It would be easy to believe that Anthem was one of the worst games ever created if people listened to the critics, and sadly they are. Anthem is being trashed across all corners of the internet – except from within its own community where fans are fiercely defending it.
There is legitimate criticism of a game and then there is trashing. Trashing constitutes shoddy reviews, overly toxic reporting and pushing fake news – something that even the ‘best’ games reviewers have been guilty of doing when it comes to Anthem.
The problem is also a question of trust and knowing which critics to believe is becoming harder to do. It’s easy to want to defend reviewers and wince at criticisms of their work. Film critics regularly get attacked by people who are annoyed that The Last Jedi and Black Panther were loved for their diversity. This means that people who seem to hold a grudge against critics are usually the type of fans who should be avoided. Yet, the people writing reviews for games often have more in common with those people who call out film critics for not thinking Venom was that good or for not ‘seeing through the hype of Black Panther’. Games reviewers are less easy to trust in because gaming has become so toxic, but also because the games industry as a whole operates in an entirely different way to any other sector of media entertainment. The result is that Anthem is being largely condemned without any objectivity. How has it gone so wrong?
Games journalists often aren’t trained.
One of the most glaring issues in the reviews of Anthem is that they have refused to engage in critical content. From spouting lies such as the idea that Mass Effect died for the game, to claiming story content was lacking (even after admitting to skipping said content), to false comparisons to Mass Effect Andromeda’s sales; it’s clear that games journalism is becoming a hub of fake news.
Just to back this up, let’s break down those three big criticisms of Anthem. Mass Effect has not died at all, despite how popular that line is among critics. BioWare have repeatedly confirmed there will be more Mass Effect content which will come after Dragon Age (a game they are already working on). The next criticism was that Anthem lacked story content. This is entirely false. There is a huge amount of story content and more to come. Anthem has the same basic structure of Mass Effect 3: go to the port (or fort), talk to people, help them out, get missions, go out on missions and repeat. Every time a player goes to Fort Tarsis there are stories to be told and heard. It’s only lacking if journalists skip it, which they did to be able to get their articles out as quickly as possible. Then, there is the comparison to Mass Effect Andromeda’s sales*. In that piece, the journalist even admits that he doesn’t have all the data so can’t really compare the situation (even though that doesn’t stop the headline from framing Anthem as a failure or the author from drawing conclusions that it doesn’t look good for Anthem). Sales comparisons between entirely different titles are always flawed because they attract different audiences. The comparison also was only about physical sales, when BioWare has pushed digital downloads of Anthem. It was actually difficult for me to pre-order a physical copy of Anthem because digital sales were pushed so much. They can’t possibly be compared with such different marketing strategies and demographics.
Yet, this has not stopped poor and baseless journalism and it is dominating the reviews of Anthem. How can an industry get it so wrong? We need to look at the reviewers.
Games journalism cannot come close to being described as diverse, which means a lot of the same privileged voices repeat themselves. Additionally, very few reviewers are actually trained to be critical. It’s not just a case of playing something for a couple of hours and seeing if a game is fun. Critical engagement demands dozens of hours are put into a game, and that reviewers know how to appropriately and accurately critique content. But they don’t. A lot of games journalists are failed games creators or are games fans who got into blogging. This means they don’t have the necessary expertise to be able to critically think about games, let alone write about them for audiences. This is why Detroit Become Human was given (fairly) warm reviews, but then as it launched, marginalised people with lived experience ripped the game to shreds for being exploitative and offensive. Any reviewer should have been able to have seen that coming a mile off but they didn’t. They didn’t know what to look for.
Not even all journalists are trained at writing reviews as it is an entirely different skill set to going out and getting interviews and writing news or features. Those best trained to critically engage are usually those who have done training/qualifications where they’ve had to (at least in part) analyse stories, whether that has been in the form of books or films. People trained in critical engagement know what they are looking for. We need expert reviewers to be able to truly comment on games and give developers credit where its due and criticism where its warranted. Neither is happening at the moment.
A rush for clickbait.
The vast majority of the Anthem reviews were released before the day-one patch. Anthem launched several demo weekends and EA early access where people got up to ten hours of play before the actual launch. In the rush to beat competition and maximise clickbait, reviewers tripped over themselves to criticise Anthem but most of the issues they raised were solved with the one-day patch. Yet, go on an Anthem review and the criticisms will still be there and people will be put off buying the game because of poor journalism.
Ten hours of early access to a game isn’t enough to be able to write a thorough review. At some point, something gets sacrificed, whether that is the gameplay experience or the story experience and that is why so few reviewers have even commented on the story. Fans might believe there is no story simply because many reviewers didn’t even mention it.
A service game cannot be immediately reviewed because there will always be server problems – not a development fault, but a fault of the internet itself. Developers need time to adapt, which is why BioWare gave themselves extra opportunities to evaluate problems and bring in a good day-one patch.
Reviewers essentially criticised a first draft after the revisions had already been made. It’s inaccurate, unfair and just not balanced.
A two year hate campaign.
