Anthem has had a lot of news, stories, and hype/antihype leading up to its release. It finally came out last Friday, but also came out the Friday before that, and there were beta demos for two more weekends before that. Of course, you had to have a VIP preorder to play the first beta weekend, and you had to have some sort of VIP preorder to play it last weekend, and some VIPs could only play for 10 hours total while others could play as much as they want.
On top of that, each version of this game (all in a month’s time frame) was a different build. The beta, of course, was a build from several months before people actually played it. The VIP access build from a week ago was closer to the final version, but was missing a key “day one” patch that was scheduled to be released this past Friday on the “official” day one but ended up being put out earlier in the week after enough VIPs complained about their Anthem experience.
Are you having trouble following all this? You’re not alone. This convoluted process in the lead up to Anthem’s “official” release has left nearly a month-long stream of varying impressions from reviewers, streamers, and regular joes. It’s been hard to keep track of who’s played on what patch and what the actual current condition of the game is. And since there have been a lot of complaints – from loading times to bugged quests to confusion on how to play – knowing the state of Anthem can be it’s own puzzle, especially if you are a person who didn’t pre-order and was waiting for actual, final game version impressions before jumping in.
This is a problem for Anthem, but also a problem for the industry as a whole as Games as a Service becomes more popular.
This is a real screenshot from the Carrot weather app.
I played in the non-VIP beta and got to try out two of the four Javelins in Anthem. (Javelins are the name of the Iron Man-like suit you wear during the main action of the game.) Once I figured out the controls and understood what was going on, the moment-to-moment combat was actually really fun. Especially the Storm Javelin, which plays like the Mage archetype of the four suits.
There were problems, though. Loading times were constant and atrocious – as I was flying from place to place I didn’t feel like I was in an open world, but rather moving from one game zone to another game zone. Sometimes loading would be out of your hands if a teammate got to an objective before you did (and you are always playing in a team of 4). And you always had to return to a plodding, first person perspective home base between each mission to update your gear (which had its own menu with its own loading screen!) and get your next mission.
And beyond that, as I said, I had to teach myself a lot of the functions of the game. The demo’s tutorial was abysmal. Combos, the primary mechanic for combat that you accomplish with your team, weren’t even taught. There was one section of the beta demo that involved solving a puzzle. I still don’t know what the answer is despite playing the mission several times, because my teammates did it for me every time and I couldn’t figure out where they got the answer from.
It was still a beta demo build, though, and some of these things could be fixed by the time the official release happened. Except game journalists were releasing reviews off the VIP build without the “day one” patch. So loading times weren’t any better according to them. But with the day one patch loading times are better. Maybe? By how much I don’t know?
The Javelins look pretty awesome, though, right?!
This sort of constant stream of updates, patches, and additions to the game makes it hard to pinpoint if I’d enjoy Anthem or not. After all, they’re currently asking me to spend $60 on it just to dip my confused foot in the water. Fallout 76, another GaaS attempt, has similar problems due to the constant patches and updates. In that game, one patch reintroduced a problematic bug that was patched out in a previous patch. I have no idea if anything in 76 has improved from its terrible launch, and would likely have to research a patch history like I was doing a term paper just to see what changes have been made.
All this is endemic to any Games as a Service game. Take Fortnite, for example. It’s Battle Pass is pretty straightforward – they are divided into 10 week “seasons” and each week has new objectives, then at the end of each there usually a change to the map to kick off the new season. But on top of that, there are balance patches, new guns, old guns phased out, new items phased in, special limited-time events, etc. As a person who plays Fortnite once every few months at best, keeping up with all the changes is increasingly difficult.
Games as a Service, in general, prey on FOMO: Fear of Missing Out. Overwatch, for example, has limited time skins during events that if you don’t get, you have to wait a year before you even get the chance to get them again! So you better play as much as possible, and if you don’t get it spend some money to make sure you do! You only have a limited time to complete that battle pass and get that cool Fortnite character you really want! Better play that instead of anything else, and you especially don’t want to miss this one-time Really Awesome McCool Event that you’ll never see again except on every single Fortnite streamer’s YouTube!
Anthem was especially egregious with their week of VIP play. All you had to do was pay X extra dollars to gain early access and play with all these other people loving the game! Except it backfired and there was more negative reception than positive. XBox’s VP of Marketing even got into the fray, calling a games journalist “whiny” when they criticized the game for not explaining combos. And when people started responding, he said the game “wasn’t even out yet.” Despite that he’d already bragged on his Twitter account about how much playtime he’d accrued since the previous Friday’s VIP release.
This was EA’s helpful infographic on how to play Anthem. (VIP Demo not included in chart.)
So was Anthem existing in some sort of Schrodinger’s release date? Where it was both released and unreleased until you chose to pre-order it? You can’t have it both ways. After all, these players getting to play a week ahead of everyone else are supposed to be “VIP”s. So they should be treated well since they’ve dropped more money than the average person on the game, right?
Except they weren’t. The “day one” patch was not applied until that week of early access was nearly up. They were playing an admittedly inferior version of the game that Bioware already had the plans and means to fix. It was almost as if…as if the premiere access was a scam to get more money upfront and inflate their sales before proper reviews could come in.
There’s a systemic problem with the industry because big name publishers are looking at games and gamers as wallets instead of people to entertain. They’re looking for that stadium concession money. The “I know you’ve already paid a bunch just to be here, but we’re going to charge you $6 for water because we like money.” And they want gamers to roll their eyes and sigh heavily and still buy that water because “well that’s just what these prices are and I’m thirsty.”
This article started off as an indictment of Anthem’s confusing launch and ended up with me yelling about capitalism. But that’s what happens when you have a very long month of varying degrees of coverage for a tentpole game. Demos, betas, early access, all things used to entice the consumer into dropping money onto a game before it’s been truly vetted. Have it constantly in the media to prey on FOMO: if everyone is talking about Anthem, why aren’t you playing Anthem?
But it even fails at that due to how muddled and confusing all the different versions got. I could read a review from a week ago and its critiques may not apply anymore. And that definitely works against the marketing intent, because if I’m confused about the state of the game, I’m not going to spend time puzzling out what the final verdict actually is. I’m just going to not play it.
And it sucks I have to be harsh on the marketing and lead up to Anthem’s release, because I really, really enjoyed flying around in my Storm Javelin. I would have loved to play a 15-20 hour campaign getting to fly around and shoot stuff with it. As it is, though, I’m avoiding it until a clearer picture is established.