‘Anthem:’ A bioware tragedy

November 15, 2019

A lot of negative things have been said about the game “Anthem” and its developer Bioware already, and people who know about the game are wise to stay away from it. I was originally going to report on the happenings surrounding the game. But after some encouragement from Jonah, our beloved editor of the Arts section, and out of morbid curiosity, I decided to play the game for a few hours myself and see if it’s really as bad as everyone else says. Well, it is. 

Let’s talk about the good things first. As a “looter-shooter,” a genre of shooter games that combines role-playing elements like character gear loot, “Anthem” certainly nailed the shooter part. The gun play feels weighty and impactful, standard stuff for an AAA game. There are character abilities, like those in other shooters like “Destiny” and “Warframe,” that look really cool and are fun to use, especially the one that allows my character to pull out a gigantic rocket launcher. The sound design and the animation for releasing that bad-boy out are quite amazing. The flying mechanics in “Anthem,” to quote Iron Man himself, handles like a dream. Controls feel smooth, and it’s liberating to be able to roam an open world with such speed and verticality. 

But for all the good things that “Anthem” has, its competitors do the same, better. Other looter-shooters also have great gun-play with a far greater variety of weapons and have so much more going for them. For instance, loot drop rates and loot variety have been widely criticized for being terribly low, and is still not improved almost a year after launch. Also, those other games are free-to-play. “Anthem” requires $5 per month as part of “Origin Access” which is Electronic Arts (EA) game subscription service, or $60 upfront if you want to buy it.

“Anthem” is also not a very good game in terms of the standards of Bioware, which is a studio known for making highly engaging and replayable role-playing experience with intimate character interactions, branching dialogue trees and impactful choices. “Dragon Age: Origins” and “Mass Effect 2” are the prime examples of this. In contrast, “Anthem” shocked me with its extremely bare bones character creation: all you can do to “customize” is to choose from a preset of faces. You can get more customization options for your armor, but it’s still lacking in variety. Dialogue choices are binary, and from what I’ve seen so far they don’t have an impact on the game state. You don’t get to fight alongside or romance non-player-characters (NPCs). 

Instead, the game wants you to play online with other players, which is an inferior experience. The central hub world is extremely tiny and therefore feels very artificial, as if it exists only for the purpose of the player but not as a populated settlement in the world of “Anthem.” What’s worse is the issue of repeating NPCs, which I discovered when I entered the hub world for the very first time. Mission design feels outright lazy. It mostly consists of you finding something or someone and defending some objective from a swarm of enemies for a set amount of waves or time. This is true even in the prologue, where the game is supposed to hook you. The microtransaction is surprisingly lack-luster too: the options are few and unappealing. Glaring technical issues are still present, despite the fact that the game came out a year ago, such as random crashes (which thankfully resolved themselves eventually) and ungodly long loading screens.          

It’s a tragedy that the once respected Bioware went from making RPG classics like “Mass Effect 2” to barely squeezing out the travesty that is “Anthem.” And you can of course blame its parent company EA for forcing it to use the “Frostbite” game engine, which is notoriously difficult to operate (though ultimately the blame should fall squarely on Bioware’s shoulders). As revealed by Jason Schreier at “Kotaku” in his article “How Bioware’s ‘Anthem’ Went Wrong,” the company suffered incompetent leadership, which was an issue that was already present in the early 2010s. The development team had no idea what kind of game “Anthem” was supposed to be until the public demonstration of the game was shown at “E3,” the largest gaming convention. In other words, the demo was fake, merely a video clip made up at the last minute, and they only started developing the game about 12 to 16 months before its release (nowhere near enough time). The team was always understaffed. Workload mounted, and was extremely stressful, and the studio environment was toxic as Bioware saw animosity form between its offices. It’s no wonder that “Anthem” became a critical and commercial failure. 

But Bioware couldn’t even properly fix the game or add any substantial content well after its release. Now the player base is dwindling, and community feedback is being ignored. Two directors of “Anthem” have jumped ship. Willingness to work on the game appears to be zero. I wish there was a silver-lining—but there isn’t one. Unless the fourth “Dragon Age” game, which is currently in development, turns out to be a masterpiece and sells like crazy, the colossal failure of “Anthem” will likely mark the end for this once-great developer.

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