few months.
"We have an open discussion with Sony all the time," Weerasuriya explains. "We said, 'Look, we can achieve the quality you expect everywhere, but delivering on this is going to take a few more months.'
"It's not that long. It's worth it if we can deliver on the promise we made."
Adding further complication to the project, which involves some 125 staff at Ready at Dawn as well as scores of people at Sony Computer Entertainment's San Diego motion-capture facility, was that it expanded in scope even as it was being made.
"The project is always bigger than what everybody expects," Weerasuriya says. "That's what this is. It is bigger than what everybody expected. Everything we've shot, everything we've done, is quite a bit larger than what we had planned for. But we're not going to sacrifice just because of time. Quality has to come first.
"That's what I commend Sony for, for so many games they've done. They always say, 'PlayStation stands for what it has done for so long because we will always take the side of quality when it comes down to it.' That is one of the strengths Sony has had for so many years."
The Order employs a "filmic" visual design, and leans heavily on motion and facial capture in an attempt to create an experience that links third-person shooter action and cut-scenes seamlessly.
A preview build I play demonstrates what Ready at Dawn is going for. After a firefight in wartorn Whitechapel, player character Grayson, also known as Sir Galahad, and his three knight friends Mallory, Igraine and Lafayette, must save a policeman who has been shot in a crossfire. After running towards him and pressing the button prompt, you trigger a sequence in which you must use a pistol to shoot onrushing enemies while dragging the injured man from the street to the relative safety of a nearby building. Once inside, a cut-scene plays out.
All the while this is happening, the game retains an astonishing level of visual fidelity. There is no switching from gameplay graphics to pre-rendered cut-scene graphics or anything like that - everything runs in real time. Inside the building, the cut-scene ends and you're suddenly in charge of searching for an exit. Search hard enough and you can find a piece of paper, which you can twist and turn to inspect. (There are objects you find in the environment that play into the story and offer clues.)
Eventually you find a way out after blowing up the wall. Outside, more cover-based combat ensues. Through the use of smart camera techniques, and because the in-engine visuals are so impressive, it feels as though you're always playing, even when you're not.
Weerasuriya says Ready at Dawn hopes the entire game will feel as seamless as this playable section, and credits the delay with helping to achieve this.
"As much as you think it would be easy to put together those moment to moments, and the camera falling into something then falling out, it's more intricate than what everybody expected," he says. "Without the delay, we probably wouldn't be seamless because we'd have to do what a lot of other games do, like hard cuts, then straight gameplay, and then you're somewhere else. You're like, 'wait, I just finished over there.' Or, 'wait, I didn't get it.'
"Without the delay, we probably wouldn't be seamless because we'd have to do what a lot of other games do."
The Order was announced during Sony's E3 2013 press conference with a brief cinematic that showed the knights fighting a mysterious enemy in London. But it wasn't until February 2014 that we got a good look at how Ready at Dawn is trying to blend different types of gameplay together.
In the February gameplay reveal, Galahad leaps off of a building, crashes through a shed roof and lands on an enemy. A fight breaks out, and a quick-time event asks you to press the corresponding on-screen button in time to dodge an attack. Succeed and the pair scuffle on the ground, where the gameplay switches again. You must search the ground nearby for a weapon to deliver the final blow in what Ready at Dawn calls a "branching melee" moment. (You can see this sequence in the video above.)
Making this kind of sequence truly seamless is the challenge Ready at Dawn has faced during development.
"From a straightforward navigation and jump, you fall straight into melee," Weerasuriya says. "There is no, 'I fell and then cut and then, okay, melee moment, branching QTE, and then cut, and then something else.' It's a bigger proposition than we even knew, because we're learning as we do it."
Sony was all for the delay, according to Weerasuriya, even though it leaves the PS4's 2014 release schedule somewhat sparse.
