Anthem: The Promise Vs. The Reality

Screenshot: EA, Anthem

The launch of BioWare’s new multiplayer loot shooter has been anything but smooth. Anthem is a pretty game undermined by bugs, frustrating user-interface obstacles, and a world that feels static and lifeless.

There’s a lot BioWare can do to continue improving it, some of which could include incorporating stuff that Anthem already appeared to have in earlier promotional trailers and gameplay demos.

Anthem was first revealed back at E3 2017 during EA’s press conference with a short teaser trailer, followed by a longer seven minute clip of actual gameplay at that year’s Xbox showcase.

The real-time, in-engine footage was lightly narrated by the game’s director, John Warner, and showed the main character having a short conversation with someone in Fort Tarsis, the game’s main hub, before going out into the world to embark on a new adventure.

Fort Tarsis was much more detailed in the original reveal. (Screenshot: EA, Anthem)
There are less people and stalls in the main part of Fort Tarsis now, and characters don’t approach the player but instead all stand in place. (Screenshot: EA, Anthem)

The visual downgrades between this first gameplay trailer and the current game are abundant but not totally unexpected. Carefully crafting a tiny vertical slice of a game is very different from launching the full thing, so the fact that the actual Fort Tarsis is more sparse and less vibrant than the one players were first introduced to isn’t shocking.

Neither is the change in scale of the world outside to be smaller and include fewer spontaneous interactions with the indigenous wildlife.

The original gameplay trailer showed a Strider walking and getting blown up during the course of exploration. (Screenshot: EA, Anthem)
In the current version of Anthem, Striders are completely stationary. The world as a whole is also less dynamic. (Screenshot: EA, Anthem)

A more significant difference in this early footage is how the character explores the world. In the final version of Anthem, you select a mission or zone from a large map every time you leave Fort Tarsis. The E3 2017 footage shows a player simply meeting up with a friend outside the walls of Fort Tarsis and then going on their way in search of bad guys to fight and loot to collect.

The footage shows both players running by a mysterious cave, where a marker for another potential mission pops up, and they decide to wait and come back to it another time. Enemy Scar, the game’s race of humanoid insect scavengers, are stalking around portions of the world like they actually live there, flooding around corners and over hills during a big shootout rather than magically appearing and disappearing using portals.

At one point the main character kills a wave of them and finds some rare loot. The name immediately pops up on her screen. It’s a masterwork gun called Jarra’s Wrath. We can see the stats relative to the player’s current weapon. They’re better. She immediately equips it and starts using it.

In Anthem’s first gameplay trailer the player is able to pick up loot during missions and immediately start using it. (Screenshot: EA, Anthem)

The actual experience of going out on a mission with your friends in Anthem is much less free-flowing. You first select a mission and are then bound to whatever that activity is without any ability to switch off while out in the world if you decide something else looks more interesting.

You can’t even load into another mission from a menu while in the field. Instead, every mission is like an amusement park ride. You can choose to go on another one, but you’ll have to first leave and then get in a new line.

Enemies on these missions primarily appear via magic portals. Even in enemy camps and hideouts, most of the people you fight appear to be teleporting in from somewhere else. It can be immersion breaking, a reminder that you’re not exploring somewhere that’s lived in, but rather just killing stuff until an objective is fulfilled, at which point enemies have a tendency to slowly evaporate as you’re shooting them.

In the 2018 gameplay demo, players entered a stronghold mission from the main free-play area rather than loading straight into it. The transition was accompanied by a short animated sequence. (Screenshot: EA, Anthem)

When these fights are done, you can scour the field for loot. Perhaps most damning for Anthem, a loot shooter, is that you can’t actually use or even immediately identify any of the stuff you pick up like the player did in the initial gameplay reveal.

You might get something extremely rare, but you’ll have to wait until you get back to the fort to figure out what it is, then access the forge (an entirely different screen) before you can actually equip it. It’s a small but significant obstacle.

Even in the longer demo shown at the E3 2018, which is much closer to the final game, there are features Anthem currently doesn’t have.

Load screens when going out into the world or into a cave are masked in part by animated transition sequences.

The player is able to travel to missions from within the world rather than having to first select them from a menu screen.

World events, such as a giant Ash Titan stomping through a valley, occur during the mission rather than being confined to isolated instances of free-play.

