Warframe was released in 2013. Destiny was released a year and a half later. The Division came a year and a half after that. Each of these games stumbled out of the gate, eventually learning lessons and making even more mistakes along the way. All three games are in arguably the best place they’ve ever been.
It is now 2019 and Anthem not only fails to learn much of anything from the mistakes these games made along the way, but it doesn’t learn from the things those games got right on day one either.
Nowhere is this more clear for myself than with comparisons to the tech behind Destiny. Destiny was released on PS3 and Xbox 360 with seamless transitions between instanced and public zones, a loading sequence that let players look through their gear at anytime, and robust API support that allowed players to swap guns from their mobile devices. Anthem is filled to the brim with disruptive barebones loading screens and harsh transitions between everything. What’s worse, this loot-focused game doesn’t let you look at loot drops or experiment with gear during missions, so finding a gun you like is a chore.
This would all be forgivable if there were something definitively “Bioware” about this game. Yet the story is weak by Bioware’s own standards while being force-fed through a co-op looter shooter template. Nothing about the storytelling benefits from the co-op play, and the co-op play doesn’t benefit from the storytelling.
Between missions everyone gets siloed off in their own version of Fort Tarsis to have their own conversations with their own NPCs. The layout is confusing and it’s all-too easy to get out of sync with your teammates because they didn’t talk to the right characters. If one player is lost, it’s near impossible to help them find their way because you’re not in the same instance together.
In missions, a deluge of non-stop radio chatter makes it hard to even give each other useful intel in combat, let alone ask your friends how life is going. Basically, if you want to follow Anthem’s story at all, you need to constantly tell your co-op friends to shut up or just play by yourself.
Why isn’t Fort Tarsis a cooperative experience? Why aren’t the narrative decisions in Anthem a collaborative effort with your team? Why doesn’t this co-op game give room for people to actually chat and cooperate? When I say I want definitive “Bioware”, that doesn’t mean single-player. It means that I want a game where narrative is a big part of the gameplay. It means that narrative moments are paced correctly and grab everyone’s attention. It means my team’s choices matter and that we make them together.
Maybe those ideas were too ambitious for a team that’s been squeezed by EA’s practices. Maybe the narrative-focused Bioware I love just isn’t here anymore. Maybe Anthem is just supposed to be a fun loot game, and Bioware’s legacy is the thing holding it back.
If that were the case, I’d be okay with a game that minimized plot in favor of good shootin’ and lootin’. But that’s not what Anthem is. Nearly every aspect of the game, from the core gameplay, to the loot, to the encounter design, to the plot, and the technical polish is better in the other looter shooter games available.
So where does this leave Anthem as a continuous live game? I don’t know. Its problems seem so baked in, so fundamental, that it’s hard to imagine Bioware ever fixing them without releasing a whole new game. And yet, Anthem must continue. A chunk of Bioware will be consumed with adding to and fixing Anthem over at least a year because that is what these live service games demand.
The chance to learn from launch and refine these kinds of games alongside an engaged audience is a gift and a curse. For Destiny, Warframe, and The Division, the end results were brilliant successes that continue to today. The hard work paid off spectacularly. But those games all had something good and pure at the heart of them that kept players engaged. For Anthem, it’s hard to pinpoint any one thing it does well enough to justify another year of work for hundreds of people, and yet, it feels like the AAA game industry machine demands it anyway.
Anthem is too big to fail, too bad to succeed, and I don’t know where this leaves any of us.