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Anthem: The Desperate Struggle for Identity and Purpose

Before BioWare’s Anthem released and suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous bugginess, I talked about the soul of looter games. Each title mentioned had its own memorable gameplay loop in that regard and how they best achieved that while offering a “complete” experience is what made them stand out, even today. Of course, I also brought up how Anthem shouldn’t just be a means to keep players hooked, “chasing a dragon that never existed.” The only thing that’s really surprising all these weeks later is how much actually applies to the game in its current form.

A default, Common assault rifle which is better than end-game loot. An end-game loot system based on Inscriptions that didn’t even fully fit with a player’s weaponry, forget all the wasteful perks that are absolutely pointless. A system that gave players Common and Uncommon items for completing the toughest activities on the highest difficulties. It’s bad enough that Anthem suffered from these flaws, which are pretty much patched now (though the drop rate for Masterworks and Legendaries at GM difficulties continues to be pitiful).

“What defines “identity” in a video game? For any game, I believe it defines one’s purpose within that infrastructure. Why are you here? Why aren’t you somewhere else?”

It also doesn’t help that a number of bugs and problems – like those affecting one’s completion of the Tyrant Mine and The Temple of Scar or quickplay being absolutely busted – still persist. At the end of the day, BioWare can fix any number of these bugs or reduce their impact enough in the short-term to offer a more palatable experience. See decreased loading times.

However, after seeing and playing enough of Anthem, another major problem has come to light. It’s not so much gameplay-related as it has to do with story-telling, atmosphere and themes. As it stands, Anthem is a game craving an identity. It’s so desperately wanting in terms of an identity that players would want to connect to in the long-term.

What defines “identity” in a video game? For any game, I believe it defines one’s purpose within that infrastructure. Why are you here? Why aren’t you somewhere else? Why are you completing these objectives instead of going off and doing something else? What propels you to keep doing the same thing, over and over again, hoping for a different result? That last question could be answered with an addictive and satisfying gameplay loop.

After all, you’re not just grinding out Warframe‘s Nightwave series because you want those snazzy Arcanes, Orokin Catalysts and Weapon Slots (though they are appealing). You’re not just fighting Eidolons, hoping for a decent Arcane to drop so it can be sold for mad Platinum, or grinding out Relics endlessly in the hope of Prime Parts or, at the very least, Prime Trash that will fetch Ducats. The truth of the matter is that because of Warframe‘s satisfying gameplay loop, which also offers plenty of variety in how you enjoy the game, you’d be grinding away for something in your spare time. The grind is almost in perfect unison with the gameplay in that respect.

““Purpose” extends beyond that though. When you started playing Borderlands 2, it was probably from the perspective of someone who enjoyed the first game. You loved that looting cycle and wanted more of it.”

That same train of thought could be applied to any number of looter games. You’re playing Borderlands 2 to get some sweet guns and one-tap enemies into blood mists. You’re playing Destiny 2 to get some new guns, awesome rolls and shiny armour. You’re playing Path of Exile because you mostly want to craft powerful new items, try out new skills, unlock new Uniques and so on. Playing new “content” and unlocking new rewards is a big motivator in games like these. Their satisfying gameplay loops help you to keep playing, long after you’d probably have quit.

“Purpose” extends beyond that though. When you started playing Borderlands 2, it was probably from the perspective of someone who enjoyed the first game. You loved that looting cycle and wanted more of it. However, the story pulled you in, presenting a hero that was ultimately the worst kind of villain. You were rebelling against him and went on an epic journey to unravel more about the mysteries of the Vaults, Pandora, the Sirens and the Guardians. All said and done, at the end of the day, you were a treasure seeker, a mercenary and a killer all wrapped up into one, driven by a single purpose – Vault hunting.

Don’t get me wrong – loot is still a core part of the experience. Unlike many modern games, Borderlands 2 knew how to manage that cycle. Incremental upgrades went hand in hand with unique styles, ranging from fast-firing and large magazine sizes to different elements and skill gains. To this day, there haven’t been a lot of games that can achieve that balance of easy build creation versus hardcore min-maxing while still offering a fun gameplay loop and varying play-styles. Yes, that’s even keeping in mind that at the very top of OP8 difficulty, you had to have certain guns, items and classes to succeed.

