Anthem isn’t just in trouble – it’s dead. The sooner BioWare and EA accept that, the better.
Sometimes, an article will change direction after its initial pitch when you start working on it. For this piece, I wanted to explore Anthem as it currently stands, six months after release, and ask a few simple questions. How does it feel now, coming in fresh, away from all the hype and launch disappointment? Now that the game is cheap in most stores, is it a viable quick fun shooty adventure? What is Anthem right now, and if it failed as a service game, might it be a success in some other way?
I realised the folly of this pitch a week after I made it, as I sat staring at a disconnection screen for the umpteenth time. I spent one 45-minute-long session last week simply trying to get into the game repeatedly. In that time I managed, between error screens, to move between two cutscenes (twice) and eventually select the Javelin I’d like to use for the first few hours of the game, at which point the game glitched and I was stuck in what seemed to be a model viewer of the podium the Javelin would usually sit on.
So I went and read the forums and Reddit posts. I made a few Tweets to see if anyone was playing it. And one thing became clear to me – Anthem isn’t going to make it. There’s no comeback path here, no redemption story. It’s over, and it needs to be put down. Again, this took me just a few sessions over one week to figure out – I’m hoping that, somewhere inside BioWare, they’re coming to the same realisation.
Anthem reminds me of the last year of my parents’ marriage before they got divorced, that period where both parents bury their heads deeper in the sand and try their best not to address the many problems that have become very clear to everyone around them. From far enough outside, Anthem can still look good - it’s visually gorgeous, the manoeuvrability of the javelin suits feels good when you first start jumping around in the tutorial, and the plot, while ridiculous and hard to focus on, reminds me of how Destiny 1 and 2 are absolutely peppered with fun, zany lore. Hell, even the title screen is beautiful – although less so when you get disconnected for the fifth time in a bloody row and end up back on it. I have a perfectly stable home internet connection, but Anthem carries on like I’m trying to stream 4K over dial-up. Which is made worse by the fact that the load times on a standard PS4 are very long indeed.
And here’s the thing – even if the game was stable, the core gameplay loop just isn’t very good to begin with. The enemies aren’t exciting, the loot is uniformly uninteresting, and the mission designs are dull. The first time I flew a Javelin through the air, I was surprised by how perfunctory it felt. I’d heard repeatedly that this part of the game, at least, was pretty exhilarating. But honestly? I don’t get it. It’s just not that fun. Pin me to the ground and ask me to hunker behind cover any day of the week. The whole experience of actually playing Anthem is barely worth even talking about for how unenthusiastic it feels. And honestly, at this point, talking about playing Anthem feels like flogging a dead horse – except the horse hasn’t been allowed to die yet.
Pull out all the online stuff and the endgame, turn Anthem into a straight-up shooter, and you might have a game that you would generously call inoffensive. Anthem tried to be an event, though, and that turned it into a much bigger fiasco than it needs to be. As it turns out, it’s impossible to get away from that, even now. I can’t divorce Anthem from the context of its release, because it’s still trying so present itself as the thing that’s now going to take over my life, once it figures out how to let me finish a mission without booting me back to the title screen. This is a game I paid $15 for, less than six months after launch. My local EB Games is flooded with preowned copies.
Forget about the Cataclysm, the reportedly very disappointing endgame activity that finally rolled out recently. At this point, the fact that it’s reportedly not very good barely even registers, because people stopped hoping months ago. New content is not a way forward. That’s your parents trying to make sure that you have a good birthday because even they can feel what’s about to happen, but then they fuck it up by getting into an argument in the parking lot after dinner.
(Don’t blame yourself, by the way. You are not responsible for your parents’ actions.)
Look, I don’t want this to be an attack on BioWare. There’s honestly no shame in failure. BioWare made a bad game, it’s not going to get better, and that doesn’t need to be a big deal – the industry is hard, and god knows that EA doesn’t seem like the easiest publisher to work with. I honestly think that the decision a few years ago to cease post-launch support of Mass Effect Andromeda when they did, to simply accept that the game wasn’t going to become a 9/10 if they kept working at it, was admirable. There is honour in accepting your own limitations, and while a lot of people are going to be pissed off, games are allowed to be bad. It’s okay. The world doesn’t end if support for Anthem ceases. Stop now and the game could be a paragraph on BioWare’s Wikipedia in ten years’ time, not a subheading detailing a particularly dark period in the company’s history.
The sunk-cost fallacy – the idea that if you’ve already spent a lot of money or time or something, you need to keep putting in more time and money indefinitely until things turn good - is already in effect here, both for BioWare and for the people who are still trying to make a go of it with Anthem. When the game’s lead producer Ben Irving left the company, he said that he believes that there are “great things” ahead for Anthem, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone else who feels the same way. Even the most optimistic theoretical future headlines that could be written about the game are going to end in “but it’s too late”.
My parents finally divorced when I was 14. It nearly happened when I was six, but they decided to stick together for my sake, and it made the rest of my childhood a lot harder than it needed to. BioWare, if any of you are reading this: people might be upset in the short term but trust me, Anthem’s not going to magically sort itself out, no matter how hard you work on it. There’s no shame in admitting that. Don’t waste any more time on Anthem than you must – it failed, and that’s okay. If you ever loved it, let it go.