Anthem, Part 2 – New World

If you read part one of my Anthem ramblings from yesterday then–welcome back! If you didn’t and would like to, go do that and I’ll keep this page warm until you get back.

All done? Excellent. Seemed kind of dour, didn’t it? I agree. Except for some general “I have hope” sentiments I don’t think I really gave anyone reasons to be excited. So let’s change that and I think there is no better place to start than the setting.

Unless you’re building a game that functions solely on its mechanics like Dead Cells, Tetris or QWOP then a story is an important fundamental aspect to your title. One that I think Anthem has in spades.

The Anthem of Creation

Whether we acknowledge it or not originality is one of the key hooks in any creative endeavor. Even if the skeleton of it is the same as it’s been for decades the veneer, a lot of the time, is what really counts. As more and more information about Anthem has been released the comparisons to recent and games long past have been steady.

The loot and RPG systems of Diablo.

The shooter mechanics of Destiny, and the loot.

I’m sure there are more than a few passing references to Borderlands.

The movement, combat and, loot of Warframe.

The cosmetic microtransactions of… any number of games.

The Sci-Fi setting of… any number of games, books and, movies.

I mentioned yesterday that as more details about the game have come out I was surprised by how many people were down on it’s aesthetic and story. I won’t deny that in many broad ways Anthem feels familiar, just like a lot of games to their spiritual predecessors. I’ve remarked on numerous occasions that to me Destiny at times feels to me like Bungie is still a bit lovesick for their Halo IP. The Cabal and the Covenant, Master Chief and the Guardians, humanity on the brink. In a lot of broad themes, these games to me have a lot in common beyond just their aesthetics.

But how similar are they? The truthful answer is not at all really, especially once you start getting into the details of the settings where they are significantly different. Each one with a lovingly crafted lore built out into a living, breathing universe that is constantly growing and changing. It’s not an easy undertaking to build something like that from scratch and only bear a passing resemblance to IPs that have come before. Bungie and Bioware both deserve a round of applause for managing to do this multiple times over their history as game developers.

Anthem for all its familiarity feels to me like a fresh universe to explore and that in and of itself means it has cleared one of the biggest hurdles a new IP has. So, let us take a look at what know so far before heading into the Open Demo Weekend.

The World of Anthem

Humanity struggles for survival on the ever-changing world of Anthem

The as-of-yet unnamed planet players will be exploring in Anthem is a world described by Mark Darrah as, “… a world stuck in the middle of its genesis.” As far as I can tell it’s not entirely clear whether or not the planet was being created from scratch or being terraformed from a previously uninhabitable form. The Shapers or Shaper Gods have long since left the world with their work unfinished and the inhabitants of the planet struggling to survive the aftermath. The technology used by the Shapers to harness the Anthem of Creation, energy unique to this universe, were also left behind and still active. Occasionally bursts of energy from these relics will radically alter the landscape and go so far as to mutate the indigenous life. These changes affect everything from their physical appearance to potentially making them more aggressive. We hear several references in trailers to something called The Heart of Rage which may or may not be related to the Anthem itself. This results in a dangerous and ever-changing planet where humanity fights back the chaos from heavily defended enclaves called Forts.

One of these Forts, Tarsis, is where the player begins their journey as a new Freelancer pilot responsible for flying one of the worlds rare Javelin mechs. Javelins are handcrafted suits of armor used by talented pilots to ensure the safety of the remaining human settlements. The story of the Freelancers and their inception actually goes back quite a long way according to the Legion of Dawn trailer. The voiceover talks about a time when humans were slaves to the chaos of the world. That is until one figure, in what we assume was the first Javelin, lead the fight to establish bastions of humanity that still stand today. The technology of the Javelin and this unnamed figures victories lead to the establishment of the Legion of Dawn. Precursors to the modern day Freelancers who still risk their lives to protect and someday reclaim the planet from the constant upheaval threatening to destroy it.

