We have mixed feelings about BioWare's Anthem

We got our first real look at BioWare’s new game, Anthem, at the Microsoft E3 press conference earlier this week. There’s reason to be excited: here’s a new shared world shooter just around the corner, and it’s one of the best-looking games from the show, with ferns, and mud, and murky rivers crowding a dense jungle world, while mountains tease us in the distance. 

We all know not to trust E3 trailers, but even so, just five years ago Anthem would’ve been the uncontested highlight of the show—recall the excitement for The Division back in 2013, in pre-Destiny days, when Warframe was just a baby. But the always-online, cooperative multiplayer shooter is a genre we know well today. To reuse a headline: We have mixed feelings about Anthem. 

What does our love for Mass Effect 1, Dargon Age, Baldur’s Gate, or Jade Empire have to do with this game? How is BioWare going to compete with the loot shooting of games like Destiny 2, or even Borderlands for that matter, when its history is in singleplayer, party-based RPG storytelling? We’ve assembled the team to sort out our hopes and worries about BioWare’s course shift into the ‘live service’ waters.

Tyler Wilde: We haven’t pinned down exactly what Anthem is yet. We see a team of jetpacking exoskeleton mercenary-types exploring a jungle, shooting up monsters, and weathering a storm. But there’s also a bit of NPC chatter, and we know the lead writer from Mass Effect 1 and 2 has been working on Anthem for a while. How’s that gonna mesh? Is this Destiny 2 but with a BioWare story?

James Davenport: Honestly, I don’t think Destiny 2 with a BioWare story is what we’re going to get, unless we can make love to our friends or murder them suddenly because of the choice we make in a dialogue tree. I’m sure we’ll be able to talk to characters in hub areas and they’ll give us the old expository introduction, but I’m worried the storytelling isn’t going to be a big priority. If it’s all about how it plays, I’m especially concerned. I’m not sure Bioware has put out a game where the most basic interactions are something I’d want to repeat for 500-plus hours. Queue a Tim Clark Destiny lesson.

Tim Clark: Without wanting to sound like the total Destiny apologist (that I probably am), I think people vastly underestimate how hard it is to fill a world of this apparent size and scope with stuff to do that’s fun in the first place, and harder still to keep that stuff fresh months later. Just creating game assets in 4K is a giant ballache (I’m paraphrasing one dev I spoke with here at E3), and as we’ve also seen with The Division, trying to keep pumping out enough content to satisfy a sizeable playerbase is a sisyphean task. And like James, I worry a lot about the combat. Has Bioware ever made a game with truly brilliant, kinetic, dramatic combat? Please, please don’t say Andromeda. My tl;dr is that I loved the look of it, but would need to see a lot more about what we’re actually doing from moment to moment in Anthem not to feel quite skeptical.

Chris Livingston: I think it looks cool.

Tyler: It does look cool. I wanted to spend more time in that apparent hub city—it looked lively and I really hope we get to explore it, rather than just stop in to be given a quest.

James: With a decent amount of Guild Wars and Destiny experience to draw on, I’m really curious what kind of activities and functions BioWare will cram into the hub. Destiny’s hubs were pretty awful in terms of narrative, full of characters that worked mostly as merchants for one form of arcane currency or another. For Anthem to feel alive, and the trailer certainly indicates it will, characters can’t just double as people-shaped machines for progression purposes. Hello again Jane Tired-Offworld-Mechanic, mind recycling this gun for a new one? Cool. There should be a lot of hubs (see Guild Wars), some big, some small, all with unique and some recurring characters. It might force more fragmented out of the thing, but if done right, we could still get a strong current of character-driven storytelling through a co-op progression party. 

Tyler: That’s my hope. I’m not enthused by the details of the setting as of yet, though, a looker as it is. ‘There’s a big wall and there are monsters outside of it’ is as much a sci-fi premise as it is a bland description of how one might design a co-op shooter. Nothing looked weird. I was reminded of Evolve, of Titanfall 2, of Destiny, of Mass Effect: Andromeda—which pretty clearly borrowed from this game along the way, what with the jetpacks and prehistoric-looking monsters. But then I think about PlaneScape, and Zeno Clash, and all the bizarre Warhammer lore—it doesn’t need to be this way! Why oh why do we have to have exosuits suits called ‘Javelins.’ You can’t walk five feet into sci-fi land without tripping over 30 future-tech things called Javelins.