“At one point, the Freelancers were a proud faction until something went wrong at the Heart of Rage. And by something “going wrong”, we mean the Freelancers entering a massive battle and barely escaping with their lives. So why do the people of Fort Tarsis hate them?”

However, this isn’t just about defining a game’s loop or why you’re spending so much time shooting the same enemies over and over again. It’s about that long-term fulfillment and identity. Let’s take another example with Path of Exile. The sheer complexity of the game, how it handles currency and crafting, and its intricately woven end-game are about more than just a steady curve of growing power. When you first start the game, you’re very much like the character that’s washed up on the shores of Wraeclast. Nothing. Only capable of slicing, spell-casting and smashing through the weakest of enemies. The world feels simple, perhaps a little too simple…until you start listening to what the NPCs are saying and meeting the terrible entities that have influenced the region. That downward spiral through build development pretty much matches your own struggles to say alive. Tumbling ever further down the rabbit hole, you won’t know the right choices or what to do spec towards next. You can only hope that it – and the accompanying journey – leads to something fulfilling.

As an Exile though, you have nothing to lose. Even your sanity is offered up to the foulest of beasts and beings to become stronger. Carving your place out in this world of immortal syndicates, monster-infested mines, collapsing memory fractures, ancient ruins and beast-hunting maniacs is as much a part of the story as your own personal narrative. Your identity as an Exile is broad but it’s defined. Your purpose is manifold but hinges on the power of your will.

By comparison, exactly what are you in Anthem? You’re a Freelancer, someone who can pilot a Javelin and isn’t a Sentinel. At one point, the Freelancers were a proud faction until something went wrong at the Heart of Rage. And by something “going wrong”, we mean the Freelancers entering a massive battle and barely escaping with their lives. So why do the people of Fort Tarsis hate them? Why are they eager to involve them in anything if they hate them so much? The Freelancers suffered heavy losses and they’re the ones who are blamed, even despite the fact that they helped repel the Dominion (as the opening cutscene exemplified) to protect the fort. Why would the citizenry be so quick to turn on them, especially when there’s no opposing in-game faction that’s politicking for the same?

“What is your purpose in this world? What is this world defined by the Shapers and the Anthem? Is it your job to find out what’s going on? Are you destined for anything? “

As a Freelancer, you take on various odd jobs. Most of it is “go here and do this” but none of it really has any significance. You stopped the Heart of Rage. You defeated the Monitor (but not really). You helped join Mathias’s three personalities back together. You helped Dax (a princess who’s also a Sentinel) recover her aunt’s journal and even rescued a bunch of people who were seemingly trapped in limbo. Except for that last part, there is nothing of any significance or importance that’s been achieved. The Monitor fuses with the Heart of Rage and seemingly has control over life and death, yet you overcome him by shooting his weak point a lot. Not even because you’re dealing mad DPS but because you just kept shooting him for a long enough time and he was too stupid to figure out how to effectively kill you.

This isn’t to say the game doesn’t provide any real ideals as to what constitutes a Freelancer’s identity and purpose. It tells you quite a bit, actually. However, the gameplay doesn’t quite reflect that. Like a delivery boy, you’re taking on these random tasks for people who apparently don’t like you. One’s in-game “identity” should reflect the gameplay they’re involved in. Conversely, what you’re doing should properly reflect who are you in-game. That’s how you “identify” with your avatar in games like these. Anthem‘s gameplay has you going around, collecting things that don’t really matter and probably using whatever equipment can be scrounged in the process.

What is your purpose in this world? What is this world defined by the Shapers and the Anthem? Is it your job to find out what’s going on? Are you destined for anything? You’re not even someone who’s clawing their way up to a powerful status. A venerable suit of Iron Man armour or four is tossed in your direction with nary any reason or sense of accomplishment. It’s a gift rather than something you’ve earned, much less a privilege that someone has bestowed upon you.

This is perhaps my biggest problem with Anthem currently. For all the bugs that can be fixed and drop-rates that can be buffed (or nerfed because BioWare apparently hates when you earn loot), the game’s attempts to reconcile your actions with a greater purpose are very poorly executed.

“Even vanilla Destiny which shipped with a broken and boring story, much of it confined to cards you had to read on a separate website, gave you the Vault of Glass.”