On top of the Shaper Relics and indigenous dangers of the planet, there looms another threat in the form of the Dominion. A faction of humans from the northern reaches lead by a man known only as The Monitor. The goals of the Dominion are simple: survival through strength. They seek to consolidate all of humanity under their banner and claim the Anthem of Creation for themselves. With that done they will be able to make and remake the world at a whim in any fashion they desire. As such the Dominion and The Monitor will be one of the main antagonists through much of the game as the Freelancers stand between them and their search for ultimate power.

On the periphery of this growing conflict, there is also an alien faction which comes from off-world called the Scars. This enigmatic force appears to also seek the technology left behind by the Shapers for their own nefarious ends.

This is only the tip of the iceberg with regards to enemy and allied factions out in the world and even within your home of Fort Tarsis. In classic Bioware fashion, our actions and interactions with each them will shape our version of the story and the world as we play and develop those relationships.

I think that is about as good as I can do for the “in a nutshell” version but suffice it to say for me this was enough to get the wheels spinning. Anthem’s developers have said that while we’ll learn more about the world during the campaign we won’t learn every detail about it nor solve all of its mysteries. Whether or not we’ll eventually learn the truth about the Shapers or their original intentions for this world is a toss up but in my estimation, a well-teased story is as good or better than a fully explained one. After all, there is something to be said about keeping the mystery alive and in this case, my place in the grand scheme of Anthem doesn’t have to sit front and center as long as I can keep flying my javelin.

A Good Mechanic Goes a Long Way

A great story and setting is all well and good but what about the mechanics of the game? This is the part where I really wish I had done some capture during the demo but with the limited amount of time I had to play it was a secondary concern. Fortunately, there are plenty of great content creators out there on YouTube who have more than enough captured footage for you to enjoy if you weren’t able to play last weekend. Even better is that if you want to try it yourself there is an Open Demo starting tomorrow that you can take part in on the PS4, Xbox and PC.

In the interim what I will tell you is that the game feels amazing. I’ve read, listened and watched a lot of reviews in the last few days and much like the aesthetic complaints I’m just not seeing a lot of the criticism being levied at Anthem. That is until you get to the swimming part and I will 100% agree that feels abysmal with a mouse and keyboard. The flying took a little bit of tweaking on M+K to get just right but once I had it dialed in I didn’t want to do anything else. There is absolutely no substitute for the freedom and verticality offered by Anthem in its traversal which is made only better by the sheer mobility in combat.

The mission structure of the game is one aspect that I will say is not my favorite as it sort of breaks up the immersion. As funny as that is to say about a third person shooter. Queueing up in a lobby before loading into a mission or Free-Play is fine but it sort of bypasses the potential magic of suiting up, walking out to the launch platform and jumping. I won’t quibble too much about a load screen being in between a player and their adventure but you can’t argue with the beauty of a seamless transition from one area or activity to the next. In this age of gaming, it would have been nice if Bioware had found a way to ditch the dreaded static load screen for something more immersive. That being said once you are loaded in the world is your oyster with loads being limited to entering into caverns, buildings or other dungeon-like areas. Many places, even underwater, are free to be explored without hesitation.

As the name looter shooter implies guns play a rather large role in Anthem although perhaps not as large a role as we initially assumed. Bioware has stated that the main reason for the lack of a PVP mechanic in the game is they didn’t want the power of characters limited by necessary balance concerns. As such the Javelin’s myriad abilities recharge very quickly ensuring that you are never relying on only your weapons for very long. The ensuing cacophony of explosive elemental effects comboing off one another is truly a sight to behold. The rattle of guns is still a constant soundtrack in combat however and they handle okay. There is a jittery aspect to the machine guns that I don’t care for although I suspect its a conflict between aim assist and M+K control scheme. Shotguns feel and sound incredible, there is a weight to them that is unmistakable and satisfying. Sniper rifles, especially my favorite the Devastator variant, bring long range damage with an explosive kick to the battlefield. Marksman rifles for me felt the best to me during my playthrough although as a Storm main it was always destined to be. Pistols I could take or leave although I didn’t spend as much time with them as I should have.

Gangs all here.

