Anthem - The Game that Nearly Was

by Ben Potts

Anthem – The Game that Nearly Was
January 27, 2020 sfbook

Bioware’s Anthem, which released last year, has become one of the most infamous releases of recent years (despite a crowded field for that accolade). We look back at what should have been a transformative title.

We here at Parallel Worlds love our video games. Many of us hoped that Bioware’s infamous flop, Anthem (2019), would be the best damn loot shooter we’d ever seen. Who saw Marvel’s Iron Man (2008), that film that started it all, and didn’t think: Damn, wouldn’t it be amazing to fly around in one of those rocket suits? The E3 2017 demo of Anthem seemed to promise that, and more: liberating ‘Javelin’ exo-suits, beautiful locales, and thrilling co-operative play. It would be Destiny (2014) in three dimensions, Bioware’s next big intellectual property (IP). Hopes for this game were higher than for almost any other game in recent memory — but in the end, those hopes would crash and burn harder than an overheated Javelin.

Unbeknownst to any of us overeager consumers, the production team at Bioware were considerably less optimistic about their product. At the time of the awe-inspiring demo, they had only just learned what the game’s name was going to be. Depression and anxiety ran rampant throughout the staff, and the studio had been bleeding high-level talent for years. As detailed by Kotaku’s excellent April article investigating the development process of Anthem, the spectacular failure was borne out as a result of unfocused leadership, antiquated and unjust business practices, and blind faith in a recurring ‘Bioware magic’ that never materialised. 

The production team at Bioware were considerably less optimistic about their product.

The result? While it’s unclear what the financial impact to the company was (the game supposedly still sold above average, and was the 5th best-selling release in 2019 through August), Bioware suffered a massive hit to its credibility after the game that hit the shelves bore little resemblance to the thrilling escapist fantasy they’d promised. They had even diverted staff from other projects they were working on, including an unconfirmed Dragon Age 4 (I’m not bitter, I swear) to firm up a game which was eventually panned by critics. They said it had a vague and confusing story, unbearable load times, myriad bugs and glitches, an awful user interface (UI), and gameplay that just wasn’t fun — or at least, not as fun as we’d expected it to be. At the time of writing, the game has a 59% rating on Metacritic.

Theme of disappointment

Anthem is a perfectly fine game. Yes, you can boot up your gaming system of choice, hop into an Iron Man suit, and go off to shoot a bunch of aliens, complete with fantasy-like powers for the different suits. The problem is that we don’t expect ‘perfectly fine’ games from Bioware, we expect great games from them; from the classic Baldur’s Gate series in the 90s to later lauded games like the Mass Effect trilogy, Knights of the Old Republic (2003), and Dragon Age (2009). These were not perfect games, but they were ambitious and succeeded at breaking new ground in the industry.

The game that hit the shelves bore little resemblance to the thrilling escapist fantasy they’d promised.  

Anthem didn’t do that. Javelin flight feels good, which is impressive considering how late in the design process it was implemented, but it doesn’t track with how polished the 2017 demo was. The story is mildly interesting, but unfocused and centred around a hub, Fort Tarsis, which is entirely separate from the main world. The loot system is unrewarding and unclear. The UI is frustrating and bogs down gameplay. It feels like the game wasn’t playtested properly — most people that own the game don’t play it, and few people stream it.

It must be said that Bioware have not given up on the game. After an initial ambitious roadmap for post-launch development, they scrapped those plans in favour of making improvements to core gameplay issues. Many of us remember the difficult launch cycle of Bungie’s Destiny, and know it was able to become a truly great game after enough revisions from a tireless development team. Could Anthem follow a similar trajectory? Maybe. Destiny had a couple of difficult years before the development team managed to turn it around. In the end, by the time its sequel was released Destiny had been transformed into a top-tier game.

Destiny (and its 2017 sequel) is, in many ways, Anthem’s rival and template. Even their names are similar: expansive, mystical, vague. Anthem was supposed to borrow Destiny’s fun co-operative gameplay, add a healthy dose of Bioware’s signature storytelling, and combine it all with the thrill of the Javelin exo-suits. It… well, doesn’t do that. It encourages co-operative play, to be sure — in fact, it practically demands it, its messages to the player reminding them over and over that this game is intended to be played co-operatively, even after it is set up for private sessions. Unfortunately, co-operative gameplay is an exercise in frustration with Anthem. While the four javelin types are unique and interesting, their ability to work in tandem with other javelins is limited; there are no healing abilities, and support options seem tacked on at best. 

That wouldn’t be so bad if Anthem’s loot system was stronger. Guns seem like an afterthought in a game focused primarily on flying about in exo-suits, which is just fine; but outfitting javelins is a clunky process which can only be done from the central hub, so there is no switching of loadouts in the field. In the meantime, one of the most frequent complaints about the game (and one of the primary focuses for future improvement, according to Bioware) is its early loot system; not good for a game aiming to be the successor to Destiny. It picks up a bit in the later game — but by then, most consumers will have stopped playing.

Finally, like Destiny and Warframe, another ‘looter shooter’, Anthem aimed for an expansive science fiction story with mythic overtones and significance. What it got was a disjointed narrative opening in the midst of a so-called ‘cataclysm’ followed by a limited campaign arc with confusing lore and stakes. After playing through the game once, many of the main and side quests become far more interesting and deep because players understand the narrative better; but on the first time through, it’s a drudge of uninteresting material. The voice acting is strong, but the relationships aren’t in place yet. 

It’s perhaps a reflection of a project that was too ambitious. Bioware wanted to tell their usual clever and expansive single-player story, while at the same time making a viable massively-multiplayer online (MMO) looter shooter. They are yet to demonstrate that this combination is possible. 

It is clear that a lot of very talented and thoughtful people put a lot of work in the game. There are threads of creativity and inspiration throughout, but it just doesn’t come together in the way we’ve come to expect from Bioware. The tale just gets worse as we learn about the difficulties the team had building the game in the antiquated Frostbite engine, and the overwhelming pressure on employees to perform above what should have been reasonably expected of them.

Regardless of whether Anthem has improved since launch or will do so in the future, in some ways it’s already dead. Perhaps unfairly, the reputations of games are forged in the weeks after their initial release, even for titles which receive years of ongoing development. These initial impressions are difficult to change. 

When it comes to escapism, in all forms of media that are advertised for months or even years in advance, anticipation is everything. The psychology of anticipation and excitement is fascinating, in that most of the time, humans enjoy the anticipation of some future experience more than the actual experience of it. That was certainly true in this case; but the crushing disappointment of the Anthem experience coming so soon after the let down of Mass Effect: Andromeda (2017) will certainly lead to reduced expectations for future Bioware projects.

What the future holds

To Bioware’s credit, they seem determined to fix their mistakes and build on a game that, at its heart, is a fun — if frustrating — experience. Back in February, Bioware promised three post-launch story acts that would expand the world and what players could do in it. After postponement to focus on technical difficulties, the first of those three acts recently ended half a year later. In September, Bioware scrubbed the ‘three acts’ timeline, saying they’d instead work on seasonal updates to improve core features. A proportion of fans support them in this effort, and believe in the game’s future.

Perhaps Bioware’s efforts will be successful. Destiny faced many of the same problems at launch; while it was fun, it also had many structural issues as a result of executive meddling. Time will tell whether the half-dead corpse of Anthem will be able to resurrect itself in the next couple of years, or whether it’s just too far gone — but in the meantime, the story of Anthem is a sad song about a once-great studio that overheated, fell from the sky, and crash-landed.