As I load into another Anthem Expedition, a solitary – and rather feeble – Christmas jingle echoes in the air. The snow is still falling, covering the entire map in a gentle white blanket, the Fort is still adorned with twinkling fairy lights, and there's a sense of general merriment in your home base. It's February, and yet, somehow, it's still Christmas in Anthem.
The release of Anthem was meant to be a celebration. A huge shared-world shooter a la Destiny 2, but from BioWare, the creator of some of the best video game stories out there to date. But unlike its name might suggest, the 12 months since Anthem launched have been less a rousing and uplifting chorus, but rather more of a deafening chant of rage and disappointment. Failed events, empty promises, and continually delayed excitement – very rarely gratification – have circled Anthem since it launched. Christmas is in fact still going on in Anthem because its Icetide event got extended through until "February", and it doesn't show any sign of stopping. Not the best sign of things to come.
It's especially telling that I'm standing in a stagnant winter wonderland at a time where you'd expect the game to be calling attention to its first birthday. But my return to Anthem feels about as welcome as a half-deflated balloon at a kid's party.
Emptiness and bugs
It doesn't help that returning to Anthem after a long break manages to cultivate some kind of traumatic flashbacks in me. The title screen music and the long loading screens act like personal triggers for the frantic review period (exacerbated by the most complicated release date schedule possibly in video game history), and the months afterwards where I desperately tried to find the real Anthem, the real BioWare title that I hoped was secretly hidden away inside of the game's limited, and regularly broken, shell.
Not much is better on that front either. On my first foray back into Bastion, the game crashed a terrifying six times before I actually got Fort Tarsis to load, and that was only after 'repairing' the game in Origin. Twice. One mission I had to give up on because it failed to find my pilot data, spawning me into the world with a generic Javelin and base weapons before booting me back to the title screen. Back through the loading screens I go, which are somehow made even longer by the sheer time it takes to 'matchmake' me with precisely zero other freelancers.
Unless I descend into the game's open-world exploration mode known as Freeplay, Bastion is empty. And even then, the Launch Bay and the open world was populated with no more than a handful of other players. Over the course of two weeks, I logged on at different times of day, varying days, weekdays vs weekends, but to no avail. Anthem feels like a wasteland.
It also feels like literally no time has passed since I last dove in. On the one hand, it feels incredibly familiar, and in some ways, like an old friend. Engaging the multitude of enemy types in combat still feels fantastic, and I still believe Anthem offers some of the best gunplay around, particularly when you mix in the different abilities and combos of the four Javelin types. There's no denying that flying around in your Javelin is still a rare joy, even if you are still soaring over snowy lands rather than a world pulled into some new cataclysmic event. There's sheer pleasure in the sense of wind in your metal. The blast as your jets kick in. Even just the pulse through the controller as you walk across the earth makes you feel invincible.
But the only indication that any time has passed at all, is speaking to one of the quest givers, Sentinel Brin. "Brin! You've gotten even more plants!" jokes my Freelancer, chuckling at Brin's small corner of Fort Tarsis that is now considerably more green. A happy coincidence, of course, that this happens to be one of the first quests I pick up as I head back into the Fort, but it just resonated with me as one of the only instances that made me feel like it had been a while since my last flight.
Filling the void
That's not to say that nothing has happened in Anthem in the past dozen months, of course. BioWare hasn't entirely sat on its laurels – although the fruits of its labour are much less visible now, despite the Christmas decorations. For example, the long-promised and much-anticipated Cataclysm event initially started appearing in July, bringing with it the promise of much needed fresh content, but it turned out the event and some of the updates were dropped in too early by mistake. It wasn't until August / September that the Cataclysm actually arrived. The event was then withdrawn, only be to be reinstated a few weeks later, after fans started complaining there wasn't anything to actually do in Anthem with it gone.
By that point though, fans were already fed up of raising eyebrows at BioWare's decisions. The studio announced in September that it was ditching its seasonal roadmap, which would have put it more on par with its rival Destiny. To add insult to those who jumped on Anthem initially, the game even got added to the monthly game subscription service EA Access, negating the full-price purchase of Day 1 adopters just over six months before – making the empty lobbies and matchmaking even more surprising. But arguably, even if the Cataclysm event had landed flawlessly, Anthem still wouldn't have enough to compete with its peers. As good as elements of its core gameplay is, it is missing the hook that keeps players coming back for more – the things that make us keen to keep grinding.
Can BioWare turn this ship around? Nowadays, Games like Anthem can't afford to fail, so developers are learning the art of the comeback.
Anthem is a husk of unfulfilled potential. Anything that was bringing players back has clearly long gone, and even the Icetide time trials and other bonus events only serve to distract for a little while. It doesn't detract from the fact that most missions still take on a very similar structure of moving between waypoints, and then either defeating waves of enemies, gathering a number of glowing orbs to return to a point, or gathering cumbersome artefacts that are so heavy you can't even fly while moving them, and also returning them back to another waypoint.
BioWare has emerged from the darkness in recent days to state that it plans to totally overhaul Anthem, which felt only partly in response to this tweet that blew up just a few days before. "Over the coming months we will be focusing on a longer-term redesign of the experience, specifically working to reinvent the core gameplay loop with clear goals, motivating challenges and progression with meaningful rewards – while preserving the fun of flying and fighting in a vast science-fantasy setting," explains BioWare in a blog post. "And to do that properly we’ll be doing something we’d like to have done more of the first time around – giving a focused team the time to test and iterate, focusing on gameplay first."
"Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we miss."
The world isn't going to end just because a studio misses the mark. But if BioWare doesn't pass this anniversary with a clear idea of how to move forward – communicating that message clearly to a waning playerbase – then the world of Anthem could. There's a lot of work to be done to salvage Anthem, but perhaps what's most important is that there is something worth salvaging here. As encouraging as it is to hear that BioWare hasn't given up, it's how the studio moves on from the wreckage of this first anniversary that will ultimately decide if it has a second.