Thoughts: Anthem

anthem_flight

Christ, what a mess.

I’ll admit to having doubts over whether it was even worth writing this review. Thanks to the drubbing it’s been receiving in the gaming press as yet another high-profile, half-baked release it probably has not escaped your notice that Anthem is broken as fuck. I’ve reviewed many broken games on here before. Some of them had clearly visible quality in spite of the brokeness and were being held back by failures in the development and design process, such as Civilization 6 and Stellaris, and some of them, like Rome 2 and No Man’s Sky… didn’t. All of those reviews ended up being extremely lengthy pieces of writing both because there was a lot to unpack, and because I felt there was something useful for me to learn from the failures involved and so went extra-deep on the critical breakdown.

But Anthem? I’ve been playing it for maybe a dozen hours and I don’t feel like I need to play it any more because I can see exactly where things are going to end up. By extension I also feel like writing a review is somewhat redundant because I know, just by looking at it, what went wrong during Anthem’s development and how it ended up in the state it’s in. There’s no need for me to go in-depth this time, and yet it’s going to be extremely difficult to avoid doing so in a review because the game is practically nothing but bugs, flaws, terrible writing and boneheaded design decisions. Given that I don’t think there’s any new lessons to be learned I’m correspondingly reluctant to spend six or seven hours of my life writing six or seven thousand words that I could simply copy and paste out of my other reviews; where Anthem is concerned it would have the particularly grim sound of a broken record, because much of what is wrong with Anthem is also exactly what was wrong with Mass Effect Andromeda1.

Still, much like Bioware I’ve started now, so I might as well push through to the finish and see what the end product looks like. The difference is that I at least have the luxury of shooting this review in the head if it looks like being the kind of Chaos Spawn-esque monstrosity that Anthem has turned out be.

anthem_autocannon

Okay, so. I usually start these things with a paragraph or at least a sentence explaining the basic premise of the game I’m reviewing, but I’ve been playing Anthem for just over twelve hours and I’m still not entirely sure what the game is about. I understand the broad design goal behind its existence — that Anthem should be an always-online cooperative loot-driven shooter in the vein of Destiny or The Division– but I do not know what it is about. There’s a lot of Capitalised Nouns being thrown around, as befits a studio that has decided to ape Bungie writing without understanding2 that you can’t Capitalise Something without the Something also having Some Meaning — so we’ve got the Cenotaph, the Monitor, the Cataclysm and so on, and all of it has roughly the same overall comprehensibility as staring into a bowl of Alphabetti Spaghetti. Anthem’s world is sci-fi with an awful lot of fantasy tropes mixed in, just like Destiny. You play yet another Capitalised Noun in a long tradition of Capitalised Nouns; you’re not a Bhaalspawn, or a Spectre, or a Grey Warden, or an Inquisitor, or a Pathfinder, no, this time you’re a Freelancer who pilots a robot suit called a Javelin and takes on contracts to kill things and grind materials in the immediate vicinity of Anthem’s hub city, Fort Tarsis. Despite the words “freelancer” and “contract” implying some sort of monetary compensation for your services, we’ve already established that words have totally ceased to have any sort of meaning in Anthem and so all you get for committing these sporadic acts of mass murder is the loot you pick up along the way; presumably the higher-ups in Fort Tarsis are promising to pay you in exposure.

Anyway, Anthem’s big innovation is supposed to be that it’s mixing Bioware-grade storytelling with the compulsive gameplay loop of Destiny. This is an… interesting plan, with two or three tiny flaws that I shall now list:

  1. Narrative-driven experiences tend to involve lengthy exposition dumps and cutscenes. Loot shooters and the ARPGs they’re based on rely on short 15-20 minute gameplay loops — you play for a bit, you do an objective, you get a reward, you upgrade your stuff, you do it again. The two concepts are an inherently poor fit for each other, as evidenced by Bungie eventually deciding to rip out all of Destiny’s backstory and put it on a website partly so that it wouldn’t slow the game down.
  2. These days the phrase “Bioware-grade storytelling” tends to put me more in mind of radioactive waste or biohazard storage than it does any feeling of high quality.
  3. Bioware have never done a Destiny-alike before (few people have; I can think of only three successful examples). They’re also attempting this in the Frostbite engine, which they still appear to be having serious issues with3.

