This is what 'Anthem' got right
By Gene Park
Even in failure, "Anthem" by BioWare got a few important things right. That's what makes Wednesday's announcement by publisher EA and developer BioWare to cancel plans to refine and reinvigorate the live-service game in favor of focusing on other franchises so disappointing.
The proposed revitalization, dubbed "Anthem Next," was going to overhaul the entire game, much like the process "Final Fantasy XIV" underwent in 2013 when it was relaunched as an entirely new game. "Final Fantasy XIV" is held up as the example to rehabilitate a once-failed game, but you have to remember that "Final Fantasy" is publisher Square Enix's marquee franchise. Director Naoki Yoshida has said that it was important to the company that a mainline "Final Fantasy" game isn't regarded as an abject catastrophe.
"Anthem" holds no such sway, not with EA, BioWare, or the looter shooter player base it hoped to steal away from Bungie's "Destiny" games. The game failed to hit the expect 6 million sales mark by March 2019, and the company reported not making enough money from its microtransactions.
Essays upon essays have been written about the failures of "Anthem." Watched 2.6 million times, "I Hate Anthem" by YouTube channel I Hate Everything portrays a game full of narrative, structural and motivational problems. And Kotaku's 2019 article How BioWare's Anthem Went Wrong illustrates what led to the game's high-profile faceplant.
Even so, there were some glimmers of positivity, and some clear elements that made "Anthem" a project worth believing in.
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The skeleton of "Anthem" was always strong because it seems that BioWare actually got the hard parts right. "Anthem" feels really good as a shooter, and more importantly, flying feels amazing. This is no small feat for a studio only known for making slow, single-player role-playing games.
BioWare's experience with the wildly successful "Mass Effect" trilogy probably contributed to how good "Anthem" felt as a shooting game. "Mass Effect 3" and "Mass Effect Andromeda" had solid controls, despite the third game in the series eschewing much of the role-playing aspects that's made BioWare famous. That experience developed well into "Anthem." The game's combat system of setting up "primers" and "detonators" felt snappy, similar to the one-two combination punches of the "Mass Effect" cooperative system.
"Anthem" is still the best Iron Man game out there. It's been tough for developers to stick the landing when it comes to controlling human-shaped flying objects. The public attempts at making a Superman game are proof. Yet BioWare nailed it out of the gate. The game's only mistake in this regard is limiting the flying to a meter. There needed to be more confidence in allowing players to have fun with the tools given.
The game struggled to set up interesting, engaging challenges to do while flying and shooting; that's where "Anthem" starts to fall. But at the very least, BioWare developed an excellent framework for adventuring.
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Another key part of that great framework is the game's premise. "Anthem" takes place in a universe where its creator gods vanished and left strange tools that alter reality and the planet that surrounds you. This created the foundation for boundless opportunities to tell stories that could bend time and space and the environments. The initial trailer for "Anthem" made this promise, portraying a violent storm that appears out of nowhere.
The story of "Fortnite," as incomprehensible as it seems, is actually about reality and worlds clashing together. While we certainly did not expect Spider-Man and Chun-Li to suddenly appear in mech suits, the future of "Anthem" could've taken us to places limited only by the imaginations at BioWare.
Sadly, when it came to "Anthem," BioWare's imagination never really did anything more with the concept besides being a showcase for more "extreme weather," prominently featured in the game's only major post-launch event, Cataclysm.
The game's story was a mess, illustrated well in the "I Hate Anthem" video essay. But its lore had fairly interesting parallels to Arthurian tales of knights and valor. "Anthem" seemed to want to update high fantasy with mech suits, and given the developer's pedigree with the "Dragon Age" series, they should've been well equipped to tell that story too.
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Thematically and mechanically, "Anthem" had a strong class system. With some cute wordplay, the heroes of "Anthem" are called Freelancers, or Lancers, and wear armor called Javelins.
Javelins came in four classes: Ranger, Storm, Colossus and Interceptor. They're not wild reimaginings of your standard role-playing classes of warrior, wizard, brute and thief, respectively. But to BioWare's credit, each armor handled very differently from one another. Each suit came outfitted with very different skills. A Colossus could not dash, but had screen-clearing attacks. A Storm Javelin could hover almost indefinitely and provide support, while Rangers and Interceptors applied regular damage and warmed up swarms of enemies for those devastating Detonator attacks.
When multiplayer worked, and the combat scenarios lay on the pressure thick, this system would click. It's the reason "Anthem" still had a community at all, however tiny it may have been. Again, it seemed that BioWare got stuck figuring out how to challenge players of each class when it came down to answering the question, "Just what could be a fun challenge for four flying suits of armor?"
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The onus of the game's failure is on BioWare and EA. But it should still be applauded that "Anthem" was a gamble, a new intellectual property out of a studio that was starting to rely on its greatest hits, and now has to go back to that well to salvage its reputation.
"Anthem" got a lot of flak for flagrantly going after the "Destiny" player base. It's no secret that in promoting "Anthem," EA invited a gaggle of "Destiny" influencers to try the game out. But "Anthem" looks and feels like no other looter shooter out there. The "big budget, flying man shooting game" is a strong idea, and hopefully this is not the last of its kind.
"Anthem" may be dead, but it's worth pledging allegiance to some of its better ideas.
The Washington Post