SEATTLE – Anthem seems to have Bioware fans split right down the middle. Some of them are excited to see the veteran RPG developer's take on the ongoing, online story-based shooter, like Destiny 2. Others are worried that a lack of favorite Bioware features, like customizable party members and romances, will make Anthem into something unrecognizable. So far, it seems like Anthem will at least try to split the difference, by offering players a small, customizable slice of the world to call their own.
I attended an Anthem press briefing at PAX West, where two of the game's developers explained how Anthem will confront players with important decisions without locking them out of any potential content. Their philosophy of "Our World | My Story" permeates everything from the action-heavy missions, to quieter moments in your customizable hub, Fort Tarsus.
MORE: Best PS4 Games
For those who haven't kept up with Anthem, the general pitch is this: you play as a Freelancer TKTK LOCATION, who take on assignments for both ideals and profit. As the story progresses, Freelancers take on bizarre beasts, political threats and dangerous relics of an extinct race known as the Shapers.
Missions themselves are cooperative, action-heavy fare, where you'll team up with three other players to do battle with dangerous enemies in huge environments. Since you wear an intricate exosuit, you can fly for short bursts and use heavy weaponry, giving the levels and combat quite a bit of verticality.
Fans already got a good taste of Anthem's missions at E3; this time around, the developers wanted to talk about the story. And usually, if there's one thing Bioware fans can count on, it's a good story.
Still, as you may have surmised, there's a natural friction between a storyline that puts your character front and center, but gameplay that demands you participate as just one member of a team. To address this dichotomy, Bioware will give each player a totally unique Fort Tarsus.
Fort Tarsus is where players will rest and recuperate between missions. In addition to buying and selling equipment, this is also where players will interact with characters they've recruited along the way. Unlike previous Bioware games, these characters won't join your party; some of them pilot your vehicle, the Strider, whereas others will play important roles in the ongoing story of Fort Tarsus.
For example, the developers showed off Matthias: an arcanist whom the player recruits into Fort Tarsus. Welcome him with open arms, and he'll react in a friendly, outgoing manner. Treat him with suspicion and disrespect, and he'll react in kind. On its own, that's perhaps not so exciting. But Matthias will also interact with other denizens of Fort Tarsus, which will determine how your hub develops over time. By the time the campaign is complete, few players will have the same forts.
(While it is possible to enrage a citizen to the point that they leave, the developers assured us that this will not have any impact on available missions or loot. They still want all players to cooperate and have a fair shot at getting the equipment they want.)
The Bioware representatives also took this time to address the question of romances – or lack thereof. Some fans were disappointed when they learned that romancing party members, which had been a standard feature in Bioware games since Baldur's Gate II, wouldn't be an option this time around. For what it's worth, the explanation made sense, at least to me.
Romances, the developers explained, are often the most important and detailed relationship you develop in a game. That means you can have an incredibly deep and nuanced rapport with precisely one character – even though there are usually three or four characters whom you could have chosen instead.
Rather than focus a ton of resources on characters who will only reveal their full depth to players who choose to woo them, Bioware wanted to spread those resources out among more members of Fort Tarsus. In theory, this means that players could get the level of detail usually reserved for romances from a wider variety of characters.
A simpler approach
In practice, we'll have to wait and see how it plays out. Rather than the dialogue wheels of more recent Bioware games, Anthem will have binary choices for every response. Since you'll get a handful of responses per interaction, there will still be a fair number of ways to customize your attitude toward a townsperson, and vice versa. But it's definitely a simpler approach than veteran players are used to.
I asked the developers which existing MMOs they wanted to emulate, and which made mistakes they wanted to avoid. Surprisingly, the answer was the same for both: Final Fantasy XIV. FFXIV, they said, tells an exciting, creative story that puts the player character front and center. However, it also insists that the player character is a special sort of chosen one – which breaks immersion when players realize that every single one of their quest-mates is also a chosen one. This is part of the reason why Bioware wanted to establish a firm wall between running missions and interacting with other characters in the hub.
Another reason why Anthem's role-playing aspects seem so streamlined is because the game is courting an audience that's less familiar with RPGs. The developers explained that players used to action games often experience "choice paralysis" early on in RPGs, where they can influence the story in so many ways, they don't know where to begin. Giving them binary story choices, which don't have any effect on the mission-based gameplay, is one way to ease them into the experience.
Anthem will be out in mid-to-late 2019 for PC, PS4 and Xbox One, but Bioware will make a demo available in February for players who pre-order the game, or belong to EA Access. That should give both newcomers and Bioware vets a better idea of whether this game will hit their sweet spots.