Bringing Hope to a Broken City

A city in need of a hero.

Belghast recently said in his Division 2 Impressions post, “One of the core problems I had with the original Division is that it was a game without hope. The setting was bleak and it felt like as a Division Agent I was doing very little to actually help those around me.”

He’s not wrong, but it’s also not something I’d really taken note of before. It’s possible it just meant less to me previously. At the time, I really enjoyed The Division 1’s leveling content. It was some of the best I’d experienced (with the caveat that this was only true in a group that stuck together).

One of (at least two) downed planes you can come across.

Nonetheless, Bel’s impressions stuck with me and since reading them I have been thinking of one sequence of events in The Division 2 in particular.

There is a line in the game delivered during the story that really brings this home. I don’t feel it too much a spoiler as it was in the story trailer. But nonetheless, consider this a (small) spoiler warning for the following little bit. The line is: “Outside those walls, it’s perdition. Whatever you’re doing out there — we’re not feeling it in here.”

I don’t want to give too much away, but necessary for context is that it would be fair to say your attention had been elsewhere up until this conversation takes place. They are at the end of their rope, splintering at the seams and beginning to feel like the end has begun all over again.

This state is reflected in the scenery, and while it isn’t as bad as a place you might’ve just been — the need of these people is clear.

And while your character is a silent protagonist, never uttering a sympathetic word, the change you can bring to not only their environment but the outlook on life is fantastic. There is a theme of life finding a way in the face of extreme adversity. Kids finding a way to enjoy the simple things again.

I’ve hit the start of the ‘end game’ now, and I’ll be curious whether this theme continues. It certainly starts on a darker note, with a whole ‘Act 2’ feeling about things. But we’ll see how it goes. :)

Anthem Review: An Early Access Title in AAA Clothes

Make no mistake, Anthem is an Early Access title. The publisher approved term here is ‘Game as a Service’ (GaaS) and sure, it’s that too. But if you’re buying Anthem now, you’re likely buying into the promise of what it is to become. You’re likely buying it because you want to support the developers in their efforts to bring their vision to life, because that vision is something you want in your life.

This isn’t a new concept, but it’s a creeping trend in the AAA space. And in my view it is every bit the gamble that Early Access is with a relatively unknown Indie developer.

Sure, developing new titles is expensive — building the minimum acceptable product cuts those upfront costs down, brings in revenue early, and most importantly (and where our risk comes in) allows a more sensible commercial decision to be made on to what extent the studio will continue to support the title post-launch.

With this being the case, the review conclusion comes down to a statement you’ve likely seen in countless Steam reviews for other Early Access products.

“Only buy this if you’re happy with it the way it is right now or you’re wanting to support the Devs.”

— Countless Steam reviews for Early Access products.

There is an argument to be made that it isn’t entirely fair for AAA publishers to expect to be allowed to play on the same level as an independent developer in this way. It might even be an argument I would agree with.

But for the purposes of this review, here and now, it’s an argument I’m not going to get into. Also? We’re getting way ahead of ourselves.

So:

Is the Current State of Anthem Fun?

Before I answer that, a note:

I’m not an EA Game Changer and I have no personal ties into EA or BioWare. Not so much as a Twitter follower from these companies.1 Further, unlike many of the YouTubers cashing in on the entertainment value of negative reviews, I have no monetisation on the line for this in any form.

That out of the way?

Yes. Unreservedly, yes.

Anthem is fun, right now, in it’s current state. Going right back to my Anthem VIP Demo Impressions I made the following statement:

The foundational elements of Anthem are strong, and will support the load of long term play from its player base if allowed to. If BioWare can deliver a meaningful endgame with a good pacing on content releases the future for Anthem is bright.

– Naithin (2019), Anthem VIP Demo Impressions

Not counting however many hours I spent with the demos, over both that weekend and the following weekend, I now have 50 hours with the Feb 15th launched version of Anthem.

In that time, I’ve completed the Main Story Quest, the Agent Missions, dozens of contracts, started pushing into the Grand Master difficulties, taken on Legendary Contracts and battled through the Strongholds.

I can still 100% stand behind that statement. The Javelin gameplay is incredibly satisfying, with the freedom of flight and aerial combat simply not seen in its genre competitors2. The gun play is solid, with a wide variety of weapon types — further diversified by several sub-types existing in each ‘main’ category, each with their own twist on firing style.

Sure, guns are good — but the abilities are better. Your abilities are there to be used and generally have quite a short cooldown or recharge. Each Javelin (Ranger, Colossus, Storm and Interceptor) not only has a unique set of these abilities provided through Gear slots, but also very different handling characteristics.

Fifty hours in, and I’m still not feeling ‘done’ with the game’s launch content either.

So sure, Anthem is fun. Not only is it fun, there is a fair chunk of content even from just the base game’s inclusion, Early Access or not.

