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Bioware’s high-flying ‘Anthem’ falls flat – TechCrunch

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Anthem is the first attempt by Bioware (of Mass Effect and Dragon Age fame) to tap into the well of cash supposedly to be found in the “game as platform” trend that has grown over the last few years, with Destiny, Warframe and Fortnite as preeminent exemplars. After a botched demo weekend dampened fan expectations, the final game is here — and while it’s a lot better than the broken mess we saw a few weeks ago, it’s still very hard to recommend.

I delayed my review to evaluate the game’s progress after an enormous day-one patch. While it is always premature to judge a game meant to grow and evolve by how it is immediately after launch, there are serious problems here that anyone thinking of dropping the $60 or more on it should be aware of. Perhaps they’ll all be fixed eventually, but you better believe it’s going to take a while.

I’d estimate this is about half the game it’s clearly intended to be; it seems to me we must soon find out that most of Anthem, supposedly in development for five years or more, was scrapped not long ago and this shell substituted on short notice.

The basic idea of Anthem is that you, a “freelancer” who pilots a mechanized suit called a “javelin,” fly around a big, beautiful world and blast the hell out of anything with a red hostility indicator over its head, which in practice is damn near everything. Once you’re done, you collect your new guns and gadgets and head back to base to improve your javelin, take on new missions and so on.

If it sounds familiar, it’s basically an extremely shiny version of Diablo, which established this gameplay loop more than 20 years ago; its sequels and the innumerable imitators it spawned have refined the concept, bolstering it with MMO-style online integration, “seasons” of gameplay and, of course, the inevitable microtransactions. People play them simply because it’s fun to kill monsters and see your character grow more powerful.

So Anthem is in good company, though of course for every success there are probably two or three failures and mediocre titles. Destiny has thrived in a way only because of its fluid and satisfying gunplay, while a game like Path of Exile leans on bulk, with skill trees and content one may never reach the ends of.

Anthem, on the other hand, lacks the charms of either. It is wildly short on content and its moment-to-moment gameplay, while competent and in some ways unique, rarely has you on the edge of your seat. It’s a very mixed bag of interesting concepts and disappointing execution, coupled with some truly baffling user experience issues.

I’ll cover the good parts first: the basics of flying around and shooting guys are for the most part solid. There’s a good variety of weapons, from hand cannons to shotguns and sniper rifles, with meaningful variations within those groups (though they usually boil down to rate of fire). You feel very cool during engagements, picking off enemies, dodging behind cover, flying to a new vantage point and so on.

Each of the four javelins has a good pile of themed special abilities that significantly affect how you play; for instance, the Storm starts out with (basically) non-damaging ice shards that freeze enemies, setting them up for a damaging combo from its lightning strike — but soon you can swap those out for fiery explosions and a charge-up blast of cold, and so on. The synergies are somewhat limited in that some abilities clearly only work with some others, but there’s fun to be had experimenting. I played with three of the four javelins available (more to come, apparently) and they were all very distinct styles.

Damn.

The graphics really are lovely, from the future-past desert chic of Fort Tarsis to the lush jungle cliffs of the world you’ll be exploring. The light and landscapes are beautiful, and the character models are, too. Firefights look chaotic and splashy, which they are. There are also lots of customization options, in terms of colors and materials anyway — there’s a puzzling lack of cosmetics to buy with in-game or real currency; only two or three are available right now.

Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the extent of what Anthem gets right — and to be clear, it really can be fun when you’re actually in the middle of a firefight, blasting away, doing combos with friends, taking on hordes of bad guys. The rest is pretty much a mess. Here’s the greatest hits of how Anthem fails to operate, to respect the player’s time and, generally speaking, to be a good game.

First and perhaps most egregious, the load screens are frequent and long. I timed it at more than five minutes from launch, and at least three or four different load screens, before I could actually play the game.

Get ready for a lot of this! And incidentally, many fire attacks don’t actually set up combos.

