Anthem, which can be reductively but not deceptively described as BioWare’s take on Destiny but-with-Iron Man, is a strange game, and an even stranger game to write about.
What I’m putting into words today may not make sense in six months. It might not make any sense a week from now. The version of Anthem I’ve played for nearly 20 hours, the one with loading times that stretched into several minutes and a mission selection interface that made little sense, no longer exists. You’ll never play that. It’s gone, patched out of the game’s so-called “early access” period after it came to define the whole discussion around the game.
Other parts of the game were not meaningfully improved with the “launch” update, and this is the Anthem that will be harder to patch away. The version of Anthem with a promising world, but a story without any stakes. Drab missions that do excruciatingly little to take advantage of the dynamic movement possibilities afforded to your character. A structure that makes playing the thing as frustrating and long winded as possible, remains largely intact.
How much else will change, how much time BioWare will be given to enact change, is unknown, but one of the most profound differences about playing games in 2019 is, at least, the certainty of that change. What game Anthem turns into remains an exciting question; the time I’ve spent with the game, with a few missions to go before the end, and the time I’ll continue to spend with it, was not solely driven by my job, the need to Have an Opinion on the Big Game That’s Out.
It can be trying, though. Take this moment from a few days back.
For two hours, I’ve been flying around in search of treasure chests—15 of them, to be precise. There’s no way to track chests, though occasionally a blue light signals one is nearby. That blue light might also be, and too often is, merely a blue plant. I need to find 15 chests, encounter five “world events,” revive three strangers—the list goes on. The story will not advance until I’ve accomplished this list of arbitrary tasks to open a series of strange doors that, apparently, deeply respects someone getting three multi-kills. It’s at this point, halfway through the story, that a game about grind literally grinds to a halt, and I’m forced to take stock of what I’ve been playing. I tell myself I like it, and it’s not...well, it’s not a lie, exactly?
Every time I jump into the air and tap the left analog stick to turn on the jets that power my rocket suit, I find myself murmuring “Damn.” As I deftly perform a barrel roll into a nearby waterfall to cool my quickly overheating javelin, before plummeting into a canyon at a hundred miles per hour, and tapping the right analog stick at the last second, causing my character—a sleek, red-trimmed badass with a look inspired by Marvel’s Wasp—to hover inches above the ground, sniper rifle at the ready, I find myself murmuring again. Damn.
My buddy, hovering in mid-air and surveying the mob, targets a screen-filling enemy with a blast of frost, freezing the creature in place and setting them up for me to smash ‘em with a devastating follow-up that Anthem celebrates with a way-too-satisfying “ding” noise. Damn.
Anthem does not, in its current state, have enough damn moments.
The structure of Anthem is two-fold. There’s Fort Tarsis, the central hub, where you buy crafting items, talk to characters, and sort out gear. This takes place, for whatever reason and without discernible advantages, from a first-person perspective. Then, there’s the outside world. It’s a huge map, though one without enough distinctive landmarks to make areas memorable. Instead of flying around to start missions, you pick from a menu, the game does matchmaking wizardry, and off you go. (You can play solo, but it's boring. Also, turn the difficulty up to hard.) When you finish a mission, which typically involves shooting X number of enemies or standing in a glowing circle while shooting Y number of enemies, you head to a completion screen and watch your loot turn into gear.
(Please, in the future, just tell me what’s dropped mid-mission, and let me equip it.)
You cannot, sadly, jump straight into another mission. That requires returning to Fort Tarsis, which requires another loading screen. Those loading screens are less long than they once were, but still pretty long, and the whole process is a far cry from hitting a button at any time you so desire, picking the mission you want to go on, and just doing the thing. It’s a process, but the glaring weirdness almost makes it humorous to note, because BioWare will almost certainly revamp the whole thing. Dear Person Reading This a Year From Now: You’re lucky.
