Anthem Was a Mistake, but BioWare Trying Something New Was Not

The game was a waste of the studio's talents. But hopefully not the end of new IP.

I didn’t like Anthem. And it’s hard to imagine that a complete overhaul of Bioware’s loot shooter would’ve been enough to make me feel anything more than ambivalence toward it. But the announcement that Bioware is ending its plans to overhaul the game and salvage it still doesn’t feel good. Anthem was a tragedy of errors. But I still feel a mix of pity, annoyance, and maybe a little bit of sadness that Bioware’s first new IP in over a decade is gone forever.

Upfront, I don’t think Anthem was a wise choice for Bioware and EA. And I do think that, in the event a major update ever saw the light of day, it would’ve been a massive misuse of the Canadian RPG studio’s talents. Not to mention infuriating after the studio abandoned Mass Effect: Andromeda after its mixed reception. But this is also a studio that has been stuck between two pillars since the mid-2000s. Mass Effect and Dragon Age are the only original worlds Bioware has shared with us beyond Anthem for up to 14 years at this point. Between Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins, the studio was working on an episodic spy thriller called Agent that was swallowed whole as the team prioritized building the games that would spawn its most successful franchises. Shadow Realms, an online multiplayer game, was also cancelled in 2015

It’s been a long time since we saw a new Bioware world. And I’m fearful that, because Anthem went down the way it did, we might not see anything as daring (albeit hopefully less ill-informed) as the loot shooter from the studio in the future.

By design, Anthem didn’t play into Bioware’s strengths. While its flying mechanics and combat were pretty great, the worldbuilding and character work suffered. I played all of Anthem, and can only name maybe two memorable people that I met in the dozen or so hours I spent in Fort Tarsis. One was Owen, my best friend turned archenemy, and then there was Faye, who…actually, shit, I can’t even describe her role in the game because Anthem never gave the courtesy of explaining its titular Anthem and Faye’s connection to it. Worldbuilding and storytelling have been the core pillars of Bioware’s catalog, and yet they were intentionally given less priority, resulting in the studio’s fanbase not latching onto the world in the same way it has its science fiction and fantasy settings. 

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Calculated decisions to remove the player from the experience of its protagonist mean Anthem carries the unfortunate distinction of being a Bioware game that represents no one. Meaning it was hard to not only see oneself in its nameless protagonist, but it was also near impossible to form the same personal connections to characters in Mass Effect or Dragon Age. In the most recent teaser for the next Mass Effect, Liara T’Soni’s presence was a shot in the arm for a fandom that had been relatively dormant. Anthem has no such touchstones. So it makes me wonder just what would have brought people back had the rework Bioware developed over the course of the past two years been greenlit. 

This is what makes reflecting on Anthem so hard to reconcile. It was, and still is, the poster child of a studio having lost its way. Anthem wasn’t just a studio trying to do something new, it was indicative of a company, whether by industry pressure or a genuine desire, forsaking the things that built its reputation up in the first place. In pursuit of jumping on the live service market, Bioware created something so antithetical to its usual modus operandi, it alienated longtime fans, while also feeling like it was coming from a studio unequipped to create the game it set out to make. It was pretty much doomed as soon as it was out the door.

And yet, it just makes me fucking sad. I love Mass Effect, but I would have rather Bioware moved onto something new after Mass Effect 3. Dragon Age seems to be doubling down on what I think is its greatest weakness (and also might end up being some live service nonsense. Who can say?). So I want to see something new from Bioware. But I’m fearful now that Anthem’s calculated misfires may send a message that this company should stick to what’s safe. In a way, the latest Mass Effect teaser props up this fear. As its leaning on characters we thought we were done with feels like a falling back into what’s comfortable. 

Maybe I’m less mourning Anthem and more the hope of seeing Bioware do something exciting and unknown anytime soon. Could Anthem have become a household name had Bioware not been so emboldened in going against the types of games it was built to make? Was the overhaul the team had planned substantial enough that it could’ve had a No Man’s Sky style comeback? Did anyone feel enough for Anthem to evangelize it two years after the fact? And ultimately, does any of that really matter? The game is gone for good.

Looking at everything that resulted in Anthem dying this death, I’d like to think the studio has learned some lessons on why people gravitate to its games. But this is also the company that looked at what it delivered with Anthem and thought it was worth saving after it cancelled Mass Effect: Andromeda’s DLC. Bioware has teased two games that seem to be, at the very least, a year or so away. So Anthem’s demise is just another piece of information to float around the studio’s name as we speculate whether or not someone is about to right the ship of a company that has been moving in a questionable direction since Dragon Age pivoted to an open world. In a way, it’s nice to know the games that have been historically good are getting more time and resources to them. But it is sad to think Bioware might not be investing in new ideas and new worlds for the foreseeable future.

So I hope I’m proven wrong. I want to see that studio get to stretch its wings again, rather than being kept in a cage of its successes with its failures hanging over it. If Anthem can be a stepping stone into a brighter future for Bioware, then its sacrifice doesn’t have to be in vain. And I hope that stepping stone leads the studio to uncharted worlds. And no. I don’t mean the song from Mass Effect again.