A long load time to bring up a huge world like Anthem’s I can understand. But load times to enter the screen where you change your gear? Load screens when you enter a small cave from the map? A load screen when you stray too far from your teammates and have to be teleported to them? A load screen when you finish a mission, then another before you can return to base — and another before you can equip your new gun? Oh my god!

This is compounded by a sluggish and over-complicated UI that somehow manages to show both too much and not enough, while inconsistent keys and interaction elements keep you guessing as to whether you need to press F or space or escape to go forward, hit or hold escape to go back, use Q or E to go through submenus or if you have to escape out to find what you’re looking for.

Equipment and abilities are mystifyingly under-explained: no terms like “+15% gear speed” or “+/-10% shield time” are explained anywhere in the tutorial, documentation or character screen — because there is no character screen! For a game that depends hugely on stats and getting an overall feel for your build and gear, you have to visit five or six screens to get a sense of what you have equipped, its bonuses (if comprehensible) and whether you have anything better to use. Even core game systems like the “primer” and “detonator” abilities are only cursorily referenced, by cryptic icons or throwaway text. The original Diablo did it better, to say nothing of Anthem’s competition at the AAA level.

Navigating these menus and systems is doubly hard because you must do so not by just hitting a key, but by traveling at walking speed through the beautiful but impractical Fort Tarsis. It took a full 30 seconds for me to walk from my suit (the only place where you can launch missions) to a quest giver. And when you start the game, you start in a basement from which you have to walk 20 seconds to get to your suit! Are you kidding me?

A common sight.

Even when you’re doing what the game does best, zooming around and getting in firefights, there’s a disturbing lack of mission variety. Almost without exception you’ll fly to a little arena — some ruins or a base of some kind — and are immediately alerted of enemies in the area. They warp in at a convenient distance, often while you watch, and attack while you stand near a gadget (to advance a progress bar) or collect pieces to bring back. Some more powerful guys warp in and you shoot them. Fly to the next arena, rinse and repeat.

Sure, you could say “well it’s a shooter, what do you expect?” I expect more than that! Where are the aerial chases the intro leads you to believe exist? Enemies all either stand on the ground or hover just above it. They don’t clamber on the walls, get to the top of towers, shoot down on you from cliffs, climb trees, build gun emplacements. You don’t defend a moving target like the “Striders” (obviously AT-ATs) you supposedly travel in; bridges and buildings don’t crumble or explode; you don’t chase a bad guy into a big cave (or if you do, there’s a loading screen); the “boss-type” enemies are often just regular guys with more life or shields that recharge in the time it takes you to reload. Where are the enemy javelins? The enemy Striders? Ninety percent of what you kill will be ground-bound grunts taken down in a flash. For a game in which movement is emphasized and enjoyable, combat involves very little of it.

The campaign, which is surprisingly well acted but forgettable, seems like it was tacked on in a hurry. Amazingly, a major cutscene details a much more interesting story, in which a major city is overrun and destroyed and only a few survive. It struck me at the time that this might have been the original campaign and starting mission, after which you are logically relegated to the nearby Fort Tarsis and forced to fight for scraps. Instead you have a series of samey missions with voice-overs telling you what’s happening while you stand there and watch progress bars fill up.

At one point you are presented with four ancient tombs to track down, only to find that these amazing tombs aren’t missions but simply checklists of basic game activities like opening 15 treasure chests, killing 50 enemies with melee and so on. At a point, increasing these numbers was literally the only “mission” I had available in the game. And when I tried to join other people’s missions to accomplish these chores, half the time they were broken or already finished. Even trying to quit these missions rarely worked! (Some of these bugs and issues have been mitigated by patches, but not all.)

Spoiler warning! What do you think is in the tombs? A taxing dungeon full of traps, monsters and ancient treasure? Nope! Literally just a tiny, empty room. And yes, there’s a loading screen — both in and out.

