It’s the most wonderful time of year: February! It’s also still Christmas, according to Anthem, because the game still has its decorations up – even now, a full two weeks after the initial tweet, which pointed out that open invitation for bad luck, went viral. Apparently that’s intentional because BioWare extended its “Ictide” event a little longer, but it’s not a great look, is it? Especially not as Anthem celebrates its first full year since launch.
At least the effect is interesting, by regular service game event standards. If you hop into a Stronghold, which is a sort of replayable mini-raid or “strike”, by Destiny’s terminology, you’ll notice that in the occasional moments of downtime between fights, deep below ground, in the dank, dripping dungeon of giant spiders, the haunting echo of sleigh bells will just, ever so softly, start to fade in. A sort of wafting, aural threat, like they’re about to summon a choir of the dead. Ominous! Schedule the relaunch for that liminal, Nightmare Before Christmas, early November time when nobody knows whether to feel spooky or festive and you know what, it might just work.
But that’s exactly it: if you haven’t already heard, there’s a relaunch coming! There’s no time or date, absolutely no detail on what exactly is going to change, and also the game is going to “move away from full seasons” – like this winter holiday one, you’d hope. There may also be the odd eyebrow raised at the timing of that announcement, shortly before the inevitable flurry of anniversary impressions. But there is a relaunch coming, and so it’s no longer fair to really twist the knife into the game’s current state.
The added result of that announcement is that what may have started out as scorn for Anthem has turned to something else. It’s turned to pity, which honestly might be worse. Anthem is a pitiful game, empty of players and full of bland quests that prop up a repetitive grind towards nothingness. It’s a crude parody of all of this generation’s worst habits – introduced immaculately from the off by Destiny, I should add – mashed up into one. Four hundred release dates; a strange hub bit; some tacked-on lore cheaply disseminated via collectibles; vanilla sci-fi; more currencies than a forex trading floor, that all nudge you towards the in-game shop; and, with the addition of the game’s fourth stronghold, the worst bullet-sponge boss fight I have ever played. (The old Tyrant Mine stronghold typically takes me around 10 or 15 minutes to finish, while this one took an hour plus another 35 minutes for the final boss). It’s crunch personified, failed management in action, a monument to focus-tested corporate sanitisation. BioWare the victim: a studio of immensely talented people crunched to within an inch of its life, those that remain presumably now making weapon skins for something more capable of paying the dividends.
Nothing particularly new there, then. But the flipside has stayed the same too: Anthem’s flying is great, and its combat is more than great – it’s quite severely underrated. Strapping back in to my old Colossus – which I’d set up for self-comboing, given the understandable lack of willing companions to play with – feels fantastic. The tactile, quite comforting little climbing-in cinematic, the big superhero drop-in you do on loading into the game world, the gorgeously animated take off and flight. All of these are brilliant but also second to the wonderful, Space Marine Terminator carnage you can reap when you’re set up with the right gear. There’s true attention to detail in there. It’s buried under all kinds of imbalance and illogic, sure – and the fact that the default one of the four classes, the Ranger, is more or less entirely unviable – but it is there.
You can engineer missions to be better designed than they really are, too. The Tyrant Mine has a moment when you have to stand on top of a pedestal and wait for a slow loading bar to fill, while waves and waves of scorpions and spiders and other weird jumbo creepy-crawlies come swarming up a ramp towards you. If you could shoot down that choke point of a ramp, while staying in the designated zone, it would make for some sublime horde-mode holding-off. Instead, the line of sight is broken by the angle of the ramp and so you have to actually step out of the place you’re supposed to be waiting in if you want to actually have fun. So I do! I ignore the way the game wants me to play, and I stand at the top of the ramp and I use a flamethrower and a minigun and an electric thingy that automatically makes the flamethrowered enemies go “pop!” with combos and chains lightning symphonically from one to the next, and I hunker down behind my big shield to pick up health, and I just tank it out for a bit. And then when I’m done, I go stand where I’m supposed to stand and pick my nose for a bit until the mission moves itself on.
The tragedy of Anthem, as we all know by now, is that in spite of itself, it is almost brilliant. There’s room for real, interesting, actual synergy between you and your party members, far beyond what a lot of true MMOs can even do. The difference in playstyles, now the guns have been sorted out, is noticeable between classes. The combo system is simple but quite ingenious. The gameplay is all right there, brilliant fun at its core, just passively proving wrong anyone who thinks that’s all you need for a game to be good. Because it is good!
But Anthem is not a good game, and it does not have the fan-fuelled momentum of a Final Fantasy 14 – or the cachet of BioWare’s own Star Wars: The Old Republic – for me to have any faith that it can be rescued in another year or two’s time. Instead it’s merely an example. This is what happens when studios known for single-player RPGs – ostensibly static works – are asked to search for perpetual motion. It’s what happens when productivity is squeezed and squeezed without the necessary patience, or necessary investment. It’s a lesson in the fragility of this medium’s magic, and a reminder that what may seem like the surest of financial bets can still go wrong.