Before this gets too much longer the last thing I want to talk about, in broad terms, are the javelins themselves. The stars of the show. From top to bottom they feel different, look different and play very different. While there are only four base javelin types the weapons, mods, and components you pick up can radically alter how you approach a battle. None of them are relegated to any one role except in the most general sense.

A Storm will never tank a battle or spend much time on the ground, in the thick of things.

A Colossus will not sit back and pick off targets from afar or hover above the battlefield.

An Interceptor will not deal extensive area damage or spend much time in one place, ever.

A Ranger will not… uh, well. Ranger is kind of all-around good at everything so if you don’t like being pigeonholed this is the javelin for you.

Short of these clear divisions of labor, you can outfit your javelins to fit a wide variety of playstyles even if they may seem to run contrary to the javelins stated role. With only PvE content to consider it opens up the way for more experimentation with potentially sub-optimal builds. At the end of the day, the way you enjoy playing will trump the statistically optimal choice. With a group of three other javelins, their combined firepower and some skillful play I think we’ll find most if not all styles of play are viable in Anthem.

Anthem in its current state is far from a perfect game but as I said before it has enormous potential and that is what excites me the most about it.
Attentive readers will notice that I didn’t talk about the microtransaction scheme that will be in the game which is a fair criticism. The main reason I don’t want to is that the community already got what it wanted from Bioware and EA in regards to real money purchases. Cosmetic only. The supposed pricing debacle is something we can discuss after launch when it is set in stone but for now, the game is releasing with exactly what we said we wanted. They listened, we won to get out the ticker tape and let’s throw that parade.

With the fixes to come in the released game and the technical difficulties (hopefully) ironed out for the Open Demo starting today I think Anthem is finally a game that we can be honestly excited for. It’s here, it’s real and thus far it isn’t all of our worst fears from EA‘s corporate meddling to Bioware’s rocky reputation combined. We chided them for a long time that this game was shaping up, and indeed intended, to be their apology and redemption tour and it seems we were right.

Eventual success or failure aside I think we can confidently say that Anthem is the game Bioware set out to make. They offered transparency to the fans and listened to their feedback over the last couple years to improve on their vision. In a few weeks, the world will get a chance to vote with their wallets on the final product.

I don’t know about you but I can’t really ask for more than that.

  • Anthony

P.S. Bioware also announced that all story-based DLC for this game will be free going forward because they don’t want to split up the player base.

Anthem, Part 1 – Rocks and Shoals

Everyone has had a lot to say about this game since that very first E3 tease all the way back in 2014 and before we really get started let’s take a second to revisit that.

Bioware teases brand new IP at E3 2014.

It may sound a little mean but, I always find it funny when we get these produced pieces set to hopeful music about the grand future waiting for us just around the corner. That being said regardless of how many times I see them from developers I love they never cease to get me excited for what’s coming. Bioware has had something of a rough few years what with Mass Effect: Andromeda being an unmitigated disaster and Star Wars: The Old Republic being… a long story. EA, the publisher for Bioware’s games, has not been free of controversy either over the last handful of years. Their most notable, but far from only, debacle being Star Wars: Battlefront 2 and the famous “…sense of pride and accomplishment…” quote. You really have to marvel at a PR statement that is so bad to be that soundly rebuffed by an entire demographic let alone the specific community it was targeting.

Three years, a lot of bumps and roadblocks later brings us to E3 2017 and the official trailer and gameplay reveal of Bioware’s new IP, Anthem.

E3 2017 reveal.

Mmph, that dialogue. Never ceases to remind me of the face creasing power of a mouthful of Warheads but without the reward of actually having candy. That aside it was hard to not instantly be pulled in by the impressive visuals, gameplay, and hints at a fully realized sci-fi world from Bioware. There is little point in lying about the fact that I was hooked immediately in spite of the deluge of cautionary, “Yeah, but it’s EA.” cries from every corner. EA and Bioware’s latest string of foibles was still fresh on everyone’s mind and there was no getting around that. Things were relatively quiet through 2017 with little details trickling out here or there but 2018 was an entirely different story. Bioware went on the offensive with a steady run of live-streamed content for transparency with a rightly skeptical community.

