BioWare’s new online multiplayer Anthem has stumbled out of the starting block, with decidedly mixed reviews. So is this it for BioWare?
“… you never quite shake that feeling of disappointment – of knowing, throughout the good parts of Anthem, that you’ll inevitably come crashing back down.” – Gamespot
“Anthem’s campaign is a collision of competing ideas … It’s frustrating seeing the game’s various designs mash against each other, like a soggy jigsaw puzzle where the pieces no longer quite fit.” – Polygon
“BioWare will need to build quickly on top of its shimmering jet-fueled foundation to hold people’s interest, but folks looking for a new neighborhood to move into might want to give Anthem a try – either now or after fixes and updates.” – Destructoid
These are not the reviews that any studio wants to see gracing their new IP.
Especially not the IP that long-time studio fans have been dreading as a departure from the things that made them fans in the first place – the immersive, interactive storylines, the roleplaying, and the chance to romance creatures from other species. Maybe a little bit of editorializing on that last one from me.
But let’s go back a bit, around about seven years.
It’s March 6, 2012. People are excited for the release of Mass Effect 3, the final title in BioWare’s flagship trilogy. The five year journey that people have been on with their carefully cultivated and roleplayed Commander Shepard is going to conclude in a way that is tremendously satisfying and doesn’t make anybody mad.
Not so! Almost immediately after the game’s release, a certain section of the internet was on cyberfire. For a series that had valued the importance of the choices you made and the way you could influence the world, the decision to take away that importance and influence in its final 15 minutes was, to many vocal gamers, nothing short of a betrayal.
Your choices were limited to three blunt instruments – control, destroy, synthesize – and some hand-drawn post-credits art. The dozens, maybe hundreds of hours, that gamers had spent on the series were all for naught.
In just one day, a 10 year legacy was permanently tainted. Mass Effect 3‘s ending was the worst in gaming history, to dust off some beautiful hyperbole. BioWare had ruined the entire series. BioWare was, in a term that wasn’t used back then, cancelled.
It took some backpedalling and the hasty release of an ‘extended cut’ to soothe the anger of those who could be soothed. You know, those famously reasonable people, gamers. It changed a little, but not much. In the eyes of many, BioWare was done.
Now let’s skip ahead a little. Dragon Age: Inquisition righted the ship a little, with a slew of Game of the Year awards and fairly unanimous rave reviews, The Old Republic was a solid MMO hit, and then Mass Effect: Andromeda punctured a whole in the vessel that sunk that franchise once and for all.
Which is all to say that BioWare needed a hit – and even more so, they needed to make their fans happy. They needed something to get everybody back onboard.
Now, I’m not a gaming studio, because I’m a human being. Nor do I work at a gaming studio, because my technological skills are limited to the browser I am using to make this post. So, take my opinions with as much salt as you need for your daily intake.
But: If you want to get people, and especially your fans, back onboard, maybe the way to go is not to ditch what made you popular – your interactive storytelling, the ability to roleplay, the ability to romance pixels – but to lean hard into it and go full ham on it.
This might not have been what BioWare were aiming to do. For all their popularity amongst fans, the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series are not exactly the kind of games that your general Fortniter might be interested in playing. They’re not particularly easy to access, although I’d say that Mass Effect 3 is an RPG-shooter with unparalleled reactivity, and you can’t jump in and out of them easily. If you’re in for a penny, you’re in for a 50 hour sprawling narrative.
What they – and their overlord EA Games – wanted was a hit. In the age of console warfare, which seems to have faded into the background, Anthem would’ve been positioned as a console killer. Now, I’d assume that EA just wants to sell a hundred dollar game that is a viable alternative to Fortnite, PUBG, Apex Legends and frankly, Netflix.
Which is not to say that Anthem doesn’t have any of what made BioWare good. By all accounts, the world-building is incredibly thought-through and deep. That’s one thing BioWare does well, and does at a higher, more immersive level than anybody else. A lovely world doesn’t mean jack if it’s not populated with anything that anybody wants to spend time with, though.
We need to be honest about this industry here. Games on the scale of Anthem live and die on a day-one response, and Anthem has had skeptical buzz since the moment it was announced, to its quietly disappointing beta, and right through to the shrug that has greeted its release. We can’t call it a flop without the sales data to prove it, but we can’t call it an unqualified success, and that’s what BioWare needed.
It can recover. It can be patched. It can get up to the level of a good game, at some point. But this, straight up, wasn’t what BioWare wanted. They wanted a hit.
Anthem, a game that has been out in general release for less than a day, is already not that.
That’s a damning indictment of the gaming industry – and the audience. We can rave about the recent rise of cancel culture all we like, but gamers have been cancelling since the 8-bit era. Gamers are sensitive, and in BioWare’s attempt to appeal to the mainstream, an attempt which I’m sure comes from commercial necessity rather than anything else, they’ve turned their backs on what made people love them in the first place.
For many, this will be seen as karma. Revenge for the failure of Mass Effect 3, just desserts for whatever happened to Andromeda, and a comeuppance for daring to do what is necessary to survive in an industry where success seems entirely random.
But for me? Hey, I hope the next Dragon Age is good.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.