Anthem and the future of video games

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Video games aren’t what they used to be. The technology that drives them is constantly evolving, which in turn means that what developers are capable of is evolving too. For many developers, a video game is no longer something to be finished, loaded onto a disk and forgotten about. Indeed, the idea of a video game ever truly being ‘finished’ feels a little outmoded. They’re becoming less like products and more like services, something that is given constant attention and maintenance by its creators for years after its initial release.

The idea that a game could be added to after release day is certainly not new; ever since consoles have been able to connect to the internet, developers have been releasing updates for titles, often for bug fixes or minor changes to fix imbalances in gameplay. But in those early days the actual addition of considerable content was something you’d have to pay for. It is still common practice to charge for a season of downloadable content on top of the main game, but a few games have moved away from that in recent years. It’s indicative of a change in attitude: it’s expected that big titles will expand and evolve while they have an active player base. Love it or hate it, Fortnite is an excellent example of this: it’s base game world is constantly evolving as areas of its playable map shift around, new items are added and unique in-game events occur to excite its players.

But it isn’t always smooth sailing. Video games are a fast-paced and hard-working industry. Big publishers like EA or Activision often seem to prioritize strict release dates, which often means the final phases of fine-tuning and testing aren’t done until the game has shipped. The day-one update is a more recent result of this: a huge patch clearing up a number of problems that weren’t resolved in time for physical copies to ship. It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it gives developers something of a second chance; the legacy of a video game doesn’t need to be weighed down by bugs if they can be fixed after the fact. However, the longer lifespan games are now expected to have means an awful lot more planning and that seems to be harming the quality of games at launch. While these errors can certainly be fixed, the damage it can cause to player interest can be irreversible.

It seems to me that this is something that will damage the reputation of Anthem, EA and Bioware’s newest loot-centric action game. Like Fortnite or Destiny, Anthem is built for the long haul: Bioware have even released a roadmap of features they hope to introduce in the coming months as ‘seasons’ of content, all of which will be available for free. But it’s gotten off to a rocky start, with many complaints about connection issues and lackluster reviews from a lot of outlets. Personally, I think a lot of this has been a little unfair. EA has made a lot of shady business decisions in the past, which makes any game of theirs an easy target. More importantly though, it seems to me that a lot of Anthem’s negative reviews express a more general fatigue with the state of the current games industry and I think Anthem has become an unfortunate and undeserving victim of that fatigue.

That’s not to say that the game is without issues. A huge number of quality-of-life conveniences have been overlooked, for a start. People who got early access through EA’s subscription services were met with connection issues and abominably long loading screens. Menus are poorly designed, so much so that even customizing your character’s gear takes far longer than it should. Not only that, but the game does a terrible job of actually explaining itself to you. A huge part of Anthem’s combat, for instance, is combo moves: certain weapons have a ‘primer’ effect that you can then ‘detonate’ with a second attack for huge damage boosts. It’s one of the most engaging aspects of the combat, but it’s not mentioned at all in the tutorial levels and even the help you receive in the player menu doesn’t explain the mechanics clearly.

That’s to say nothing of how lifeless the central hub of the game feels; Fort Tarsis is filled with people, but you could hear a pin drop as you walk through it. Nothing seems to be happening. The story is fairly lackluster as well, though this is typical of games of this genre, where the bulk of the player’s time will be spent after the story in the so-called ‘endgame’. The gameplay’s mission loops are also painfully repetitive; three or four basic scenarios (combat, puzzle solving and item collecting) are copy-pasted ad nauseum and there’s very little to distract you from how repetitive it is.

Here’s the thing though: in spite of all of these things, I am still really enjoying Anthem. Its lackluster story is made up for by brilliant characters, brought to life through exceptional voice performances and some of the best motion capture animation I’ve ever seen in a video game. You can see genuine, human emotions on characters’ faces in cutscenes. These people feel real and it is shockingly rare for that to be the case in a video game. The combat is enormous fun, even if a little repetitive. There’s a huge variety in the weapons and gear you can equip that makes customization a deep and rewarding experience; it’s rare that you can fine-tune your character to your specific playstyle as deeply as Anthem allows. That gets even deeper once you reach the endgame and get access to the highest tiers of loot, which come with their own sets of unique traits.

At the end of the day, the combat is what’s most pivotal to Anthem’s success. If it wasn’t fun to kill the bad guys, it wouldn’t be rewarding to grind and get all the good weapons. In spite of Anthem’s issues, it has this solid foundation to build on, and it will be built upon. Bioware have plotted out releases of new content well into May and have teased plans to go even further. I’m not trying to defend the issues that Anthem suffered from at launch, even though many were fixed on the day of release. But we need to get out of the mindset that games are released as a finished product; what you see isn’t what you’re going to get, at least not all of it. While there is a certain level of sloppiness to a lot of games on release that needs to be addressed, Anthem is nowhere near the worst offender. There’s enough content here to keep people interested until the really good stuff starts coming in and the developers have been very active on social media, hearing concerns and offering help where they can. The people that made this game are still making this game. It would be a mistake to write off Anthem on the basis of its launch; bigger things are on the horizon and we as consumers need to get used to the fact that games are a constant ebb and flow of feedback, updates and conversation. Bioware’s developers have gone out of their way to make sure you know you’re being heard, so try listening to them instead of burying your head in the sand.`

 

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