A friend is seen being able to join the group mid-play session, rather than needing to have been there at the start because another random person has been backfilled into the mission.

The players are even told to be careful so as not to alert enemies and trigger a call for reinforcements.

While on the way to complete the Scars and Villainy mission in the 2018 demo, players were also able to simultaneously participate in world events. (Screenshot: EA, Anthem)

Ben Irving, the game’s lead producer, who narrated the demo video, describes a shared world that’s always changing but which players experience together no matter when or where they’re playing.

“This is a living, shared world,” he said. “Whether there’s weather or it’s night time, what we’re experiencing we’re experiencing together. Everyone that’s playing Anthem at a moment is seeing the same thing.”

It’s a vision of Anthem’s world that aligns closely with out the studio described the game during a panel discussion at E3 2018 and in a subsequent promotional video called “Our World, My Story”, but not the version of the game that currently exists.

The “Our World, My Story” video depicts Fort Tarsis as a single-play hub for choice-driven storylines to play out, and contrasts it with the world outside where players will explore environments and events that are the same for everyone.

I have yet to find a dialogue choices in the game that actually seemed to have any consequence besides the handful of words it immediately elicited from the character I was talking to. And the rest of Anthem’s world is currently laid out as a series of isolated four-person instances to be selected from a menu.

World events can happen during free-play, but they don’t feel shared since the number of other people there to witness them with me is so limited. The cumulative effect feels less like exploring a place and more like grinding through a playlist.

There’s a lot more going on in the world in the 2018 demo, including enemy anti-air gun fire fighting off attacks by other monsters. (Screenshot: EA, Anthem)

Even the cosmetic items haven’t lived up to the hype. As Kotaku’s Mike Fahey recently noted, the store for decals, armour sets and emotes is noticeably sparse at the moment, even though we know more stuff exists. BioWare showed us that it did in a developer livestream from several months ago.

When players recently brought up these differences on Reddit, Irving responded by calling it the “cost of transparency”.

“Game development is full of change,” he wrote. “There are a million reasons why you set out with an idea and it evolves over time. This is common in every game. We shared as much as we could. Some things change. So the cost of transparency is that some things we said become not true, not because someone was dishonest but because it changed over the course of development.”

As a live game, Anthem’s development is ongoing, so it’s likely things will continue to change. It’s even possible gameplay features we saw in these trailers will eventually get added in future updates. And as we’ve seen with other online games such as Destiny and No Man’s Sky, it’s possible the Anthem of two years from now will be very different.


Comments

    I say this having not played Destiny 2 in its current format, but I played it up to just before Forsaken released and in all that time the game barely changed. Fans swore by significant improvements, I experienced more of the same. I would go and try out Destiny 2 again except it is behind a content pay wall and it's a game not worthwhile to risk more money being spent on. I gather many feel the same, hence it has not met sales expectations.

    Perhaps Anthem will be different but I doubt it. One thing in its advantage possibly is future DLC being for free, however it wouldn't surprise me if Bioware do an expansion and sell that for money. It would be a way of keeping a promise whilst generating revenue.

    The sore point for Anthem is that I think the initial sales fell short. And with the poor experiences people report potential new owners like myself don't see the value in buying into it. So unless it goes F2P Anthem will have a very significant numbers attrition problem.

    I'm tired of these "gameplay demo" vertical slice presentations that show what a game "could" look like. Ubisoft is particularly bad for this, like the Division or Watch Dogs and I'm sure plenty of other examples, I get that they're trying to sell an idea but it never ends up being the game they promised. Anthem is nothing like I feel like it was supposed to be, like they had a grand idea but couldn't achieve it so they just cobbled what they had into missions and called it a game.

      Yes!! I was going to say something similar, what's this "vertical slice" bollocks, let's call it what it is, a bullship hype build designed to mislead and attract early sales.
      Watchdogs, The Division, Second Son, Anthem, hell No Mans Sky built an entire bullshit system for media runs designed to completely overstate the game.

      What gets me the most though is when they try to defend it by saying it was an earlier build, things had to get cut and sacrificed as the game grew, playing on the lack of understanding from consumers (even when they claim it's because we don't realise how things work)
      Bullshit, they know damn well their one demo level was never gonna have all the sliders pushed to max and using more resources than the target platform is even capable of delivering.
      If most people think back to a time they actually saw genuine early build footage for a game, chances are they will remember it looked like bloody garbage.

