I've been playing a little game you may have heard of by the name of Anthem. It's the latest blockbuster from Bioware, a game six years in the making, that has no doubt taken a big chunk out of EA coffers along the way. A game upon which might rest Bioware's very future as a video game studio. A game that is currently sitting at 60 on Metacritic, and moving on a downward trajectory. We live in a world where video game development and the business that surrounds it has been honed so tightly that Metacritic scores of, like, 83 are frequently decried as 'disappointing' by publishers, and here we have this massive event of a game (not a spinoff, not a game by the B-team, but Bioware's best and brightest) potentially dropping into the fifties.
So it's a disaster, and aspiring memelords should probably have that "Where are we going PapEA?" picture ready to go for the next few weeks. But, honestly, I'm still enjoying it. I think 6/10 is a pretty accurate score for Anthem, but I'm talking about the full scale from 0-10 where there are still quite a few numbers lower than 6. This game has some serious issues, but it looks great, it feels even better to play, and there's still a fair bit of that particular Bioware magic that Mass Effect Andromeda tried and failed to imitate. ME Andromeda was truly wretched, but Anthem has some redeeming features. Lemme get into the good and the bad.
This game is no Mass Effect, but it does have a hub area full of NPCs to talk to, and some of them are pretty good. I immediately liked Owen, the main voice-in-your-ear handler guy who runs operations while you're out shoot-flying. Anthem's facial animation and character models are great, and there have been quite a few times where Owen's made me laugh out loud by punctuating a conversation with a wry face instead of saying a line. Faye and Haluk, two old squadmates of yours that you have beef with, are standouts, too, and the people of Fort Tarsis are an eclectic, very Bioware-y bunch. Unfortunately you can't really have proper conversations with them, since any form of dialogue tree/wheel has been replaced with a binary "positive/negative" choice, but at the very least it isn't the Andromeda-style "Say yes normally or say yes sarcastically". Well, sometimes it is. Oh and also conversations lock you into the Bethesda-style "stare directly into this character's face" camera rather than a Mass Effect shot/reverse-shot camera, which I don't like. Basically Anthem is a game about being talked at, not about talking to people, but it does at least tickle that Mass Effect itch ever so lightly.
The real meat of the game comes when you set out into the world and just start tearing things up with your giant robot suit. It feels fantastic under the thumbs to just zoom around, rat-a-tat-tatting away at whatever's in your way, popping special abilities, switching between on-foot, hovering and full-on flight with ease and looking awesome the whole time. I even customized my Javelin's paint job, which I almost never do in games. There's even an interesting system where flying for an extended period will make your suit overheat, but you can cool it down by flying downwards and letting gravity aid you, or by skimming water surfaces or splashing through waterfalls. It can be a bit of a pain when you're just trying to get to a waypoint and you have to stop and jog for a bit while your jets cool down, but when you can string together a nice run between surfing across a lake, skimming a waterfall and plummeting down a cliff it feels awesome. I wish you had guns mounted on your suit so you could shoot while flying, though. I guess nobody at Bioware played Dark Void, because in Anthem you instantly switch to hover mode whenever you try to shoot from the air. Maybe something for the sequel. If there is one.
OK, so let's get to that bad stuff, then. First off, they designed this game wrong. You have a hub area where you can walk around and pick up quests from NPCs, and an action-y gameplay area where you go to do those quests. Seems normal enough, right? Well, check this out: in Anthem, walking around the town, exploring the outside world, and doing a quest, are three different gameplay states. You cannot pick up five quests in town then go out into the world and just do'em all. You can go out into what the game calls Freeplay, where some fetchquest and collectible hunt kind of objectives are available, along with World Events that spawn randomly, but if you want to do a real quest you have to quit Freeplay, come back to Fort Tarsis, then go back out into the real world again in a separate instance where only one quest is available to you. You do that quest, and when you finish it the game will automatically bring you back to Fort Tarsis. It's just crazy to me. Why did they design it like this? And this is a game where every little thing you want to do comes with a significant load time, so separating every quest into its own little envelope like this stacks up those load times pretty seriously.
What's worse is that it's clear Bioware only had three ideas for mission design when developing this game. You can:
A: Fly around picking up glowing basketballs to carry back and dunk into a wibblywobbly time vortex thing
B: Run around picking up mechanical parts of a different time vortex thing (they're heavy, see, so you can't fly)
C: Stay within a marked area shooting dudes until a progress bar fills up
That's it. That's every mission in Anthem. Sometimes you'll just shoot dudes with no pretension to one of those goals, but for the most part you're going to be doing one of those three things (sometimes all three in some of the longer missions). There isn't much variety to the enemies, there isn't much variety to the weapons (something not so great in a loot-shooter, right?), and most of the world looks like the same jungle biome. You don't visit any other planets or anything; the world of Anthem is just this one place. If you don't like shooting dudes in the jungle while carrying things to a thing or defending a point... you might just be out of luck here.
So, yeah, that's Anthem. It's got some problems, to say the least. But I'm going to see it through to the end of the story, because I do want to finish it. I've played maybe 3-4 hours of Destiny, spread across those two games, and never been hooked by it at all, whereas Anthem has me much more compelled to keep going. I'll be interested to see what happens with it from here on. I'm not going to stick around and play it for a thousand hours or anything, but I want to see if Bioware can turn it around into something more respectable, and if EA will even let them. I'd be into it if they ever got to make a proper singleplayer RPG in this world, where I could explore the world at my own pace and actually talk back to the people I meet, but singleplayer RPGs obviously don't pay the bills at EA.