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Hands-on with Anthem’s ‘50 billionth control scheme’

BioWare is presenting Anthem as a shooter

four people in exosuits hover high in the air above a river valley BioWare/Electronic Arts

Just for now, forget about Anthem’s story, characters and campaign. In fact, forget that it’s a role-playing game. Instead, let’s talk about what it’s like to play developer BioWare’s upcoming action role-playing game — emphasis on “action.” Let’s talk about how it feels.

To my mind, that’s among the most important things to know about it, at least until the developer is ready to talk more about other things. Because in the absence of other details, BioWare is presenting Anthem as a shooter.

BioWare isn’t a developer known for its shooters. Yes, its games have had a lot of shooting. At least as far back as the first Mass Effect, they blurred the line between RPG and shooter. But since E3 2017, BioWare has been selling Anthem differently. It’s emphasizing combat, not role-playing. And if combat isn’t a solid foundation, then Anthem could crumble.

At E3 2018, I wrapped my hands around an Xbox One controller and played Anthem. The Windows PC version was running on live BioWare servers. I had three developers at my side, making a team of four — one for each type of exosuit (or “javelin” in Anthem parlance). And we spent half an hour flying, swimming and turning grotesque aliens into goo. In short, we played a longer version of what BioWare showed on stage at EA Play 2018, hopping between lush jungle environments and coordinating our attacks.

But how did it feel?

Anthem feels like a capable modern shooter. It feels comfortable and easy to control, and it’s not difficult to adapt to things like the Iron Man-esque javelin exosuits. It’s as simple as clicking the left and right thumbsticks to switch between flying, hovering and landing. And combat’s exactly what you’d think it is — left and right trigger-based third-person shooting.

Put differently, it doesn’t feel like a role-playing game that uses shooter mechanics. It feels like a team-based third-person shooter first. And in the absence of any detailed information about the story parts of Anthem, that’s supremely important.

“It’s a game where we want you to feel kind of like you’re superheroic. You’re larger than life, and these these javelins are really an amplifier of your skills as a Freelancer,” senior producer Mike Gamble told Polygon at E3 2018. “So yeah, it’s kind of important.”

It’s also something that BioWare’s been monkeying with for a long time.

“That control scheme that you played? It’s, like, the 50 billionth control scheme that we’ve done,” he said with a laugh. “Like, you constantly iterate on it until it feels right. We have people who are experts in camera, water, great animators, experts in movement.”

Anthem - shooting a Scar scout on a wooden bridge BioWare/Electronic Arts

At one point, we landed above a gorge filled with aliens. A teammate asked me how I wanted to approach the fight. On the ledges to the right were snipers. In the pit below them were the grunts. A couple of us headed for the snipers, while others cleared out the enemies below. It’s a design that I expect to see a lot more of in Anthem — a brief break in the action during which players plan for the battle ahead.

In another encounter, I saw how the team-based combo system feeds into combat. BioWare is only speaking of combos in generalities now, but as I played Anthem, my team and I triggered a few of them — like when I chucked my ice grenade into a gigantic, heavy enemy and the rest of my team piled in in the aftermath, enemy health plopping out out in numbers across the battlefield.

Gamble says it’s part of an incentive to play the game with others — even though cooperative multiplayer isn’t a requirement in Anthem.

“They’re elemental-based in many occurrences,” he said. “If you want to use the old Mass Effect term, there are primers and detonators. So you set something up, and you finish it off. And, yeah, it’s based on your gear — it’s based on the smart usage of your gear and coordination with your [teammates].”

For your teamwork, you’ll get bonuses like “way more damage,” according to Gamble.

There’s plenty we don't know about Anthem yet. Like basically every other developer, BioWare will reveal more on its own schedule as the game approaches its Feb. 22, 2019, release on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One. But today, we know about combat — and it is good.