Throw in a troubled development process (Anthem’s been in development since 2012 and has been rebooted at least once) and EA issuing their usual ultimatum to get the game out before end of financial year 2018 (or else), and it’s very easy to see how Anthem turned out the way it did. It’s why I think this review is a little redundant; an extremely talented development studio with an established development pipeline and full publisher backing could maybe have pulled Anthem off, but Bioware don’t have any of those things going for them and so they were doomed from the start by these poor technical and design decisions.

anthem_tarsis

Let’s start with the thing Bioware are supposed to know how to do, that they’re supposed to be good at, and which should be the one part of this game that turned out in a semi-passable state: the story. As already mentioned, it is an utterly nonsensical mess that’s obviously been stitched together out of whatever was lying around during the last twelve months of development; even Bioware would have difficulty intentionally writing a story this bland and meaningless. Still, after thirty years I’m more than used to ignoring shitty videogame stories if I have to, but the problem with Anthem’s story is that you can’t.

The major culprit here is Fort Tarsis, the hub area you’re supposed to go back to after every mission and which is one of the most staggeringly ill-conceived areas I’ve ever seen in an AAA game. Not only does it take nearly a minute to load into it (loading times are Anthem’s biggest problem by far, as we shall see later on), but your movement speed inside of it is limited to a pathetically slow jog. Fort Tarsis is not exactly large — it’s essentially three rooms and a few connecting areas — but it still takes a couple of minutes to walk from your Javelin to whatever NPC is going to give you the next stage of the quest you’re on, and then a couple more minutes to walk back to the Javelin so that you can start another mission. NPC conversations are both laughably shallow and interminably long and all follow the same pattern: the NPC will say three lines, then you get to pick one of two responses, and then you repeat this cycle four or five times, but it doesn’t matter which response you pick because there are no branching paths or outcomes and the conversation is basically just there to pad out the game’s running time.

In fact, Anthem’s conversations put me in mind of that AI text generator that can string together themed words and phrases to produce something that has the appearance of a news article, even though it can be exposed as a fake with just a couple of seconds of actually poring through the words for real meaning. They feel like exactly what you’d get if somebody was told to write N conversations each of which must have a minimum of X NPC voice lines and Y player responses, and who duly set off to fulfil that quota without particularly caring about the actual content itself. I’d already quickly learned to avoid talking to any of the “flavour” NPCs dotted around Fort Tarsis, who lurch to life spouting the same canned voice line whenever you pass by them like they’re awkward animatronics in a low-budget haunted house experience, but after a couple of hours I also found myself skipping through plot-relevant exposition and backstory dumps while just barely skim-reading the subtitles, because they were nothing more than the verbal equivalent of styrofoam packing chips.

Skipping a regular conversation works much as it does in Mass Effect or Dragon Age; you just hammer that Escape button to fast-forward through individual lines of dialogue until the conversation is over — but the conversations are so long, and so content-free, that even this becomes something of a chore after you do it for the umpteenth time. There are also some extremely lengthy in-engine first-person cutscenes — all of Fort Tarsis is first-person for some reason, because god knows the last thing I want to do in a loot-driven game is look at the equipment I’ve picked up as it’s nicely shown off on a third-person character model — and these can be skipped in their entirety by holding down Escape, even if it is a bit of a shame because they’re genuinely impressive on a technical level. The animators who worked on the character mocap and facial animations did a really good job only to be let down by the utter drivel that these characters spout as they pace up and down in front of you, and once the novelty wears off you’ll be skipping past them just as quickly. However, these skips only apply to the cutscenes that are inflicted on you in Fort Tarsis; one of Anthem’s more ridiculous design decisions is to also scatter cutscenes around inside the story missions, and these cannot be skipped, and they’re just as long as the ones in Fort Tarsis. Given that Anthem is a co-op game this means that there’s up to four people waiting around for this damn cutscene to finish so that they can get on with the mission, and given that the story missions are in the Quickplay list because Anthem doesn’t have enough content to fill it out otherwise, this also means that you wind up repeating the missions and having to sit through the cutscenes multiple goddamn times.