"We've known Sony for long enough that there is a very easy conversation that goes on," Weerasuriya says, highlighting Ready at Dawn's past work on the God of War PlayStation Portable games. "It's not like anybody is blind to anything that's happening. We don't work and just go, 'Hey, we'll show it when we show it.'
"Ready at Dawn is always at work on the game. We don't make any qualms about saying, 'We need more time on that.' Or, 'That took less time than we thought.' Scott Rohde [PlayStation software product development head] and all of those guys are always aware of everything that's going on. So when a conversation comes up they never feel like, 'Hey, we have to sit down.' It's more like, 'Hey guys, this is really cool, but look at the amount of work we have to do... we could really deliver on the experience if we gave it until early 2015.'"
"We've known Sony for long enough that there is a very easy conversation that goes on."
So, what's The Order like to play? The five or so minutes of gameplay available rekindle memories of Gears of War, with a dash of Naughty Dog's Uncharted and a twist of Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain. Ready at Dawn's alternative Victorian London is an incredibly detailed but dank and grey place. That's the nature of the 19th Century London beast, of course.
Still, The Order gets away with it because the graphics on show are as good as anything seen on a console, and it's clear the developer has spent a great deal of time trying to make each scene live up to this "filmic" look - complete with black bars above and below the image. Ready at Dawn hopes you'll be able to freeze-frame the game at any point and the still image will look like a painting, aping the work of The Last Samurai, Glory, and Legends of the Fall director Edward Zwick. It's a neat, impressive trick that works.
While no-one can dispute that the game's graphics are hot, though, the feel of the gunplay leaves me cold. The weapons feel lightweight and the bullets they fire even lighter, and it seems the AI enemies don't always react to being shot with the force you'd expect.
The preview build is designed to showcase the Thermite Rifle, a weapon that fuses Ready at Dawn's take on technology and alternate history and has two modes of fire: one button sends out rounds of thermite that burst into clouds of flammable dust, the other fires flares to ignite the dust. To use the rifle effectively, you need to spray an area just above an enemy with thermite and then shoot the dust with flares, causing burning hot particles to rain down upon your foes - even if they're behind cover.
It's a nice idea, but the rifle, and the other weapons that have been shown so far, don't pack enough of a punch, and as a result there's a lack of intensity to killing bad guys. The two main combat sequences I plays don't live long in the memory, either, in part because they are pretty basic and involve little more than firing fluid in the general direction of the enemies before igniting it, but mainly because the environments in which they were set weren't particularly interesting.Why virtual reality is the future It'll be the downfall of humanity, but it'll revolutionise Just Dance.
Adding a touch of variety to the shooting is a slow-motion mechanic called Black Sight, which ties into the Black Water, a substance the knights drink to heighten their senses and restore health. (Mallory drinks some from a vial after he's shot in the neck.) During Black Sight you can flick the thumb stick to quickly target enemies faster than they can react. You can't use it all of the time - you build up a meter as you kill enemies - and perhaps you wouldn't want to use it all of the time even if you could, because Ready at Dawn teases that the Black Water makes the knights less human somehow.
From what I've played, then, The Order's combat is perfectly serviceable but also forgettable. Having a seamless filmic experience, or whatever you want to call it, is all well and good, but The Order is a third-person shooter at its core, and right now there's nothing about the combat that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and demands you play more. For all the visual effects on show, the shooting lacks spark.
"Of course there's good and bad," Weerasuriya says of the reaction to the February gameplay reveal. "The good reinforces the decisions you take. People talk about the visual fidelity we're able to achieve, the character performances, and the fact it's all in-game. We still have people, even after the February stuff, say, 'Oh, that was totally pre-rendered.' I'm like, 'Okay, I don't know how else to explain it to you, but it's okay. If you believe that, it's fine.' But that is amazing."
I can't help but feel Ready at Dawn is still holding plenty back. But what? Here's hoping that, come early 2015, there will be more to the game than eye-popping graphics, and the delay will have been worth it.
This article was based on an event held in Santa Monica. Sony paid for travel and accommodation.