How do you make a game worth playing forever? Between Netflix, and YouTube, and tending to the mushrooms growing in the shed, 'endgames' need to make one hell of a case for staking a claim on my free time. And unless you love numbers, BioWare's shared-world looter shooter Anthem doesn't really have a compelling pitch quite yet.
Last week, I played on a level 30 Anthem account (that's the cap) at an event hosted by EA to see what lies in store for its most dedicated players. The short answer: a more stubborn, slower Anthem. With combat that's already wearing thin after a weekend with the demo, I'm worried that Anthem's endgame relies too much on inflating enemy health pools as 'challenge' for indistinct weapon and ability rewards that exist to make it all go by a little quicker.
Beginning of the end
At the event, we try out a Legendary Contract, one of the endgame mission types. They're a random string of objectives with some light narrative context, an endgame system designed to avoid repeating the same story missions for all eternity. I dig the idea, assuming the world, objectives, and enemies are diverse enough to make for surprising combinations. (I'd probably play a lot more Destiny if I knew I'd never see The Inverted Spire again.)
We're supposed to gather Shaper data from Arcanist beacons and I don't know what any of it means either. We end up protecting some AI soldiers from a swarm of outlaws while a green bar (Shaper data?) fills up. Turns out my loadout is bugged, so while I might be level 30, all my gear is level one, leaving me with one notch of health as opposed to 12. A kiss in my direction kills me, though I'm able to play another mission bug-free later on. Far stronger and much more capable, it's surprising how similar the combat feels, juiced up or not.
After gathering enough data, we move to a second beacon and take out more outlaws from more directions. A nearby herd of aggressive cow-sized beetles crashes the party, preventing us from getting too cozy in one spot while picking off outlaws. I was hoping for a little more chaos a la Far Cry, but the wildlife of Anthem doesn't take much interest in anyone except player characters. There's no Cheeseburger problem to speak of, though I wish there were.
The final main objective tasks us with destroying Scar weapon caches, so we zip over and do the thing: shoot an incoming horde of bad guys. We manage to combo a couple dozen as they roll in from a chokepoint which felt incredible, but otherwise it's business as usual: zip around and perform red-dot radar cleanup on resilient bad guys. It's when I start to think that Anthem's combat might not be very good, and worse on higher difficulties.
New boss, same as the old boss
Anthem's difficulty doesn't scale in a way that pushes interesting tactical play. It's fairly linear, according to lead producer Mike Gamble: "There's more enemies the more players that there is, or the enemies have more hit points or a combination of both. There is scaling based on the number of players and the individual [player] levels within," says Gamble. "But once you start to get into the higher and higher levels, it's just all hard."
The more players in-game, the more enemies. And the higher the difficulty, the higher the enemies' constitution, scaled to each participating players level so that they experience the same challenge. But enemy behaviors don't appear to change, and from what we played, there aren't any difficulty modifiers that force players out of comfortable habits. It reduces the endgame goal into finding more efficient means of doing and resisting damage against enemies with increased offensive and defensive stats. Numbers, baby.
You can zip around all you like and fire from any elevation you prefer, but the Scar or Dominion or cow-sized beetles rarely come up to meet you. They tend to just mosey about in the open in a slow crawl towards your location. Fly away and reset. Shoot. Repeat. Flying is a flourish. Teamwork is nice but rarely required, and when it is, it mostly amounts to coordinating a few abilities to combo an enemy's shield into oblivion. Even then, Anthem's combo system isn't complex enough to merit frequent coordinated use. The plan on any difficulty will always be: detonate everything.
The final straw is the legendary contract's final boss. It is The Problem With These Games incarnate. While my loadout is still bugged, my two buddies are decked out with some top-tier weapons and abilities. Even so, the Legendary Luminary (a mobile Scar tank) takes over five minutes of concentrated gunfire and ability spam to take down. By minute one, we've mastered its move set. We know to back off if the turret is trained on you. We know someone needs to clean up the incoming Scar mobs. We know how to avoid taking almost all damage—even me, the guy with one tiny health nubbin, and it still takes us over five minutes.
The thing doesn't change position and repeats the same attacks the entire time. Our ultimate abilities stop feeling so ultimate when they barely move the thing's health bar.
What a tiring, demeaning gauntlet. Granted, it's the kind of imbalance that testing and relatively simple tweaks can solve, but if this is the monotony Anthem is building towards, then I'll need much cooler toys if I'm going to get through it in the meantime.
It was a bad demo. I have no idea why we were even allowed to play it this early. If it represents the shape of all endgame missions, then I don't think I'll be neglecting my mushrooms. But my hope is that in the dozens of hours it takes to get to the endgame we were skipped over, I'll have found exciting abilities and gear and objective types that fundamentally change how javelins play and combat articulates. Either way, I'll be checking in often enough to see how BioWare adapts in order to make Anthem a self-renewing experience. Even if watching Destiny go through the same growing pains wasn't always fun, especially for the devs, being part of the experiment is thrilling enough.
Endgames, the weird-looking mushrooms growing in the shed that may or may not be edible. They might kill me, but I still want them to get big and nasty.