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EA’s Anthem is a game at war with itself

by Eric Frederiksen | March 16, 2019March 16, 2019 9:30 am EST

I love flying. I love decorating my robot suit. But Anthem has a lot of deep-seated problems that will require a lot of time, money, and patience to from Electronic Arts to fix. Because Anthem is a game at war not with the Scar, the Dominion, or any other faction, but with itself. It’s a game built upon plainly visible contradictions that make it seems like either the people making it weren’t playing it or were under some serious crunch to get the game out before the snow started melting and the Fiscal year was over. The seams of to separate games stitched together are everywhere, and the game constantly feels like it’s resisting pulling itself apart.

At almost any given time, you can see two games vying for attention: a single player game in the classic BioWare style with strong character, deep interaction, and fun roleplaying systems; and a live-service multiplayer game chasing the Destiny bug like it’s still 2015. What we get isn’t a deep roleplaying game with live-service elements, but rather a Cronenbergian Fly mutation screaming to be killed.

Before we go further, I’ve put a full 30 hours into Anthem, I’m enjoying it, and I plan to keep playing it. The parts of the screaming fly that aren’t melting with acid are pretty cool, if you can ignore all the melting acid.

In short, this is a mulitplayer game that discourages multiplayer fun and a single-player game that is far too shallow to enjoy on its own.

I buy multiplayer games as a way to hang out with my younger brother. My experience playing multiplayer games is that I want to be doing stuff with my brother – playing a game with him. Anthem constantly fights against that.

The world of Anthem relies heavily on instanced missions where the player is led on a very short leash through a story that punishes them for exploring outside of the golden path of that story, while the lackluster freeplay gives very little reason for players to play together aside from a few repetitive, small, and un-challenging world events.

Within these instanced missions, characters are constantly chirping at you, so talking to the person or people you’re squadded up with is difficult at best and actively interferes with the story. This can even happen in combat where I should be trying to coordinate with my other squadmates. And combat is meant to be multiplayer thanks to the game’s primer system, which has you setting up a combo with one power and then detonating it with another.

And even worse, that game makes communicating with fellow players nearly impossible. I get it – players can be toxic, and it’s not fun to get called names during a game that should be relaxing. But another EA developer solved this problem in a game released just days before Anthem. In Apex Legends – ApeLegs as the kids are calling it – developer Respawn built a ping system that allows you to point at just about anything in the game and tap a button, and there’s a built-in contextual response.

The big, open world of Bastion is littered with chests and readable items to find, but the game neither gives you the time to read them during a mission nor sufficient impetus to go find them in the game’s freeplay. If I want to stop and pick up a treasure chest, I can get yanked away by someone speeding through a mission when I should be able to look at the chest and hit a ping button to let them know I found something they probably want to collect – since Anthem gives you delicious currency for doing just about everything.

But the thing is, the game kind of has to pull players along and make sure they’re all on task, especially at harder difficulty levels when everyone needs to be going after the same targets. If someone is halfway across the map collecting sparkling flowers, the other players can suffer in battle. Especially because if you’re not there fighting with your fellow freelancers, you might miss out on some of that loot that drops – and you won’t be able to back and get it.

Outside of missions, Fort Tarsis is this small but ultra-detailed area to explore. In a full BioWare RPG, it would be this rich little place full of items to tinker with and people to talk to. But since I’m playing with someone else most of the time, I find myself racing through dialogue, reading it and skipping the speaking parts – some of which are absolutely stellar thanks to a great cast – instead of listening to them and basking in them. I don’t want to leave my squadmates hanging waiting for me while I talk to the janitor and the shop keeper and the spymaster and the barkeep and the scholar – ad nauseam.

Get used to this loading screen.

And even if I didn’t have to do that, the way the game handles inventory is a nightmare, too. Anthem wants to be a looter-shooter type game. But I can’t look at loot in-mission because I need to stay on-task with the other players that it wants me so badly to match with (and you can’t stop and look even if you set up a private game, so that doesn’t matter). So when I get back, I have to sort through all my junk.

Equipping the new stuff wouldn’t be so bad if there wasn’t a ten-second loading screen just to get in and out of the equipment menu – even on a modern computer and loading from an SSD – but it’s the obsolete or unusable junk that makes it really bad. There’s a limit to how many items you can store at once, so it becomes occasionally necessary to do housekeeping. In the vault, each item offers you a choice – salvage it, or assign it to junk to do a mass salvage. The second part sounds great, right? Salvage 200 items at once. Except that salaving each item requires not a button tap, but a button hold, which takes longer than the salvage process. Why bother having both?

