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Anthem Postmortem

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As you might have been able to tell from my blog, and the lack of coverage…  I’ve more or less stopped playing Anthem.  Apologies for using a memey screenshot to lead this discussion off but I somewhat feel like it is fitting for the current state of the game.  Anthem does an awful lot right when it comes to the moment to moment gameplay of what it feels like to pilot a mech suit into combat.  Once they fixed the controls from the early alpha testing…  flying a suit feels amazing and using those same controls to move around the battlefield during combat feels pretty great as well.  Additionally I was a huge fan of the characters that were introduced with Anthem and the story arc that was played out…  even though it largely felt like the opening chapter of a much larger experience that we have yet to see.  I think Bioware had a lot of ambition with this game, but due to all sorts of reasons outlined in the now infamous Jason Schreier “How BioWare’s Anthem Went Wrong” piece on Kotaku…  the game that was released simply did not have enough focus or time to incubate into a finished product.

I legitimately feel bad for the crew after reading that post, but I am also left with the competing interests of being a consumer that bought in hook line and sinker into a broken product.  I think given time and money and resources and sufficient good will from the community…  Anthem is a ship that could right itself.  However on many fronts things are not looking stellar as we move into May some almost 3 months after the early access release began.  As many users I spent a good part of April waiting on a big patch they were supposedly working on that would in theory fix a lot of things.  While 1.1.0 added a new piece of non-story content and provided some quality of life changes… it also failed to deliver most of the things that were on the road map for April.  More damning however it did nothing to fix the core problems that the player base has been chanting since day one…  that there were issues with both the quality of loot drops and the quantity of the highest end drops called Legendaries.

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April was the month that I more or less stopped playing.  Mentally I was thinking to myself…  what was the point of grinding when there was supposedly a patch to fix all patches just around the corner.  At the beginning of that month it sounded as though the patch would be landing at any day…  and as we reached the tail of the month and the eventually release of it on April 23rd as a community the expectations were pretty high.  From what I hear the Stronghold that was added is in fact a really good experience and was not plagued by a number of the bugs that the earlier strongholds had.  I say “from what I hear” because even if Sunken Cell is the best experience in the world, it does nothing to fix the fact that BioWare built a game different from the one they were intending to build and have done nothing to fix the core loot issues.  I just cannot be bothered to log in to play through any more content when I know all that will be waiting on me at the end of the content is a sea of trash purple drops that force me to play a constant game of inventory management just to stay ahead of the tiny 250 item vault limit.

I feel like I need to dig into the statement I just made that BioWare built a game that they never intended to make.  Once again if you follow the Schreier piece it tells a take of a game studio that wasn’t exactly sure what they were making part from it absolutely not being a “Destiny Clone”.  They leaned heavily into the comparison to Diablo 3, but the problem with that is it denotes a very specific style of game-play.  In Diablo 3 post Loot 2.0 update the drops are plentiful with a bad luck timer ticking in the background and making sure that you get a drop every so often that scales with difficulty.  The reason why it is so plentiful is that a good number of the drops end up being randomized to be not that great for whatever build you are going for… but they become workable until you can get something better.  Getting something better is not a case of praying for the drops, but instead a case of applying time because eventually the thing you want will drop.  I know this for a fact given how many seasons I have completed at this point and managed to get all of the drops I needed for a specific build.  There is a high chance that you will see literally every item that can drop for your character during the course of a season.

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The other thing that the Diablo model has going for it is the fact that the game gives you a number of levers that you can pull to help defeat bad luck streaks as well.  They have a machine of sorts called Kunai’s Cube that allows you to pour crafting materials into it to get a Legendary item for a specific slot.  Similarly doing higher tier stuff in the game rewards you with Blood Shards and you can spend these with the merchant Kadala in order to again get a chance at items for a specific slot.  As a result through a combination of playing the games and getting drops and targeting specific gear slots you can pretty effectively get the items that you were actually needing.  It feels as though you are always working towards the goal of getting your full set of gear needed for your specific build, and even when you get gear drops that are less than perfect the game has an enchanting system that allows you to swap a single stat on an item to help fix the problems with any gear.  Again the game is exceedingly generous with its drops and also gives the player systems in order to mitigate any issues that might occur where they aren’t getting the items that they actually need.

Anthem is sorta like a kid who only read the first chapter of a novel and is now trying to pass the test in English Lit.  They got the part where the gear is randomized, but were apparently absent on the days they talked about all of the ways that Diablo 3 tries to help mitigate any times when the random loot machine isn’t working as intended.  Additionally they seem to have missed the part where if you are building a game with loot that swings wildly between “god rolls” and “garbage fire” that you have to make sure that the drops themselves are plentiful so that sharding an item doesn’t feel like you just destroyed what amounted to several hours of your life.  Legendary drops in Anthem are still fairly rare in that you may see one in a nights worth of play or you may not.  In theory they should be guaranteed drops from the end boss of Tier 2 or higher content, but instead they are an exceedingly rare drop from any encounter in the game which means that you realistically need to clear every single trash mob so that you don’t feel like you are missing the opportunity to see a Lime Green diamond on your screen.

