And it was supposed to be so great... I mean, a bit better and cooler; Anthem's February 2019 release wasn't the most successful event of gaming history. BioWare's new IP turned out to be a half-baked looter-shooter that was void even of a trace of the RPG masters' former craftsmanship. However, we've seen some spectacular, unlikely rescues of failed productions in recent years (No Man's Sky, Tom Clancy's The Division, Rainbow Six: Siege), so when the developers announced a plan to redesign the mechanics and release Anthem 2.0, hopes were reignited for the once-promising game.
Unfortunately, after the delayed and painful release of the Cataclysm activity, the news coming from BioWare was dominated by announcements of key personnel leaving the firm. All we saw were ambitious plans including a new bounty system, new locations, and a redesigned endgame, as well as some concept graphics featuring the announced pirate faction. After two years of such attempts to fix the game, the developers finally gave up. Work on Anthem NEXT was cancelled in order to focus on other projects (Mass Effect, Dragon Age), with difficulties regarding remote work-related conditions cited as the main reason. Anthem NEXT hence turned into Anthem DEAD.
So, we figured it was a good time, and perhaps the last time, to go back and check out what this misfired and all-but-forgotten ghost game looks like today. Exactly: is it really forgotten? So bland that the servers are shining empty? The return surprised me a bit in one respect. But first, let's recap why Anthem needed fixing in the first place, and why this case will go down in history as an example to other developers on how not to make games.
Shortly after my review of Anthem, I wrote in the comments that since it took BioWare six years to create such a mediocre game, something must have gone very wrong during production and the studio must have been working really hard to make it look even as "good" as it did on launch day. And indeed. We learned the details a few weeks later, in an extensive article by Jason Schreier, who was still working for Kotaku at the time. Based on interviews with several BioWare employees, the journalist gave us a glimpse into the turbulent history of Anthem – a project that was mismanaged from the start, without any coherent vision.
And so, we learned, for example, about the big deception that was the fake gameplay demo presented at E3 2017. The video was quickly assembled just before the event, and its content and the resulting concept of the game was a surprise to many people who had already been working on it. Even the title itself came as a surprise, since the game was originally going to be called Beyond. The gameplay itself, on the other hand, was first conceived more as an online survival, not a looter shooter.
Very few things went right in the development of BioWare’s latest game, an online cooperative shooter that was first teased in mid-2012 but spent years floundering in pre-production. Many features weren’t finalized or implemented until the very final months, and to some who worked on the project, it wasn’t even clear what kind of game Anthem even was until that E3 demo in June of 2017, less than two years before it actually came out.
Jason Schreier - How BioWare's Anthem Went Wrong
The article also revealed some less-than-productive behavior from the managers, who reportedly had an aversion to competing titles, such as Destiny. They deliberately didn't want to follow the good and proven looter-shooter mechanics that other games had previously worked-out by trail-and-error, and, most importantly, player expectations and feedback. In addition, the developers found some unexpected constraints of the FrostBite engine, imposed by Electronic Arts, which was not only poorly described in the documentation and difficult to use, but also did not allow the implementation of many conceptual mechanics...
Throughout those early years in development, the Anthem team realized that many of the ideas they’d originally conceived would be difficult if not impossible to create on Frostbite. The engine allowed them to build big, beautiful levels, but it just wasn’t equipped with the tools to support all of those ambitious prototypes that they’d created. Slowly and gradually, they started cutting back on the environmental and survival features that they’d devised for Anthem, in large part because they just weren’t working.
Jason Schreier - How BioWare's Anthem Went Wrong
All of this combined resulted in the ultimate failure that Anthem was. There weren’t good RPG elements, because the plot wasn't good enough and the characters and dialogues were completely bland. The looter-shooter elements, on the other hand, were poorly implemented as well, and they did not encourage playing, didn't reward effort, and the end-game content was limited to three short missions. The only thing the game did manage to deliver was pretty satisfying shooting and awesome, Iron Man-style flying mechanics. If only the game was conceived better as a whole... Arguably, the only cool thing about Anthem is still flying through the air. I really felt like a teen when my Javelin fired up the jetpacks for the first time, letting me fly over a generic planet with no name.