Oh, and because many of the missions are difficult or tedious to do solo, you’ll want to team up — except if you’re slow to load, the mission will commence without you and you’ll miss the VO. Whoops! And by the way, if you just want to test out a new gun or power, you’ll have to join a multiplayer “freeplay” session to do it, which is another handful of loading screens. I’m not even going to get into the failings of the multiplayer. Because you can’t communicate it’s basically like playing with bots. By the way, there’s no PvP, so forget about skirmishing with your friends or randoms.

Even the loot you get is frustratingly low-quality and unimaginative. Every gun or component is a standard model almost always with just slightly better damage than the last one you found, and perhaps a stat bonus. But the stat bonuses are boring and often nonsensical: do I really want an assault rifle that gives me 10 percent better damage with heavy pistols?

Where’s the fun? For comparison when I was playing Diablo III recently I found a pair of leg armor early on that produced a powerful poison cloud whenever I was touching three or more enemies. Suddenly I played differently, rushing into crowds of monsters and leaping out, then immobilizing them while their life ticked down. I changed out my weapons, focused on physical defense, poison buffs… all because of a pair of pants!

I’ve encountered nothing like that in 25 hours of Anthem. Every new power and gun is the same as the old one but with a higher number. Where’s the lightning bolt that also sets people on fire, or the plasma blast that always knocks down flying guys? The pistol that does double damage against one class of enemy, the sniper rifle that automatically chambers a new round instantly in one out of five shots?

You do eventually find some “Masterwork” items that have unique qualities, but even these are compromised by the fact that their stats are completely random (such as a bonus to the wrong damage type), necessitating a grind to make or find them over and over until you get one with bonuses that make sense.

So much of Anthem seems like it’s just missing. The campaign is half there; the controls and UI are half there; the loot is half there. The multiplayer is half there. Everything lacks a critical piece that makes it more than basically functional, and considering the game’s highly polished competition, this is inexplicable and inexcusable. I find it hard to believe this was in the works for five years when such elementary aspects like a character screen and working item descriptions aren’t included at launch.

It’s more than possible that with perhaps half a year of work the Bioware team — which seems to be painfully aware of the game’s shortcomings, if their responses to detailed litanies of complaints on the game’s subreddit are any indication — could make this game worth the price of entry. But right now I couldn’t recommend it to anybody in good conscience, and I’m disappointed that a developer that’s created some of my favorite games dropped the ball so badly.

It’s too bad, because I feel the pull of the game, the basic chaotic fun at the heart of any good looter-shooter, because I feel like this can’t really be it. This can’t really be all my abilities, right? This can’t be every weapon? I liked Anthem when it was at its best, but that was so very little of the time I spent in it, and it took so much effort and patience on my part to even make those moments a possibility. I’ll be checking back in with the game in the hopes that it makes a Destiny-esque turnaround, but for now I have to say Anthem suffers from a failure to launch.

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X-ray analysis reveals hidden composition under iconic portrait of the Lavoisiers

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The French 18th-century chemist Antoine Lavoisier is a complicated historical figure. Scientifically, of course, he is an undisputed giant, helping usher in the chemical revolution as the field shifted from a qualitative to a quantitative approach, among many other achievements. He was also a wealthy nobleman and tax collector for the Ferme Generale, one of the most hated bodies of the Ancien regime as the French Revolution gained momentum. Those activities added to his fortune, which he used to fund his (and others’) scientific research and to foster public education. But it’s also why he ran afoul of the revolutionaries in power during the infamous Reign of Terror; they beheaded both Lavoisier and his father-in-law on the same day in 1794 as “enemies of the people.”

Something of that complexity is evident in a new scientific analysis of the famous 1788 portrait, now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, of Lavoisier and his wife, Marie-Anne, by the Neoclassical painter Jaques-Louis David. The painting shows husband and wife posing with a collection of small scientific instruments—a tribute to their intellectual endeavors.