        I remember those days... Early Starcraft looked like a re-skin of Warcraft 2. The shots were mildly interesting, but not enough to generate hype.

        Then Blizzard devs went to an E3 or something similar of the day, and one of their competitors had knocked out a 'vertical slice' fake demo that just blew Starcraft out of the water in every possible way, which sent them all home wondering what the hell they'd been doing with their lives. They didn't know the competition was fake at the time, but it drove them to do better, and the result was a game-changer for the genre, if not the entire industry.

        I guess there's pros and cons.

          Seems like an age ago now.
          *Shakes lawn at cane running on the children*

      Totally agree. I get that things can change in development etc, but this happens enough that it seems like deliberate misrepresentation of gameplay and graphics for the sake of marketing and hyping up sales. For some reason new footage closer to release never seems to display the 'changes' in development.

      Back in the 90s previews were basically "It looks a bit shit now but we're working on it" and that was more or less what happened on release. Now it's "Look at these gameplay elements, and look at these graphics! Not scripted!*" before they release a title that looks worse and plays worse. I can accept that they put their best foot forward and usually run these games on high end PCs with carefully controlled conditions, but all I want to see is what the game will look like when I get to play it.

    You can turn off public matchmaking for your expedition so you can just play with a couple of friends or solo. I haven't tried it but that should mean a friend could drop in to an active session.

      Every time I've entered freeplay with public turned off, the game tells you, "No, you can't do that," and turns public back on.

        That's bullshit. Maybe they are scared of people not having anyone to play with if everyone creates their own walled garden. Whatever the reason, there are some baffling design decisions in this game. I blame Casey Hudson and Ben Irving, not to mention their corporate overlords.

          Don't get me wrong, I love playing and look forward to doing it, but it so often feels like I'm having to fight not only my schedule to do it, but having to fight the game, too.

          There is no good reason for the game to get in its own way as much as Anthem does.

    I feel that there is a good game underneath but suffers from bad design decisions getting in the way such as having to visit the forge to equip your loot. Mass effect Andromeda suffered a similar problem with loading screens with it requiring around 5 different loading screens to travel from the surface of a planet to another(I'm not exaggerating count them). These incessant loading screens kill all pacing and interest in the game. In a loot game I want to be able to dive straight into the action and have piles of loot thrown at me so that i always feel like I am making progress but Anthem just throws too many barriers in the way.

    Also the story in anthem feels like a short 5 hour campaign that they have tried to pad out with quests like completing all of the tomb challenges. And while I understand its not the epic sweeping rpg we have received from Bioware in the past it even fails at a shorter fps campaign due to the constant padding (compare it to something like the Titanfall 2 campaign which had the right amount of mission variety and length)

    The one great thing about this game is it got me back into Warframe.

    While I am truly enjoying the moment by moment in the game, honestly it is the minor things that make me really mad about how undercooked the game was. Things like not being able to call for help in Freeroam to take down titans, and yes actually the Striders for me say everything. In the cut scenes they are pretty awesome (if you ignore the logic of how something so huge handles the verticality of the world) but how they look in the world is cringeworthy, I would even go so far to say I wish they werent in the game if that is always how we see them.

    Honestly what makes me mad is that if they launched the game as a early access or even an old school long term MMO beta, so much of its troubles could be 'justified' or understood, but to launch the game in this state is highly questionable. It is almost a criminal waste of a great combat system.

      I swear, if they sell the Striders as DLC I will do my raving na na.

    Great article.

    The game is a joke from top to bottom. Everything you do in the "open world" isn't actually open. You load into instanced missions where you can't even see dynamic events. Even the free play area is an instanced "mission" that you can't just fly to a location and start a contract or mission. You must return to the hub to load the instance. Absolutely ridiculous.

    Also the maximum 4 javelins in an "open world" is retarded.

      It's funny, because this was actually my earliest complaint about Monster Hunter World when it came out. The freeplay 'open world' the trailers promised wasn't actually an open world as such... it was just another mission that you grouped up and queued for, and the only thing different about it was that it had invisible timers on it for the monsters it spawned.

