There was not a more disappointing game in 2019 than BioWare’s Anthem. The promise of BioWare storytelling dropped into an ongoing and emergent space populated by friends and strangers could have been incredible. Could. Beyond the still-fantastic feeling of soaring through the sky, Anthem was anything but. It was frustratingly mediocre, and in the year since, BioWare has done precious to change that feeling. A Kotaku report from last fall suggested BioWare planned a “complete overhaul” of the game, and today BioWare has confirmed it.
In a blog post by BioWare general manager Casey Hudson, the studio admitted “there’s so much more that we—and you—would have wanted from [_Anthem_].”
“We recognize that there’s still more fundamental work to be done to bring out the full potential of the experience,” said Hudson, “and it will require a more substantial reinvention than an update or expansion.”
This doesn’t happen very often in video games. The cynical take on Anthem after it fumbled its launch and spent the ensuing months doing absolutely nothing to meaningfully address its core issues was that Electronic Arts would force BioWare to abandon the game, part of a larger cynicism parts of the gaming public has towards the publisher. That does not appear to be happening, but the other usual route to deal with a failed project—shifting resources to a sequel—also isn’t in the cards for Anthem. It’s in-between.
Being rare does not make it unprecedented, however, especially in this style of game. Final Fantasy XIV was soundly rejected when it launched in 2010, prompting Square Enix to spend several years trying to salvage what they’d built. The result was 2013’s A Realm Reborn, one of today’s most beloved MMOs, and a game alive and well. Ubisoft also famously turned around Rainbow Six: Siege by committing to slow but steady improvements.
The theory with Anthem was that “OK, BioWare got the flying and shooting parts right, maybe they can fix the rest over time? Isn’t that supposed to be an advantage for a service game?” But they didn’t, and instead, most of 2019 was spent watching BioWare commit the sin of barely talking to its community about what was going on, once thought to be a signal they were quietly working on big, material changes to the game. Instead, it now appears BioWare was internally having the same conversations the players were having about what the future of Anthem should be.
It’s tough to completely parse what Hudson means here. It’s not an update or an expansion, but it’s also not Anthem 2, either. And what happens to the story? Is that getting revamped? Critically, this blog post makes zero mention of the storytelling aspects of Anthem. Not one!
“Over the coming months we will be focusing on a longer-term redesign of the experience,’ he said, “specifically working to reinvent the core gameplay loop with clear goals, motivating challenges and progression with meaningful rewards—while preserving the fun of flying and fighting in a vast science-fantasy setting.”
Here’s how Kotaku reporter Jason Schreier phrased things in his piece last year:
“But the reality is that BioWare is still putting a lot of work into Anthem. Details on Anthem Next are hazy, but among other things, the game’s developers plan to overhaul the loot, the quests, the social aspects of the game, the difficulty, the progression system, and the world map. One person on the project said they’re planning to change the game’s entire structure. Right now, the entire world of Anthem is set on a single contiguous map; separating the map into segments would allow developers to tweak and play around with those segments without worrying that they might create bugs and glitches all across the world. ‘We’re also looking at breaking up the need to go back to [Fort Tarsis] after every mission,” said the person, ‘and what a mission technically is. That was always a weird disconnect. [We’re] trying to integrate the disparate parts of the game together.’”
What was unofficial policy will now become official: Anthem is going quiet, while they figure out what to do with the game. They aren’t scrapping Anthem, it seems, but they’re not punting towards a sequel, either. But beyond the incremental updates they’ve already been delivering—”events, store refreshes, and revisiting past seasonal and cataclysm content”—there won’t be much coming to Anthem until this soft reboot comes to pass.
Even this decision is one that prompts some questions. Is it worth keeping Anthem in its hobbled state, investing developer resources into something that's largely going to go away? Clearly, the calculus has been made that shutting down Anthem completely would be a bridge too far.
The one thing people could agree about with Anthem was that it felt really cool to fly. The rest of it was a mess, and hopefully, this actually gives them a chance to figure that part out. I spent more than 20 hours in Anthem desperately hoping it would give me a reason to stick around and it never happened. I’m crossing my fingers this second shot will finally do it.