The best-laid plans of mice and men
There’s a saying about laws: they’re like sausages. It’s better not to really know how they get made. It’s messy, gross, and full of awful details. But so long as the thing is nourishing and tastes okay in the end, that’s all we care about.
To some degree, that’s often true about our favorite works of media, too, that we assume are the result of meticulous planning, plotting, and intention… but are often the end result of a lot of last-minute decisions, fumbles, and recoveries before the final deadline arrives.
Sometimes, those fumbles and last-minute solutions conspire to accidentally create a finished product that’s even better than the original plan. Those accidents and problems become “happy accidents.”
For instance, Steven Spielberg had originally planned for the shark in Jaws to be on screen from the very first moments of the film. The storyboards he created were all about special effects with the idea that the intricate, highly technical mechanical shark-robot would be the big draw.
Then they started filming and the mechanical shark stopped working, broke in places, and sank all the time. A new plan was hatched. The “shark’s eye view” camera coupled with a very simple and ominous John Williams “dun DUN dun DUN” musical theme was decided on, largely in panic, and cinematic history was made.
That failure in development ended up creating a better final product, when all was said and done. Sometimes, that’s the story about creative ventures and how they improbably became successes.
But sometimes, that magic just doesn’t happen. It all doesn’t come together and what you get is a game like Anthem by BioWare. This is a years-in-the-making venture, and was tasked to be BioWare’s newest flagship intellectual property. The game was teased as BioWare’s next killer property, way back in 2012, when the studio had been on a roll creating award-winning franchises like Mass Effect and Dragon Age.
The mandate for this new property to be a classic was put down before the game’s core concept, story, or mechanics were even conceptualized. A lot was riding on it before it was ever fleshed out as to what kind of game it would be. Team leaders in development dropped out and were replaced and, all the while, new releases of games by other studios created pressures to either develop more like them and follow successful trends, or to NOT develop the new game as a clone of some other existing property out there.
If that sounds like a recipe for disaster, that’s only because it turned out to be one.
To give you a sense of just how disjointed and cursed the production of the game was, even the name was the result of a fumble. The idea for this new franchise was to create a multiplayer team-based, mech-suit futuristic setting, where parties of adventurers would go out on episodic missions and figure out ways to survive against great odds, coming back to the home base victorious.
Think a Dungeons and Dragons module meets a Star Trek episode, but with high-powered mech-suits. The original concept, by the team who began the project, was to go beyond the normal conventions of online multiplayer games. They would explore past bases and forts in dynamic worlds, with Iron Man-like mega-suits. To that end, the name they had decided upon for launch was “Beyond.”
But days before the official announcement, word came in from the studio that securing the trademark rights for that name presented too many legal hurdles, based on so many other things with “Beyond” in the titles. Hence, a last-minute call was made to switch to “Anthem.”
Anthem: What’s in a name
Why “Anthem?” Well, the story of the game has to do with this mysterious, cataclysmic force that overtakes a planet referred to as “The Anthem of Creation” and if that sounds confusing and overly self-referential, well… that’s only because it is.
While names matter, it is true that games, and their successes or failures, are really never completely tied in to their final names. For instance, Donkey Kong was also a last-minute change from Monkey Kong, which somehow presented a red-flag to the legal copyright holders of King Kong, and “Donkey” in Japanese is a synonym for “stupid and mean.”
But Anthem’s naming story is unfortunately emblematic of all of the other problems and fumbles that would be the story of its creation and long, awkward slog to release. From that 2012 teaser, it would be five years before the Anthem game was officially announced and shown in early development.
And even then, the gaming community was kept largely in the dark about what kind of game and gaming experience it would be. This created a sense of mystery and hype. BioWare is industry-famous for crafting worlds with subtle, intricate, and deep stories. And for crafting experiences within those stories that make lasting impressions. Surely, this mystery project that was cloaked in such secrecy was going to be the sum total of all of their successes so far. Or so everyone thought.
A bumpy flight, with some eventual success
The reality, behind the scenes, was a lot more mundane. Concept meetings and differences were not being hashed out effectively. Different teams in different locations were not on the same page. Also, a problematic development environment in the “Frostbite” game engine that Anthem was required to be created in saw developers frustrated at programming simple tasks. Oftentimes, ideas were run with, changed after failure, then vast swaths of code and game elements were begun again from step one.
The flight system, which was to be Anthem’s main selling point, was scrapped, reinstated, scrapped, and then put back in again at various points of the game’s development. As it eventually turned out, they got the feel of flight down really well. But the bumps along the way ended up hurting the overall development. And so much of the game is a result of a series of compromises, changes in plans, and rejiggering.
Here’s the thing. BioWare developers, designers, and writers are incredibly talented people.
ALL of the Anthem game is not bad. In fact, some parts and aspects are amazing and glorious. The idea of a super-powered, Iron Man-like battle suit being realized in a game is, in spots and moments, really a gigantic success.
But what proves almost heartbreakingly frustrating is where the game fails to come together as a cohesive whole. In playing for an extended amount of time, the disjointed nature of the production becomes evident. Anthem feels uneven at best and just unfinished at worst.
How unfinished? The buggy PS4 Anthem release reportedly bricked a system
Being a big, high-impact, triple-A (AAA) release title, Anthem has been released cross-platform on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 (PS4). The release date seems to have been more a function of the studio’s marketing than its QA and testing departments, though.
Shortly after launch for the PS4, users began reporting that the game was randomly crashing their whole system and forcing a reboot where the platform had to go through a diagnostic test and repair itself.
