Intended to be the ‘Bob Dylan’ of video games, BioWare had high hopes for Anthem.
A bold mission statement to be sure.
The resulting product of such lofty expectations and a six-year development cycle is less ‘Voice of a Generation’ and more, well, off-key garage band.
As is becoming more prevalent in gaming, blockbuster AAA titles like Anthem are releasing in a type of ‘early access’ state. These are games that come out feeling unfinished, are patched either on day-one or soon thereafter and/or undergo extensive revamping in respect to gameplay mechanics or systems.
This is largely typical amongst looter-shooters, as current genre heavyweights such as Destiny, The Division and Warframe all released in somewhat similar states, only to undergo extensive retooling following player feedback.
Anthem – Not What Was Promised
This cycle of ‘release-collect feedback-retool’ has reinforced the idea of looter-shooters as ‘games as a service’ or ‘live-service games.’ Products that not only continue to serve up new content for players to return to, but that improve over time. We saw this happen with Destiny (including its sequel) and The Division. Most notably we saw it with Warframe; a vastly different game from the one that launched many years ago.
Anthem continues this trend, releasing in a state that leaves many to believe it to be unfinished and unpolished.
The endgame is of particular concern and centres around redoing the same content over and over on higher difficulties in hopes of obtaining better and better loot. Then there are myriad technical issues that, among other things, kick players out of their play sessions, cut game sounds and even brick consoles.
Perhaps most frustratingly there are the design decisions BioWare made that go against the central pillars of the game; looting and playing together.
Strong Alone, Stronger…Also Alone?
At the time of writing, there is no in-game method of directly communicating with other players aside from connecting at a system-level. A laughable omission for a game that touts the ‘strong alone, stronger together’ tagline.
Anthem also has a serious problem with its loot and gameplay loop. Basically, it gates players off from their amassed loot until they finish their current mission. Picked up a sweet new piece of loot? Sorry, you will have to wait until you’ve endured no less than two loading screens, one to exit your current session, a second to load into the forge (Anthem’s equip sub-screen), before you can find out what you have AND how it will affect your loadout.
With its peers providing players immediate feedback on their pickups, why did BioWare eschew the generally accepted way of handling loot?
Pacing has been brought up by studio mouthpieces as one of the underlining reasons for this questionable design choice. Citing an attempt to prevent gameplay to come to a screeching halt because one or two players decide to start reconfiguring their loadouts with the new loot just picked up as the reason.
This is certainly a problem that occurs in other looter-shooters when playing in groups, however, in such instances, players either communicate or simply leave those players behind to catch up. BioWare’s attempt to curb such behaviour for the betterment of everybody is admirable but also displays a certain level of arrogance on their part to assume it knows best.
But WHY did this happen?
During Anthem’s lengthy six-year development, surely BioWare’s designers and programmers looked across the industry and noticed the trends emerging? Surely someone at EA noticed what was happening, especially over at Activision and Ubisoft? Why did BioWare seemingly opt to ignore the lessons learnt, especially in respect to the shoot-loot-repeat loop that makes games such as Destiny and The Division so addictive, and forge ahead on its own path?
BioWare has always been a trailblazer of a studio; pioneering in areas such as engrossing storytelling and player choice. Its efforts to place openly gay characters within games is a testament to BioWare’s legacy at a time when the gaming industry refused to — and still does — acknowledge and represent entire sections of its community.
Perhaps its reputation for innovation in these spaces, as well as the success of the first three Mass Effect games, which many of the Anthem team worked on, gave rise to a sense of ‘we can do it better than everybody else’ among the team.
Is it Fixable?
To the studio’s credit, BioWare has been active on social media responding to and addressing players’ concerns about Anthem and worked hard to ensure the day-one patch captured as much of the requested changes as possible. BioWare has also been quick to detail its post-launch content plans and is committed to issuing ongoing hotfixes for recurring problems as well as additional rebalancing for world events and loot.
All this points to a strong commitment within BioWare to support Anthem well into the future. Given another 12 months the game will probably match the lofty expectations of the studio’s original design intent. Though why it didn’t match it upon release, after six years in development, we may never know.
BioWare has stated its intention for Anthem to be a 10-year journey, but I sincerely doubt whether the studio’s commitment can extend that long, be it due to financial or personnel resources.
A decade is a long time in video games and if BioWare is slow to ramp up its efforts to fix Anthem’s most broken elements quickly many people will likely drop-off well before anybody considers the game the Bob Dylan of anything.