Bob Dylan was banging out folk music hits in the early ‘60s like nobody’s business: Blowin’ in the Wind, The Times They Are a-Changin’, Subterranean Homesick Blues. But, in 1965, the Minnesotan took to the stage at the Newport Folk Festival with a solid body guitar, a full band, and a desire for something new. Those prepped to cheer Bobby’s set in unison began to boo. Their hero had gone electric, the bastard. Rather than angrily tweet Colombia Records, the festival goers heckled and hissed, wishing for both a set and career to conclude. Over the next year and a half, Dylan released three of the most influential rock albums of all time in Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, so shifting focus isn’t always a bad thing.
In 2012, that’s what developer BioWare needed: a change, an idea. Mass Effect 3 had just come out, and whilst highly regarded (worth remembering, that) a rabid fanbase were left wanting after a colourful, yet lacklustre ending. The subsequent launches of both Inquisition, which reviewed really well, and Andromeda, which reviewed not quite as well but still pretty damn well, left some fans of BioWare’s Big Two feeling a bit cold on the Canadian studio’s output.
Dragon Age 4 was fed to us in drips and drabs until we got the drippy drab teaser at last year’s Game Awards, and Mass Effect was reportedly ‘put on ice’ after the 2017 release, but the studio has confirmed a few times in recent months that the series isn’t, in fact, dead. We needed some exciting news from Alberta, Canada, in the summer of ‘17, so thank God for Anthem. eh?
In an interview with CBC Radio, a month after the big reveal at 2012’s E3, then BioWare GM Aaryn Flynn confirmed the idea of Anthem had been thrown about the studio for around five years. On stage at EA Play, Electronic Artist Patrick Soderlund hyped BioWare’s new offering as ‘vast, dangerous, beautiful and unexpected.’ And you could hear the excitement in game director Jon Warner’s voice during the Xbox Showcase, as he explained the differences between the Iron Mans zipping about on screen, whilst some contrived multiplayer bantz echoed through the speakers of the Galen Center. It looked fluid – flawless, almost.
Soderlund laid it on factor 50 thick when chatting to The Major later that week, telling him that ‘it’s an important game for BioWare, it’s an important game for EA, as a company, it’s an important game for me, personally – I’ve been very invested in this.’ From the moment the video game playing public got its first look at Fort Tarsis, the bigwigs at EA were banging the javelin-shaped drum, and why wouldn’t they?
This was set to be BioWare’s next big thing; it promised action, story, co-op, and an open-world with large-scale events. It delivered some of that, as well as insufferable loading screens, game breaking bugs, guns that feel painstakingly similar, and mid-mission loot that can’t be used mid-fucking-mission.
Like many, I don’t play BioWare games to feel powerful in the fight; I play BioWare games to become friends with slugpeople, and if they’re up for it, ride said slugpeople. I’m not saying that the dev’s previous efforts played horribly – they’re fine, and in some cases pretty decent – but it’s the relationship building, the dialogue, the stories: that’s what makes a BioWare game distinguishable. And Anthem doesn’t have that. Fort Tarsis is a pared down Citadel, lacking those involved substories we’ve come to love throughout the years. Those feature in games from the old BioWare. This is the new BioWare.
And there’s no issue with trying something different and seeing how it takes. That tactic has worked out for many. Beastie Boys were part of the New York punk scene before taking to hip hop, and garnering mainstream popularity; after winning an Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey had officially blossomed as an actor in the eyes of the people; and sports star Danny Ainge was a serviceable second baseman for the Toronto Blue Jays before winning two NBA championships with the Boston Celtics. It can be done, and that’s why BioWare’s departure from the norm shouldn’t be discouraged.
I don’t want to see developers pigeon-holed because of previous successes. I get regurgitation, because if you figure out a formula that makes bank, your parent company isn’t going to be too keen to trial the unproven. Series fatigue is commonplace in this medium with players, though, so you can only imagine how developers feel when they’re asked to come up with ideas for Assassin’s Creed 27. I’m certain there were some at the BioWare office who would’ve preferred to brainstorm more fanciful fucking for its thirsty audience, but, equally, there must’ve been those champing at the bit to create new worlds, new characters, new systems.
Anthem is BioWare’s Newport Folk Festival 1965; it was codenamed Dylan, for Christ sake. Rather than remain confined to the acoustics of solo storytelling, the studio favoured the bombast of an explosive four-piece, but those prepped to cheer in unison have began to boo here, too. And that worries me. Listen, I have plenty of issues with Anthem – some I’ve already stated – but I don’t want the more-muted-than-expected reception to dissuade this developer, or others, from future innovation or alteration. Try things, fail, and then try again.
It’s clear now that Anthem wasn’t ready. The big update last Friday might’ve been called the day one patch, but c’mon now, the game had been out in the wild for a week at that stage, as this memorable spreadsheet from last September shows. Soderlund calling this an important game for EA makes me question why more time wasn’t given to ensure a smoother launch, or ambition tamed to avoid a half-baked vision. Bungie had to wait 12 months for its eureka moment on the original Destiny, with The Taken King expansion adding new purpose to the loot-based shooter, so who’s to say Anthem won’t have a similar a-ha moment?
Right now, it’s hard to peer through the fog, sure, but that’s the thing with these games as service games: they’re ever-evolving. Anthem, if it can get through this rocky period, is a platform unlike anything we’ve seen from the studio. And don’t worry: you and I will get our Mass Effects, our Dragon Ages, in due course. Anthem isn’t necessarily for us – I mean, it’s not for anyone at the minute, because it’s not in a fit state – and that’s okay. You don’t have to like all of Dylan’s work. Now, let’s allow BioWare the opportunity to have its Blonde on Blonde moment.