After years of anticipation, BioWare's Anthem is finally available for everyone worldwide and it's not having the best of launches. Outside of the rough critical consensus and lowered retail prices, the game's current community revolted a bit on Sunday, because BioWare had quietly altered loot drop chances behind the scenes. The developer has released a 90-day roadmap for Anthem, but with Electronic Arts as a publisher, some are wondering if Anthem will see significant support beyond that.
It's clear from their messaging that BioWare is firmly behind the ongoing improvements and long-term future of Anthem. The question remains if publisher Electronic Arts is willing to extend that level of commitment. Electronic Arts is currently perceived as the cut-and-run publisher, who will drop studios, and can games if things don't work out. Its graveyard is littered with veterans, including Origin System, Bullfrog Productions, and Westwood Studios. Visceral Games died when its planned Star Wars game didn't match EA's expectations, and the project was canned completely a year later.
BioWare itself saw Mass Effect: Andromeda's planned story DLC cancelled and the game wrapped up with a few bug fix and multiplayer patches. Anthem is off to a very rough start, with physical sales that are half that of Mass Effect: Andromeda, which itself was half of the launch sales of Mass Effect 3. Anthem is starting out in trouble.
How Can Anthem Be Fixed?
All hope is not lost though. The continuing drawback to live service games is their launches are less than adequate, likely because publishers and developers believe the community will stay around while things get patched up. Despite that, there are many examples of things probably being patched up. Zenimax Studios whipped The Elder Scrolls Online into a proper MMO and Elder Scrolls follow-up. Bungie vastly improved Destiny with The Taken King, and it's in the middle of patching holes in Destiny 2. Ubisoft has brought Rainbow Six Siege, The Division, and recently For Honor back to life.
Anthem can be saved, but BioWare needs to focus on fixing major problems with its structure, progression, and mission variety. As I said in the review, there's no flow to Anthem's gameplay right now because there are so many cuts and downtime to the action. There needs to be a way to bring Contracts, Strongholds, and the Freeplay mode closer together. For one, I'd cut the automatic move to the "Expedition Complete" screen once any mission type is done. Let pickup groups stay together, allowing a leader or someone else to select another mission. Freeplay should just be the world of Anthem, if you leave Fort Tarsis or a Stronghold, you should be dropped back into the map, where you can explore or tackle other missions.
And to make that move lively, BioWare should probably increase the active player count in a Freeplay session. As it stands, Freeplay currently operates like a mission or Stronghold with fewer boundaries. Freeplay instead should be a way to bring your community together. The Launch Bay allows for up to 16 players in that instance, and I think Freeplay should be kicked up to a similar number. In addition, world events should be clearly marked on the Freeplay map. I can't come to the aid of another player in a world event, if I don't know the world event is live. As the final tweak to Freeplay, give us selectable waypoints BioWare, because navigating Anthem's map without them is a nightmare.
Anthem's progression is severely flawed at the moment, though BioWare does have a planned Mastery System that's coming in April. Right now, though, Anthem is about running the same content over and over again, hoping that the Masterwork and Legendary items that drop are what you need. It's an obtuse system, not helped by the fact that BioWare recently lowered the loot drop chance.
Every weapon and item in Anthem are created with a random set of Inscriptions, bonus effect like "+10 Percent Salvage" or "+100 Percent Fire Damage". Inscriptions are either local, meaning they only affect the weapon itself, or global, meaning they apply to your Javelin. The issue is that currently, some local inscriptions are completely useless, like improving elemental damage on a weapon without elemental damage. If Masterwork and Legendary items are going to have such a low drop rate, then "dead" inscriptions need to go away completely. BioWare has already addressed the issue, saying fixes are incoming, but there's no timetable on that.
Alternatively, BioWare could return to the enhanced drop rate that was available to players on Friday and Saturday. Players are more willing to roll with bad inscriptions on an item if they're getting a ton of items overall. This is how Diablo works—showering you with items, even though many aren't useful. There also needs to be some reroll system for Legendaries; you can eventually unlock crafted Masterworks, but not Legendaries. Further, crafted Masterworks need their material costs looked at and low-level material require some sort of conversion into their higher-level counterparts.