As I watched the live-streams and read the myriad coverage of the game’s progression towards release I was constantly surprised by the number of comments calling it bland, boring or generic looking. I could see some arguments being made in reference to the lack of story information since without it all you have is the game mechanics themselves to hold your interest. People need to know their reason for suiting up and flying around your world blowing up bizarre creatures. The Matrix wasn’t sold to people on its revolutionary slow-motion technique alone but rather the story which was bolstered by the cinematography.

Even granted that we had heard some intriguing tidbits that had me engrossed.

The anthem of creation?

Shaper storms?

Fort Tarsis being one of the last bastions of humanity?

What made the world this way? What world are we even on?

New IPs while often a very dangerous proposition for even established studios have the benefit of being wholly unknown, a new frontier to explore and learn about. For me, Anthem had painted the perfect picture to draw me in with just enough information to get me asking questions but not enough to answer them.

On the mechanical side, the game is very familiar having been compared to everything from the very top-of-mind Destiny, who dropped all pretense on the matter, all the way to Diablo. Even if you’re playing these games for the story ultimately you’re still playing them for the loot because it is an inescapable part of their gameplay and progression.

All this being said, why am I here today talking about Anthem? This past weekend I was able to play in the VIP Demo/Beta and I’d like to chat about that experience. Especially given that there is an open demo weekend coming up where everyone, including folks without pre-orders, will be able to try out the game.

We may as well get the obvious stuff out of the way; the technical problems. The demo was a bit of a mess as Friday started out with the servers being largely unavailable to players because of a somewhat humorous design error. In an effort to make sure people could get in without manually having to retry over and over the game was accidentally designed to DDoS itself. Understandably most folks didn’t find this very funny as they had paid by way of pre-orders to have access to the game over the weekend. Eventually, they got it figured out but this was only the first in a series of issues the game would encounter. To make a long list short we’ll do it like this –

  • Stuttering/Lagging/Rubberbanding during play.
  • Infinite Load – Loading progress would stop at 95% and never progress. Seemed to be linked to folks using WiFi.
  • Second Javelin unlocks at level 12 – Many players once achieving level 12 were unable to unlock their second Javelin. The game also seemed to have trouble accurately tracking XP gains and levels in general.
  • Item stat errors both visually and mechanically.
  • Graphical errors along with enemies spawning and despawning randomly even while engaged in combat.
  • Immobile NPCs where their AIs seemed to be bugged.
  • “Connection Error” dialogue box would pop up frequently during play and could only be dismissed by clicking. This would interrupt your control inputs so you would simply stop moving and acting. The error didn’t actually disconnect you from the game.
  • Console players, by and large, being unable to log in and even play for huge chunks of time over the weekend. Partially caused by issues trying to link their Origin and console accounts for access to the demo.

I’m sure there are more I’m forgetting but those were the ones that either happened to me, people I was playing with or were simply the most prominent over the weekend. In the wake of this, I have seen lots of conjecture about the readiness of the game and how much can Bioware really fix in the weeks leading up to release. Not entirely an unreasonable point but it is important to remember that this was a six-week-old build of the game. I’m not offering this as a way to excuse the problems during the demo but simply to point out how much work has undoubtedly been done in those six weeks. Not to mention will be done in the four until release. All things being equal I would have preferred a demo with no problems or just fewer but we’ve all collectively done enough of these that this shouldn’t be too shocking.

A summary of the demo weekend from Bioware’s Head of Live Service, Chad Robertson.

Going from controlled closed alphas to even a pseudo-public demo will cause a lot of unexpected issues to crop up which is just an unfortunate reality. This statement certainly won’t quell the “I canceled my pre-order!” crowd nor should it, that is their recourse for a rocky demo. It isn’t money lost for the consumer because they got the experience they paid for, one that told them their money would be best spent elsewhere. It saddens me to see a product like Anthem, with so much potential, take it in the teeth like that on a demo but that is the risk they take.

