Yesterday, EA dedicated a chunk of its E3 press conference to showing off BioWare's upcoming multiplayer online shooter (MMO), Anthem. Anthem is a huge job on its own, but BioWare also might be working on a player-versus-player (PvP) feature for the game.
All this hard work from one of the industry's most beloved RPG developers begs one question: Is BioWare being used to its fullest potential with the development of Anthem and its post-launch content, or is it spinning its wheels on a project that doesn't take advantage of its strengths as a storyteller?
An MMO can tell a good tale, of course. Final Fantasy XIV, World of Warcraft, and even BioWare's own Star Wars: The Old Republic manages to keep players engaged with story-driven quests. However, all three games are based on old properties with years of lore built up behind them. Anthem doesn't have a similarly deep well of locales and characters it can reach into. Its world, its setting, its monsters, and its characters are built up from scratch. There's no nostalgic element players can relate to, whereas Final Fantasy XIV, World of Warcraft, and The Old Republic are structured around villains, heroes, and events from their respective franchises.
It's hard to engage players in a brand-new universe in the best circumstances, but it's doubly hard to engage players in a brand-new MMO universe—a genre that generally has nebulous main stories supported by innumerable side-narratives. BioWare can tell a good story through an MMO, but its expertise is weaving strong single-player narratives through games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect.
Bioware is definitely going to try its damndest to keep people interested in Anthem, though. Players will peer through a first-person perspective when they enter single-player hub areas like Ft Tarsus. The perspective switch is supposed to help draw players into Anthem's world.
"We want to immerse the player, so when you're talking to people and you see their faces, we don't want a third-person look," Anthem lead producer Mike Gamble told us at EA Play yesterday. "We want immersion, right in the face of players. But you will have opportunities to see your pilot that you customize in other areas of the world. You've seen the mask come down a number of times. You'll see your pilot, but in Tarsus: first-person."
In fact, hub areas are strictly single-player affairs in every regard; you won't see your friends or any one else who might try to yammer at you while you're talking to an NPC. "What we want is for you to be able to take your time," Gamble said. "Explore the hub, talk to the people, build relationships with them, customize your gear. And then when you're ready and you want to go out on a mission, then you party up."
It's admirable to see BioWare do what it can to tailor Anthem to its strengths. But Anthem's confirmed lack of romantic options is a bummer, given how fans go ga-ga over shipping characters from Dragon Age and Mass Effect with the hero, a pastime kindled and sustained by lovey events in-game. Digital romances are a little silly and cheesy, sure, but they go a long way to keeping players interested in a property for extended periods of time. Fan artists still draw racy fan art of Commander Shepard and Garrus, and Archive of Our Own's "Female Shepard / Garrus" category contains hundreds of works that are still updated constantly. A wild and dangerous world like Anthem feels like a hotbed for stories about fighters bonding deeply over shared peril. BioWare would nail it (pardon).
I'm seemingly not the only person worried about what kind of story BioWare intends to tell with Anthem's loose structure, as the studio confirmed it's still working on Dragon Age 4 (maybe to ease the minds of kvetching fans). Even Mass Effect might make a return despite Andromeda's poor performance. Here's hoping BioWare's best storytelling efforts get enough people interested in Anthem when it comes out on February 22. If it doesn't perform to EA's expectations, we might never get to see BioWare return to its comfort zone as a developer of narrative-heavy single-player games.
No point in being doom-and-gloom unless the worst happens, though. Lift your beautiful chin and visit our guide to everything you need to know about Anthem.