So over the weekend I downloaded the demo to the hotly anticipated BioWare “action RPG” Anthem. Now that the initial anger and disappointment have died down a little, here are some thoughts:
Once upon a time we had a golden age of RPG’s. In the late 90’s, early 00’s there was never a better time to pretend to be someone else. And the undisputed king of the genre was BioWare. Hell they practically invented the genre - Baldur’s Gate, Fallout, Planescape - legendary titles, classics all and still top of the pile. The shoulders of giants that those who came after stood upon.
Then came the phenomenal Knights of the Old Republic. Then Dragon Age. Then, with a stroke that wasn’t so much genre defining as genre shattering, they served up Mass Effect.
All of these games would find themselves nestled easily in a “greatest of all time” list. BioWare could do no wrong. Sure, the ending of Mass Effect 3 pissed a lot of people off, but that was a slight blemish on an incredible record. If you didn’t enjoy Dragon Age 2 then it’s OK to have a different opinion, just know that yours is wrong. BioWare were unstoppable.
For the better part of two decades the name “BioWare” was synonymous with “holy shit, this RPG is awesome”.
So why the history lesson? Because it’s important that everyone knows just how far BioWare have fallen when they served up this steaming, putrid, nay, putrescent, dog turd of a game called "Anthem".
Now I’ll acknowledge that this was a demo and thus limited both in scope and features. The experience may vary between now and launch. There is a slim chance that they could change the entire thing in the next few days and it will actually be good, but short of some kind of magical hobgoblin spinning thread into code I don’t see it happening.
First of all this isn’t a new game. This is one of the carpet strollers at BioWare running into the legal department with a copy of Destiny 2 and asking the lawyers “how much of this do we need to change so we don’t get sued?”. The answer was apparently “very little”.
There’s a futuristic city surrounded by enemies. There’s a mysterious alien that grants amazing power. This power is different though, instead of “Light” it’s known as “Anthem”, so you totally can’t sue. You’re a homogeneous soldiery type who can choose a class, but instead of Destiny’s three classes there are four, so that’s obviously an advancement, we're different and innovative and your lawyers haven't even got a case.
You run around shooting things and slowly building up an ultimate ability, but this is third person, not first person, so again completely different. You gun down wave after wave of bullet-sponge enemies until they drop some colour-coded loot. This loot will be almost identical to your current loadout but will provide a small percentage increase to the stats. Yay. If this sounds like Destiny's gameplay loop then you're bang on the money.
I remember when Planescape: Torment offered you a sentient mace that you could converse with, who in turn would make you question the morality of your decision to bludgeon people with it whilst ostensibly telling you what you wanted to hear, aptly named “The Justifier”. Now we have a gun that has +5% fire damage or some bullshit. How far we’ve come.
Anyway, you go out into the Cave of Ambivalence which houses ancient technology because reasons and suddenly you’re beset by space bandits because why not. You gun them down without mercy because that’s what you do to space bandits. I mean in Torment you could talk your way out of the majority of fights but there’s none of that nonsense here - these are bad guys because they wear black and have sinister, glowing red eyes. They must die.
You shoot them and then more of them appear from nowhere, because everyone knows space bandits can hide in small crevices and only attack in manageable numbers. After an arbitrary number of them are killed an invisible wall opens up, you retrieve whatever forgettable Macguffin you were sent out to fetch and you head back to compare the statistics on the meaningless junk you just collected.
When you’re back at base camp you can report in to people whose accents shift multiple times mid-sentence (one notable character went from Irish to Cockney to South African and back again) and you can then engage in the “role-playing” segment of the game. This boils down to choosing what you’re going to say in the conversation. I say "choose" in the loosest sense: in this console world of ours your choices are now boiled down to a coin-flip of left button and right button. You can opt left to say “yes, with an if” or hit right to respond “no, with a but”. I agree with the sentiment you just expressed, or I agree with the sentiment you just expressed in a slightly different tone! I never thought I'd be nostalgic for the strict dichotomy of Mass Effect's arbitrary renegade and paragon system but the bar is substantially lower now.
Sure Mass Effect had roughly the same system of linear dialogue, but there was a grand and compelling narrative arc at play and they had the goddamn human decency to add enough characterisation and flair to give the illusion of agency. Anthem treats the player like an idiot. Perhaps a side-effect of trying to nail the Fortnite crowd.
Do a boring thing for too long, collect a bunch of trash to sell, talk to people with no personality. Rinse and repeat. Gripping. Why am I doing this? I don’t know. What’s the Macguffin? It doesn’t matter. Is there a point? Fuck no.
Anthem isn’t an RPG. Let’s never call it that again. It’s a looter shooter. A half-arsed clone of Destiny, and Destiny wasn’t even a good looter shooter. Borderlands 2 is the king of that particular hill, mainly due to the exceptional writing and setting - which Destiny and now Anthem seem to have forgotten were important.
You know all of that money you spent on the ridiculously shiny graphics? Maybe next time sink a sizeable portion of that into begging Chris Avellone to come back. The first thing he'd probably do, after calling your total absence of a compelling narrative an abomination, might be to ask why everything looks like it's covered in Glad-Wrap.
The looting is boring and the shooting is horrible. Since it’s ostensibly trying to be an RPG and not an FPS the gunplay feels like shooting Nerf darts underwater. Watch as you unleash a storm of bullets into this guy’s head only for him to turn around and shoot you back because this gun isn’t a high enough level. Throw a grenade that feels like a party popper. Fire a rocket that somehow makes the grenade look effective.
Borderlands could make this work because they made a design choice for everything to look like a cartoon, Anthem somehow makes piloting a mechanised death suit feel like a chore.
It was billed as something of an Iron Man simulator. Anthem is an Iron Man simulator the same way that stubbing your toe is a Hulk simulator. The flight mechanic in Anthem allows you roughly thirty seconds of air time before you need to find a puddle to sit in to cool down. I wish I were kidding. It’s like if The Avengers were written and directed by a particularly suicidal Werner Herzog.
Anthem is horrible and we all have to admit that we knew it would be. Anything that ambitious, that promises so much without any specifics, is always going to fail. This game is BioWare’s No Man’s Sky. This is a studio that not only should have known better but in the past have known better. Only now instead of doing what they do best, making great RPG’s, they’re chasing demographics and deadlines because they’ve seen Fortnite printing money and they wanted a slice.
Avoid this tripe at all costs. And for the love of god - never, ever pre-purchase a game. Because that’s how we enable this nonsense.