For me, personally, the demo rocky as it was had the complete opposite effect on me. Call me a sucker or a shill but I’ve tried to never judge games too harshly based on demos, betas or alphas. Developers take huge risks in letting us see games early and in potentially broken states. They count on players keeping an open mind and sometimes seeing the potential in what they are trying to do rather than the current reality.

Even four weeks out, one troubled demo weekend down and one more rapidly approaching I still can’t help but see the potential in Anthem.

Thanks for reading part one and I’ll be back with part two tomorrow. Until then have a great day and happy gaming.

  • Anthony

To Iterate, Or Not To Iterate

I was reading this blurb over on N4G and while it adds up to little more than speculation by a developer I had an instant revulsion to even the suggestion that Sony or Microsoft would entertain this idea. Naturally that revulsion eventually coalesced into an opinion that I thought belonged here.

“With Sony and Microsoft expanding the line with PS4 Pro and Xbox One X, we might just see continual evolution in the line rather than completely new boxes and architecture. We can see both follow a similar formula that Apple has with cell phones.” – Colin Moore, Holospark

It’s not that the thought hadn’t crossed my mind since Sony announced it was dipping its toe in with the PS4 Pro to see how console owners might react to a mid-generation upgrade. By all current metrics the experiment certainly hasn’t been a flop and may even end up being an overall success but I don’t think we can really know that for sure quite yet. Their competition over at Xbox certainly haven’t been idle, putting in the work to upgrade already released games to make them worth revisiting on the One X. I’ll be very interested to see how the cost of that extra work tallies up against the sales numbers for the system which thus far has beaten out the Pro in units shifted. The biggest knock against Xbox right now is a lack of platform exclusives to stack up against the rather impressive stable Sony has built up but ultimately if you’re asking people to spend another $400-500 mid-generation they’re going to go where the value is and eventually developers will follow. All that can come in a later post-mortem once we get a little closer to the next generational step, for right now we have other things to talk about.

What is it about the concept of iterative consoles that repulses me and in my opinion should do the same for you?

For starters let me go back to the argument that console fans generally make against their bigger siblings, the PC. Cost. One of the things that is generally laid at the feet of PC enthusiasts is that while they may be better they also pay an exorbitant premium for that status. Unfortunately for people who use that argument its easily disproven and I don’t say that to be flippant, it’s just the simple truth. Consoles these days are using the same hardware that we use in PCs only theirs are a handful of generations behind almost immediately after their release. We can build budget PCs that cost less than consoles and perform better on modern games, this comes with the caveat that we have to build our rigs instead of pulling them out of the box ready to use but thats a pretty small speedbump even for the most tech-illiterate. The added problem with this argument is that we can easily upgrade individual components instead of having to build or purchase entirely new systems when we want to see a boost in performance. Smart PC builders can to an extent “future proof” their builds by leaving themselves room to upgrade without having to replace other core components due to compatibility problems.

What this boils down to is that the all-or-nothing limitation of home consoles necessitates a wholesale replacement of your system with an iterative release schedule if you want to stay up to date. A modular approach to home consoles where you could purchase specific upgrades for your system is most likely a pipe dream as I can’t see how they could possibly make that fiscally profitable or easy for consumers. The most common counterpoint to this that I can see is the mitigating affect of trade-in programs like those available at Gamestop which is a good point. Trading in your Xbox One or PS4 will net you $140 or $170 respectively which isn’t bad when weighed against the cost of an upgrade, sort of.

Those values leave you with eating $229 for a PS4 Pro and a real gut punch of $359 for the Xbox One X which leaves it only $40 shy of the non-Kinect release version you just traded in. Both of these systems are a definite improvement in performance so I won’t call them a ripoff or even a poor value but for your average console consumer that is a nearly impossible reality to swallow. This reality gets even worse when you realize that the Pro released just three years after the standard console for a combined $628 in just that time if you want to upgrade. I remember people theorizing about a 6-10 year lifespan for these new systems and while an iterative timeline doesn’t mean they are dead it does leave you feeling like you’re not getting the best the platform has to offer which leads to people feeling like they misspent their money.