But cutting-edge analysis techniques have revealed that David originally painted a different version, without the scientific accoutrements, depicting the couple as more typical French aristocrats. He cleverly obscured the underpainting in the final portrait, most likely in response to the growing backlash against the aristocracy, according to a recent paper published in the journal Heritage Science. As the authors wrote in an accompanying online article for the Met:

In addition to modifications of existing formats and poses popular in 1780s portraiture, the overall development of the Lavoisiers’ portrait moved away from foregrounding their identity as tax collectors (the source of their fortune that allowed for such a luxurious commission) and toward underscoring their scientific work. It is, of course, the latter identity that is so clearly defined today and has helped perpetuate their fame both in art history and the history of science. But another identity has been quite literally concealed in the present portrait, and its revelation offers an alternate lens for apprehending Lavoisier not for his contributions to science but simply a wealthy tax collector who could afford the whims of fashionable dress and portraiture that sent him to the guillotine in 1794.

Research scientist Silvia A. Centeno acquiring X-ray fluorescence maps of David’s portrait of the Lavoisiers.
Enlarge / Research scientist Silvia A. Centeno acquiring X-ray fluorescence maps of David’s portrait of the Lavoisiers.

Antoine Lavoisier’s marriage to Marie-Anne Paulze—the daughter of Jacques Paulze, a colleague at the Ferme Generale—was actually arranged by the bride’s father. Apparently, a much older count wanted to marry the 13-year-old Marie-Anne, and Paulze couldn’t outright refuse without losing his job. So he persuaded the 28-year-old Lavoisier to propose instead. Marie-Anne proved to be an excellent choice and took an active interest in her husband’s scientific work. She became an excellent laboratory assistant, making sketches of his experiments, translating English scientific texts into French, and helping maintain meticulous records of the procedures used. She was also a charming hostess for the couple’s scientific soirées.

David was one of the most pre-eminent painters of this period, equally renowned in his field as Lavoisier was in science. David tutored Marie-Anne Lavoisier, enabling her to accurately sketch her husband’s various experiments, and was a guest chez Lavoisier on several occasions. So naturally, the couple commissioned him to paint their portrait. The finished product is considered a landmark of neoclassical portraiture. The Lavoisiers appear to be the very model of “a modern scientifically minded couple in fashionable but simple dress, their bodies casually intertwined,” the authors wrote in their accompanying article.

David’s portrait is remarkably well-preserved, which is perhaps why nobody suspected the existence of an underpainting until 2019, when the piece arrived in the laboratory of conservator Dorothy Mahon after a curator noticed some degradation in the surface varnish. Before she could remove the varnish, Mahon had to analyze the painting quite closely under a microscope to make sure any solvent mixture she used would protect the painting and not put her own health at risk.

That’s when she noticed bits of red paint peeking out in the area above Marie-Anne’s head and through the blue ribbons and bows on her dress. Mahon also noted dried cracks around the red tablecloth in the painting’s foreground. Clearly, a closer analysis was warranted.

Elemental distribution maps acquired by MA-XRF on the portrait of Antoine-Laurent and Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze Lavoisier: lead, (A); mercury (B); iron (C); and calcium (D).
Enlarge / Elemental distribution maps acquired by MA-XRF on the portrait of Antoine-Laurent and Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze Lavoisier: lead, (A); mercury (B); iron (C); and calcium (D).

S.A. Centeno et al./Heritage Science, 2021

As Silvia Centeno et al. point out in their paper, much of the technology this interdisciplinary team used to examine the painting is fairly recent and would not have been available to them when the Met acquired the painting in 1977 from the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. First, the researchers used infrared reflectography (IRR) to peer through the upper layers of paint. A specialized camera enabled the imaging of the entire nine-foot-by-six-foot canvas. The resulting reflectogram showed evidence of a carbon-based black underdrawing and dark, unclear shapes hinting at possible significant compositional changes.

Next, the researchers employed macro X-ray fluorescence imaging (MA-XRF) to map out the distribution of elements in the paint pigments—including the paint used below the surface. That process took some 270 hours and produced a huge amount of data. It was Centeno’s expertise, supplemented with chemical analysis of tiny paint samples, that enabled the team to create detailed elemental maps for further study.