A report of a PS4 system becoming “bricked,” or rendered totally inoperable in the crash, and having been issued a refund/replacement by Sony is all over the Reddit Anthem pages.
EA has responded to this widespread crashing and potential bricking issue by releasing a patch in late March that they claim fixes the problem. But still, is it worth it for a console owner to take a chance? If the patch proves stable, sure. But it’s a troubling thing to have to worry about.
So what’s the game about?
An Anthem game review would not be complete without a rundown of gameplay and mechanics. In Anthem, you play as a “Freelancer,” the pilot of a suit of specialized mechanized armor called a “Javelin.” The different model Javelins offer variants in gameplay style, powers, and skills. They are:
- The Ranger. The default Javelin type all players begin with. Jack of All Trades, Master of None; an all-around solid 7 in most categories.
- The Colossus. The slowest but most resilient of the models; the “tank build.” It is tricked out with heavy shields as well as having the most damage-taking ability of all the Javelins.
- The Interceptor. The fastest, most nimble and agile of the builds, made for close-quarter melee as opposed to distance-fire.
- The Storm. The least armored of the models, but capable of the longest sustained flight, and most able to inflict distance attacks with energy/elemental blasts. (In practice, while each Javelin has its strengths on paper, this is the overpowered choice that ends up being the most effective in-game.)
As a Freelancer, you are a resident of a civilization of people on a far-off planet that is littered with ancient, super-powerful techno-relics, left by a race of beings called “The Shapers.” These relics tap into and harness a mysterious energy force that surrounds the planet that is referred to as “The Anthem of Creation.”
Unstable relics do unpredictable things. They can terraform forest areas into wild and dangerous jungles, mutate wildlife into dangerous, ravenous beasts, open up rifts in space-time that act as transportation portals, and generally cause problems that need solving by way of super-suit combat teams.
Your role in the game
Which is where you come in. You’re a resident of a small outpost called Fort Tarsis, which serves as the home base between missions. One of the Anthem game’s most compelling experiences comes too early. It’s in the opening sequence where your character, as a rookie Javelin pilot, is led into a disastrous battle that decimates the ranks of the Freelancers and sets the stage for the main storyline of the game, which takes place two years after the introduction level.
In this sequence, you’re reduced to being a kind of small-scale mercenary/adventurer for hire, using the once-proud Javelin hardware for small missions and grinding errands. Of course, a larger plot unfolds during mid-game, and you (along with your team, when you play online with them) are tasked to find a legendary powerful Javelin suit-vehicle, the Javelin of Dawn. You’ll need to eventually defeat the sinister Monitor, a villain who seeks to tap into the Anthem of Creation directly and become all powerful.
Is it a single player or multiplayer game?
This question becomes the real problem with Anthem. It seems to be pushed in two different directions. So much of the actual gameplay is spent in dialogue and non-player character (NPC) interactions, like a conventional single-player, BioWare role-playing game (RPG), but the missions are necessarily team based.
Matchmaking is often an awkward affair that requires each member of the team to complete what are, in essence, single player-game style tasks: talking with NPCs, advancing plot, etc. before heading out together. This equates to a lot of waiting and loading in the pre-mission stages that seems more the result of a confused and misdirected build process than an intentional gameplay choice.
The hiccups and rough spots, melding these two kinds of gameplay experiences of single and multiplayer, are what tend to stand out. It feels like the teams never quite found the right balance and solutions to successfully join these really very different modes into a cohesive, intuitive experience. What makes it all the more frustrating is that when Anthem shines, it really does shine.
The environments are often beautiful and when you leave Fort Tarsis and go out on missions and manage to finally get your group all together in the same area, the controls and feeling of power and flight are really quite spectacular.
And the storyline, when you get into it, is largely pretty compelling. Great voice acting, soundtrack, and environment design show that the team at BioWare can create unique things of high quality. But it is in the uneven, incongruous interfaces and transitions between things that Anthem tends to show its weaknesses.
Is Anthem worth buying and playing?
Well, that’s a mixed bag. Anthem certainly gets a lot of things right. Flight and environment designs are top notch and when everything is working, it offers moments of gameplay joy.
Unfortunately, it also just fails to get a bunch of seemingly simple things right. Whether or not you’re willing to grind through the dodgy parts to get to the moments (the endgame is strong, and the beginning level is great) and commit to making excuses for the rough bits because you’re intrigued by the setting and aesthetic is really a personal choice.
Even the most forgiving of critics of Anthem will freely admit that it is uneven and has areas of execution that don’t quite hit the mark. Once you know the story of the troubles and twists of its development, those areas of execution become sort of “explained,” but perhaps not “excused.”
Getting back to where we began: ultimately, it didn’t matter that Spielberg had all manner of technical problems and production woes on the set of Jaws. The end product he was able to make in spite of and because of them was a classic. So those stories of problems become an interesting footnote to a triumph. With Anthem, in its current release form, that really can’t be said.
The good news is this: In 2019, as many gamers understand, just because a game is released and sold doesn’t mean it is ultimately finished. The same online capability that is built into the gameplay is also the platform by which EA and BioWare can release patches and fixes.
And with all of the time and money spent in developing Anthem, it seems likely that they will endeavor to find that balance and release patches that smooth over the rough and buggy flaws in its current release.
We hope they do, because what Anthem gets right, it really gets right. It just needs to get more right.
Great PCs to play Anthem on