Hope is a fragile thing in the world of video games. For every E3 showcase and launch trailer, there are day one patches and server queues. It’s natural to want something to be better because only the coldest of hearts would wish failure on a creative endeavour that so many have poured so much into. And yet, here we stand with ANTHEM.
From its E3 2017 debut, ANTHEM seemed like a game made for me. A fan of looters, shooters, and all sorts of robotic exosuit fiction, how could it not be my most anticipated? The possibility of soaring through the skies, landing on a battlefield and laying waste to all manner of monstrosities in the pursuit of more and more powerful items felt tailor made for my sensibilities.
Add into that a developer as well-regarded as BioWare, and an EA that had been beaten black and blue by the Battlefront II fiasco, and it felt like we might actually get a 'shared world shooter' free from the shackles of loot boxes and paid DLC (see Destiny and Destiny 2).
Launch, however, did not go as expected.
EA’s insistence on using Origin Premier and EA Access meant that many paying customers were essentially playing a pre-release build. Once the game landed on PlayStation 4, alongside a hefty day-one patch, the damage had already been done.
Load times were glacial, even though the patch improved things slightly. Glitches were widespread and permeated every aspect – infinite loading, loot with incorrect descriptions and effects, missions that couldn’t be finished.
Perhaps the saddest thing is that underneath all of this, there is a nugget of a good game. A game that harkened back to that E3 2017 promise. Flying a Javelin, using a mortar strike to clear a group of enemies, while teammates use their own abilities in a whirlwind of chaos and combo damage, still felt right.
The most recent ANTHEM patch fixed many of the community’s biggest issues – adding a timer to respawns for example alleviates a huge amount of downtime mid-mission. Loading times remain an issue, but you can now get straight to a mission from anywhere in the game’s increasingly redundant Fort Tarsis space. Items such as the “Bulwark Point” were made more viable for endgame. It’s a start, and the patch offered over three hundred fixes.
While fixing an issue where the game’s starting weapon was actually the most powerful was important, it didn’t serve to placate the player base’s disappointment with loot. In fact, a bug caused players to be showered with higher level items for a few hours before a hotfix nerfed this. Players suggested a boycott of ANTHEM in response.
Essentially, ANTHEM isn’t respecting players’ time. There is a dearth of endgame content, with three 'Stronghold' missions being available to replay again and again. With each subsequent difficulty level reached, BioWare offers spongier enemies across three missions with diminishing loot returns. The key to a game based in the loot grind is to allow players to feel incrementally more powerful so that replaying content doesn’t feel like a grind at all.
When it clicks, ANTHEM can be a riot. Flying into a Stronghold with three friends, using my rifle that has a chance to cause lightning to strike enemies feels like a looter at its best – using a cool item to make me feel powerful, but always with something to tweak or improve. At its worst, ANTHEM is a 45 minute uphill battle for loot that simply doesn’t matter, either because it’s ineffective or because it’s too low in level to be useful.
By divorcing its cosmetic gear from the statistic-based weapons and gear slots, ANTHEM actually allows for some great looking armour sets. Even better, they can be purchased with in-game currency and not solely with real money. Unfortunately, ANTHEM drops the ball here by rotating items within the store every few days. It isn’t uncommon to earn the currency to buy an item just to see it rotate out of the store, or to be about to buy something and hold off to see what the next refresh brings. Pre-release streams showed a wealth of customisation options, and ANTHEM's insistence on cordoning off this content feels disappointingly antiquated – a clear method to pad out what content there is.
Of course, this couldn’t have come at a worse time for BioWare. With Destiny 2’s resurgence continuing with the Season of the Drifter and The Division 2 fresh on the scene (feature complete and very playable), ANTHEM needs a win. EA needs a win, given its mismanagement of the Star Wars licence.
The Division 2 has learned not only from its predecessor, but also its contemporaries. Ubisoft and Massive spotted the lack of endgame content at the launch of The Division and Destiny and built the game with that in mind.
That isn’t the only lesson to be learned from Ubisoft. Before Rainbow Six: Siege was one of the world’s most popular esports properties, content was delayed in favour of 'Operation Health' – an initiative to improve the base game for all players. ANTHEM needs its own analogue of Operation Health – an adrenaline needle to drag the game into better shape.
What would that entail? The game’s subreddit is abuzz with criticism, both constructive and less helpful. What is universal, however, is that a lot players want to play ANTHEM. Some of those that are discussing the proposed boycott have already sunk dozens and dozens of hours into the game. While it desperately needs a loot refresh, it would be fair to say that the idea of a store revamp is also high on the agenda. Between this and yet more bug fixing, maybe ANTHEM could emerge as a game worth playing.
I’ve stopped playing for the time being myself, because I’m too busy with similar titles to be able to dedicate time to a game that needs fixing. And yet, I want to return to ANTHEM. I just need BioWare to show me that it wants me back, too. For now, I’ll wait for the game to fulfil its promise.
Do you agree with Lloyd's assessment of ANTHEM? What do you hope to see from BioWare's latest in the future? Pray that the developer can turn things around in the comments section below.