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SEC: Short squeeze wasn’t “the main driver” of GameStop’s stock rise

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Enlarge / *Glass-breaking noise*

Aurich Lawson

Back in January, when we attempted to explain the meteoric rise of GameStop’s stock price, we wrote a lot of words about the potential role of a short squeeze on what was happening. The theory was that a large number of short sellers were being forced to cover shares they had previously borrowed by buying shares at rising prices, thus helping to drive the price even further upward.

This week, a 45-page report from the Securities and Exchange Commission takes a detailed look at the situation and concludes that while “short sellers covering their positions likely contributed to increases in GME’s price… a short squeeze did not appear to be the main driver of events.”

The setup

Among the so-called “meme stocks,” GameStop was particularly susceptible to a short squeeze in January. That’s because the level of “short interest” in the stock—the ratio of borrowed shares to total outstanding shares—spiked to an unprecedented 122.97% (reborrowed shares essentially count a second time, which can drive the ratio past 100%).

For context, the SEC points out that “few stocks, if any, have short interest greater than 50% on a given date” and that “until recently, short interest of more than 90% was observed only a few times—in 2007 and 2008.” And while other meme stocks also had high short interest in January—Dillard’s came closest with a 77.3% ratio, followed by Bed Bath and Beyond at 66.02%—the SEC notes that “GME is the only stock that staff observed as having short interest of more than shares outstanding in January 2021.”

Investor interest in shorting GameStop stock had been rising for a while but became truly ridiculous by late January.

Investor interest in shorting GameStop stock had been rising for a while but became truly ridiculous by late January.

That extreme level of one-sided betting against GameStop’s stock price was ripe for disruption, especially once some bullish retail investors started driving the price up (partly in response to Chewy co-founder Ryan Cohen being named to the board of directors on January 11). And looking back at the individual trading data, the SEC found some evidence that short sellers covering their positions helped contribute to the initial stages of GameStop’s January price spike.

The report observes that “buy volume from participants identified as having large short positions” increased heavily starting January 22 and that “during some discrete periods, GME had sharp price increases concurrently with known major short sellers covering their short positions after incurring significant losses,” patterns pointing to a short squeeze. SEC staff also “observed discrete periods of sharp price increases during which accounts held by firms known to the staff to be covering short interest in GME were actively buying large volumes of GME shares, in some cases accounting for very significant portions of the net buying pressure during a period,” the report says.

What else was going on?

But while a short squeeze contributed to GameStop’s initial stock price spike, the report suggests that’s not the whole story. Buyers with short positions were “a small fraction of overall buy volume,” the report says, even during the biggest price spikes, meaning that other buyers were driving the bulk of the demand for the stock. And demand for GameStop stock was incredibly high during that period; as the report notes, “From January 13-29, an average of approximately 100 million GME shares traded per day, an increase of over 1,400% from the 2020 average.” Short sellers covering their positions were part of that, but they were far from the bulk of it.

Short sellers covering their positions were a part of the demand for GameStop stock in January, but they were not the bulk of it.
Enlarge / Short sellers covering their positions were a part of the demand for GameStop stock in January, but they were not the bulk of it.

In addition, the SEC notes that “GME share prices continued to be high after the direct effects of covering short positions would have waned.” If this were nothing but a short squeeze, the price should have fallen back to earth once the short interest fell to more reasonable levels.

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Valve’s “Deck Verified” program evaluates which Steam games are Steam Deck-ready

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Enlarge / Games that earn the “Deck Verified” checkmark will appear in the “Great on Deck” tab of the Steam Store.

Valve says it has started the process of reviewing all of the tens of thousands of games in the Steam catalog for compatibility with the upcoming Steam Deck portable. The company is doing the review as part of a new informational program called “Deck Verified.”

