One thing I love about Anthem’s demo – available to a selection of people last weekend and to everyone from today – is its healthy serving of the classic BioWare gameplay loop. Half the fun of leaving Normandy or Skyhold was returning home afterwards, catching up with Garrus or Leliana and hearing about whatever they had going on. Calibrating some guns, probably. Anthem’s demo lets you go through this loop several times, placing you back in your solo instance of Fort Tarsis after shooting and looting with other players in the field. And while none of BioWare’s new characters yet compare to your favourites from other games, you get the feeling that, after just a bit more time, they might.
That feeling pervades Anthem’s demo – that after just a bit more time to tease out its sci-fi story and rocket about in its chunky Javelin mechsuits, the game may really come together and sing. But, unhelpfully, I’m still waiting for that moment – even after playing a larger chunk of the game at an event last week. On the one hand, the near-complete build I saw suffered none of the performance issues felt in Anthem’s demo version last weekend. On the other – well, if you’ve played the game’s demo there’s little more I can add about the activities within Anthem you can’t now already see for yourself.
What playing more of Anthem convinced me of most, I think, is how much BioWare is tackling with this challenge. It’s a bold play for both BioWare’s story-loving fanbase and people who love the kinds of games – Destiny, Division, even Fortnite – which demand you keep coming back months down the line. There’s a core narrative path to Anthem, of course, but the success of its world and I think the entire project hinges on how this latter part pans out.
BioWare has already said that will happen for free, with a schedule of new features and missions due post-launch. For me, the story of a BioWare game world turning into a proper serial is a dizzyingly exciting prospect, and I’m looking forward to seeing Anthem’s promising gear game put to the test in pinnacle challenges. Like a raid, for example?
“The problem with ‘raid’,” lead producer Ben Irving tells me, during a pause from playing, “is it has a connotation – that it requires more people or has five bosses in a circle. That’s why I’m using the word ‘aspiration content’,” he laughs. “In other games a raid is that and while I think that is important to a game like ours, we have an idea which is different but ticks the needs of why a raid is important. It’s a similar thing. It’s the thing you’ll schedule with your buddies, will be hard, requires tons and tons of coordination and then there will be ways to show off if you are good at that or not.”
These as-yet unnamed activities – which will still be designed for the usual four players, Irving says – form just part of what you’re doing in Anthem after you finish the main narrative path. You’ll have Strongholds (just three at launch with more coming) to grind through, Contracts (bounty-type missions featuring encounters in Anthem’s open world) and Freeplay, which lets you roam and see what’s going on in Anthem that particular week or day.
“You’re not always going to be seeing the exact same stuff,” Irving says. “Things can change – you don’t always understand why – but things happen in the world. We have plans and ideas to pay off on that.” Events will point you to daily or weekly challenges of varying difficulties, tied into the ongoing story of how the mysterious Anthem of Creation is effecting the world that day. Meanwhile, back in your Fort Tarsis, the game’s cast of NPCs will be refreshed with new things to talk about.
“They have a bunch of things to say and then they’ll run out of stuff to say,” Irving continues, “and then we’ll add some more things! The cadence of that we have to work out – we believe telling an ongoing narrative is important so in our story planning we’ve mapped out several years of the story arc, where things go. Not all the specifics, but the big beats of how it will happen.
“We can tell narrative in or out of the game, with super-expensive cinematics, or with little quips and sentences and lore in the world. We just need to find that balance of – when do we need a new role-playing conversation so someone can teach you something. When do we add a new mission with a cinematic? We’ll be adding all that stuff after launch, we just need to get the right mixture of all of it.”
BioWare has been overly cautious around Anthem’s story – to keep much of it a surprise, Irving says – to the point where I’ve played a bunch of it and I’m still not sure quite what’s going on. I love that BioWare has, after Mass Effect Andromeda’s trumped up internet drama, visibly improved its cutscene animations – especially its character’s faces. Cheeky chappie Haluk, tattooed and barechested, will win your heart with one of his wide, easy grins. Owen, your young support, will either make your laugh or wince with his Stephen Merchant-esque brand of wide-eyed humour.
And – taking it back to that BioWare gameplay loop – it’s pleasing to hear BioWare has thought about how your interactions within Fort Tarsis will bookend your sessions with other players. You won’t miss out on chats if you don’t visit Tarsis in a while. Alternatively, if you want to play the whole game solo and read every lore book, that’s fine too. Finally, all role-playing decisions are kept within Tarsis’ walls instead of bleeding out in the open world so party members can’t decide things for you (a SWTOR design BioWare has this time chosen to avoid).
It’s this mix of instanced story and open-world play I’m most interested in, but most cautious about. In BioWare’s quest to satisfy as big an audience as possible, is it possible to please everybody? The more I play, the more I feel like I’m getting two games at once – a mix of Destiny-style missions set outside a BioWare story bubble. Both of these things are good, but will they work together? BioWare, at least, seems to have plenty of ideas.
“Any new live service will have its stumbling blocks,” Irving concludes. “We’ve had that conversation across our entire organisation and irrespective of what happens at the beginning we’ll have support for a while. Because that could happen – and I don’t think it will happen and I hope it doesn’t – but we have enough resources to really make a great go at this live service – and that should hold true no matter what happens in the first month or two.”