With Anthem, BioWare Has Sold Me on Its Gameplay, But Not Yet on Its Storytelling
Anthem looks like it will play phenomenally, but I'm not getting a sense yet of how the game will deliver the storytelling I've come to love from BioWare.
Going into E3 2018, one of the titles that I’m sure many have been looking forward to has been BioWare’s Anthem, and EA certainly delivered on that front with our most extensive look at the game yet. Coming from the house that delivered us immersive, narrative-driven games that have redefined the last generation of stories in series like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, Anthem looks like an exciting new direction for the studio. From its gameplay demo at EA Play, Anthem very much looks to be breaking some new gameplay boundaries for BioWare thanks to its dynamic open-world, but I hope it doesn’t completely abandon what BioWare has made its name on: storytelling.
During EA Play 2018, Casey Hudson and several other members of the team at BioWare took the stage (as expected) to give us a much deeper look into Anthem, the studio’s latest project and its first new IP in over a decade following Mass Effect and Dragon Age.
As the closer of EA’s conference itself, Anthem made a suitable finale to its pre-E3 presentation, thanks to the large variety of details that we learned about the game. In the 20 minutes or so that Anthem was on stage, we got a hefty dose of knowledge on the game, from a new cinematic trailer, to a full gameplay demo, to even a breakdown of the game’s customization options and the fact that it will not be relying on loot boxes, something EA has clearly learned from getting burned on Star Wars Battlefront II last fall.
Naturally, Anthem has been drawing tons of comparisons to other “shared-world” games that have currently been dominating the shooter marketplace, with the most obvious comparison (and its clear competitor) being Bungie and Activision’s Destiny. A lot of the knee-jerk reactions I’ve been seeing have often described Anthem as “third-person Destiny,” and its hard not to make those kinds of comparisons when looking at the gameplay: there are more than a few similarities between the games as we see exosuit-wearing warriors pummel bullets into enemies with hit point numbers popping up on screen, and grabbing some sweet, sweet loot afterward.
Despite those immediate images that call to mind the fact that EA really wants this game to be their claim to the “shared world shooter” market, there is plenty about Anthem that has had me excited so far from what EA and BioWare have shown this year during EA Play. Personally, I think the most striking quality of the game that has been shown so far is the sense of mobility that Anthem is providing thanks to its Javelin exosuits.
I’m a sucker for cool-looking sci-fi gear, and the Javelins — which essentially are acting as the game’s swappable character classes — look pretty darn cool. Aside from the Iron Man-style flight and mobility — which already sold me on them during the reveal last year — the fact that players have the added ability of flight seems like it opens up some interesting new gameplay opportunities across both exploration and combat, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of how it is incorporated into the final game.
Make no mistake, Anthem is looking great so far. Even from the brief initial look that we had at the game during Microsoft’s press conference last year, Anthem already looks to be meeting (and even exceeding) the typical shine and polish that we’ve had in the past from BioWare’s titles. And given the huge emphasis on gameplay that EA brought to us this year, I have no doubts that Anthem will play well, but what I found striking is that so little of the game’s story and world-building has been shared yet, and that’s what has me concerned just a bit.
In the past several years of having games like Destiny, The Division, and other shared-world style shooters, the biggest pitfall that we’ve seen these games fall into has been a lack of compelling storytelling to complement their gameplay.
Like other players, Destiny drew me in with its lovingly-crafted art direction and style, and yet even with Destiny 2 and its subsequent expansions, Bungie has still, time and again, had difficulties in figuring out the best way to blend an engaging narrative with a co-op driven multiplayer experience, without having to drive players to look for the most intriguing story bits outside of the game itself, whether that’s on Bungie’s official pages dedicated to the game, Reddit threads, or doing deep dives into wikis.
BioWare’s knack for giving players compelling stories is something that they have proven well over the past decade, and that‘s what I was hoping to see a little more of from Anthem during its demo: how it will blend the storytelling elements that BioWare is so well-suited towards within a more multiplayer-centric experience.
As Bungie is on the path to course-correct Destiny 2 since launch and trying to draw back in a diminishing player base, I had mixed feelings about EA and BioWare’s presentation for Anthem. BioWare had a great chance to really show how Anthem is their attempt to try and fill in some of the cracks that shared-world shooters have shown in the past few years, especially when it comes to storytelling. BioWare’s Casey Hudson even touched on some of that during the presentation and said that Anthem would not be a game with “story bolted on the side,” a not too subtle jab at the current state of games like Destiny.
While there’s still nearly a year between now and Anthem‘s release and plenty we have yet to see from the game, I hope we get to delve a bit more specifically into the elements of Anthem‘s story and world, as those are the elements that BioWare has captured me with in its previous titles. As one of my favorite series from the past generation, Mass Effect delivered a fine mix of engaging storytelling and gave players a way to meaningfully engage with that world and its characters.
When I think back on Mass Effect, I immediately think of the companions that defined that journey for me, such as Liara, Jack, Miranda, Jacob, Mordin, and the rest of the cast that I immediately grew attached to. I’m hoping at least a portion of that makes its way into Anthem, though it still remains to be seen exactly the type of stories and characters that Anthem will deliver.
Aside from the similar sci-fi setting as Mass Effect, the Star Wars-like visuals and sort of “used future” ideas that Anthem seems to be implementing look cool, and they look pretty darn captivating from a visual standpoint. However, the questions I’m still yearning for remain to be answered: will the story elements tie into my exploration of the open-world in a meaningful way? Will I have the ability to go down different paths depending on the choices I’ve made earlier? Who are the characters I will build relationships with over the course of the game and come to know and love (disregarding that they most likely won’t be of a romantic nature, according to BioWare)?
Coming off the disappointing reception of Mass Effect: Andromeda last year, I’m already feeling a bit more optimistic about the prospects of Anthem from a gameplay standpoint: BioWare did well on that front this year at EA Play. However, while BioWare touched lightly on some of the story elements that we’ll see in the final game and how they’ll be incorporated, I’m hoping that in the coming months we’ll get to see more of that in action.
Even Bungie at several points touted Destiny as the sort of engaging, massive narrative that players will get lost in for months (or years), and while I have faith in what BioWare has displayed so far from Anthem, on the storytelling front I hope that they show us more of what its story will offer us, rather than tell.
Anthem will be releasing for PS4, Xbox One, and PC on February 22nd, 2019.