Tim: The jetpacks were maybe the most interesting thing about it. Destiny has ‘Sparrow’ speeder bikes, and all the characters can do double jumps (or more, with the right perks), but actually being able to fly is a powerful fantasy. Though I imagine it also creates a lot of headaches when it comes to encounter design. The kingfisher-style dive into the water looked cool, but I’m less convinced about swimming as a mechanic. Swimming is literally always bad in games.  

Tyler: Someone hasn’t played Abzû, and it was hardly swimming! It was underwater Iron Man flying. Shooting out of the water into a jetpack hover rules, doesn't it?

James: It does! Destiny’s levels weren’t big enough to stay interesting to explore and Guild Wars’ locomotion makes exploration a drag at times. But the small slice of the overworld from Anthem’s trailer indicates we’ll have a lot to see, high and low, and if the jetpacks are fun to fly then exploration should be a hoot.

Tyler: Back to the combat, though. It didn’t look bad and we certainly can’t judge it conclusively before we play it, but I wasn’t riveted by the trailer. The missile barrage looked spectacular, for instance, but I’m not sure it looked fun. All combat and no Garruses might make Anthem a dull boy.

Tom Senior: Bioware has never made an action game satisfying enough to sustain this sort of game. Whatever the trailer and EA’s blurb says about forging your own story and living with your choices, the Destiny-style shooter is about repetitive action sequences tethered to an engaging loot system. I have enjoyed Mass Effect’s third-person multiplayer combat in the past, but it’s going to be a lot better than that to keep the game engaging in the long-term. Can a third-person system even compete with the expertly tuned shooting in Destiny? The Division fell well short in this regard, and even decent third-person shooters like Gears of War and Vanquish don’t give you the presence and one-to-one connection to your character that the first person can.

Tim: This is going to sound harsh as the trailer was obviously super-early proof of concept stuff, but I cringed hard at the loot drop part. The player had to be faux enthused about the legendary rarity rifle she’d found, but the stats listed were super bland stuff like ‘recoil’ and ‘accuracy’. It was an obvious lift from the original Destiny reveal, in which one of the equivalent players had a ‘Thunderlord’ exotic HMG drop. But that gun came wreathed in actual lightning. I’m sure BioWare is well aware, but if you’re making a looter shooter that you want players to grind for 100s of hours, the loot better be amazing. (The Division completely dropped the ball on this front.) Also, her partner’s “Yay, great” reaction was a nonsense. We all know the correct response to a teammate getting a killer drop is: “Fuck the fucking RNG in this game.”

Tom: On top of that, “dynamic world” is the most useless phrase in game marketing. It is completely meaningless. It’s there to get you to imagine something cool that they hope you’ll come to associate with the game, but there was little evidence of such dynamism in this heavily scripted passage of play. At one point a bit robot giraffe explodes and falls into some trees, causing them to collapse. I am instantly suspicious. Syncing object movements across multiple perspectives in multiplayer games is very difficult, which is why you don’t tend to have huge amounts of moving scenery in action-heavy multiplayer games. These moments promise a lot—robot monsters wandering through combat zones, dynamic terrain destruction—but I would be sceptical about all of it until the game’s structure is laid out explicitly, in terms of how missions are given, how monster encounters work, how group events happen. We may not know these important details until next year, when I assume we’ll see some betas to test the servers.

Tim: Another moment I wasn’t entirely sold on was when our intrepid duo encountered that giant alien gorilla thing that was smushing other aliens. They said something like “hmm, probably shouldn’t waste resources on something like this right now.” Cowards! I’m not sure I want to have to conserve ammo to such a degree that I’m actively avoiding exciting-looking fights. But on the other hand I guess it’s cool that there are fights which are potentially so tricky you might want to dodge them. Hmmm. It’s almost like we don’t really know enough about Anthem.

Tyler: Yeah. It looks like a game I’ll play for 100 hours, even if just to jet around beneath lakes, but that trailer was so pretty, and so perfectly choreographed, that it undermines my ability to get excited about it. I felt that a little about the Metro Exodus trailer, too, but in that case there’s history to consult—I know what a Metro game typically looks and plays like and I can map that over the trailer. I don’t know what’s special about Anthem, even after seeing it ‘played.’ I do look forward to finding out, though!

Chris: I still think it looks cool.

Tyler: That's because you just spent four hours trying to make a toilet in Ark.