When it comes to missions, Anthem sadly shows all its cards early on. Missions fall into three categories: defend a spot, bring glowing orbs back to a spot, or find an object using your radar. Every mission is a mix of those three types and over the course of leveling and endgame, it gets old very quickly. Mix it up, BioWare. Early on in one of the introductory missions, there's a section where you must fly your Javelin through alternating electric fields. Why aren't there more missions that prize Anthem's best feature, its flight?
The game mostly relegates its characters to Fort Tarsis, the first-person town hub, but why aren't more of them out in the world itself? You meet Dax or Matthias in missions or Freeplay rarely. If strong characterization is supposed to be one of Anthem's focuses, then why not give the player more chances to fight alongside these characters? Part of the reason Mass Effect and Dragon Age characters are memorable is because you put your favorites in your squad. You created this lengthy bond between you and them, forged through interesting conversations and interesting play. Anthem needs more that, rather than characters talking at me in Fort Tarsis.
Why Should They Fix Anthem?
And that's just a few fixes for Anthem's current state. The larger question is why Electronic Arts and BioWare should even bother. If something isn't working, you move on to the next project, right? Don't throw good money after bad.
The latter statement might be how Electronic Arts' management thinks, but the truth is an ongoing commitment to a game builds trust. I've written about this before, but trust is a currency. If a community trusts you, they're far more willing to buy your games, or stick with them when they launch in a less than perfect state. Why? Because they believe you'll stick around to fix the problems.
Ubisoft is the poster child of this idea. The publisher continues to support games long after launch, even if they're not in the best of states. As I said before, it successfully revived Rainbow Six Siege, The Division, and For Honor. In 2019, Ubisoft teams are still putting out content for Ghost Recon: Wildlands, which launched in the same month of 2017 as Mass Effect: Andromeda. The Crew 2 and Steep are less than successful, but the former game just received a new PVP mode, Demolition Derby, and more vehicles, and the latter game started Season 4 this month. You know Ubisoft will stick around.
When you've broken the trust of consumers like Electronic Arts has in the past, leaving behind broken or unfinished games, that bleeds into future releases. People are reticent to try Anthem after seeing the rough reception and reviews, because they have no clue if EA will continue to support the game. I think it's likely they will, but even then, the question is how much support the game is getting?
Star Wars: The Old Republic has essentially been on life support since the December 2016 release of the Knights of the Eternal Throne expansion. Some Battlefield 5 players feel that EA and DICE have already given up on the game, offering only a few more updates and the planned Firestorm battle royale mode coming in Spring 2019. As I noted, Mass Effect: Andromeda was left for dead. And players are asking themselves, "What makes Anthem any different?"
This is your moment, Electronic Arts. This is the spot where you can turn around this narrative of a cutthroat corporate culture that doesn't care about developers, games, or the people who play them. BioWare obviously wants to continue making Anthem the best it can be, but it needs the resources to do so. It needs a publisher's commitment in terms of resources. And if it succeeds, all your games succeed, because the community is more willing to bet on unproven and new games, if they know a publisher will stand behind them. Dropping support for games makes financial sense in the near-term, but it hurts the overall perception of your company.
Despite my review, I hope Anthem gets a chance to become the game it was meant to be. The release product isn't the evolution of gaming that was promised years ago—how many games actually live up to that promise?—but it could legitimately be a great game. Work on the next Dragon Age as BioWare's new flagship if you must, but Anthem needs to be given equal love. It needs to be improved and tweaked to bring out its best. If No Man's Sky can evolve into an amazing experience with a relatively small team, then BioWare should be able to do the same with a larger team. These coming weeks may be a struggle for the game, but if we can look forward a year and Anthem is in a great shape, then that'll be a better place for everyone involved.