Upon seeing Anthem earlier this year at E3, myself and fellow DualShockers staff writer Michael Ruiz left our demo and felt completely at ease when it came to any concerns we may have had on the gameplay front. The controls felt responsive, shooting had a nice kick to it, and flying around the world was just as awesome as I had hoped. Above all else, I knew that I didn’t need to worry about many issues involving Anthem‘s gameplay any longer.
Instead, the larger concern I had about Anthem dealt with that of its story, an aspect that I rarely have daunting anxiety about when it comes to BioWare games. With Anthem being a shared-world shooter in the same vein as something like Destiny, I had a feeling that storytelling would take a back seat this time around, which is not something I wanted to see from a studio with the narrative pedigree of BioWare. This was a sentiment that another one of our writers, Ryan Meitzler, brought up a few months back himself.
What’s perhaps most concerning to me now is that after a recent meeting at PAX West with BioWare’s Mark Darrah and Michael Gamble that focused entirely on the story aspects of Anthem, I’m still left with these lingering feelings about the game’s storytelling. Darrah and Gamble told me and many other members of the press in this briefing that they have the utmost confidence in that they have found a way to combine the multiplayer shared-world elements of Anthem with that of a personal story that will be unique for each player. However, even though they say this, they haven’t convinced me that it’ll work in the way that I was hoping.
Darrah and Gamble conveyed many of the same things in this meeting as they did in their own panel at PAX West. The idea of “Our World, My Story” –which is the key phrase that BioWare used to simultaneously emphasize the multiplayer gameplay experience while still containing a personal narrative– sounds good on paper, but I just don’t see it working effectively.
I think what I found to be most odd from what was focused on by BioWare dealt with how they emphasized storytelling via other characters that you’ll meet in the world. Rather than talking about your own Freelancer’s journey through the narrative, Darrah and Gamble talked greatly about how your relationships with these characters will serve as some of the game’s larger story beats. There will obviously still be a larger plot and plenty of lore within Anthem, but neither of these details were really conveyed in the time I spent listening to the members of BioWare.
Darrah and Gamble said that your character will have backstories with some of these side characters in the world, and your relationships with them will grow over the course of Anthem. While having interesting characters in this world is definitely something I’m looking for, my biggest issue is that I just don’t know connected to them I will feel because of the seeming lack of a personality from my own character.
With these kind of shared-world games, it’s hard to care much about the character that you’re controlling because they simply fill a blank slate in this world. In Anthem, you’re merely a Freelancer, cut out of the same mold of all of the other players who inhabit the game. I asked Darrah specifically whether or not this Freelancer moniker would be akin to someone like Shepard in Mass Effect, who had a well-realized direction that BioWare created that we, as the players, then helped shape moving forward. Darrah told me that’s not the case and instead, your own Freelancer will fill a sort of generic role with some slight backstory being provided.
When I can’t get invested in anything about my character other than the cool set of armor that they might be rocking, then it’s hard for me to then care about how they might progress within a larger story. This is the root cause of why I just don’t think Anthem’s story can hook me.
Another strange thing to hear was that most of the storytelling within Anthem will be confined to Fort Tarsis or your Strider, the roaming base that you can return to while out in the field. While lore and world-building will still be present while doing missions and such in the larger open world, Darrah and Gamble said that they wanted to have a clear divide between the gameplay and character-focused portions of Anthem. They also expressed that it’s difficult to have too many major story moments out in the field while you’re playing with others because the scenes then need to adapt to include those who might be with you.
This again raises a red flag for me on the narrative front, because I just don’t see how you can get invested in a story that is so clearly segmented in this manner. At best, I think these missions and such out in the field could lead to some really interesting places within the world that will flesh out the lore, but that’s about it.
All of this being said, BioWare isn’t trying to make Anthem like their other games, something that Gamble specifically stated in our meeting by saying, “Anthem is not Mass Effect, it’s not Dragon Age. Anthem is Anthem.” I think it’s easy for us as players to see BioWare’s name attached to Anthem and immediately come in with expectations that it needs to reach the same storytelling heights as the games that the studio has created in the past. Even though I’d love for that to be the case, it’s almost unfair towards BioWare to place such lofty goals at their feet, especially when they’re openly saying that Anthem isn’t going to be like anything they’ve made before. I think keeping this in mind when playing Anthem next year will help me enjoy the game that much more.
I want to make one thing very clear in this piece: despite my hesitation and concerns with the story BioWare is looking to tell in Anthem, I so badly want to be engrossed in this world. BioWare is one of my favorite development studios of all-time, and I still think they are at the foremost leaders in storytelling within games. I believe that this idea of “Our World, My Story” can work, but it’s definitely a daunting task. I currently don’t see how Anthem is going to be vastly different from a game like Destiny, but I’m willing to reserve my expectations until I dig into the game for myself when it releases early next year.
When all is said and done, I’m absolutely fine with Anthem being a gameplay-driven experience more than anything else. It’s a weird feeling to be more excited about gameplay from a BioWare game rather than the story, but not much else makes sense in 2018, anyway.
Anthem is due out next year on February 22 for PS4, Xbox One, and PC. If you’d like, you can pre-order it right now from Amazon.