anthem_owen

Between the unskippable cutscenes and running slow laps around Fort Tarsis to pick up the next set of quests it quickly becomes apparent that Anthem has a very low regard for the player’s time as a resource, which is kind of a problem when you’re trying to build that quick, snappy gameplay loop that’s at the core of every successful ARPG and loot-driven shooter. The story adds absolutely nothing to the game and only serves to drag it down, like Bioware decided to fit it with a pair of concrete overshoes before shoving it out to sink or swim in one of the most crowded release windows of the last decade. However, the story — incredibly — isn’t actually the biggest source of time-wasting in Anthem. That’s a dubious honour reserved for the loading screens, which have been written about at length in many other places, and for good reason: they’re possibly the longest and most frequent loading screens I have ever seen in a modern video game.

I have to be a little careful with the hyperbole there because I’ve been gaming for a few decades now and I can still remember having to wait several minutes watching trippy colours as my family’s ZX Spectrum loaded Jet Set Willy off of a cassette tape. Technology has moved on a bit since then, though, from tapes to floppy disks to increasingly fast hard drives to solid-state drives, and now to the NVMe SSD, one of which I shoved into my PC a couple of months back and which Anthem is currently installed on. NVMe SSDs are blazingly fast, with most other games loading their assets in seconds and only one that I can think of that takes much more than half a minute (it’s fellow Frostbite title Battlefield V, oddly enough). However, to load from Fort Tarsis into a mission in Anthem takes eighty seconds plus. To load from the mission back into Fort Tarsis takes another forty seconds. There are dungeons scattered throughout the world which take 20-30 seconds to load into, and back out of. Even opening the inventory via an interface in Fort Tarsis called the Forge brings up a 10-second loading screen. And then closing it again takes another 10 seconds. Bear in mind here that I know these times to an accuracy of plus or minus ten seconds because that’s the interval at which I have Fraps set to automatically screenshot gameplay (or in this case, loading screens) and I’m giving Anthem as much rope as I can by quoting the lower bound. Also bear in mind that I’m using pretty much the fastest consumer technology available for this and I’m still getting loading screens that are a minute and a half long. I’ve read horror stories of people on HDDs and consoles having to wait nearly five minutes for a mission to load. For a supposedly triple-A game released in 2019, that is insane.

anthem_loading_screen

These loading screens totally destroy any remaining chance Anthem had of being a satisfying loot shooter. Consider the typical gameplay loop in Anthem:

  • You start in Fort Tarsis, next to your Javelin. You run for around a minute to get to an NPC so that you can get a mission, and then you run for another minute to get back to your Javelin so that you can start that mission.
  • Loading into the mission will take ninety seconds.
  • The mission itself will take 10-15 minutes to play through. You can add another minute of loading screens to that if the mission wants you to go inside a dungeon.
  • When you’re done with the mission, you’ll spend 10-20 seconds loading into the end-of-mission screen that summarises your experience and loot.
  • From there it’s forty seconds back into Fort Tarsis, and then another ten seconds into the Forge to equip the loot you just picked up, and then another ten seconds to get back out of the Forge.
  • You’re now ready to pick up another mission.