This also leads me back to the quote earlier from Colin Moore and in particular this portion, “We can see both follow a similar formula that Apple has with cell phones.” which is a sentiment that I think should have people who game on consoles screaming bloody murder. I wont get into a long discussion on the price of cellphones but anyone who looks at an iPhone X with its accompanying price tag and thinks, “Makes sense.” needs their head examined. Just some quick context for those who may have forgotten, the original iPhone retailed for $499-599 however within three months that price was dropped to $399. The 3G retailed for $199-299. Fast forward a mere eleven years and your new iPhone X will run you a staggering $1,149USD or otherwise known as a low-ish end mortgage payment. But no need to worry, a couple of months prior to that release the affordable iPhone 8 series released covering the $700-900 range if you don’t want their flagship product.

If you think that iterative console releases wont end up skyrocketing the cost of your “cutting edge systems” I’ve got some bad news for you. I make no bones about the fact that cutting edge or even high end PC gaming is not every-day-affordable and I really don’t want to see the same thing happen to consoles for the sake of being able to play the newest Call of Duty in 4k. Focus on hitting a steady 60fps at regular HD, it’s cheaper and you’ll be happier, trust me. Consoles will never be out in front of PC tech nor should they be as that isn’t their purpose, the extra cost burden of an iterative release schedule will do nothing to really improve the experience in a meaningful way. Whats more I don’t think that the majority of their consumer base will engage with that schedule outside of a handful of early adopters with enough money to make the expense negligible.

Suffice it to say the cost to everyone involved, including Sony and Microsoft, just isn’t worth whatever if any potential upside that they see from mid-generation upgrades or the simple abolition of the entire current release structure. Let the PC market bear that burden as we have from the beginning, don’t poison the console market by needlessly dragging them into that mess. If you really feel like you need to close the gap then look at a shorter life cycle for consoles, I always thought that ten years was too long when compared to the speed of technology. I think you could make a reasonable argument that end-of-life for a console could start at year five and be phased out completely by year eight without burning out your consumer base on “constant upgrades”. If we look at the PS4 and Xbox One right now around four years from their release date I think we’re just about seeing their peak performance with releases like Assassins Creed: Origins, Horizon Zero Dawn and God of War 4. I’m sure we’ll see some clever developers squeeze a little more out of them over the next year or two but I doubt much beyond that. That puts us at a couple years to enjoy the plateau or marginal improvements before we start looking towards the next major generation. That period will be the real test for the Pro and One X, will Sony and Microsoft position them to be the exclusive console versions to bridge this generation and the next while ending support for the base models? If they don’t will we ever see games that really push the Pro or One X to their limit as it becomes harder to keep parity between them and their predecessors? Questions I am eager to see answered as it will give us hints to their plans going forward, for now its hard to say. Sony is riding high on being the current undisputed king of this console cycle and Microsoft is still doing its utmost to win back their customers in any way they can after stumbling hard at the outset.

You’ll notice I have yet to mention Nintendo in all of this and if you’re curious why I’d invite you to read my write-up about the Switch. They have smartly avoided this path with their main home consoles and I think they’ll continue to do that for the forseeable future.

I’ll work on cutting myself off here as I don’t want this to be overly long winded and save my further comments for later because I’m sure this will come up again before long. What my argument comes down to is that I don’t think the value proposition for an iterative release schedule benefits the consumer in any way shape or form and realistically only serves to enrich console makers. I don’t begrudge them for seeking out new profit avenues as I’m sure I pointed out in my lootbox post  but I have an issue when there is little to no value for the people who are shelling out the dough. When it comes to technology we’ve become a little upgrade crazy and overall we’ve become comfortable enough that companies like Apple will nudge us towards upgrading with some pretty underhanded tactics. Aging technology is not useless technology and allowing consoles to spiral into the money vortex of constant upgrades, trade-ins and iteration hell I think is something that is best avoided at all costs for businesses and consumers alike. And this is coming from a card carrying member of the PC Elitists you all love so much.

Till next time, happy gaming!

  • Non-Washable