      Game ended up still great, but well and truly short of the 'open world' promises.

        Anthem takes it a step further. You load a mission, you go do generic boring tasks of mission and then as soon as you complete it gives you a 10 second timer before it teleports you back to the hub..... Like, you can't explore the open world after completing a mission.

        Hell - you can't even deviate from the mission area. It tethers you back.

    Man I miss the old BioWare. I played through KOTOR again just recently and still can't get over how good of a game it is, epsecially for the time. Looks great in 4k too.

    Super disappointed with Anthem. Feels like about 50% of what it was hyped to be. Fort Tarsis is particularly obvious, I love living breathing sci fi worlds and that is definitely not one.

    “Game development is full of change,” he wrote. “There are a million reasons why you set out with an idea and it evolves over time. This is common in every game. We shared as much as we could. Some things change. So the cost of transparency is that some things we said become not true, not because someone was dishonest but because it changed over the course of development.”

    This quote shits me so much, because it's a non-answer in response to a question asking where those things we saw are.

    I mean, it basically boils down to, "We shared a lot, but things change." No shit, Sherlock. The question you didn't fucking answer was, "Why the change?"

    Are these improvements that will never see the light of day because they demand too much from the tech budget of the game, or are they things that internal playtesting decided 'didn't work' (which is clearly wrong), or are they Quality of Life improvements that might one day jump up the queue enough to actually materialize in the product? Answer THOSE fucking questions, instead of shrugging and saying, "Things change." We can fucking SEE THAT, we don't NEED to be told that.

      The guy should be a politician. It's all about generating pre-orders these days with 'wow' moments and then trying to figure out the mechanics later. Which obviously didn't happen as the game has mostly diminished from what had been shown previously . Most likely to do with being forced into using frostbite, and having to scale back to deliver something within EA's schedule.

      Saw it with Destiny and their story being re-done and slapped together at the last minute because Activision didn't like the original pitch.

      Whatever the reason, we can all smell the lies and deception from the stink of the product itself. We'll hear about it in due course, but the cycle will continue.

    When the game is working, it's a heap of fun. Problem is it doesn't work.

    I don't think I've had a longer session than 30 mins without a dump to title screen or a complete lockup which dumps me back to dash.

    It's pathetic. This game needs another 3 months of testing to iron out the bugs. They literally shipped a smoking turd.

    I know the game will get better over time, but that's not good enough for 2019, to release something as unfinished as this.

    The "triple-AEYYY" gaming industry is so corrupt, sleazy and dishonest now that even "gameplay trailers" can't be trusted any more. They're BLATANTLY fake and barely more representative of a final game experience than a prerendered cinematic. And frankly, it's been this way for years, and we're only NOW starting to get wise to it and tired of it, which I guess is a depressing indictment of the reality that gamers really are as stupid, gullible and easy to manipulate as the lying publishers think we are. Anyone who believes a single damn thing they see in a trailer from a big "triple-AEYYY" publisher these days to get hyped for their next skinner box rip-off frankly deserves everything they get when it turns out to be a piece of crap.

    The "Games as a Service" model comes back around and bites the develiper in the arse because they probably had a meeting with their development plan and EA started pushing for game content to be post release... this resulted in bugs and issues cause they had to rush to optimisation a year before planned... hell PC User Interface was developed 3 weeks out and they forgot to recalibrate DPI for mouse to average human levels.

    Could the game of been better with one year in development. Yes... could EA just kept there hands off it YES... would it of looked better as a PC exclusive title HELL YES.

    Am I still playing it cause like it and see it has huge potential once they get their heads focused on future development rather than damage control. YES!

    I do however think the damage is done in this instant online news and vocal opinion media culture we have... the reviews were brutal, the hate is vicious, and wierdly some people haye with the same venom they painted Fallout 76 and Metal Gears Zombie Survival game... its appauling how a screwed up EA release can do to a new IP.

    And thats the thing. It was a new multibillion dollar potential earner... WHY DID THEY RUSH THIS TO MARKET?

    Those before and after shots are like comparing nes and snes games.

    Before: (The promise) SNES Mario graphics
    After: (What we got) NES Mario graphics

    It really is night and day.

    Is freeplay limited to only 4 players on the map? Cause the most I've seen is 3 other players

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