That’s five minutes of nothing time for each 10-15 minute gameplay segment — and that’s the best-case scenario, remember. If you’re not running Anthem on an SSD you can at least double the amount of time you spend just twiddling your thumbs and doing nothing. To be completely fair to Anthem, Destiny also had some pretty long loading screens, to the point where I used to joke it was a game about watching your ship fly through a loading screen interspersed with some light FPS gameplay, but there are two big differences between how Anthem and Destiny handle their loading screens. First is that Destiny was at least smart enough to give your something interesting to look at — the ship cosmetics of you and your party — while you sat through the loading screen. All Anthem shows you is a blurry JPEG and the usual loading screen hint.  And second is that Destiny frontloaded its loading screens: you would load into a place once, and then you could spend as much time there as you wanted without ever encountering another one until you decided to leave. Importantly, you didn’t have to sit through a loading screen to access the bloody inventory, which is one of the most colossally idiotic things you could do with an inventory in a game about loot. Another is making it so that you can only access the inventory when you go back to the hub area, which Anthem does also. A third is giving you limited backpack space that forces a return to the hub area when it’s full — Diablo does this, obviously, but the Town Portal system means it takes literal seconds to offload all of your crap and then you’re back in the fight. In Anthem that’s at least five minutes as you go back to Fort Tarsis to painstakingly salvage each of your crappy excess items, one at a time.

andthem_end_of_mission

I honestly don’t know why these loading screens are so damn long, but when you put them together with the backwards design enforced by the story they not only mean Anthem fundamentally doesn’t work as a game, but they ensure that it can never work as a game. A large part of any ARPG or Destiny-alike is the endgame grind, which relies on players doing the same things over and over again in search of increasingly rare rewards. When you have players do something hundreds, maybe even thousands of times, you have to minimise the amount of friction they encounter along the way, otherwise they’re going to get pissed off and leave. Diablo 3 post-Reaper Of Souls had next to no friction, which is why I happily spent fifty hours or so grinding up full sets for my Hardcore Barbarian. Destiny had a bit too much for my tastes, which is why I fell out of the game after doing all of the non-endgame content, but most other people have a higher tolerance for that stuff than I do, and it made enough concessions for those people to play it and enjoy it and make it very successful. Anthem, on the other hand, is arguably more friction than it is game; frustration is the major emotion you’ll feel while playing it, and even if they eventually hammer the base game into shape (as Bungie did with Destiny and Ubisoft did with The Division) it’s not going to have any long-term appeal if they don’t fix the loading screens. And I’m not sure how they do that short of just making Fort Tarsis a menu or something. This would be an absolutely massive improvement just by removing most of the story elements from the game, but that’s precisely why Bioware won’t do it: they’ve got way too much invested in it.

So, from a metagame perspective, Anthem’s mix of stodgy story and technical limitations together Bioware’s seeming unfamiliarity with the genre they’re trying to make a game in (I really would have thought that all of the stuff I just outlined was How To Make A Successful ARPG 101) ensure that it’s simple impossible for it to succeed. But if you ignore all of that stuff — Fort Tarsis, the Forge, the incredibly annoying characters who are constantly yapping through your comms, the loading screens — and focus on what happens after you’re past the final loading screen and have actually gotten into Anthem’s game world, what it is like to actually play?

Well….yeah, it’s still pretty bad.

anthem_shield

Anthem’s moment to moment gameplay ends up being just as hamstrung by idiotic design decisions as the metagame. Most activities in Anthem take place in the single generic overworld map the game has, called Bastion. Bastion is jungle-themed and quite pretty (if there’s one thing Frostbite can do it’s make things look pretty) even if the art direction for it is a bit soulless and the actual layout of the map is confusingly mazelike. There’s no way to set waypoints for your team to follow and the ones baked into the game as part of the scripted missions are wilfully misleading at times, so a large part of the game is spent looking at a map and trying to figure out where the hell you should be going next, and then finding out that what looked like a tunnel on the map was in fact a sheer cliff wall, and then realising you’ve lost your bearings and have to check the map again. One of Anthem’s big innovations is that the Javelin suits can all fly — and even hover in place during combat to provide a stable firing platform — and it looks like Bioware decided this meant they could add additional three-dimensionality to the maps without giving players any additional navigational aids to compensate. The flying itself is one of the biggest missed opportunities of Anthem; a lot of time and effort has gone into making the flying feel good and it almost pays off, but it all ends up being undone by yet another stupid design decision to have your flight time be gated by an overheat meter. Spend too long in the air and you’ll come crashing down to the ground and be stuck there for a while until you clear the overheat. Going into a dive and flying through water reduces the rate at which you overheat, but you’ll always eventually max it out, and so the simple process of flying from point A to point B ends up being a very unsatisfying stop-start journey as you have to periodically land for a few seconds to empty your heat meter. And so what should have been one of Anthem’s signature features is reduced to yet another time-wasting point of frustration.

