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Anthem’s design leaves behind what BioWare used to do best

BioWare’s games focused on character and relationships, and that’s gone from Anthem

BioWare / Electronic Arts

BioWare built its name by creating story-focused, single-player role-playing game series like Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age, Baldur’s Gate, and Mass Effect. These games led many of us, myself included, to become smitten with BioWare as a studio.

The stories of these games are engrossing, but the people whom I met, befriended, and fought alongside me throughout the adventure matter just as much. BioWare games tend to have memorable characters, bringing them into the player’s party and having them propel the story forward. So many of the classic BioWare decisions that work, like morality and party management, work because of the characters.

BioWare is out of its element with Anthem, a social-focused, online action game that’s broken up by long stretches of barely interactive story elements. The things I love about BioWare — a great story and an amazing cast — are gone in Anthem. Instead, the studio ignored the pillars of design that made it successful, and then replaced them with systems that barely function with each other.

What BioWare did well

In my favorite BioWare games, I set out into a foreign, enchanting world, and I quickly find myself surrounded by interesting companions. Some of them serve as a moral compass, others are romantic options or best friends, and yet others tell me more about what I’m supposed to do. Some may need my help, and some may try to take advantage of my good (or bad!) nature.

I can list some of my favorites. Mordin Solus from Mass Effect 2 is a fast talking, cultured, scientist who grapples with guilt over his past. He also sings. Cassandra Pentaghast from Dragon Age Inquisition is strict to the point of hostility, loyal to her cause, and has a secret soft spot for romance.

It takes me time to learn these things about the characters I meet in these games. Trust isn’t given all at once.

I spend time in worlds so unfamiliar to my own — with mages, Sith, and aliens on spaceships or in towering castles. But my relationships with these characters are compelling and, ironically, human. The cast in the best BioWare games help me define the character I’m role-playing, by forcing me to deal with the tricky situations and moral struggles of those around me.

My Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect trilogy became a compassionate, battle-scarred soldier. My Hawke was always joking in Dragon Age 2, to the point of infuriating everyone around her. My Dragon Age Inquisitor was a deeply religious, short-sighted woman who was doing her best in impossible circumstances.

BioWare filled these worlds with lore of different kinds, but the discussions I had with other characters were the most effective way BioWare would add a strong sense of place to each game.

Who I was, and what I was doing, matters. That’s normal in games. What’s not normal is how often my companions matter, and how much control I have over some of their decisions and how little say in others. They are a part of my journey, and they aren’t always under my control. We’re all in this mess together, for better or for worse.

BioWare made single-player games that felt social and real, which sounds impossible, but somehow, the studio was able to pull it off.

Anthem - a Freelancer battles a wyvern. BioWare / Electronic Arts

What Anthem does instead

Anthem ditches the idea of non-player characters completely — at least in the action scenes, and there are a lot of them. Each mission sends me and up to three friends or strangers out into the world to fulfill quests that sound majestic in description but often boil down to fetch quests.

I teleport to my team automatically if they travel too far ahead of me, so I don’t have to worry about getting lost. Or even participating during the earlier levels. I once had to go AFK for most of a mission due to my cat knocking over a glass, but I saw the mission complete screen when I returned. The other players earned 100 XP more than I did.

Each person on my player-controlled team has Origin tags, but no in-character name or callsign. Most players use their tags to make an out of character joke or a reference to sex or drugs that is somehow just clever enough to get past the profanity filter.

I don’t feel connected to any of these players, and they definitely don’t need me during most of the missions.

BioWare replaced my teams of flawed, interesting characters from past series with random online players mixed into an endless stream of incoherent lore. I’m a Freelancer, working with Cyphers who are aboard Striders heading into a Cataclysm caused by Shaper technology that harnesses the Anthem of Creation. I must get past the Titans to find the Cenotaph at the center of the Heart of Rage. Later, I will have to contend with Scars, Arcanists, the Monitor, and Corvus.

Anthem - a boss titan looms over the player. BioWare / Electronic Arts

This is world made of proper nouns that may or may not be referring to anything of great significance, but at least I get to tackle the mission with a stalwart companion like ... DrCuckStomper69? Previous BioWare games ground the more fantastic aspects of these settings with characters who struggle with real issues alongside the main quest. Online randos distance me even further from whatever Anthem is trying to say about its themes or even central ideas.

I meet scripted characters with voice acting in the hub world, called Fort Tarsis, which is completely disconnected from the battles by pacing, tone, and even visuals. I walk around Fort Tasis in first-person, while the combat is in third-person. My movement in Fort Tarsis is ridiculously slow, especially compared to the ultra-fast movement and flying I become used to from the battle sections of the game. The characters I meet here won’t follow me into battle; that’s an honor reserved for “real” people with goofy Origin tags.

And none of these written characters who only exist in Fort Tarsis explain anything to me, since my character has already been there awhile. Everyone around me assumes I already know what I need to know about what I’m doing. This is not the case at all.

The action scenes and story scenes don’t enhance each other, as they do in previous BioWare games. BioWare opted for an approach that smashes two very different kinds of games together in a way that hurts both of them.

I ultimately check a Wiki out of frustration, after yet another NPC monologues at me about things that don’t make any sense. Anthem makes me feel like I’m stuck with an overeager dungeon master who spent more time on her binder of world-building than she did on anything that actually matters, but by god she is not going to let you skip any of it. This stuff is important. But then, it barely matters when I jump into battle, far away from anyone I’ve met in the story.

Anthem - Owen offers you a choice about your Freelancer BioWare / Electronic Arts

Characters all talk at me, not with me. Everyone communicates via quips and pithy sayings, like we’re all reading from the same book of cool protagonist catchphrases, but none of it would make sense in a real-world setting. Fort Tarsis is the Hall of Presidents-version of a hub world, where every so often, a robot comes to life to spout facts at me while I wish I was one of the more exciting rides.

This disconnection also means I don’t get to define myself through my own actions or conversations with other characters. I don’t get to build much of a character at all, in fact. My Freelancer reminds me of a camera and a disembodied voice more than a human being with emotions or desires. It’s uncanny and uncomfortable to see through her eyes in cutscenes.

Anthem does have some of its own, unique strengths. Combat works well. The javelin, my in-game mech, and its movement feels unique and heavy; all those comparisons to the Iron Man movies were earned. The core fantasy of maintaining a powerful tool to survive in a hostile world is a strong one, which is why we see it so often in fantasy and science fiction.

But I never became emotionally invested in Anthem while playing through the story, and I doubt I ever will until radical changes are made to the game’s structure. Bioware made a name for itself with human stories told through often inhuman characters, and yet structured Anthem in such a way that those interactions are nearly impossible.

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