I know that many games, especially looter shooters, can be distilled down to raw gameplay terms. You are basically running from Point A to Point B in Borderlands 2, killing Bandits along the way and retrieving a Shield Core for Sanctuary. But there is a greater purpose – you’re trying to find Corporeal Reiss and rescue him. Upon finding Reiss, you learn the Shield Core has been taken by the Bandits, with the accompanying scenery proving that he put up a fight. As he passes on, asking to be woken up when he’s not on Pandora anymore, you’re tasked with slaughtering many Bandits in addition to retrieving the Core. Reiss may be a throwaway cog in the grand scheme of things but this helped turn the wheel in your journey to become a legendary Vault Hunter.

Even vanilla Destiny which shipped with a broken and boring story, much of it confined to cards you had to read on a separate website, gave you the Vault of Glass. It gave you these extraordinary circumstances where the threats felt significant. The power to unmake creation by the manipulation of time, as the Vex had achieved with the Oracles? The grand plan to integrate the Vex into every single time stream with the power of Atheon, thus necessitating trips to the past and future to gather the one weapon – the Aegis – that could possibly defeat it? Yes, more information was provided by the descriptions on the weapons (especially regarding the Guardians who tried and failed to stop the Vex) than through cutscenes or dialogue. But the Vault of Glass did an excellent job in conveying through its gameplay how big a threat the Vex were. If anything, the lacklustre campaign and side-missions actually helped reinforce the raid’s impact since it was so vastly superior to everything else available at the time.

The same applies to The Last Wish raid in Destiny 2: Forsaken. Something has been manipulating Prince Uldren from behind the scenes and it’s tucked away in The Dreaming City. It’s helping Taken manifest and bringing ruin to the Awoken’s home country. You venture into the inner reaches of the city, climbing ever higher until you reach the Keep of Voices. By then, the threat is revealed to be an Ahamkara named Riven, Taken through the power of Oryx and manipulating events to ultimately be set free. You’re tasked with purifying its heart…which is exactly what Riven (and whatever other force is acting behind the scenes) wanted.

“No matter how much you improve and build upon this in the name of “games as a service”, without a purpose and a compelling identity, you’ll ultimately end up nowhere regardless of how good the game looks or how wonderful the soundtrack is.”

The Dreaming City is now cursed and on a three week long cycle where the same events repeat. Till now in-game, the cycle hasn’t been broken. This constant war of attrition is visualized and showcased, whether it’s through one’s conversations with the Queen Mara Sov, the Ghost’s frustration at trying to fight it and ultimately making no difference, or the actual city being consumed by Taken Blights. In a way, it represents the constant struggle of the Guardian with no clear end in sight. It also helped evolve the player’s purpose within the story, providing a wrinkle to one’s relationship to the Light and whether it was actually as justly clear-cut as previous battles.

By comparison, Anthem does little to actually convey how much of a threat the Heart of Rage or even the Shaper artifacts can be. That too after the Heart of Rage was just there for years without really causing any problems for the people of Fort Tarsis. It’s only when their enemy, the Dominion, tried to harness it that they had cause to worry. And due to how badly the Monitor actually fared in the final battle, it makes you wonder if there was any reason to worry. Who cares about the Shaper Artifacts having the power to affect gravity when you don’t see it with your own eyes?

There are dozens of examples I could provide about games, that too in the looter genre, which succeed in defining their identity and yours within the context of the gameplay. However, it’s incredible that this utter lack of identity and purpose should come from BioWare. The same BioWare that masterfully conveyed the threat that the Reapers – and by extension, Cerberus and the Collectors – could pose in the Mass Effect trilogy. The same BioWare that showcased the effects of the rifts on Thedas and the threat the Corypheus could be in Dragon Age Inquisition (the fetch quests had way more meaning as well. Fight me).

I could see one arguing that Path of Exile and Warframe managed to set out one’s purpose and identity over years of consistent development, that they weren’t always so strongly defined in those departments from the beginning. However, the key difference is that those games had glimmers of that potential from day one. Their “souls” were apparent from the very beginning, regardless of how much work it took to eventually iron out. Can we really say the same for Anthem at this point? No matter how much you improve and build upon this in the name of “games as a service”, without a purpose and a compelling identity, you’ll ultimately end up nowhere regardless of how good the game looks or how wonderful the soundtrack is.

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.

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