But (yep, we’re into the ‘buts’ now) this fun is to be had in despite a number of issues, some stemming from the very fact that we’re being passed an Early Access title by stealth.

Key Issues

For better or worse, it is typical for an Early Access title to launch to the world with issues. Some of the issues with Anthem fall into this type, I think. Things that can be solved with time and effort on BioWare’s part.

Others (like the loading) I’m more worried about the ability of the engine to handle any better than it currently does. On that…

Please wait… Loading

I feel like the Loading issues are well documented, but if you’re unaware… An SSD should be listed as a mandatory system requirement for the game. If you must install Anthem to a standard HDD, prepare for a bad time when it comes to loading missions.

In fact, for story missions (Main, and Agent) if you’re having to load from a standard drive and you can’t play with only friends who will wait — set the game to private and solo.

If you don’t, you may load into a mission 30-60 seconds after everyone who has put it on their SSD does. By then they will have flown off and started things.

Worse, Missions have a very tight distance tether. So, what happens when you’ve loaded in, to find your teammates most of the way to the first objective?

The game helpfully teleports you to them. Via a load screen. A load screen almost as long as the first one. If you’re really unlucky, this can become a chain.

The patch coming on February 22nd has some further optimisations for loading from a HDD, but the speed is only part of the issue. The sheer frequency of the load screen triggers is intense, even getting into managing your loadout or appearance, for example? Load screen.

Mechanics Worn on Sleeve

If you apply a reductive mindset, you can break down any of the Looter Shooter games to a small set of very simple mechanics. Get to a place, kill a thing, maybe move one thing to another thing, etc.

We don’t fault those games for these simple mechanics typically, because they wrap them in story. We’re not just standing around fighting waves in a room, no, we’re buying time for civilians to escape out behind us!

Anthem’s missions aren’t necessarily mechanically any worse than these other games — but there is no meaningful effort to dress them up or immerse you in story reasons for why you’re doing it.

This might sound like a small thing and I suppose in some ways it is. But when you ask someone who has played this, and say The Division which hides the mechanics much better behind the story, which game has the more satisfying mission mechanics? Even though The Division is not objectively any better in this regard, they will tell you that it is.

This impression matters and makes it much harder to invest in what you’re doing.

The Story

The story is not up to BioWare standard. It’s perfectly serviceable, if not actually good so far as looter-shooters go. I didn’t hate it by any stretch, and unlike many I found the character conversations to be interesting.

But as interesting as they are, there is not much in the way of consequence or change as a result of what you say or do. It is this element in particular I miss from the usual BioWare formula. You can affect some very tiny changes to your personal version of Tarsis, just… Not much.

The story also feels like (because it is) just an Act 1 to the overall story. Sure, we get an ending of sorts. But it’s poorly paced and the ending we get doesn’t feel at all deserved.

BioWare plans to extend this story out overtime through free content/story updates, which is something I applaud. Also I admit to being extremely keen to find out where the post-credit teaser revelation takes us in the coming months.

But the story issues also extend to the implementation. Outside of some cutscenes, all your story beats occur back in Ft Tarsis, completely segregated from the actual ‘game’ of Anthem. This is a Singleplayer only area to protect your experience with the story.

But if you’re attempting to play with friends, you’ll have up to 15-20 minutes at a time talking your way through Tarsis to contend with. If some of your group are interested in the story and some aren’t no-one is going to feel very happy about this.

The Tombs

I mentioned story pacing, right?

This right here was one of (but certainly not the only) culprit in this arena. With the 15th Feb launch, this mandatory-to-proceed ‘story’ quest required players to run through a set of ‘challenges’ such as open 15 chests, get 10 collectibles, get 50 melee kills, etc.

Adding insult to injury, the 15 chests required each individual to open their own set of 15. Being in a squad standing right by the chest being opened was not enough.

Two fixes for this are coming, but too late to benefit me. ;)

  1. (Already implemented) Tracking of the quest objectives start from Level 3 (down from level 10 previously), such that by the time you GET to this quest, it’ll be quite likely you have much of it done.
  2. Chest opening credit will apply to squads, so just 15 chests will be needed, rather than having to hunt down up to 60 for a full squad.

This whole quest though is nothing more than an attempt to pad out the game time. … Or at least I thought so until right this moment. It just occurred to me that possibly it’s rooted in the same issue as I outlined with Mechanics, where Anthem just has absolutely no creative spark when it comes to hiding or at least wrapping what it’s asking you to do in a better story context.

Others?

The Menu and UI setup remains high on my list of bugbears. Both for how it does work and for what it is missing.

The pain of using the Menu’s I outlined in the Anthem Open Demo Impressions still holds fairly true. We have had some improvements in being able to click through to the next layer down, but it still has a long way to go.