Back to Anthem
Re-visiting Anthem turned out... basically a very similar experience to the one at launch. The main reason, of course, is that the authors failed to make any significant changes or improvements during that time, aside from the widely advertised "epic storms" event Cataclysm. We instantly get to the familiar Fort Tarsis, which got a handful of collectable codex entries. The big problem of the first version was also corrected, and so the character menu could be accessed from any level of the game from that point on.
As far as action is concerned, we got three new story missions with the update. In free exploration, we could find random players constantly wandering around in the game world, and some who were just building their character all the way up to level 30. You can meet them occasionally on patrols, and sometimes they will join to fight an encountered mini-boss. Many of them certainly come from the EA Access subscription, which includes Anthem – it is a triple-A game, after all.
Capturing strongholds, which is the only endgame activity from the release version, also went relatively smoothly. These are slightly longer co-op missions, concluded with a boss fight. Matchmaking was almost instantaneous, but usually threw me somewhere in the middle of the action already in progress, and often with an incomplete lineup. Instead of four players, we completed the expedition as a trio. The experience was similar on each difficulty level I tested, though this aspect proved interesting for another reason.
In one of the elevated Grand Master levels, my future team of randoms proved so clever that the final boss fight took... about half a second. In fact, I even missed the moment when the enemy fell. We entered the final arena, the animation of the giant spider entering was triggered, and before I could even see the life bar, the boss lay dead with loot piled up around. Some Anthem veterans, apparently still hungry for loot from this game, either used an exploit or a hack, or simply an OP character build.
It's especially interesting because the Grand Master levels were initially criticized for being a bit too difficult, lengthy, and unrewarding. The loot system and the way it's presented after a mission still hasn't improved, so I had a much better time in Strongholds on normal, with players below level 30.
The lone storm hunter
Instead, it was quite different with the activity advertised as Anthem's calling card, namely the Cataclysm and "epic storms." Here, I couldn't find any companions to play with, and after an extended matchmaking I was landing in the mission alone. It's a bit ironic, as Cataclysm was created specifically with co-op in mind – going through it solo can be a bit frustrating. Despite Jason Schreier's mention of BioWare managers' distaste for Destiny, The Cataclysm strongly resembles the raids from Bungie's game. These are some decent environmental puzzles, often with time constraints and obligatory waves of enemies. Everything is still happening during the aforementioned raging storm, which requires certain repeated actions to stop the loss of health for a period of time.
The puzzles may not be as elaborate as those in Destiny's raids, but it's still a huge improvement over the Strongholds from the core game. There were also various hidden locations and activities added, along with new enemies, as well as new and better rewards, which makes the endgame a bit more compelling. It's just a shame that it was done so late, when the game had already lost most of its post-release player base. Holding back the release until Cataclysm is complete may not have dramatically improved the game's rating, but it certainly would have benefited it slightly. After more than six years of waiting, those three extra months wouldn't make that much of a difference.
We've had a plan!
First, six months after the release, all plans to develop the game-service with further additions disappeared from the official website. A little later, it was replaced by a promise to completely overhaul the game under the name Anthem 2.0 or Anthem NEXT. Today, we know that this was binned as well. Fewer and fewer resources were allocated to the project, the mounting difficulties of the pandemic and other, much more important BioWare projects, have sealed the fate of Anthem. And I am not at all surprised by such a decision. The developers probably had to write a large part of the game from scratch, create new assets, objects, again struggling with the FrostBite engine, having only a handful of people available.
Their task proved to be much more difficult than that faced by the devs of The Division or R6: Siege. I guess the Anthem universe was simply too boring itself; generic sci-fi without expression. I don't think it was memorable enough for players to eagerly await new adventures in this world. The story and dialogue were void of any heart and distinct atmosphere, and you just can't make a high-budget looter-shooter with flying around in a jet-pack being the only original reason to play it. On the one hand, credit should be given to the group of people who wanted to fight for Anthem and save this game, but on the other, the decision to end the project should have been made much earlier – after the release of Cataclysm. I don't think anyone would particularly regret it.
Anthem will remain an example of a production whose behind-the-scenes development was more interesting than the gameplay itself. It can also be a lesson to other studios about what mistakes to avoid during production. We can only hope that BioWare and others will learn (or already have) the right lessons, and that their next titles will be much more thoughtful and cohesive, and that once again their games draw us completely into their virtual worlds. Anthem hasn't won any hearts and minds, but maybe its existence won't all go to waste completely.
Darius Matusiak | Gamepressure.com