Anthem tries to embrace its own Destiny

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During yesterday’s EA’s press conference for E3 (which seemed at times like an hour-long apology for microtransactions) we saw a bit more of Anthem, the upcoming shooter from BioWare. The sliced-together footage followed a multiplayer run through the jungles and rock-pools of the world, ending when the four “freelancers” in robot suits encountered a large insect who eats cameras. But I’ve been braving the LA sunshine and got to see an unedited (or rather, less-edited) version of the same level. I didn’t get to play it, sadly. But I did get to see what happened to that big insect after the camera cut out. They shot it. A lot.

Yes, the bullet-sponginess and number-hosing of Destiny is strong with this one, or seems to be. Much of the “hands-off demo” I saw only confirmed that Anthem is closely following the template set by Bungie’s shared-world shooter. Drop into a fantastical universe and get suited, booted and shooted with friends, all while a story happens in the periphery. During EA’s press conference, the developers enthused that story was more important to Anthem than simply offering background to a series of dungeons. But the dialogue of the cutscenes and chatter during the mission itself suggests that it again follows Destiny, right down to the impenetrable lore nonsense and silly nomenclature. It’s still not clear what an “Anthem” is.

The cast features Stompy, Stormy, Nippy and Ordinary. Okay okay, Colossus, Storm, Interceptor and Ranger. These are four classes of exosuit, or ‘Javelin’ in the game’s parlance, each with different abilities. Stompy can use a big shield for cover, or charge through mines with the shield up to avoid damage, while Stormy harnesses extra-powerful blasts of electrical damage in exchange for a weak suit (the gang’s “glass cannon”, says our demo’s commentator, who explains the stuff happening on-screen and encourages the four EA employees hidden in shadows with controllers). Meanwhile, Ordinary the Ranger can use cryo grenades to freeze enemies, and Nippy’s speciality hasn’t yet been fully explained. She didn’t feature in the demo at all but she looks fast and she’s called “Interceptor”, so it’s not hard to imagine the possibilities. You can swap suits and aren’t stuck with one class for the whole game.

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The demo was about 80% identical to that of the press conference, but it included more moment-to-moment gunning, along with some explanation. This mission (to disable a warbling relic of the dead gods) was chosen from a map menu, accessed aboard a giant walking robot, called a Strider. For a moment it looked like this Strider might be a place where you can walk around and chat to people in first-person. But it’s unclear if this is BioWare’s plan. For now, it’s a prepping zone. A fancy submarine on legs in which to customise your power armour and see the zoomed-in faces of story characters as they deliver foggy exposition. I can remember very little about the exchange of Proper Nouns between the playable character and her mate, but he smiled and walked with a cane and had a charismatic laugh, which I liked. Perhaps being thrown into an AT-AT and told to go kill some spikey monsters called “Scars” isn’t the best introduction to a fictional universe. So I’ll withhold judgement until I see how we’re properly introduced to this dishevelled, jargon-spouting but good-looking crew.

After that, it was out to trot around the jungle. We were shown how flying overheats your suit, but you can fly through waterfalls or dive into water to cool it down (although they don’t show what happens when you do overheat). In this way, you can fly for longer, Robert Stark-ing your way between cascades. The world that blurs past is a pretty, shining spectacle. Probably the most intriguing thing about the mission were its environments. Subaquatic caverns, towering slum-like structures, lush canyons. But even these remind me of Destiny and its careful positioning of stunning skyboxes, the wide-open level design, the tunnels full of gunk.

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At one point we’re introduced to a fourth player (only three people have been playing so far). It’s an aside meant to demonstrate that even though this Stormy is far below the other players in level, she can still play with her higher-level pals without hindrance. According to BioWare, they’ve engineered it so players of any level can group together with nobody being “carried”. New players can team up with veterans, and they’ll appear to do the same amount of damage.

With the full team now jet-setting through the wilderness, we got to see how you can do mega-damage when combining attacks with team mates. A bunch of baddies frozen by a cryo grenade are vulnerable to a mortar barrage, for example. Likewise, an electroshocked gang of enemies make good bullet receptacles. But then again, everything does, and we are rewarded with huge bouncing numbers pouring out of whatever creature your besuited heroes are busy killing. I’m not sure where this trend came from (Borderlands?) but it seems a bit pointless when every alien crabman already has a visible health bar, not to mention that it crowds an otherwise fetching world of monsters and waterfalls with clusters of large, ugly digits.