Why doesn’t a game about exploration encourage me to survey the world while on a mission, and instead, the moment I stray from the path, issue a long, glaring warning that it’s going to warp me towards the other players in 30 seconds? (Even more infuriating, the game often warps me even when I’m standing next to people.) How does a game whose main combat differentiator is combos, wherein players use attacks in tandem to generate huge damage, never explain actually explain how combos work? (I noticed the phrase “aura combo” in an item description, and subsequently watched a video on YouTube.) Why can’t I set a waypoint on the game’s massive map? Why is it matching me, a lower level player, with very high-level players, thereby ensuring those players one-shot every single enemy? And so it goes.
There’s a lot that doesn’t work here, enough to make a conspiracy theorist wonder if BioWare was making something pretty different and at some point realized—or was told—it needed to ship. At least, that’s the story I tell myself to help explain the myriad questionable design decisions from a studio who should know better, from someone who believes the Mass Effect trilogy is some of gaming’s finest storytelling, and who wonders if BioWare, like so many studios EA’s acquired, has changed irrevocably. What does BioWare mean now?
For one, that’s not a good question—or, at least, it’s the wrong one. BioWare has been defined by single-player role-playing games since Baldur’s Gate, but they should be encouraged to try something new, even if they fail at it. Experimentation is good, and Anthem is a big experiment, at least relative to their past work. They should make games that excite them, and fans should respect their desire to try new things. What I’d hoped from Anthem, though, was a game with BioWare’s stamp, in some way or another. That part’s hard to find.
The game opens with a cutscene where four squadmates are heading to the Heart of Rage, a thing that sounds really bad but the game doesn’t explain why it’s important or, well, what it even does. (This happens a lot in Anthem.) These four clearly know one another, and the player is dropped into the role of one of them. In the first 30 minutes, there’s a melodramatic cutscene where some of them die, and the game plays it as though it’s the final act of Mass Effect 2, where we’re supposed to scream at the television while a beloved friend perishes.
Instead, I was mostly confused; I hadn’t even managed to memorize their names yet.
For a while, I was convinced this was the end of the game, and Anthem was about to pull a impressive bait-and-switch, cutting to black and “one year earlier,” where it would invest time and resources into making these credible relationships. This doesn’t happen, and the game never really recovers from this misstep because it tries to build everything that follows on the foundation of a trauma that your main character suffered, but whose source is never understood because it was executed without any emotional stakes.
There is some interesting character work as you wander Fort Tarsis, but what does work mostly stands out because there is so much that doesn’t. I’m really happy I was able to help one of the vendors build up their business and start an indoor farm. I could not, however, tell you their name.
"I was ready for Anthem to be my Destiny; a BioWare-y version of one of those games that split the difference between dropping colored objects and telling cool stories, and made a convert."
Anthem doesn’t take even take time to explain basic concepts about its universe, even when they sound cool as heck. The premise driving Anthem is great: a society ditched by their gods, but the gods left their broken tools of creation behind, and they’re glitching out. Hell yeah! Or how about the Scars, one of the main factions you fight against, but the game doesn’t introduce properly? Well, Austin read the codex and get this: they’re millenia-old bug creatures who adopt the look of the predominant species on the planet! Extremely good, but most players will simply see the Scars as blobs of red polygons to shoot in search of drops.
Plenty of games are guilty of hiding interesting lore behind menus (see: Destiny!), but Anthem is especially bad, and it’s frustrating because there’s good material to work with.
I remember coming out of a demo for Anthem last year with Austin, where they let us fly around and fight a few enemies. The damn moments were there—turning on the jets, nailing colorful combos—and we left the meeting hoping they could pull off everything else. In retrospect, it’s probably telling the demo focused exclusively on the part of Anthem that actually works pretty well—combat—without a minute devoted to what would surround it.
Cards on the table: My history with games like this are mixed. I lack the personal time to fully invest in loot-driven shooters, but have, in fits and starts, truly enjoyed them. I spent a few dozen hours with Destiny’s The Taken King expansion, went on one of the raids, and got a glimpse into the how and why these games well and truly hook people. I was ready for Anthem to be my Destiny; a BioWare-y version of one of those games that split the difference between dropping colored objects and telling cool stories, and made a convert.
Anthem isn’t that game right now, and would advise most to give the game some months to breathe deep, and find an identity. I have, despite a long list of frustrations, found enjoyment with it, and do plan to keep playing. If only because I keep rooting for the game it might be.