What really makes this unacceptable is that BioWare, the very same developer, has already solved this exact problem. Mass Effect had the player going through and turning unwanted equipment into OmniGel, which did… something. I don’t even remember. That system disappeared in Mass Effect 2, and the game even called itself out for that. Quoting from the Mass Effect wiki:

“In the Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC when defending the bypassing program required to open the hatch on the Shadow Broker’s base, Shepard asks Liara how long the program will take, with Liara responding that she doesn’t know. Shepard continues, “Remember the old days when you could just slap omni-gel on everything?” to which Liara responds, “That security upgrade made a lot of people unhappy,” explaining omni-gel’s absence in Mass Effect 2.”

That made a lot of people unhappy in a single-player game. Now it’s a multiplayer game where I might have people waiting on me while I’m sorting it, and the problem is back a decade after the same developer solved this issue.

Another sign of the conflict between the live service and the RPG is in the simple way the shops are organized. Right outside takeoff zone, there are spots for buying armor and crafting gear. Cool, right? Except the game gives absolutely no reason to craft things, and buying crafting materials is a waste of money because every cent could be going toward armor that the game otherwise wants you to pay real-world money for. The armor looks really cool, and I should be constantly picking up new pieces of armor to create a unique, interesting, and personal Javelin of my own. Instead, the game makes each piece of armor astronomically expensive so that it becomes tempting, again, to buy them with real-world money. Even if I wanted to do that, though, the shop only has one or two pieces of armor available at a time. I only picked up my first set of new armor after about 27 hours of gameplay. I bought one emote, and I regret it because it’s an in-mission emote no one will ever see because we’re racing from point to point so fast.

There should be dozens of armor designs, and I should be getting new ones every couple hours so that me and my fellow players look different. The custom paint is a start, but we all have the same identical silhouette. But EA sure would like it if we gave them some of our money for a new polygon or texture map.

Oh, and you can access these shops from anywhere on the town map by pressing pause. So why are there even shop-keepers in the first place? My guess is that BioWare had a conflict of work completed and executive demands and decided to keep its cool, witty shopkeepers in the game even though they serve absolutely no mechanical purpose and could be stripped out of the game completely without changing it in any meaningful way.

So we have a game that wants you to play multiplayer, but not with someone you know, because they’ll have to wait while you do single-player stuff between missions. But not with people you don’t know, because there’s no way to get them to hold up for two seconds while you explore the beautiful world the developer has created for you to explore. A game that wants you to listen to its dramatic story while a bunch of people in garishly-colored robots jump up and down and launch all their weapons at once. A game where you can increase damage by planning combos but have no way to plan combos and thus have to depend on serendipity (not to mention that the game does nothing to teach you about these combos in the bounds of the story).

Time for totally unfounded speculation.

There’s an amazing game somewhere in Anthem. A classic BioWare style RPG that we wouldn’t have been playing until 2020 or 2021. A beautiful, detailed game with memorable characters and a lush world with different biomes to explore and get lost in. And there’s a fun multiplayer game that lets you fly around like Iron Man with all your friends and do cool stunts and fight fun battles together. Both of these games would’ve been fun, but BioWare didn’t get to make either one. Instead, the developer was forced to rush through Anthem to make up for the implosion of Mass Effect: Andromeda, which it was also forced to rush through after assigning a rookie studio to a huge game with high expectations. EA executives pushed BioWare – whether through explicit instructions or implied “suggestions” to force out an unfinished game that would be constantly asking players for money. BioWare was forced to flatten three-dimensional characters into photorealistic cardboard cutouts and lush worlds (plural), into lush world (singular).

Even if BioWare is given Destiny lengths of time to flesh out the game world, a lot of this stuff is so deeply ingrained into the game that it can’t be removed – just mitigated.

I’m going to play Anthem more, because I love playing Iron Man simulator with my brother. Because the tidbits and morsels the game world gives me about the Anthem, the Shapers, the Cenotaph, are all juicy as hell. But they’re throwing candy at me from a parade float when I’m begging for a meal.

Is Anthem a BioWare RPG, or a multiplayer loot-shooter? It’s both and neither, and that might ultimately kill it.


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