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The Destiny vibe grows ever louder with each new feature we see. It follows the exosuits everywhere. When one of them collects a bit of lore from a nearby glyph on a cavern wall, when they shoulder their “legendary” weapons, when they pick up glowing loot from felled enemies, when they do silly emotes to one another on the rim of a gaping void, and especially when they enter that deep hole and get into a final fight with a bulbous health bar of a boss.

The big insect has weak points, and is quickly set on fire by a Stompy of the squad, one of the four hired hands intrepid enough to carry a flamethrower. But big insect no like fire. It scurries away and summons a mob of lesser spiders, who rush in and nearly overpower the Javelinists. Or, it probably just seems that way. The commentator is very animated and concerned that the lead player we’re watching might die, and indeed the life bar of our hero soon flashed “low”.

But then she was struck several times in this state without dying, so I suspect this moment of danger was faked for our benefit. Faux demonstrations like this only make me cringe. Far from being a let-down, it would have been helpful to see what happens when a player is killed, since that is such a common occurrence for players. Do they have to wait for a respawn? Can they be revived? Do they lose anything apart from time? As it stands, we were just shown our hero healing herself in the nick of time, which involves picking up red-coloured health packs. No recharging health bar here.

Finally, the big creepy crawlie reappeared and the team whipped out their big guns and started blasting it in earnest, our hero finishing the demo with a massive volley from a powerful cannon – the ultimate move of her Stompy suit. The other suits have their own ultimates, but we didn’t get to see what they involved. In any case, the creeper was dead, and the demo was over.

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Overall, it was a flashy demonstration of firepower that I felt I’d seen before (and not just because I’d basically seen the highlights, thirty minutes prior). As an aside, BioWare’s shift from a developer that exclusively tackles ‘guns and conversation’ to one making a ‘shared-world shooter’ seems to have been so strenuous that it has changed their logo. But judging from this show of force and jargon, it might also have changed the company’s internal organs, the BioWare you know for its alien dating sims seems further and further gone the more we learn of Anthem. But it might also just be a change of font. Fonts change, you know.

The demo was carefully choreographed, as these things often are, and importantly I didn’t get to feel the weight, speed or responsiveness of the robolancers for myself, a feeling which will ultimately determine whether or not fighting giant spiders as a mini-mech is any fun or not. Ardent fans of Destiny will often admit that they glaze over the game’s shallowness because “it feels good”. And I suspect that if the jetpacking and Scar-blasting feels good here then many will forgive Anthem’s apparent derivativeness. I’m less certain they’ll forgive its tale-telling. But this is BioWare. Not BioWare.

Anthem is scheduled for release on February 22, 2019. Not satisfied with this preview? Here’s everything we know about Anthem so far

30 Comments

  1. dangermouse76 says:

    I dont know what the future of gaming is, whether it’s VR and advance AI or something else. But the old fart in me that’s growing bigger everyday looks at this and thinks I’ve seen it all before. Where’s the innovation ?

    There’s nothing new here.

    Ah I need an Irn Bru that’ll sort me out.

    • Axolotl says:

      Yawning or rolling your eyes when reading about an EA game is completely natural. They’ve all but abandoned any semblance of originality in favor of online casinos and yearly clones of the same sport games.

    • karnak says:

      I’m an old fart too. Have been playing and enjoying games since the early 80’s.

      And, in all honesty, ever since “Hellgate London” came out I get the feeling 70% of all AAA games are just copies of each other.
      But I’m old and senile.

    • Turkey says:

      Big publishers like EA have been chewing up every contract developer with a unique voice for over 20 years. The fields have been picked clean, where’s the innovation suppose to come from?

      We’re at the point where they’re resorting to picking off features from mods and indie games for fresh ideas.

      • Cerulean Shaman says:

        From indies, and that’s exactly where it’s coming from. Sadly my most enjoyable games these days come from pseudo-independent and full indie developers, while outside of Nintendo most AAA titles are movies-with-barebones-interaction that bore me to death. I hated FFXV for that exact reason (and most open world games period), though it was also just a shitty game.

        Luckily dominance of the AAA markets lets smaller devs thrive beneath the top layer of shit, and every once in a while you find a decent/good AAA.

