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Anthem makers thread the needle of a cooperative shooter with solo storytelling

‘Our world, your story,’ is the principle. Can BioWare pull it off?

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Anthem’s makers at BioWare have had to face down skepticism from fans who’ve so far seen something that seems quite divergent from what the studio has become known for. At a panel at PAX West today, the game’s senior creative leadership again stressed Anthem will tell the stories and build character relationships that have drawn so many to the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series.

But for something that is fundamentally a co-operative multiplayer shooter, how will dialogue and role-playing choice options work?

Executive producer Mark Darrah and lead producer Mike Gamble spoke about the game’s approach, which BioWare describes as “Our world, your story.” As outlined in the video above shown at PAX, human players will interact and cooperate on missions. But the dialogue and story decisions will take place in solo settings, away from others.

“Our world means that, as a group, we play together in a large, shared open world, and storytelling aspects come in terms of things like day-night cycles, we experience that as a group,” Gamble said in a news conference preceding the panel. “When you get back to Fort Tarsis [the game’s home base], it’s your personal Fort Tarsis. That’s kind of the high level preamble of it.”

Fort Tarsis, and the “Strider,” (a mobile base) is where players will interact solitarily with their “pit crew,” for example, and the technicians, mentors and NPCs brought there from another mission, to develop those relationships. In the open world, which they can explore in a free-roam mode or progress through the game’s mission structure, they can work with other players, but it’s always toward a single objective, Darrah explained.

Players may hear different dialogue during these missions — communications with their “Cypher,” an NPC monitoring the action from afar, for example — but it won’t alter or affect the cooperative activity in hand. In this way, Anthem’s creators say it can be the cake-and-eat-it too ideal of embracing the kind of loot-shooter design that has made Bungie’s Destiny so appealing, while still giving users more personal investment in the narrative.

That said, “Anthem is not like previous BioWare games,” Darrah said. “Anthem is Anthem. The focus on cooperative multiplayer is a big thing for us, but we think you can make a game that still tells a great story in that context.” The developers reiterated that the game may be played solo all the way through if a user desires. Up to four players may cooperate on missions together; so far, lower level players will not be able to play missions available to a higher level group, but high level players may replay missions that more junior teammates are embarking on.

BioWare isn’t looking to build a huge story with the variety of choices and consequence akin to Mass Effect. However, the fact Anthem will be offered in a live service model means the studio will be able to flesh out and extend the characters’ stories in ways DLC expansions for past franchises could not, Gamble said.

Conversation options will offer just two choices, Gamble said, and the there will only be one objective in cooperative missions, to avoid friction as players experience the game’s story and also to make Anthem more accessible to RPG newcomers. That also means romances, a staple of BioWare RPGs, aren’t involved in Anthem. Gamble said that BioWare designers spent a lot of effort to make romantic interactions meaningful in past games. With Anthem, designers felt it would be better to have more characters involved, even if the level of bonding isn’t as deep as a romantic partnership. “It may not allow us to go as deep as we would get with romance, but it allows us to go broader” he reasoned.

Characters discussed so far include Yarrow, a back-in-the-day Freelancer, which is the class of fighter/protectors to whom the player character belongs (they’re not a military unit, but more akin to an order of knights, Gamble said). Conversations with the cyphers and other NPCs will also expose the story of the Anthem of Creation, which is the game’s macguffin and the powerful resource that the enemy Dominion faction is seeking to harness.

Anthem will release a demo on Feb. 1, three weeks before its Feb. 21, 2019 launch for PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One. That demo will be a traditional demo, Darrah said, not a multiplayer beta. Subscribers to EA Access and Origin Access will get an early release preview of the game, as EA does with its other titles.

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