When talking about the state of video games, one thing that almost always comes to my mind is DESTINY. Not because I liked it at all, but because it and its sequel established a strong precedent in the gaming industry. That, of course, being the delightfully avaricious practice of “live services” becoming the standard to aspire toward for success. Though some games utilizing the model aren’t entirely devoid of enjoyment or worth, its loudest adherents create products that ask not of creating thoughtful content from the outset to breed community and thus brand loyalty, but instead of how long they can dangle the carrot in front of the horse with premiums and promised future material before it dies of starvation—actual quality be damned.
This corporate ethos leaves us on the receiving end with hollow experiences, ones that may have glamourous shells and visual polish, but belie buggy, emaciated corpses rotting underneath, no matter how many attempts are mentioned to “fix” the situation post-release. Though that implies anyone will bother to try mending it at all, instead of just letting the game and developers under the publishers’ employ suffer once initial sales aren’t good enough. To the surprise of no one, it is the titan EA that mans the helm of the latest flashy AAA live service offering, hoping to cash-in on the trend while there’s still a pulse. And in as cynical a twist as they come, it takes the form of a DESTINY clone, made by a developer known for storytelling, and fails to deliver on either of those factor’s appeals. Its name is ANTHEM.
“Enjoy our colorful cast! Because there’s literally nothing else to them.”
ANTHEM is first and foremost a product that relies on visual presentation to draw in the dregs, like an uncreative parent dangling shiny keys to entrance an infant. And frankly, it’s hard to deny ANTHEM isn’t at least visually impressive. Colors pop, locales are dense, and every surface exudes exquisite, flashy detail (when it isn’t mired by the game’s excessive buffering issue). Taking a cue out of the WARFRAME handbook, ANTHEM likewise uses flight to help double down on the spectacle element of your neon-armored avatars, providing the only enthralling experience in the game’s arsenal in the form of descending through waterfalls and soaring over Bastion’s vivid vistas. Truly a sight to behold, if only initially.
Yet no matter how beautiful the eye candy, ANTHEM does not even try to differentiate or give itself a unique identity. Nothing about its visage attempts to branch out from the “svelte-and-vaguely-alien” robot/HD Ruins™ motif every sci-fi property has been using for years. And when restricted to the realm of video games, most blatant is the game’s attempt to piggyback off the WARFRAME/DESTINY style, coming off as purely derivative without any goal other than pulling the similar shooters’ fanbase to join its own instead. While being derivative isn’t inherently a negative, the reality of the game’s aesthetic choices and their inability to even bother hiding the blatant visual aping makes it feel both lazy and shameless. Pure spectacle does not a game make, and when same-y material comes in combination with how lifeless the rest of the experience is, ANTHEM feels almost mocking in its reliance to sucker people in.
Onward to Adventure(?)
Needless to say, the game relies pretty heavily on presentation to get people to buy. Even if it’s clearly trying to be EA’s DESTINY, it’s at least nice to look at for a bit. Where ANTHEM falls off and starts to feel genuinely insulting, though, is its narrative department, which is made all the harder knowing that the developers are celebrated for their storytelling. I make no secret of my adoration of BioWare and its games, with the Dragon Age series being among my favorite franchises in recent memory. The developer’s flagships are by no means “perfect,” tending to be servicably middling in gameplay depth and combat, and that is likewise something ANTHEM seems to adhere to. But at least when supplemented by complex characters, rich lore, and a clear throughline of how the player interacts and develops alongside both those elements, BioWare games of the past managed to become enjoyable, enticing, and worth investing in. ANTHEM just doesn’t have that.
The overarching plot is a disjointed mess seemingly existing within a vacuum, almost completely severed from everything outside your time recovering from cookie-cutter missions. Lore exists, but is so ambiguous and aimless that it becomes uninteresting. Every trip back to your home base is replete with monotonous interactions and superfluous characters, unchangingly static personality-wise and because they just stand in the same place the entire game. And on the rare occasion you take the time to indulge in any of their empty side stories, there is just no connection to be had with any NPC, either emotionally or as it pertains to the gameplay.
Everything you do, whether it’s interacting with these virtual cutouts or running mission after mission, contributes nothing to your understanding of how the world operates, provides incentive to care about the people you’re “meant to protect”, or in general even helps me understand what’s the hell’s happening in the mess of a story. And there’s no consequence for just ignoring them either. You’re just doing things. And in a BioWare game, that should never be the case. All the parts of ANTHEM you would expect BioWare to do well exist solely to take up space and give the illusion that the world is alive, before you jump into the latest repetitive mission to grab the new pointless MacGuffin or aimlessly defend a checkpoint.
I’m not sure what’s more depressing: Me, or Fort Tarsis.
As easy as it would be to push all the blame at EA for how disjointed, soulless, and derivative this game is, the sad reality might just be that BioWare isn’t the same one everyone knows anymore. Internally, at the very least. ANTHEM is a game that has spent six years in development hell, and the writers who fostered the image of BioWare we associate with Dragon Age and Mass Effect have long since jumped ship not just from ANTHEM, but the company in general. It’s an inevitability that occurs with any writing staff, any production that’s run its course. And whoever is left, or whoever new comes in, is left to pick up the pieces and work with what they got. There’s thoughts and concepts present, but no cohesion or purpose to it. And since the game is clearly meant to be a DESTINY clone, maybe repetition and a few hundred proper nouns were all the effort that could be bothered. It doesn’t excuse the litany of other issues like bugginess, repetition, or potentially breaking your PS4, but it’s something.
Being a live-service game, perhaps ANTHEM will have the chance to redeem itself at a later date, much in the way the games it attempts to emulate have in the past. But as it stands, ANTHEM in its current state is a sad, perhaps even honest representation of BioWare’s current condition: a string of disjointed and hollow notes.