Anthem has also been the subject of an unfair hate campaign that’s largely came out of YouTube and has been going on for the past two years. The developers compared Anthem to Destiny months ago, so that people could get an understanding of who the game might suit. Destiny fans though took this as an insult and saw Anthem as direct competition to their base. The games are very different, in truth. They just both have guns and are mildly scifi. But that different stop a fan war from starting.
Before then, people were already hating on Anthem. Mass Effect fans believed (wrongly) that Anthem had stopped development of an Andromeda DLC. The uncomfortable truth for Mass Effect fans though is that they were the ones who blew any chance of immediate Andromeda content by their own actions. The backlash to Andromeda was off the charts. People were getting death threats over facial animations. The fans screamed about how much they hated Andromeda (and again, reviewers weren’t capable or equipped to fight an overly negative fandom narrative) and that meant there was no incentive for BioWare to carry on with a game everyone said they wanted to see the back of. It was better for everyone just to move on, and Anthem had been long planned and already given attention. There was never going to be a DLC after the fan reaction and there was never going to be a switch back to Shepard just because the fans trolled the developers.
Before it even launched, Anthem was the victim of the very worst parts of toxic fandom. The hate BioWare gets is overlooked. BioWare is known as ‘the nice developer’. It doesn’t have the same scandals as other companies and its content is usually diverse and committed to exploring themes of social justice so it’s just not a natural home for the really awful parts of the gaming community – aka the Nazis. Because of this, the hate it gets doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. Nazis aren’t (often) targeting BioWare or complaining about an “SJW agenda”. But BioWare is the target of entitlement, hate and trolling, and reviewers and games journalists have got to start factoring that into their work and their criticisms.
Unbalanced criticism of EA.
The games industry is a mess and we all know it. Workers have few rights and are often exploited. Customers are bled dry and the games themselves are often terrible in story content especially when it comes to representation. EA has become the figurehead for criticism. It’s the biggest fish in a really polluted pond. EA has a pretty terrible reputation – which is why it’s so galling to have to point out that it is being treated unfairly.
BioWare has roundly been criticised for the fact EA is its publisher, and because EA’s reputation is so bad conspiracy theories about Anthem have flourished. EA was blamed for killing Mass Effect (not true), there were whipped up fears about microtransactions (even though reviewers have at least been very fair about the pricing system) and people have demanded a boycott to Anthem because it is an EA product (even though that conveniently gets ignored when it comes to titles such as The Sims or FIFA).
EA is not any different from any big brand. Sony refuses to tackle the crossplay crossroads because it wants to concentrate its power. It suits Sony for gamers from different platforms not to be able to play together. It also hasn’t delivered backward compatibility because it can get more money simply by selling remasters. Rockstar was embroiled in a huge controversy over worker exploitation when it bragged that its workers were at their stations around the clock in the run up to Red Dead Redemption 2. Ubisoft gave Assassin’s Creed Odyssey a price tag of over £60 at launch and deliberately made even the easiest levels more difficult than they should be so that players would then have to pay for XP to advance their story. Every company – console creator, developer, publisher – is operating in the same pernicious way because the games industry allows it. EA is no different. No better, no worse. It’s just bigger. To call out only EA misses the fundamental problem which is the system. Get rid of EA and it won’t change how badly the other companies operate. BioWare doesn’t deserve the ricochet of hate from fans angry at EA.
Anthem is a great title which has gone further than any almost other online game. It is an RPG and choices matter. There’s flying – actual smooth flying. Spider-Man was praised for being pretty boring but its swing mechanism got it compliments alone so why can’t flying be cheered in the same way? It’s got loot, but it is not primarily a shooter looter. It’s a multiplayer story experience and you get that from start to finish. It’s incredible to play in teams but there’s dialogue and chatter throughout. If BioWare knows how to do anything, then it is to deliver great and engaging characters. Having Brin nervously babble over the comm is an utter joy. Sev’s comments about grabbits versus skorpions are hilarious. Back at Fort Tarsis, there are genuine tear-jerking moments, such as when a mother forgets that her child has died and mistakenly believes the Freelancer is her child, and the Freelancer must decide whether to go along with it or tell the truth.
But there are bugs. Anyone who plays a BioWare game knows there are bugs, and we love it, anyway. Don’t compare this to Mass Effect if you aren’t willing to address the many bugs in that series. If you are going to critically engage the first rule is to be consistent.
But it’s also structured very well. The beginning feels quite a rush of lore and perhaps the sequencing could have been better in that first hour, but it improves throughout with its composition and the end feels balanced. We have finished one arc, but we will get far more. It isn’t an epic trilogy story because it doesn’t have that structure. It’s a world we’re just getting started with and Anthem doesn’t shy away from that. Is it half-finished? Yes. But that’s not a criticism – it’s the whole point of the project. It’s certainly not a flaw when BioWare have given such engaging content and are promising just as much work after launch as to what went into the game before.
In an industry where hundreds of games can be released a year, Anthem is one of the best titles of recent years and certainly should be shown to reflect well on BioWare. The fact that it isn’t says a lot about the sorry state of games journalism and reviewing.
*I’m not linking fake news or biased articles. It’s easily searchable on Google.