        I just can’t get into all this fast-foody, shallow popular online games like PUBG, CoD, Battlefield, or Fortnite.

      • dangermouse76 says:

        Well certainly with indies you can find some emerging game play mechanics and storytelling.

        It could be a sign of a maturing medium that the mainstream “AAA” companies are producing beige games with similar play styles / systems, and trickle up economics.

        The smaller companies are able to experiment, and produce titles closer to their own ideals rather than that of their publisher.

        You have your James Bond’s at one end and your Eraserhead’s on the other.

  2. Chromatose says:

    As an avowed fan of sci-fi co-op shootybangs, I’ve been really looking forward to Anthem, but that demo almost totally killed my enthusiasm. Everybody on the team had the demeanour of knowing something’s gone dreadfully awry at the midway point and are just trying to muster enough enthusiasm to push it out the door, and what gameplay they showed looked really half-baked and clunky.

  3. LearningToSmile says:

    The only thing it’s got going on is that it’s pretty, but even then it’s not as pretty as Destiny 2. Oh sure there’s a lot going on and it’s all very epic, but it doesn’t have the cohesive style Destiny does. It’s all very generic textbook sci-fi concept art with vegetation turned up a notch.

    I held out hope that it will have a solid story, but reading between the lines of the presentation, it’s clear the story is an afterthought.

    It’s all just so… boring.

  4. Freud says:

    If you get a Destiny-type game right, it will have players paying and playing for years. But it’s hard to make shooterlooters varied enough not to bore players. Bullet sponge enemies aren’t that exciting to play against but since they aim for mainstream appeal it’s the safest way to funnel progression since it’s more about gear carrying you than any real gaming skill.

  5. Troubletcat says:

    BioWare died sometime inbetween DA:O and DA2 as far as I’m concerned. I dunno what this new company of the same name is but it ain’t the same one that made the BioWare games I really loved, and it hasn’t been for a long time now.

    • skyst says:

      I would even push the beginning of their downfall a bit earlier. I still remember the old Dragon Age website from when DA:O was years off and was little more than concept art for a new IP. They made it seem like such an interesting fantasy world, primed to rival the Forgotten Realms. What we got was a standard fantasy romp against not-orcs and not-goblins led by a not-dragon.

      Origins was an acceptable RPG with some good dungeons, but the lazy Bioware formula of ‘recruit the factions, romance the party and fight the boss’ was in full effect here. Its hard to imagine that the same company made Baldur’s Gate 2.

      • Imperialist says:

        Bioware, even in their prime was recycling their story beats to an excessive degree. Baldur’s Gate 2 was essentially the only original story they ever told. Neverwinter Nights rolled around and established the template, and KOTOR pretty much copied most of the plot and threw a Star Wars backdrop onto it. Jade Empire then took the same plot, and threw it into mythic China. DA:O, etc etc.

        • skyst says:

          Exactly.

          I wonder if they would have been regarded as fondly had they not had the D&D and Star Wars licenses early on and had to lean on their own IPs.

          • BooleanBob says:

            I agree with you all, but you know, Baldur’s Gate 2 is still one of my top 5 games of all time. It’s a little sad they never hit that height again, but getting there once was still a big net positive for gaming.

  6. SuicideKing says:

    I’m not sure where this trend came from (Borderlands?) but it seems a bit pointless when every alien crabman already has a visible health bar, not to mention that it crowds an otherwise fetching world of monsters and waterfalls with clusters of large, ugly digits.

    Yeah, i first remember it from borderlands (only played the second one). It felt like it suited the cartoony style of BL2 but even there it wasn’t really required, since it had health bars too.

    I hope the industry can come up with something more novel and creative than numbers popping out of baddies.

    • brucethemoose says:

      Flaoting damage numbers really came from old 2D shooters, right?

      But yeah. BL2 barely pulled it off, IMO, but in this setting the numbers feel totally out of place. Like cheese in a movie that takes itself way too seriously, whereas BL2 was plenty self-aware.

      • Janichsan says:

        Flaoting damage numbers really came from old 2D shooters, right?

        No, they came from RPGs. I believe it started in some older JRPGs (Final Fantasy, amongst others), but then came to western RPGs after that.

        Since Borderlands is a FPS/RPG hybrid, the floating numbers carried over. But I’m not even sure that Borderlands really was the first FPS to do that.

