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Dessert

March 4, 2019 by Tim

I’ve been giving loot lot of thought about this over the past week (probably a stupid amount of thought, actually), but I think it’s because I really wanted to like Anthem. On a complete level, not just in the “Well flying around in the suits is cool, but…” kind of way.

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Games require a certain equilibrium between their moving parts, I think. And what that equilibrium is, what the right balance is, will be different for each game, or each genre. But when that balance is skewed somehow, we as gamers feel it. It sticks out to us.

And Anthem doesn’t feel like it has balance. It’s clearly designed to be a loot shooter in the vein of Destiny or The Division, in that once you get through the short single-player stuff, the long-term gameplay is a cycle of “get gear to grind content to get better gear to grind harder stuff to get even better gear” etc. But the grind and the loot are out of harmony right now.

Setting aside that I still maintain that’s fun to be in your Javelin, moving around and shooting things… the things I’m shooting at aren’t very interesting. There is a very limited number of enemies, they all act very samey (a Dominion Storm and an Outlaw Storm are interchangeable as far as I could discern), and aside from bosses, you’ve seen everything the game has to offer, re: enemies, by level ten.

They don’t do anything particularly interesting or surprising, they don’t take cover, they don’t try to flank you, they just stand there (or walk towards you) and shoot. Then add in the fact that on higher difficulties, they don’t change their behavior, they simply have way more health, and way more damage. That’s not making the encounter more challenging, it’s just turning it into more of a slog.

Now in and of itself, the grind wouldn’t be the end of the world… if it was offset by lots of exciting loot to collect. After all, the loot is typically the goal, in a game like this (or Diablo, or Destiny, etc). That tiny little endorphin tick you feel when a glowy orb pops out of a bad guy and you have that little thrill of “ooh, what’s that?”.

But Anthem is so stingy with their loot right now that it makes the lack of content, and the grindiness of that content, stand out even more. Sometimes you play a game like this for a couple of hours, and you get no gear upgrades. That happens, its part of the gamble. But if that’s the case, it’s much more fun to have been showered with loot in that time, than it is to get a single piece and find its rolls suck. The net amount of upgrades can stay the same, but simply receiving more loot to sort through creates this constant feeling of accomplishment and excitement that “maybe this next piece will be legendary!”.

Conversely, if Anthem had more to do at the end of the game, more activities or more interesting challenges, it might be easier to overlook some of the less-than-exciting gear. I was originally thrilled that Anthem had chosen not to implement any sort of PVP, since it would make balancing the game so much more straightforward. But now I wonder if that was a mistake.

Destiny and The Division both launched with some loot issues of their own, but they at least had a bunch of other content, like PVP, the Dark Zone, etc that could keep their players occupied while the developers worked on fixing the other parts. Anthem doesn’t have that. The endgame basically amounts to repeating the same missions over and over, and as I’ve mentioned, that doesn’t currently feel particularly rewarding. So you basically have no choice but to focus on the problems.

Now Bioware has been working on improvements; they took some steps to prevent gear from rolling inscriptions that didn’t even relate to the gear itself (+pistol damage on an assault rifle, for example.) And supposedly they’re going to remove white and green gear from the loot table at level 30 (I haven’t seen this yet… it was not in last time I played). Those are steps in the right direction.

However I feel like that’s only part of the problem. It will make what does drop have a higher chance of being useful… but still doesn’t fulfill that desire to constantly be collecting treasure, which the game desperately needs to do if they want players to stick around for any of the “three month roadmap” they’re promising.

While I was trying to parse my thoughts about the current state of Anthem and where it would need to go in order to get me excited to play, the Division 2 beta dropped this weekend and threw everything into stark contrast.

I have a couple of problems with The Division 2 as well (Negative stats on weapon mods? Really?), but there are a lot of things it gets right. Enemies were smart, varied and unpredictable. Every fight was something new, and moreover, there was a huge difference between normal and the endgame mission we could preview. Enemies became way more aggressive, used every opportunity to surround us, get behind us, etc. It required more communication, and challenged us to come up with new tactics.

And through it all, I was picking up tons of gear. I was walking away from every encounter with some loot. It might have been junk, or sidegrades, and sure, I didn’t get to zip around in my awesome Iron Man suit, but it still felt like I was being rewarded for conquering the mission, for overcoming my enemies.

That’s what Anthem is lacking right now. I’ve been impressed by how quickly Bioware seems to be responding to feedback, saying “Yeah, we’re listening.” But they’re also only human, they have a long road ahead of them and video games are complex beasts. I expect it will take months of tweaks to get Anthem where it needs to be, and by then… it might be too late for most gamers.

It’ll definitely be too late for me. I’m not going to grind away on a dull endgame today, just because they promise it’ll get fun ninety days from now.

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