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The rarity of Legendary drops feels more akin to Destiny 2 and getting an Exotic Weapon.  The challenge there however is that an Exotic weapon when it drops is the only version of that weapon you will ever need, because they had the foresight to make all Exotic weapons drop with static rolls.  I have a handful of legendary weapons at this point and none of them are what I would consider to be a good roll for the specific type of weapon or damage that is being dealt with them.  You use them because they are significantly higher level than Masterworks, but they don’t necessarily feel great to use or at least good enough to account for the time spent in acquiring them.  It takes Legendaries to grind to get more Legendaries to grind to get more Legendaries…  and at some point the incentive feels bad and not worth the effort you are expending to get it given the interval of drops seems to ranges from 30 minutes to 300 hours.

The other major issue with Anthem is that months into the game we are still encountering massive issues that tell me that the game itself behind the scenes is held together with duct tape and bailing twine.  On May 7th they released a minor patch, large with the purpose of removing the Elysian Cache reward system from the game.  I could go into how dumb of an idea I think this is since they removed content from a game that already feels like it doesn’t have enough content… and didn’t replace it with anything.  However they did state from the beginning that this was a temporary system and in theory was designed to apply enough friction to keep people grinding until they had gathered all of the 160 or so loot possibilities.  The issue however is that when they released the patch they also inadvertently removed loot drops entirely from a handful of encounter types in the process.  This has been a pretty common cadence with Anthem so far is that touching one system seems to often times wreck what would seem to be an unrelated system.

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One of the things that always impresses me is a PC case that has extremely neat looking cable management.  However often times if you pull off the opposite panel on those cases and you see a rats nest of wires in all sorts of odd places in order to achieve what appears to be a polished look on the visible side.  This is what I feel like Anthem is probably like once you peel back the pretty facade…  a game that has gone through so many rapid iterations and has lots and lots of “temp” code still in place to try and hot wire systems so that they work.  I’ve written more than my share of this style of code when we were rushed to meet a deadline and couldn’t be bothered to follow best practices when so much needed to be done in such a short amount of time.  Crunch makes you do really dumb things that will ultimately bite you in the ass in the long run… and I feel like Anthem is a game full of Crunch decisions and compromises in order to ship a product that was not ready for shipping.

The challenge however is once they released that road-map, to some extent they are being judged upon it.  It is hard to stem the hemorrhaging of all of these short term decisions when you are being pushed to make even more of them.  At this point however… I think the race is over and they lost.  It is far too late to be able to create a narrative of “we had a rough start but everything is on solid ground now” as has been the case with so many MMO launches.  The time has come for them to take their time and figure out what kind of game they want Anthem to be…  and then start working towards that FFXIV A Realm Reborn resurrection narrative instead.  Anthem is dead…  long live Anthem?  At this point I could be grinding for Legendaries, but even then I am not sure what the point in doing so would be?  There is no real end game in Anthem as of yet, no raid to be gearing towards and not even an equivalent of the Destiny Nightfall.  The only end game to the grind is more grind and once I realized that…  and the fact that loot would theoretically never get fixed I checked out of the game.

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I am however keeping tabs on it as is the case with this postmortem of sorts.  I want Anthem to have one hell of a comeback story, much like Destiny did with Taken King…  and sadly Destiny 2 did with Forsaken (because they should have learned the damned lessons the first time).  The negative of the life and death of Anthem has been that it seemingly has soured my tastes for looter shooters in general…  since I seem to have also ejected from Division 2 and cannot seem to get back into the groove of Destiny 2 either.  So now I largely wait and hope that BioWare Austin can pick this game out of the dirt and turn it into something we actually want to play.

One thought on “Anthem Postmortem

  1. Really good post, Bel.

    I think my own hopes for the game have waned as we enter month 3 with minimal progress toward a better product. I know there have been some changes for the better (such as allowing use of the loot screen without loads and from whereever), but it just seems to be too little too late.

    I don’t think a complete turn around is entirely out of the cards, but it’s not something I have any active faith in.

    You nailed very well parts of what Anthem’s loot system is missing in the comparison with Diablo 3 and the alternate advancement means included there through the likes of Bloodshards too.

    But I think the loot problems with Anthem run a little further, in that there just isn’t the variety of play-impacting legendary modifiers. Diablo 3 does some really crazy and fun things with its legendaries and sets, things that Anthem can’t currently hold a candle to.

    Improving the rate of getting the Anthem legendaries without addressing the interest, play style changes and all around fun of said items would be a minor bandaid at best.
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