While some are quick to dismiss Anthem as a Destiny knock-off, it has more in common with a Bioware classic than you’d think.
Both the conference-length and extended versions of the EA Play 2018 Anthem demo paint a clear picture that’s part excitement and part worrisome. The jetpacks, movement, combat and world of Anthem all look pretty stunning, though Bioware fans are also immediately left with concerns.
On-stage, company legend and Mass Effect creator Casey Hudson reminded those watching that Anthem isn’t an MMO and is still a fully-fledged single-player game as is Bioware’s tradition, but quickly it became clear there’s more to it than that: there’s no offline play at all, even when playing solo, and one of the biggest draws of Bioware games, romance relationships, is out entirely. Bioware’s greatest strengths: narrative, choice and character – appear to have been pushed to the background.
The way the different character class abilities can be layered atop enemies to trigger powerful combo attacks is very reminiscent of doing the same with tech and biotic attacks in Mass Effect multiplayer.
The demo I see is light on all that typically Bioware stuff, too: while there are strong signs of quality RPG level character customization, there’s no non-linear story sequences, no dialogue choices. It’s an action game. Unashamedly so. The demo, the first major public exposure of the game running live, set to be shown to hundreds of fans at EA Play this week, is focused on exploring the environment and combat, not story.
The Destiny comparisons and hot takes are already coming thick and fast. While there’s clearly a lot of Bungie’s series in there, I want to take a moment to point out that the extended demo of Anthem also closely resembles a major branch of Bioware’s history: the multiplayer from Mass Effect 3 and Andromeda. Anthem is, in a way, the next evolution of that far more than it is a Destiny clone.
The way the different character class abilities can be layered atop enemies by properly collaborating players to trigger powerful combo attacks is very reminiscent of doing the same with tech and biotic attacks to cause combo explosions in the Mass Effect multiplayer, and the general feeling and look of combat when players have their feet rooted to the ground looks very much like it’s taken a few cues from Andromeda – which is no bad thing, as the combat was hands-down the best bit of that game.
Bioware has been heading here for a while – at first multiplayer was an add-on to Mass Effect, now it’s the driving force of their latest game. However much they want to say you can play it alone, Anthem’s own marketing slogan of ‘Triumph as One’ is telling – it’s about bringing a team together.
Anthem’s extended demo is promising, mind. Prior to the mission there’s a glimpse at menus that tease out a seemingly huge world map and significant RPG customization, and as if to prove a point the Bioware staff have two players pick the same class but with wildly different load-outs to show the sort of range of abilities that are possible.
The environment is of course interactive to a degree – when jetting around your jets can overheat if you use them too much, but you can splash into water or fly through a waterfall to help cool them off. The underwater entrance to the enemy base seen in the EA Play stream demo is actually a secret back entrance – the sort of thing players will be able to discover on their own if they’re fastidious enough. Exploration has its dangers, however, since the world is full of emergent evens like giant monsters that might be well outside your current level range.
The star of Anthem thus far is the world and the combat, mind. The world is gorgeous and begs to be explored, and the act of flying through it is cathartic to look at. In the lead up to the boss battle, not shown in full during the conference, there’s a tense, claustrophobic underground area where thrumming music with a synth-heavy bass line grinds out the tension.
The boss sees the squad facing off against a sort of hive queen style enemy while it summons waves of weaker but still troublesome minions. It becomes a matter of working with your squad, ensuring that the minions are crowd controlled so others can focus fire on the boss.
Anthem’s combat looks crisp and fun, and its world looks a joy to explore. Bioware fans have every right to be worried if this will still feel like the games that made them love the studio when all is said and done, however.
As one player has their health drop quite significantly, the dynamism of having the jet packs is made clear: they jet off, flying low, looping the battlefield to find a health pick-up dropped by a downed enemy. There’s something here that looks and feels a little like the chaotic, reactionary fighting style of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Iron Man – always landing in trouble then diverting power to thrusters to get away – and that’s satisfying as a concept.
It seems dynamic in this way in general, in fact. An earlier, more open demo encounter sees the team face snipers, turrets, ground forces and more in a wide open area. How you approach and in what order you engage is up to you. The entire encounter will play out in different ways depending on your choices.
So, yeah – while it has a lot in common with Destiny, the combo system and feeling of the co-op play does feel like it has a Bioware lineage. The fact that there’s a tower-like hub world and MMO-style emotes mean Destiny’s MMO/shooter hybrid is always going to be the first point of comparison, though – I get that.
To be honest, Anthem’s E3 2017 reveal left me pretty bummed out. The 2018 showing can consider itself a success: I’m way more interested in it now. Anthem’s combat looks crisp and fun, and its world looks a joy to explore. Bioware fans have every right to be worried if this will still feel like the games that made them love the studio when all is said and done, however. The developers talked the talk on that front today – but nothing they’ve shown proves that yet.