In terms of mission design Anthem has the most pathetic, low-effort objective structures possible, the sort of thing World Of Warcraft grew out of a decade ago. Nearly all of them involve one of the following: killing a bunch of things, standing on a circle while killing a bunch of things, or picking up things and taking them to another thing while killing a bunch of things. That’s it. That’s pretty much the sum total of the imagination Anthem has when it comes to mission design; it’s actually morbidly funny when you get to one of the game’s big story missions that’s supposed to be a recreation of a big battle from aeons past and it’s just the same “stand on a circle and defeat enemy waves while a timer runs down” mission you’ve been doing for the last ten hours — it’s got the same enemy types and everything — with only a self-important narration over the comms to differentiate it from the cut-and-paste content used for the generic repeatable Contract missions. The weird thing is that there are game mechanics that show the vaguest spark of something more, like a flight inhibition field that shakes up the combat a bit but shows up all of twice, or the combination locks that are mechanically quite basic (you just match the symbols on the walls) but you’re so starved for something different that you welcome them on the few occasions when they’re actually used in a mission. It’s just that they’re more difficult to implement than the three stock objectives Anthem has, and so they’re pushed to the back of the shelf while those three objectives are repeated ad infinitum and make the game even blander than it already is.

anthem_boss

The enemies aren’t much better. There’s a selection of random beasties walking around Bastion, but they’re effectively one-offs and don’t really attack you unless you aggro them. Otherwise there are basically four different enemy types in Anthem: a faction of humans with guns, another faction of humans with guns (although they also occasionally have magicians), a faction of insects who have formed themselves into the shape of humans with guns, and some scorpion-spider things. You may notice something of a running theme in the enemy design, but I’m not going to call out Anthem for having all of their factions be humanoids with guns because Destiny does the same thing. No, where Anthem fucks up is that it totally fails to differentiate between the different factions of humanoids with guns; the Vex and the Cabal in Destiny feel fairly distinctive thanks to enemy variety within each faction as well as factional gimmicks like the Vex teleportation, whereas the Regulators and the Dominion in Anthem are basically a palette swap of each other.  Anthem also makes the same mistake The Division did by introducing all of its enemy factions in the first hour of the game and ensuring you’re thoroughly bored after playing it for another twelve and not encountering anything new. And when it comes to the AI behaviour of each faction — the thing that’s most responsible for making them fun to fight — Anthem actually plumbs new and terrible depths; each faction will spawn literally out of thin air, walk just far enough that they’re in line of sight of the nearest player, and then stand still and start shooting them. There’s no use of cover, no flanking and no advanced combat behaviours based around ability use; they just mindlessly shoot at you, or mindlessly run up to you and try to melee you. Like everything else in Anthem it feels like the enemy design is the barest of bare minimums necessary to get the game out of the door by their FY 2018 deadline, not something that a supposed triple-A studio has spent seven years developing.

The combat is almost good in spite of this. Bioware are helped along here a little by their experience with Mass Effect 3’s excellent multiplayer mode, which Anthem is heavily based on, and you can still see very occasional flashes of what Bioware probably intended Anthem to be, as three out of the four Javelin classes you can pilot are quite distinctive and have a bunch of fun abilities. I lucked into picking probably the best of the lot as my starting Javelin; the hulking Colossus can deploy a shield and juggernaut through hordes of enemies, as well as leaping high into the air and then pounding the ground with a shattering AOE melee strike that also detonates combo primers. The special powers linked to the Q and E keys were also fun; I could shoot enemies with a siege cannon or a rail gun, or activate a electricity field to passively shock nearby enemies as a I charged through them with my shield. My friends who played the rogue-like Interceptor and the mage-like Storm also enjoyed piloting their Javelins — that is, just so long as they were using the custom Javelin abilities to do damage and kill enemies and not having to fire any of Anthem’s actual guns, which are all quite shockingly anaemic. None of them feel like they have any force or impact behind them, and even the single biggest gun in the game — the Colossus’s Torrent minigun — feels like you’re pelting enemies with a spray of tiny ineffectual pebbles instead of a hail of lethal lead. The guns are just what you use when your abilities are on cooldown because they’re no fun at all; they’re all identically blocky-looking and have absolutely no distinctiveness to them, and I didn’t particularly care whether my secondary weapon was an assault rifle or a light machine gun because they both looked, sounded and behaved the same as each other.

