Anthem is one of the hardest games I've reviewed. We've held off on the review for a while to see if the game could improve from its disastrously frustrating launch. Alas, after a month or so after release, the game is still in a rather fractured and bewildering state.
Reviewing live games is always tough. They continually evolve and change over time, some of which have dramatic comeback stories. But enough time has passed to make a consensus on Anthem as it stands, and it's time to judge what BioWare has created.
Few games are as confused as BioWare's new IP. Billed by EA as a "genre-melding" experience, Anthem misses out on some of BioWare's best talents in favor of a new experimental online-only focus.
Anthem has been in development since around 2012 and represents the biggest, most ambitious leap BioWare has ever taken. The original vision was for a continually-unfolding world with deep lore, a unique story arc, larger-than-life action, and a sprawling quest across a unique sci-fantasy IP.
But there's only one problem: BioWare isn't yet ready to take on such ambitions. For Anthem, BioWare seems to have watered down their strengths in an attempt to create a monetizable online action game without actually understanding how these games operate.
The developer mostly makes offline-driven RPGs where player choice dramatically shapes the world itself.
Some of BioWare's best experiences are made possible by the power of a singleplayer-only focus, which creates intimate, memorable moments that shift events in key ways. Things you do, what you say, how you build your character--all of these things have meaning in offline Bioware games.
In games like Mass Effect, you were in charge of your destiny, and choices you made felt human, felt real. You could identify with them, empathize with NPCs, and actually feel things. The made-up science behind Mass Effect's galactic romps were believable because the game created an environment that made us comfortable with dispelling our belief. Mass Effect is a place of interstellar joy that taps the inner astronaut and star-hopper in all of us, that part of us where we look at the stars and wonder what's out there. That was part of the magic.
Dragon Age's mystical lore pulled me in like a gravity well, placing me in a world of myth and magic on the brink of total destruction. Internal politics, culture clashes, and a rich cast of characters immersed me into a faraway land of fantasy. I knew it wasn't real, but it felt real because BioWare awakened my imagination. It was like stepping into an original J.R.R. Tolkien novel.
But in Anthem, a game with millions of players, these things aren't possible in the same way. It's nearly impossible to make everyone's experiences unique, to have a choice-driven story while the team tries to handle the wild, untamed beast that is live gaming.
BioWare's magical formula has been dispelled by the stark reality of an awkwardly-designed online-only service game. The studio is simply trying to do too many things at once, and the entire core experience of Anthem suffers for it.
Anthem is more of a mass-market casualization of everything BioWare is known for, an experiment that sees the developer carving up its most potent powers and trying to spread them across too many areas. The result is a dramatic dilution of BioWare's strengths. If games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age are roaring rapids, then Anthem is a mild stream.
BioWare trades its beloved and well-known RPG mastery for the more accessible action, and the results are actually impressive. But the studio simply doesn't understand how shoot-and-loot live games should operate, and decided to force things to fit together.
Instead of the continually-evolving world we were promised, Anthem's fantasy world of Bastion doesn't yet live up to its potential. While beautiful, the world is far from a living, breathing sandbox that makes you forget you're playing a game.
Anthem's worst sin is how it handles grinding and endgame progression. The game simply doesn't give players a reason to return. The entire motivation to keep playing live games like Anthem, Destiny, and The Division is to collect more loot and try out new abilities in unique ways, but Anthem's lack of RPG elements and tedious, meticulous grinding simply deters players.
The game starts to feel like less of an actual experience and more like work. There's nothing new to really do other than keep running the same strongholds in search of more loot, but what's the point if that loot won't make the game more meaningful?
This is the real dichotomy that Anthem players are faced with. There's no sense of empowerment here, and not a lot of reason to keep playing. This spells doom for most service games that rely on engagement, but we'll talk more in-depth on that in page 4.
It's for these reasons--and many more that I'll outline in this review--that I think Anthem should've been a singleplayer game with optional online elements. All of the threads are there, and BioWare obviously wanted to do more with their ambitious dream, but like Mass Effect: Andromeda it missed its target by a long shot.
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