Games that provide “a great smooth experience” and “work great on Steam Deck right out of the box” will receive a green “Deck Verified” check mark on the Steam store and library interfaces. They will also appear on the default “Great on Deck” tab when the Store is viewed on the Steam Deck itself. Games will receive that check mark if they meet the following criteria:

  • Input: Games must have “full controller support” and the ability to access all content using the Steam Deck controls, with no adjustments necessary. This includes the use of on-screen “glyphs” that match those of the Steam Deck buttons or those on the Xbox 360/One (many Steam games already do this for compatibility with console versions or console controllers). Any in-game text entry must be done using only the controller or an on-screen keyboard.
  • Display: Games must include native support for 1280 x 800 or 1280 x 720 resolution and include a default configuration that runs at a “playable framerate” on the hardware at that resolution (Valve has previously promised that “really the entire Steam library” can meet this threshold on the Steam Deck hardware). On-screen text should also be legible when the screen is held 12 inches from the face; Valve says this means no letter should be less than 9 px in height, though a 12 px height is recommended.
  • Seamlessness: Games shouldn’t throw up any compatibility warnings when running on Steam Deck, and players must be able to navigate any third-party launchers with the controller.
  • System support: The game must be compatible with the SteamOS natively or with the Proton compatibility layer that allows Windows games to run on the Linux-based system. This includes any middleware and/or anticheat software used in the game.
An example of a game that meets all the Deck Verified criteria.
Enlarge / An example of a game that meets all the Deck Verified criteria.
Older games might need some updates to fully reach Deck Verified status.
Enlarge / Older games might need some updates to fully reach Deck Verified status.
VR games like <a href=
Enlarge / VR games like Half-Life: Alyx will officially show up as “Unsupported” on the Steam Deck.

Games that don’t quite reach the Verified ideal can still earn a yellow “Playable” badge if they run but “require some extra effort to interact with or configure.” That includes game that require manual controller or graphics configuration on first launch, games with “missing or inaccurate controller glyphs,” and games where players need to use the touchscreen for whatever reason.

Other games will simply be listed as “Unsupported” on Steam Deck. Those include all virtual reality games and games that are incompatible with Proton for whatever reason (the latter group will have any compatibility issues logged by Valve to fix going forward). Games that haven’t yet been reviewed for Steam Deck compatibility will simply have their compatibility shown as “Unknown” in the Steam interface.

Let the reviews begin

Deck Compatibility marks will appear alongside the price on the Steam Store.
Enlarge / Deck Compatibility marks will appear alongside the price on the Steam Store.

Steam developers can request a Steam Deck compatibility review for their games manually, but some back catalog games which “Valve identifies… as important to Steam Deck customers” will be added to the review queue “based on automated heuristics.”

The review process should take about a week, according to Valve’s estimates (subject to demand), after which developers will receive “detailed point-by-point results” of the review. After that, developers will have an opportunity to fix any outstanding issues and request a re-review before the results are published. Otherwise, any results will be automatically published after a week. Titles will be re-reviewed “as the developer releases updates or the Deck’s software improves,” Valve says.

While players can hook the Steam Deck up to a monitor and use a mouse and keyboard with the hardware, Valve writes that “we believe most customers will be treating the Deck like a handheld appliance, most of the time.” The Deck Verified program will thus be focused on how games work when the Steam Deck is being used without any external peripherals.

Despite that, Valve’s developer guidelines make clear that “customers browsing the Steam store on Deck aren’t prevented from viewing or purchasing content that may not work well on their device… You’ll always have the option to run whatever you want on Steam Deck. After all, it’s your Deck.”

Browsing your Steam Library will make it clear at a glance which of your games are fully Steam Deck compatible.
Enlarge / Browsing your Steam Library will make it clear at a glance which of your games are fully Steam Deck compatible.

Back in 2013, when Valve first tried to target console gamers with its Steam Machine hardware initiative, we suggested that the company roll out a certification program to set minimum standards for which games would run well on the wide variety of SteamOS-based hardware. The Deck Verified program fulfills some of that promise and should make it easy for Steam users to figure out how much of their library will work with this new Steam hardware at a glance.

Listing image by Blondinrikard Fröberg / Flickr

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