(This is also why the fourth Javelin, the weapons-focused Ranger, is no fun to play at all, because the guns are all they can do.)

anthem_loot

This presents yet another problem for Anthem; when the guns are so unsatisfying, and upgrades are so meaningless, that basically scuppers any hope you had of hooking players in with your loot system because 80% of the available loot is guns. The other 20% is incremental upgrades to Javelin class abilities, which are perfectly fine but difficult to get excited about because you’ll settle on a build you like fairly early and then you’re just getting slightly better versions of the abilities that make up that build. There’s no armour drops, no cosmetic drops; just an endless parade of identikit weapons that I could not give the tiniest iota of a shit about because they’re so generic. I understand the weapon situation improves slightly once you get into the endgame and start rolling legendary weapons with unique, powerful affixes similar to Destiny exotics or Diablo 3 class set bonuses, but then we run into the other problem Anthem has: of the twelve people in my Friends list who “bought”4 Anthem, only two of them completed the game (I am not one of them) and both stopped playing shortly afterwards as the true vacuousness of the game really started to bite. The rest of us fell out of Anthem long before then and never even saw any of those special affixes.

The general experience my group had towards the end is a great way to sum up Anthem, in fact; there’s so much downtime in Fort Tarsis with the various cutscenes and the loading screen gating to get in and out of the inventory screen that we actually preferred to play solo or with matchmade parties rather than dragging friends into the mix, because that meant we were only wasting our own time, not everyone else’s. It’s a multiplayer game where you actively try to avoid playing with your friends, for god’s sake; the last session I played was me and my regular co-op partner Kenti trying to blast through some story missions, and the whole time I felt horribly guilty because I didn’t particularly want to be playing Anthem at that point, and so I can only imagine how Kenti felt. Guilt, frustration, boredom, annoyance — these are not emotions I want associated with anything in my life, let alone a thing I’m supposedly doing for leisure, and so I called a stop to it after that session. I like to finish games if I can in order to get a full picture of what they’re like, but Anthem simply isn’t worth it.

anthem_forge

I’m at 5,000 words now, and there’s still an awful lot I haven’t mentioned: the hyper-aggressive tethering during missions that teleports you to your party if you’re more than five metres behind them when they hit a checkpoint (which results in another loading screen); the utterly barren Free Play mode that’s supposed to provide some of the sense of a living world that Destiny and The Division do but which merely accentuates just how much better those games do it; the revive system that’s absolutely not fit for purpose; the Titan world boss, whose attacks are all incredibly broken and who is in general one of the most atrociously-designed enemies I’ve ever seen; the UI that started out bad and has been rendered borderline unusable by a terrible PC port5. Anthem is just a never-ending list of fuckups, though, and I really don’t have time to list all of them. I’ll just say that most could have been avoided with even the most basic analysis of what the competition is doing; after years of live ops to fix their own serious failings Destiny, The Division and Warframe are all pretty good blueprints for how to make one of these games and have it be a success, and yet Anthem has seemingly intentionally ignored every single one of them, instead choosing to jet off on its own and immediately ram itself face-first into the nearest wall like a drunken Javelin pilot.

(I can guarantee there’s one group of people who are quite happy about this outcome. Ubisoft are about to release The Division 2, which doesn’t look like it’ll be anything special but whose bar for success has suddenly been lowered so far it’s practically tunnelling into the Earth’s core.)