        • brucethemoose says:

          Oh yeah. Floating damage numbers were in old (2000s) RuneScape now that I think about it, which is about as old as my gaming memories get.

    • gabrielonuris says:

      Not to mention the spongeness of the enemies. We all know how that worked for The Division, right?!

  7. brucethemoose says:

    I was about to argue that this isn’t a good fit for Bioware, that EA should’ve asked DICE or another MP FPS studio for the Destiny-like they so clearly want, based on this demo.

    Then I realized this is basically Mass Effect: Andromeda. Add co-op, cut out whatever ME soul is left (Andromeda had good moments sprinkled through the game IMO), continue even further down the “bullet sponge” gameplay path, buff jetpacks, cut some powers, water the plants alot, and you have the EXACT game in that demo.

    Bioware really has changed. “Rich Stories, Unforgettable Characters, Vast Worlds” is still their motto, but the first 2 terms seem more like an afterthought here.

    • Daymare says:

      I think people should begin to accept that just because there’s a game developer called BioWare, doesn’t mean they’re still the same developer. We’re long past this with that company imo but people seem to be clinging on to that name, to the games made six or even eight years ago!

      That maybe if you replace all parts of the ship called “BioWare” it is indeed a different ship altogether.

      Edit: And personally I think we should realize that no matter how shitty the story is, no matter how awful the nomenclature … this won’t stop those sorts of multiplayer games from selling a truckloat, 90% of people don’t recognize a well-written story if it bit them in the metaphorical arse.

      Heck, some do, but they just don’t care.

      • Daymare says:

        truckload*

      • brucethemoose says:

        Even Andromeda still felt like a Bioware game to me. Maybe a troubled one, but a Bioware game nevertheless.

        But if I knew nothing of Anthem development, and you handed me that demo, I would have no idea what studio the game was from. This may even be a bigger departure than SWTOR, depending on how prominent dialogue wheels are.

  8. Phantom_Renegade says:

    Several dumb things here. Firstly, what is the point of being Iron Man (which is what this is, no matter how they call it) if you can’t actually fly whenever you want?

    Secondly, lootboxes are always stupid. So that’s another negative.

    Thirdly, games should pick a perspective and stick with it. Stop constantly switching between third and first person unless you allow me to choose a perspective at will.

    I’m sure the rest is shit too, this just stood out to me.

  9. vorador says:

    They’ve removed the lootboxes but there are microtransactions. Better, but not by much.

    And yeah this rips off Destiny mechanics way too much. Not a bad idea when Destiny 2 player retention is pretty bad so there’s an opportunity to exploit, but not particularly interesting for me.

    • DrFunfrock says:

      If eating Destiny’s lunch is their goal, that’s perfectly fine, but it really can’t be overstated just how important that point about “feeling good” really is.

      Destiny 1 and 2 are basically two iterations of a terrible broken mess of a chronically unfinished game that has never managed to deliver on anything like its full potential. But when you play them, none of that matters. In the abstract there are a million and one things that I could complain about, like what an incomprehensible mess the story is, or how so much time is waited on pointless admin tasks and grinding up reputations to get random weapon rolls or how all the deep and rich lore isn’t even in the game but on a separate website, or how the game basically requires a third party item manager just to be playable. But as soon as you pick up the controller, you forget all of that, because the game feels incredible. The moment to moment run and gun action is, without question, the best of its kind. I’ve played plenty of loot-and-shoots like Borderlands and Warframe and none of them come close to the sheer visceral satisfaction that Destiny offers. Shotguns feel meaty and powerful, headshots cause enemies to explode in wild sprays of light or dissolve into the ether, melee attacks are accompanied by a brief strobe effect that’s paired to the sound of the impact, giving them a feeling of weight and power so much greater than anything Warframe’s ludicrous weaponry has given me. Running, jumping, sliding past enemies whilst blasting in the face with a handcannon, popping that super at just the right moment, emptying the last round from my gun and then polishing off that knight with a throwing knife.

      It doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say that I kind of hate Destiny a little. I hate it because I keep coming back to the damn thing, and it keeps on besetting me with its myriad of idiotic design decisions and grotesque flaws, and yet I simply cannot find another game that feels as satisfying to play. If Anthem wants to be the next Destiny, that’s what they have to beat.

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