Bioware isn’t giving up on Anthem yet. After reports surfaced back in November that said the ill-fated looter shooter was receiving some kind of major overhaul, Bioware General Manager Casey Hudson finally made these rumors official in a blog posted on the studio’s website earlier this week.
Hudson explains that fixing Anthem’s biggest issues “will require a more substantial reinvention than an update or expansion,” and that means Bioware is about to dedicate several months’ worth of resources to salvaging the studio’s latest IP. Just what this looks like is unclear at this point, but Hudson says the studio’s main goals are to “reinvent the core gameplay loop with clear goals, motivating challenges and progression with meaningful rewards – while preserving the fun of flying and fighting in a vast science-fantasy setting.”
Those are noble things to aspire to. Plenty of games have had rough starts and made major comebacks that made those original stumbles a mere chapter in their larger stories. Final Fantasy XIV, No Man’s Sky, and Destiny are just a few of the most prominent examples of a game turning itself around before it could be written off as a complete loss. It makes plenty of sense that Bioware would see these redemption arcs and think it can achieve the same thing with Anthem. But that this game was the one that Bioware took this approach with shows that, despite its three previous games all coming under similar criticisms, the studio has learned little from its most recent projects.
Anthem is the game most emblematic of Bioware’s recent troubles. While Dragon Age: Inquisition and Mass Effect: Andromeda were both full of open-world bloat, general “Bioware bugginess,” and a lack of the same meaningful, linear storytelling that made their predecessors so beloved in the first place, they weren’t deprived of the story and character-driven heart that fans had become accustomed to when they picked up a game with the Bioware name on the cover. Anthem, whether it was because the studio genuinely wanted to try something different, was asked to dedicate resources elsewhere by publisher Electronic Arts, or whatever the reason might be, actively pushes a lot of the philosophy of most Bioware games out. You don’t create a character, dialogue options are nearly identical in the very few times they do happen, and the characters who exist in its world aren’t meant to be your friends or lovers; they’re there to exposition dump to you as you watch on.
Does its Iron Man-style flying and shooting slap? Yeah, kind of. But as everyone found when the game launched last year, that’s not enough to hold people’s long-term interest. It wasn’t enough to grab the studio’s established fanbase either, as Anthem is made up of a series of conscious decisions to be something other than a Bioware game. Not in the literal sense, of course, but in that it actively pushes out the draw of Bioware games to become something else entirely. I’m not here to get into the possible motivations behind this, as those tend to skew towards a perceived desire for monetary gain above all else, which is the case of every company in the world. But instead, what sticks out more to me is that scrambling to save the game that most holistically represents the problems the studio has been struggling with shows a lack of examination of why the studio’s reputation is in the place it is now.
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Depending on who you ask, where Bioware’s struggles began can be attributed to one of many different places. Some people say it was when Electronic Arts bought the studio. Others point to Mass Effect 2, where the studio pivoted more deliberately away from RPG mechanics and started developing more action-oriented games. But here, we’re going to look at Dragon Age: Inquisition, which, despite taking home a lot of Game of the Year awards, put the studio on the path to Anthem’s launch.
Inquisition is still a Bioware game at heart. It has a strong, coherent main story with poignant themes, meaningful player influence, and a cast of beautifully realized characters. But it’s the first time the studio began to lean into open-world structure that, rather than contain substantial quests to fill up its massive world, was filled with fetch quests with minimal impact on the story it was telling.
While Inquisition was able to get away with some of this unscathed due to glowing reviews, Mass Effect: Andromeda was the “two” in the “1-2 punch.” The fourth game in Bioware’s science fiction series was structured basically identically to Inquisition, with the same focus on open-world missions at the expense of concise storytelling and design. This, on top of criticism of stiff facial animations (which were, to its credit, updated fairly quickly) resulted in more divided reviews, a rocky launch, and — despite a lot of known technical issues being fixed through updates — Bioware pulling support from the game’s single player campaign entirely.
While Inquisition and Andromeda had their structural issues, they were still developed with the appeal of Bioware games in mind: a focus on story, worldbuilding and relationships. They were unfortunately wrapped up in questionable design choices that made getting to the moments that matter more difficult than they ever needed to be.
Enter Anthem. This is a game that, even as early as its reveal, was clearly a departure from Bioware’s character-driven RPG style. This was Bioware’s attempt at a live game, focusing more on a replayable gameplay loop than a world or the characters found within it. Anthem was a barren world with characters who felt like they existed behind an invisible wall, with your character unable to interact with them beyond the bare minimum of expository dialogue. It was diametrically opposed to the legacy the studio had created for itself in its 25-year history: a game meant to be seen, rather than inhabited.
Beyond that, it was a game made by a studio clearly not equipped to make it. It launched five years after Destiny paved the way for this style of game, and yet it was still missing features and quality-of-life accomodations that were standard at that point for a loot shooter — and it showed in the reception at the outset. Anthem is the lowest-scoring Bioware game on Metacritic, and conjecture implies the game’s player base dropped something fierce soon after launch.
So here we are, three games into a specific and recurring decline in Bioware, largely tied to structuring games toward trends that skew away from what made the company’s games special in the first place. And instead of rallying around Mass Effect: Andromeda, which might not even get a sequel at this point, Bioware has elected to give Anthem the extra try.
We’re a full calendar year removed from Anthem’s launch, and my gut reaction to the various issues people had with the past three games from Bioware was that by now, the studio would have reassessed its priorities. It could have streamlined the next Dragon Age into something comparable to previous games in the series, or been willing to cut their losses and learn from having botched Anthem to avoid making the same mistakes twice. But now, Bioware is going to be dedicating months’ of work and resources into trying to salvage a game that is selling for $10 now. I don’t know how Bioware and EA intend to make money off of whatever is coming next for Anthem, presumably with microtransactions and possibly a proper re-release at retail. Maybe even offering it as a free upgrade for people who own the original game. But that the higher ups viewed Mass Effect: Andromeda and Anthem in various states of disarray and thought the latter was the one that was worth saving speaks volumes about where the studio is at.
More power to the Anthem team to do what it has to in order to turn a profit, and maybe whatever it puts out in a few months to a year will write a new redemption arc for us to point to in the era of live games. But it makes me more worried about what shape the next Dragon Age will take, because rather than go back to basics and remember what drew people to its games in the first place, Bioware is doubling down on every mistake it’s made in the past five years.