I’m now 20 hours into Anthem. In that time, I’ve gone back and forth between dearly loving the game and wanting to throw it into the sun. When reading through Rossko’s review of the game, I agreed with many of his criticisms. The lack of navigation tools. The crashes. The disconnects. The counter intuitive UI and menu systems. Much of Anthem leaves a lot to be desired – but underneath the head scratching design decisions and online woes shines some of BioWare’s finest narrative work.
Let’s talk about the problems with Anthem for a second. The game crashes. The server disconnects. The mission clear kicks. All of these issues are to do with the multiplayer, games-as-a-service, always online nature of the game. When you’re playing a level with random people who’re a few levels higher than you and end up getting dragged from fight to fight by a “You’re outside of the mission area. Transporting in 3…2…1” message because they’re moving much faster than you are. Also, because it’s an online game. The obtuse puzzle design which requires a little thinking but takes an inordinate amount of time to clear because your 3 team mates are flying around just messing with everything. Online. Almost all of the main criticisms of Anthem can be laid at the feet of the way it deals with multiplayer.
BioWare, to their credit, have done an excellent job of blending their narrative – a plot of one Javelin pilot’s quest to end a nefarious plan by a shadowy army – with the online nature of the game. Despite the fact that there’s almost always 3 other players alongside you, you always feel like the hero of your story. You’re the only one wandering around your version of Fort Tarsis, talking to spies, taking the contracts, setting up plans to save the city. Unlike every other multiplayer game of this ilk, where NPC quest givers are surrounded by other players, all of whom are being told “You’re our only hope!”, Anthem does make you feel like you *are* the only hope.
Then there’s the dialogue. While BioWare are famous for their branching narratives and game altering decisions, Anthem reigns that in to almost inconsequential choices during conversations. This almost has to be the case in this type of game. Having far reaching choices in a game where every player, by definition, must end at the same point is not yet a reality. While this is a far cry from Mass Effect, it does go further than any other game thus far in the genre. It’s certainly an improvement on the system used in Destiny where talking to NPC’s is an entirely one way conversation which ends with them provide you with a waypoint to follow.
The NPC characters are well thought out too. Almost everyone you speak too has a backstory on how they arrived in Fort Tarsis, what they do there and why. Sure, not all of them are edge-of-your-seat exciting but spend time with them and they really start to flesh out the world of Anthem and give it the depth that BioWare are renown for. This ties into the lore, which is exemplary. If you’re one of those gamers, like me, that pours over each text log to see what they contain, you see this massive trove of information that BioWare, probably rightfully given the type of game this is, made optional. Anthem gives you all the lore you really need to get a handle on the world and its nuances very early on but if you did deeper, there’s something quite wonderful in those logs.
Then there’s the flying, the gun play and mission design. There’s nothing ground breaking in Anthem but aside from some perplexing missions that need more signposting, it’s a gratifying game to play. The core mechanics of looting and shooting all work admirably but combo’ing and the initial on-boarding probably needed to be explained in more detail.
The issue with Anthem, for me at least, is that the multiplayer aspects of the game prevent me from really enjoying the best bits at its core. The frequent crashes mean I do things quickly, skimming over stuff I’d otherwise spend time delving into. Navigating the open world can be a chore because you want to do it efficiently, wary of disconnections that’ll put you back by an hour, otherwise it’d be a pleasure getting lost in a world as beautiful as this one. Hell, I’ve spent hours just walking around games like Far Cry because stumbling across new things is a joy – but in Anthem, I’m cautious of the instability. Getting dragged through missions by fast moving team mates – transporting from one no respawn spot to another – means you miss out on so much of the world building and content between essential mission beats. Then there’s the random Interstella load time and hangs. Typical fare for online games sadly but they happen a little too often in Anthem for my liking.
This all makes me feel like Anthem could have been an excellent single player game. Remove those online niggles and I’m confident that the elements BioWare have previously demonstrated that they’re trailblazers in – the narrative, lore, world building and character – would all shine through. It’s clear to me that the issues Anthem is facing isn’t a core design problem. It’s more than the core is surrounded by elements that aren’t quite right or are malfunctioning at present. Given time, when BioWare and EA have chance to shore up connections, stop the crashes (there’s already a patch scheduled to prevent this), tighten up the navigation, readdress the weapon balances and maybe take a look at the way certain pieces of information are delivered to players, Anthem might eventually become some of BioWare’s finest work. There’s still time and the positives are there to see and can be built on, so long as you can say connected long enough to see them.
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