I want to end by considering Anthem’s — and Bioware’s — possible future. It’s no secret that Bioware are all-in on Anthem; resources have been stripped from other games (i.e. The Old Republic) in order to get it out of the door, and up until it flopped the company’s plan over the next one to two years was very likely to focus on live ops for Anthem while they worked on a Dragon Age 4 prototype that could be put into full production once the next generation of consoles had been announced. At the very least they would have been hoping that, even though they knew that Anthem was releasing in an extremely rough state, they could eventually turn it around the same way Bungie did Destiny and Ubisoft did The Division. I have some bad news for them: that simply isn’t going to be possible. Anthem’s not fixable. In the past I’ve made pronouncements on how other, less broken games were fixable, only to have them remain thoroughly broken years later, so I’ve re-evaluated what developers are willing and able to do with a game post-launch; there are some parts of Anthem that you could extract and put into other, better games, sure, but there’s too much that’s just plain rotten, and now that they’ve actually released it they’ve made it exponentially harder to do anything about that rot. It’s been critically mauled and the word-of-mouth is terrible; from a business perspective, running live ops on Anthem is pretty quickly going to be a case of throwing good money after bad.

anthem_rekt

So what do Bioware do? Sure, EA might give them one last chance with Dragon Age 4, but that’s at least four years out and, after two critically-panned games in a row, there’s no guarantee that DA 4 would turn out any differently to Mass Effect Andromeda and Anthem because something is fundamentally broken at Bioware. There’s still definite talent at that studio, and some of it still shines through in Anthem in spite of everything, but until Bioware and EA both take a step back and address the structural issues facing Bioware and their relationship with EA that’s all Bioware will ever produce: games that are at best heavily flawed, and at worst utterly broken. That’s an expensive solution in terms of both money and time, of course, and I suspect EA are more likely to consider shutting Bioware down completely; all they’ve got going for them is that they’re one of the last EA studios standing and EA desperately need first-party content to push their subscription services, and also that the Bioware brand isn’t yet fully toxic and people will still turn up for Dragon Age 4. It’ll probably happen, but it’s definitely a last roll of the dice and I personally don’t expect that it’ll pay off. I have immense respect for Bioware’s history — Baldur’s Gate is one of my favourite game series ever, and KOTOR and Mass Effect defined console RPGs for their respective generations — but the people who worked on those games are long gone from the company. And as far as the ability of the modern Bioware to deliver a quality product is concerned, Anthem is a truly dire portent of things to come.

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  1. There must be some schadenfreude going around former Bioware Montreal employees at the moment — they got thrown under the bus when that turned out the way it did as the fans blamed it on the “Bioware B-Team”. Well guess what, the “A-Team” at Edmonton has fucked Anthem up even worse because the truth is there’s almost no-one left at Bioware who worked on Mass Effect and the internal processes that should ensure continuity of institutional knowledge and company culture over a personnel shift are either laughably inadequate or simply non-existent.
  2. To be completely fair to Bioware, even Bungie can’t do Bungie writing any more.
  3. Jason Schreier wrote a decent book called Blood, Sweat & Pixels that collated accounts of the development process behind a dozen recent games, one of which was Dragon Age: Inquisition. Long story short, you can’t just take an engine that’s designed to build first-person shooters and use it to make an RPG because you have to build most of the tools from scratch, which somewhat defeats the point in using somebody else’s engine in the first place.
  4. Quotation marks necessary because it is possible to try Anthem for a month by paying £15 for an Origin Premier month subscription. Origin Access in general is a weirdly consumer-positive thing for EA to be offering, as the Basic tier in particular offers ridiculous value for money if you don’t already have a vast game library on Steam.
  5. When you’re in the mission select screen there’s a button you can press to Ready up, and a button you can press to go to the Forge. The Ready button is F. The Forge button is R. That should tell you all you need to know about the amount of thought that went into Anthem’s PC port.
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7 thoughts on “Thoughts: Anthem

  1. James Stanfield says:

    haha, excellent point about them aping the vague mystic dialogue that the newer Bungie games are pretty infamous for; lots of talk about ‘the Thing’ or ‘The Tabernacle’ without it actually being of any substance. It feels like most studios nowadays have just ditched the whole science part of Sci-fi and are just shooting for Star Wars except with more killing.

