I imagine that working for EA must be rather like living with a toddler, drunk person, or president of the United States. Imagine BioWare's plight: "Well, now that you've spent all that money getting the Star Wars license, we did make Knights of the Old Republic back in the day, so perhaps we could re--" "NO. HATE STAR WARS. STAR WARS IS BORING. CANCEL ALL THE STAR WARS. I WANT THAT." "You want what?" "I WANT THAT!!" "What, Destiny?" "YES. I WANT THING THAT LOOKS LIKE HALO WITH SOMEHOW EVEN LESS PERSONALITY." "Well, you can't have Destiny; it's owned by Activision Blizzard." *angry blubbering* "All right, all right! I suppose we could make something that's a lot like Destiny. I mean, mindless online-only looty-shooties aren't really our thing, we're more about character-based role-playing- oh dear, please stop holding your breath, EA! Look! We made our own version of Destiny! It's called Anthem!" "UGH! I HATE IT. YOU'RE ALL FIRED. WHY DIDN'T YOU MAKE A STAR WARS GAME?"
I wouldn't take it personally, BioWare, this is what EA does: buy a developer, force them to rip off something popular and outside their comfort zone, blame them for the inevitable failure, shut them down, buy themselves a new ball pit. It's just how they run their business, like some bizarre combination of hazing ritual and murder spree.
If Anthem is aping Destiny, then it's got the approach to story down pat; the first thing it does is start throwing capitalized words at me like a glossary with gastroenteritis. "The Shapers created the Anthem that is causing Cataclysms and Freelancers, Cyphers, Sentinels, Javelins, Dominion, Cenotaph..." Well shit, BioWare, I thought I knew what all those words meant! In the end, I wouldn't worry about it. This is the Destiny and, indeed, the Halo thing where the story is about 90% setting and 10% plot. I'm sure the writers have done a lot of world-building while doodling on the backs of their exercise books, but all that you actually need to know is, "Humans yay, everyone else boo, and there's your communal garden, all-powerful, ancient artifact somewhere that you have to stop the bad guys getting to and making whoosh-crikey lasers come out of, which would presumably be bad."
But let's not gloss over the story, because Anthem is a game of two parts that are forced to live together in a state of open hostility like Israel and Palestine, although Israel and Palestine have never tried to flog loot boxes to Lebanon. On one side, you have Story Land, where all the story happens: a happy community hub roughly the size of an average suburban strip mall, packed with smiling NPCs with big golden speech bubbles over their heads that seem to say, "Please click! I used up three exercise books working this character out!" And literally walled off from that is Gameplay Land: a huge, beautiful, expansive bugger-all, which you venture into after putting on your Power Rangers romper suit, confront whichever of the four or five enemy factions drew the short straw today, and create enough new widows and orphans to make up, say, a standard philharmonic orchestra.
And diplomatic relations between the lands of story and gameplay seem to be poor. For example, Story Land just doesn't acknowledge multiplayer at all. As far as it's concerned, you are a lone warrior who is humanity's last, best hope, and if you're curious to know why three other guys keep popping out of your arse every time you leave, then you'll have to find answers elsewhere; it's busy writing more optional dialogues for you to ignore.
Meanwhile, show up at Gameplay Land and ask if it would be possible to play single-player, and the game reacts like you sat down at an expensive restaurant and ordered a bowl of corn flakes. You go to the "Privacy Settings" - once you can find the fucking things, 'cos this game has a worse menu system than a McDonald's drive-thru after a major earthquake. What is it with ultra-AAA games having shitty interfaces these days? Is it the same principle by which Las Vegas casinos are laid out, to get you lost and unable to glimpse the Sun in the hope that you get confused and accidentally drop all your money? - and your options are "Public Match", as God intended, or "Private Match" for big stupid losers. Then, when you set it to "private" and try to start solo, a window pops up saying, "Hehehe, sorry! Someone's CLEARLY made a dreadful mistake! Surely, you don't actually want to play a solo private match? Just click here and we'll set it back to public play so you can rejoin all the NORMAL PEOPLE!" But I didn't click that, and then the tip on the fucking loading screen was something about how playing multiplayer earns more rewards and doesn't make the little baby Jesus cry- what the fuck is this, guys?! Am I on suicide watch?!
I don't know why the multiplayer's being pushier than the last high school virgin on their prom date. The game's perfectly playable solo; tedious, but playable. Most of the missions are variations on "go to a place, press the button, depopulate another orchestra", but at least in single-player, you're guaranteed to be the one participating in the plot, and aren't racing three other guys to be the one to activate the beacon, rescue the prisoner, fluff the distemperate wildebeest, or whatever the story objective is. And you'll also get to have a go at the ancient puzzles that occasionally pop up in the course of the dungeons, and they won't be instantly solved by the one random dickhead on your team who's done them before 'cos they're grinding up their third character, for you can release a game about tucking frozen peas under your scrotum and there'll still be at least one person weirdly obsessed with being the best at it.
Story being the thing BioWare is good at - well, I say "good." If I were writing their school report, I'd say, "They certainly approach the subject with enthusiasm." - the gameplay clearly exists on sufferance, and yet the main story is still surprisingly short and padded out. The bit where you can't continue the plot until you complete a checklist of arbitrary gameplay grinds springs to mind: a very poorly-explained checklist, at that. "Get 5 multi-kills." What the fuck's a 'multi-kill', Anthem? "Well, what do you think it is?" Uh, killing more than two enemies with one grenade? "Oh, good guess! Wrong, though!" Another objective is to heal 3 stricken friendlies. Well, that's the solo players completely alienated! Catch you later, Anthem. Then, a little googling revealed that there are some NPC friendlies fighting the enemy in one spot on the free-roam map, and you can grind up your resurrects there, although with the AI being what it is, I was sitting on a hilltop for ages waiting for the enemy to get their heads together long enough to splatter one of the little bastards. Then I'd look up and see two other players hovering like vultures! Hey, I saw them first! Back off, Mr. Healy-Stealy!
Do I need to go on? I mean, the Internet hivemind seems to have already declared Anthem to be "The Thing We All Hate of the Month", and for all my contrarian instincts, I can't disagree. But don't hate Anthem, viewers; pity Anthem. Pity BioWare, for Anthem is their cry for help. It's a grindy, generic shooter that not even jetpacks can save, but the brief trips to Story Land for elaborately-animated character cutscenes hint at what BioWare would rather have been making; sadly, 'twas but the face of a tormented younger brother briefly glimpsed before it disappears again beneath the flabby buttocks of its sibling. "Please give us one more crack at Mass Effect!" it seems to say. "What if we let you have sex with the ship this time?"
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