Preview: Anthem offers spectacle, but will it deliver story?

It’s been a year since Anthem was announced. A year of speculation, of analyzing the ambiguous trailer frame by frame, of wondering if BioWare and EA could deliver on something so ambitious.

At EA Play 2018, we finally got some answers. The curtain was pulled back ever so slightly, and we were allowed a peek into this enigmatic world.

There was no playable demo at the event after EA's press conference, which is a bit troubling for a game that’s set to come out February of next year. Though we weren’t able to play Anthem ourselves, watching the developers explore their new title answered many of our questions, while raising even more.

A beautiful, dynamic world

Anthem is shaping up to be a beautiful game, which is hardly surprising. The world we saw was teeming with the attention to detail you’d expect from a new IP backed by EA’s unlimited cash. Verdant foliage creeping over massive stone caverns, immaculately detailed mech suits, cutting edge lighting, and level design unlike anything we’ve seen before came together in a truly impressive showcase.

We watched four developers explore a massive underground network of caverns, culminating in a massive boss battle with an enormous arachnid. It was an all around impressive demonstration of the world, not just aesthetically, but in how Anthem is approaching player interaction with that world.

One of the most intriguing sections of the demo was when the four players emerged into a huge valley, dominated by a giant creature that was so powerful the players didn’t bother to attack, and instead did a swan dive into the water below. The seamless transition between flight and underwater exploration was very impressive, and nicely demonstrated level design that’s much more complex that it initially appeared.

This was a carefully crafted media experience, and no doubt it was curated to demonstrate the best of what Anthem has to offer, but if the other missions are as environmentally diverse as this one, Anthem will be breaking ground when it comes to level design.

Narrative questions

Knights of the Old Republic. Jade Empire. Dragon Age. Mass Effect. BioWare’s sophisticated story telling pedigree is virtually unmatched, and it will be interesting to see how Anthem lives up to that legacy.

There wasn’t a great deal of story explored in the demo. A pre-mission cutscene dropped us into interaction with some potentially interesting characters, but beyond that, it was mostly limited to high level explanations about gods and lore that barely teased at world building. That lack of emphasis on story was surprising. Given this is a BioWare title, world-building had better be a priority, or long time fans are going to have trouble accepting Anthem.

The developers brought out their creative elite to address the challenge of integrating compelling narrative into a multiplayer gameplay structure. MMOs and large multiplayer titles have struggled with this since the beginning; telling an interesting and cohesive story when you’re one of thousands experiencing that story is always a struggle. BioWare is betting that they have an answer.

When you’re exploring the hostile world of Anthem, multiplayer support is encouraged. You’ll want help when at war with the hostile alien population, but when you’re trying to enjoy the story, all those other “real” people might get in the way.

BioWare’s solution? When exploring the hub, it’s all you. There are no other players to interfere while you’re upgrading your Javelin (mech suit), or interacting with Anthem’s characters. This separation of multiplayer and single player could potentially provide the wall necessary to tell a good story, and give Bioware the option to develop characters and narrative in a single player space.

It’s a creative solution to a very old problem. It will be fascinating to see if, and how, Anthem is able to pull off that multiplayer/single player bifurcation, and still manage to deliver the compelling narrative fans have come to expect.

Arcadey gameplay

But it’s not just the emphasis on multiplayer that is new. Anthem’s gameplay is vastly different than anything we’ve seen from Bioware.

The last two Mass Effect titles were almost shooters, but Anthem dials up that emphasis on action to 11. When dropping into the world of Anthem, you’ll have four different Javelins, with four different class specific skills to choose from. You’ll fly across meticulously designed alien landscapes, and kill just about everything you encounter.

There’s an almost arcadey sensibility to the combat. Damage counts appear when you attack, yellow and immersion breaking above your foe’s head. There are power-ups to collect, ultimate attacks, weapon upgrades, and loot to find. It’s reminiscent of 2006’s Lost Planet; an unapologetically old school experience that provided a similar sense of scale.

There’s nothing wrong with this design decision, it looks like a hell of a lot of fun, but it’s a profound departure from the narrative focused, analytical combat that Bioware is known for.

What should we expect?

Analyzing Anthem’s gameplay answered many questions, but raised even more.

There’s a clear emphasis on spectacle as opposed to subtle character development. There’s an obvious focus on multiplayer, on action oriented combat, on loadouts, and loot. There’s no reason to doubt the talented people at Bioware can pull off this ambitious amalgamation of gameplay concepts, but doing it without impacting world building or character development? That will be quite a feat.

If Anthem can tell a compelling story, build an extraordinary world, and manage to provide a satisfying multiplayer experience, than BioWare will have done something no other developer has ever managed.

Here’s hoping they pull it off. We’ll all be watching.

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