I also noted in the Anthem VIP Demo Impressions that there was no possible way to view your overall Javelin stats and bonuses. Or even basic information such as what your base shield/armor values are. That’s still true, and in my view needs addressing. It is a fairly core component of the ARPG and Looter Shooter genre.

Although also of note is that there is no way to tell what some of the really quite cryptic modifiers on gear even do. Even testing isn’t reliable right now since we know that some modifiers don’t work right now. (Due to be fixed in the Feb 22nd patch)

Then there is the matter of variety — in creatures, enemy factions and biomes in particular. That last has been quite a deal breaker for some already. The continuous sea of jungle with no respite is just too much. Personally? I prefer this over abrupt borders of desert to snow that some open world games provide, but even I must admit… I’m really hanging out for some new land masses to be added.

There is also no questioning that the end-game content is a little light at this point. e.g., there are only three strongholds (full-sized dungeons) and then the open-world content such as Freeplay, Contracts and Legendary Contracts on Grand Master difficulties.

These also all add up to the feel that Anthem is currently an Early Access title. Sure — it is one with promise, but certainly not one ready for a descriptor of ‘Fully Launched Title’.

Conclusion

Anthem is flawed. Beyond any shadow of a doubt. I’ve outlined what I see to be the worst features of the game in its current state, but also how despite them there is an exceedingly fun time to be had with Anthem.

The question then becomes, as alluded to right at the beginning: Do you think that you, personally, could enjoy the game in its current state despite the issues mentioned?

And if not, do you at least believe that Anthem will continue to deliver sufficient post-launch content and is this a vision you want to support and buy into? I do. The developers at BioWare have gone to great lengths to be transparent about the goings on, what is in, what is out, what is coming down the pipeline for later.

My only niggle of reservation is whether, if sales are not immediately ‘awesome’, will EA continue to support BioWare in getting Anthem to where it needs to be? This is the ‘gambling’ aspect of it, I think.

For what it’s worth, I can only imagine that releasing in this early state is an intentional and calculated move on their part. One they’ve done before with Battlefield V, and that title is still seeing content updates to flesh out what was missing at launch.

So for all this, I think there is no harm in considering Anthem again in a few months time after it’s had some time to settle some of the bigger issues. Especially if one of the other big releases this month is vying for your dollars.

Otherwise, don’t be afraid to give Anthem a go for yourself and just form your own opinion. Consider trying it out even through Origin Premier Access with just a month’s subscription perhaps. Within a month you will well and truly know whether Anthem is for you and how you feel about the cadence of updates.

Should you enjoy what you’re playing then you can buy the game with the benefit of 10% off if you do it before the subscription entirely expires, or you can part ways without having had to part with a larger chunk of your hard earned money.

For what it’s worth, I feel I’ve already extracted value for money out of what was present just in the Feb 15th launch content. I could comfortably put it aside and not regret my purchase.

But that’s not why I bought Anthem. I want more. The Story of Anthem was a bit of a let down when held up to typical BioWare fare, sure, but the world building? That was top-notch. There are so many places I want to go see in this world that has been created. So many things referenced in lore that I want to get to know about first hand.

There is more to Anthem’s world and story to be had; let’s just hope it doesn’t take too long to get it to us. ;D

For now, I’ll leave you with some of the tasty, tasty loot I’ve obtained over the past few days. :)

Postscript on Microtransactions

You might have noticed I didn’t list the MTX as an issue. I guess the short of it is, with current implementation — I’m not worried. At all.

Should legendary grade armor, emotes, etc, come out at some truly ridiculous price point (in either coin or shards!) then I’ll update accordingly.

But my belief is that the coin income has held up into the end-game very well. It is going to take a very long time for the one-time challenges to dry up when you consider that they exist for every weapon, for every gear piece of every Javelin, for exploration of every area and more challenges besides.

Then there are the constantly ongoing set of 3 dailies, weeklies and monthlies for additional income. There is more than what is shown via the table in the Freelancer Barracks, make sure to always be checking out your challenge entries in your Journal / Cortex as well.

Why Anthem? Why not The Division 2?

I’ve been asked this question in various forms over the last little while. Some just want to know what about Anthem excites me full stop, for others they’ve been legitimately curious why I would be more hyped for Anthem than I am for The Division 2.

And my knee-jerk reaction in my head was, ‘Well duh- just look at ’em!’–but then when it came to actually articulate these oh-so-clearly-self-evident reasons, I drew a blank.

I couldn’t really say why I had such a strong preference for Anthem.

Not to worry if your preferences lean the other way–there is little doubt that I’ll ultimately cover both. I’m not really going to be trying to change your mind with this either, rather just give some insight into why I lean this way.

Going back to the Announcements

But I want to see full on expansions with level cap increases, new areas, new stories and new shinies to chase. I would have joyously paid for this for The Division 1. No amount of logic has been able to completely remove the sting of lost opportunity that The Division 1 represents.

