Anthem Might Be Good, Actually

That’s a lot spent shells for a gun that never seems to fire, BioWare

I didn’t expect to be writing this piece. Last week, a day or so after Anthem, BioWare’s new mech/exosuit multiplayer shooter IP, released to the wider public and I’d put in a solid 10–15 hours, I’d already begun work on the piece I’d expected to write. It was, more or less, about how “Anthem fails as a cohesive work because of a distinct separation between narrative, gameplay, and setting.” This is a frustration I’ve had with nearly every online game I’ve ever played, one born out of the inherent difficulty in getting choices made by one person to talk to a wider world inhabited by other players following the same story path. It’s also a problem I’ve had with BioWare titles in particular, even single player ones: Dragon Age: Inquisition frustrated me for its tendency to section its main story beats into areas and settings completely different from the vast majority of the game, making those open areas I spent so much time in feel lifeless and context-less and making the story beats feel forced and ill-paced. I expected to confront the same issue with Anthem, but worse. I also expected to run up against the many, many frustrations others have laid out about the game.

Before I get into why I think this game works, and why I have hope for the future, I’ll say this up front: Anthem is a mess. People have justly pointed out its faults, and my own experience with it has been uneven. Its problems run the gamut: Things like poorly conceived menus, frequent loading screens, and bad tutorializing break up game flow, the opening hour of the campaign is lackluster and confusing, the mission and enemy design are often rote and forgettable, and those “go find thirty crafting items” tomb trial missions really are just awful. There are a lot of issues with Anthem, and many of them need more than a new paint job and a couple tightened bolts to put them right.

Anthem isn’t for everyone. In its current state, it’s not a game I’d recommend to most people, including diehard BioWare fans. It’s just not there yet. But after over a week and nearly 50 hours of play, I think I can say that it could be, and that it would be a shame for it to be dismissed before it has its chance.

Anthem rests on two pillars: Its exploration and combat, taken in third person inside flying Iron Man-esque “javelins” around the world, and its character development and narrative-building, which occurs from a close-up first-person view in a frontier town filled with characters and cortex (codex) entries known as Fort Tarsis. Though both are hampered by frustrating design in a number of places, both also have a kernel of something genuinely great buried underneath. The javelins — the combat, the customization, the flying — a lot of folks have already identified them as positives. Each of the four javelin types feels distinct, the abilities are fun and flashy and varied, the feedback you get as you maneuver your javelin feels good, the world is beautiful and feels good to fly around in, and so on. There’s something electric about spinning and diving and hovering through an underground vault, shooting off ice spears and sniper blasts in equal measure, taking cover or flying to safety or diving headlong into the fray as the flow of battle demands. In terms of sheer power fantasy, Anthems combat has tremendous potential.

But actually, what I think Anthem does best is, very very gently, eschew the temptation of power fantasy. In terms of quiet, simple character moments, in terms of simply allowing you to spend time with characters for no other reason than your own interest, Anthem stands out. Unlike in Destiny 2, a game where every player character in the world is at the same time vastly different and yet also some sort of ill-defined chosen one, all walking around together in one supposedly vibrant and worth-defending city (that’s actually essentially a market place and a staging ground for people to jump to their deaths), Anthem provides space for a multiplayer story to happen independently from your personal narrative. It does this in two ways: Firstly, by making you simply a Freelancer, someone who happened to get lucky and is continuing to parlay their luck and skill as a mercenary as best they can. Though you become more important to the world and the narrative over the course of the game, it’s always clear that there are others who can do your work, and it’s always clear that you would never survive without help. This serves to simultaneously thematically bolster Anthem’s multiplayer pitch as well as to suspend disbelief in palling around with other suited warriors.

More importantly, and more strangely, it is the separation between worlds that actually reinforces the significance of each, allowing your character to slip into different roles as your brain shifts between fundamentally different sets of expectations. On the one hand is the epic world of the javelin, with elemental explosions and ancient mausoleums and cliffs at the edge of the world, and on the other, the quiet world of Fort Tarsis, where you gradually help a woman wrestle with the death of her young daughter. This separation is made explicit in a couple of obvious ways ways: First, the very literal perspective shift, one drawing you close to the people you’re speaking with, the other letting you see the vast world around you, and second, the simple but incredibly important fact that you can play with other people out in the open world, whereas in Fort Tarsis it is you and you alone. And while a lesser version of this separation frustrated me to no end in Dragon Age: Inquisition, here, the commitment to distinction serves to make me accept that this game will not be something it isn’t. In addition to this, in a move that has frustrated a number of people, the Fort Tarsis version of Anthem significantly limits the fundamental video-gamey verbs of the player: You can’t jump, running is limited and not especially fast, and you’re required to manually climb into your javelin yourself, rather than simply pressing a button on a menu. Although I can understand convenience and quality of life-based complaints about these choices, I do respect the design ethos behind it, which encourages the player to take their time, to exist in the space, to immerse themselves in the world.

This ethos wouldn’t work, however, if the content in Fort Tarsis wasn’t itself worth engaging with. Stories in Fort Tarsis are often self-contained, but they don’t have to be: Maybe the spy will deprogram himself, maybe he won’t; maybe the man will forgive and accept his brother, maybe he won’t. Opportunities like these are frequent and usually well-sketched, and I found myself looking forward to hopping out of my javelin after a mission to see if a conversation chain had triggered its next step or if yet another quirky character had something new for me to dive into. Though not all these side characters and their stories land, a surprising amount of them do, and they also serve as windows into a world that often badly needs more explaining (Anthem’s commitment to a certain type of modern SFF storytelling that drops the audience into the deep end to figure things out themselves is consistent, clumsy, and a topic for another day). And smartly, BioWare attaches only the smallest of incentives to these conversations, ensuring that the overzealous shooter fan who only wants to blow things up can do so without fear of missing out on anything mechanical. This dovetails with ongoing visual changes in the Fort, such as new murals, a now-working fountain, a new shop or garden, and so on, to create a sense of development and ownership in the space. Over the course of the game, Fort Tarsis begins to feel like it’s yours, and I’m excited at the prospect of BioWare introducing further ways to homeify it.

And though the campaign starts off flat-footed, and up through the tomb trials it’s middling at best, past that point it does a surprisingly good job, mixing character moments and progression with some genuinely interesting (and sometimes, even surprising) plot developments and worldbuilding. As long as they keep providing opportunities to develop old characters, and continue introducing new ones (a Sentinel Dax, introduced towards the end of the campaign, is a standout), I think Anthem can do the work necessary to keep me checking back for more content.

All this to say: Anthem has potential. Despite its technical, mechanical, and narrative problems, my time spent with it has convinced me it has the bones of something worthwhile. Though it does have some thorny issues, such as lackluster enemy and mission design, that will take more than a few tweaks to improve, I’m hopeful. BioWare has the ability to make this game great, and I hope EA gives them the space and time they need to do so. Ultimately, I think Anthem is the flawed blueprint of a new and improved kind of storytelling in a cooperative game environment, so if you catch me recommending this game wholeheartedly six months from now, don’t be surprised.

Storyteller and story-breaker. I think about different worlds too much, and try to make sense of this one. They/them. @lightwoven