Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
I never liked Destiny. But I respected it.
If that feels like a weird way to start a conversation about the beta for a video game that is not, in fact, Destiny (or even its, I’m assured, much-better sequel), well, blame BioWare, which seems to have pitched its latest product, Anthem, as an intentional effort to see how badly it can twist games journalists before someone snaps and just starts yelling, “It’s a Destiny! They made a Destiny with Iron Man suits!”
Going by the public Anthem beta available for interested parties over the last few weeks, that appears to have been exactly what The House Of Mass Effect, Dragon Age, And Baldur’s Gate has spent its last few years working on: taking the same shooter-loot-loop action that Destiny itself cribbed from Borderlands 2 (which stole it from Diablo, which stole it from etc., dating back to the far, dopamine-rush-inducing reaches of the distant past), giving everybody a profoundly unsatisfying set of flying jets for their mecha suits, and calling it a day.
The why is fairly obvious: Destiny was one of those games that wasn’t just a success but also a genre. I can talk flippantly about its “influences” (and bemoan the ways it makes an art of compulsive, frequently joy-free gaming), but Bungie figured out the right levers to push in peoples’ heads to keep them playing well after they’d get sick of a more traditional single-player game. The designers built a better Skinner box out of social pleasures and loot drops, and now everybody else is looking to surreptitiously copy off of their design.
So why is the Anthem beta so damn bad at it?
I’m not really talking about the shooting here, which is exactly serviceable, and never a mote beyond. Even the flying—which takes what should be one of the purest pleasures of the game and hampers it with a heat gauge that means you never truly get to slip the surly bonds of whatever the hell planet this is and touch the face of whatever random nonsense deity watches over it—manages to be adequate. (At least it’s cool that flying low over water keeps you from overheating for longer. Anything that encourages stunts is good.)
No, Anthem sucks at the parts that BioWare is supposed to be good at: building worlds and telling stories. This is an element that the original Destiny got dragged for, too—asking Peter Dinklage to riff on space wizards, and literally jettisoning most of the game’s text into a separate website—but a) they got better at it, and b), Bungie didn’t come into this with a reputation for dense, layered storytelling. Every character in Anthem speaks in either dense deluges of expositional vomitus or cute one-liners and quips, a nasty tendency that BioWare picked up somewhere back around the companion conversations in the first Dragon Age game, and has never really been able to shake. That’s to say nothing of the game’s main hub location, Fort Tarsus, which is one of the most off-puttingly lifeless gaming spaces in recent memory.
Ignoring all the bits of the beta that just don’t work—you can’t walk five feet in this place without running into a sign that says, “BETA ONLY, SORRY!” hovering over a vendor you might want to chat with or a lore tidbit you’d like to read—Tarsus as a location is hamstrung by BioWare’s decision to make it a single-player-only space. Say what you like about the Tower, or the other hub areas in Destiny and its sequel, but they were never anything less than brimming with life and vitality, only ever seconds away from an impromptu parkour race or dance battle breaking out. Fort Tarsus, by contrast, is single-player only, which means it’s just you and the NPCs, hanging out, being dull together. It’s baffling that a game would predicate so much of its joys on being something you do with friends, then cuts you off from hanging out with them in its primary social-coded location. There’ll be an actual social space in the full game, but it’s not in evidence here.
Even if you can bring yourself to want to talk to Forge Lady or Science Guy, you’re treated to the ultimate de-evolution of the once-fecund BioWare conversation tree: Were multiple text options too much for you? Was even Mass Effect’s ingenious conversation ring too complex? Good news, then: All dialogue choices have now been broken down into two meaningless options that convey the exact same information in slightly different tones, presented as one of two shrugging-shoulder prompts. Have fun in your rich narrative world, kids!
Let’s be honest: It’s hard to tell complex stories in multiplayer games. Players want choices and control over their story, but then those bits have to match up when the multiplayer elements kick back in. (So, you know, no killing off any important characters that someone else might choose to spare.) BioWare itself actually pioneered some interesting dodges around this maxim a few years back with Star Wars: The Old Republic, which used a lot of clever design tricks to tell individualized stories in a shared world. So far, Anthem simply doesn’t. In an era where studios are increasingly turning to multiplayer modes to bolster games’ lifespans, we have to ask ourselves what’s being sold in order to buy these benefits. (Hey, Fallout 76.) With the first impression BioWare has put on offer here, the answer is “Nothing you haven’t seen before, and sometimes shockingly less.”
I didn’t like Destiny. But I respected it. So far, there’s nothing worth respecting here.