When the titles were announced, Anthem left me with a sense of ‘Eh. We’ll see.’ Mass Effect: Andromeda was still fresh in the mind, so my usual enthusiasm for all things BioWare was tempered. Nonetheless, it looked interesting and I made a mental note to check on it again when it was a bit further along.

The Division 2 announcement, however, actively irked me. It felt to me that The Division 1 had plenty of potential life left to it, but had been left to die. Two years after launch and the story had not been moved, cars crashed into place on Day 1 were still there on Day 601.

The Division 1 had been left to stagnate, stuck in stasis, opportunity wasted. And then along comes The Division 2, seeming to me as nothing more than a rather cynical cash grab.

I’ve since tempered my view a little – I recognise that there were some fundamental problems with the way stats and itemisation worked in The Division 1. And sure, they could have done a Loot 2.0 patch but not without risk of pissing off at least some of the remaining player base who liked things the way they were.

Second, like it or not–I also recognise that Ubisoft is a business. This doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be treating consumers well of course, but they are not a charity. They do not carry any obligation to continue delivering against The Division 1 if the business case doesn’t stack up.

But I want to see full on expansions with level cap increases, new areas, new stories and new shinies to chase. I would have joyously paid for this for The Division 1. No amount of logic has been able to completely remove the sting of lost opportunity that The Division 1 represents, especially in light of Anthem claiming a 10-year plan.

The Story

The story and mission structure of The Division 1 was some of the best leveling content I’ve ever had the pleasure to play through. There was a sense of mystery around the First Wave agents, how or who spread the virus and more.

The Division 2’s story trailer by contrast leaves me a bit cold. The reality may be that the story is just as good and builds on Division 1’s — but if that’s true they’ve done a terrible job of conveying it.

Granted with Anthem, BioWare has been very close to the chest with the story. But even from what little has been shown and spoken about, there is mystery, forces bigger than ourselves, a misguided bad-guy with a pinch of Thanos and pinch of Darth Vadar in the mix. Reality manipulation is a thing. Forces of creation can and will go wild. Perhaps a pinch of The Dark Tower in there too.

I expect it will closely follow the BioWare tried and true template (albeit with 100% less sexy-times this time around, which personally I’m good with) but it’s been… quite a while… since I’ve been through a BioWare story in full, so I’m ready!1

But… But… EA!

Alright, let’s clear the air on this one a little.

And secondly, perhaps a bit more controversially — I think anyone holding the view that EA is evil but Ubisoft is good is being willfully ignorant or perhaps stuck in denial.

I’m well aware of the grievances against EA. They have certainly not been any kind of consumer advocate. ;) The issues were covered in excruciating detail, after all. But the resolutions and post launch improvements? Hardly a boo spoken.

Nonetheless, I don’t have any illusions that they’ve somehow overnight come up with a customer-first policy. I’m well aware that they may end up stinging us with something unwanted in Anthem.

But two points on this:

I think EA has been sufficiently frightened off being too obnoxious for a time by the fallout over lootboxes and the intense backlash they’ve received; not only by their customers but by legislators and as a result their shareholders.

And secondly, perhaps a bit more controversially — I think anyone holding the view that EA is evil but Ubisoft is good is being willfully ignorant or perhaps stuck in denial.

Ubisoft has not been a saint either, through adding microtransactions to titles (even The Division 1, in fact) post the review cycle. Even when adding them in at the game’s launch — including somewhat scummy items such as an XP Booster for a SP game (AC: Odyssey, which full disclosure I loved the game in spite of this).

They’re also a firm believer in creating a half-dozen editions of a game, and for Division 2 this has crossed from simple cosmetics or short-lived starter gear to a permanent stash-space increase only available with the super-duper uber-rich-person edition.

And in conclusion…

Anthem lets you play as fricken Iron Man, man. Case closed. Booyah. ;)

I actually went for more of a War Machine look as opposed to Iron Man. (Pfft; everyone was doing that!) Legs should have been darker as well, but were tied to the face plate colour. Overall happy with the results the customiser allowed for!

More seriously; I’d be happiest of all if both games were successful. I don’t buy into an ‘us or them’ mentality over the two. If I had unlimited time, I’d cover both from the get-go.

But since I don’t have unlimited time, and must choose — it’s Anthem for me to start with.

When my team and I run through all available content and are hankering for more, I believe The Division 2 will be there for us in our time of need. Switching between the two, allowing for content to develop in one whilst we play the other is going to be excellent.

There is more I could talk to over the relative transparency of the Devs and their community interactions, but the more I dove into my own motivations and thought processes the more I realised the centre of it for me was mostly around Ubisoft’s lack of long-term support for Div 1.

I’m willing to forgive and forget, providing a chance to Div 2 to be better. But if in a couple of years from now we’re talking about the announcement for Div 3 — I think we’re done!

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