    • Hentzau says:

      It drives me up the wall, honestly. I don’t need everything to be hard sci-fi with meticulously explained backstory and physics. I *do* need it to have *some* backstory to it, though, if only because that demonstrates the script isn’t just something I could have dashed off in ten minutes with a Markov Chain generator.

      I’ve recently been playing Objects In Space. This is an indie Firefly-esque space game where there is no spoken dialogue, no cutscenes and all of your conversations take place via text delivered by a chunky PDA or email. The writing in it isn’t exactly stellar, but the developers have clearly thought about the world they wanted to create and spent a lot of time coming up with writing that is at least mechanically and thematically appropriate, and so it’s approximately one million times better than Anthem, a game which has had millions of dollars spent on it but where the world has no unifying vision, the plot has been chopped up by multiple reboots and a rushed development process, and I’m 90% sure it’d just be word soup even if the previous two points weren’t true.

  2. ilitarist says:

    I actually liked Andromeda more than ME3 – mind you, I’ve played fully patched version. But I can see all the signs of decay. It’s just most of what I didn’t like about newer BioWare was there since Mass Effect 2 which dropped the exploration of a seemignly infinite galaxy full of details in favor of constant action. Dragon Age Inquisition switched to itchy gameplay too but it still had its huge world, and Andromeda’s world was very weak but it was still a world, not a coridor from ME2/3.

    So if they’re dying then let them die. I’d be happy to see another Dragon Age game but not if it’s designed by cometee released in a financially sensible time cashgrab. The sad thing is that similar story is probably happening to Obsidian. They had a great Pillars of Eternity game and I’m sure Outer Worlds will be good. Same creative talent, huge support from big publisher – they’ve made New Vegas last time it happened. Just like BioWare made Dragon Age Origins and Mass Effect. But after that it’s hard to imagine things not going downhill.

    • Hentzau says:

      What happens to Obsidian is going to be entirely driven by Microsoft’s long-term corporate strategy. Right now, Microsoft is playing the kind uncle because they spent far too long being the evil vizier and shuttering studios/cancelling games, and so found themselves with nothing in the pipeline for the last few years of the XBox One’s lifespan. As long as they’re still lagging behind Sony (but not too far), Obsidian will probably be just fine as Microsoft needs them in order to catch up and will give them a lot of leeway. The problems start when either of the following become true:

      1) Sony keeps screwing up, Microsoft manage to make up some ground, and the ridiculous spending splurge they went on this year starts to bring lots of new games down the pipeline. You look a lot more expendable when the company is doing well and there’s five other developers all doing the same thing that you are.
      2) The Xbox falls so far behind that Microsoft abandons the console gaming space entirely.
      3) The Outer Worlds bombs. Least likely to happen as it’s explicitly being marketed to the Fallout crowd who have far more money than they do sense.

      Still, I doubt Obsidian could have survived much longer as a double-A indie since the Kickstarter well was well and truly drying up. They’ll last longer now that they have Microsoft’s money to fall back on, but their fate is no longer their own.

  3. innokenti says:

    Yeah, I got 7 hours in and was done at the point where the game asked me, on its critical path, to do a bunch of makework tasks. Now, this might be standard for MMOs, though usually not on the main quest list… but there was no easy way of tracking these things or hunting for them without a going into a bunch of (crappy) menus. Why would any designer ask a player to do this? The worst quest design I’ve seen in quite a while.

    • Hentzau says:

      Ha, didn’t even mention the Tombs quests, despite it wasting about an hour of my time (and more of everyone else’s). There’s just way too much wrong with Anthem to fully list out; I’d have been here for days.

  4. Cauldar says:

    Yeah… my complaining in your Apex Legend review really belongs here. I had just come off a frustrating few hours with Anthem and might have misplaced my vitriol.

    Fort Tarsis, the UI and the loading screens maddening. Very nice review.

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