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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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WarCraft Arclight Rumble impressions: High production values, questionable costs

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Enlarge / Welcome to the mini-styled smartphone-RTS universe of WarCraft Arclight Rumble.

Blizzard

Blizzard Entertainment’s first real-time strategy game for smartphones, WarCraft Arclight Rumble, is slated to launch on iOS and Android later this year, with a tech beta going live sooner in various regions. Ahead of that launch, we were invited to test the game’s current version for a couple of days, and we can confirm that Blizzard is still pretty good at designing games for phones. (Even if they’ve brought at least one related gaffe upon themselves.)

In Arclight Rumble‘s case, however, a certain chicken-and-egg question comes up: When comparing this game to the wildly popular Clash Royale, exactly who is ripping off whom?

Both games overlap, as Blizzard’s new smartphone game adopts more than a few of Supercell’s well-trodden, touchscreen-friendly conventions. Yet Supercell’s game arguably borrows a lot from the original WarCraft series on PC—not just in its adherence to RTS traditions but also its medieval, primary-color aesthetic.

However you parse it, Arclight Rumble appears to add just enough depth to the smartphone RTS genre to stand out, though anyone new to this gaming space should brace themselves for a whole new universe of microtransactions. While not as aggressive as some of the smartphone world’s worst offenders, Arclight Rumble‘s approach will still be a tough sell to anyone who remembers buying WarCraft RTS games outright.

Familiar fare gets bigger, more strategic

If you’ve played Clash Royale, you know the drill. The game defaults to one-on-one faceoffs without any fog of war, and the object is to send troops from your side of the battlefield to your opponent’s to destroy an enemy base while protecting your own. Troops appear as cards, randomly shuffled into players’ hands from a deck, and players spend a battle-specific currency to turn those cards into active troops (or spells that can be cast by tapping on the screen). More powerful units cost more currency, and each unit type has strengths and weaknesses over others, so savvy players will generate and direct troops with that in mind in order to succeed. (Melee beats ranged, ranged beats aerial, and aerial beats melee.)

That entire paragraph could apply to either game mentioned in this article, so what’s different in Arclight Rumble?

Blizzard’s game better splits the difference between a smartphone card-battler and a PC RTS. Battlefields in Arclight Rumble are bigger, and they typically don’t fit on a single smartphone screen, thus requiring finger swipes to move your viewpoint between your base (bottom of the screen) and your foe’s (top of the screen). These arenas are vertically oriented, so it’s more of an up-to-down swipe to glance around, not left-to-right, which feels good in practice.

Unlike a classic RTS, players don’t rapidly click a mouse to issue commands, but troop management is also not as wholly simplified here as in Clash Royale. Arclight Rumble players can tap an arrow on the ground to tell troops which way to advance when a path branches, and they otherwise automatically march forward and target foes along the way.

Blizzard adds the RTS-like convention of putting control points and gold mines onto its larger battlefields. If your troops can successfully wear down a control point, it becomes yours, and some of them come with auto-firing catapults. Once you take over one of these, you can opt to spawn troops that much closer to your foe’s base. And gold mines can be smacked by any of your melee troops, including a low-cost miner character who comes as a default in your deck, no matter what other cards you put into it. You need gold to spawn new troops, but the miner, who costs only one gold, can quickly grab two gold pieces from mines that regularly regenerate near your base. (There’s also the strategic option to spend your allotment of gold to move troops toward enemies’ gold mines—especially for special troops that can be freely spawned outside of your control points.)

Increasing the game’s average map size and dotting each with control points is an interesting tweak to the fits-on-one-screen combat of Clash Royale, and mid-arena control strategy makes this game feel deeper than some of its peers. But such an expansion in scope exposes how simple these smartphone strategy games can feel once play hits a higher level. In particular, there’s no way to contend with Blizzard’s auto-targeting failures. As of press time, I’ve seen my melee troops turn around and react to enemies that have passed them by when two battling lanes criss-cross. This happens even when I’ve devoted my limited gold economy to a massive rush meant to bombard my foe’s base, my own defenses be damned. There’s no troop tag for “kiting” in this game, which might have indicated that enemies could lure my melee forces away from my objective.

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Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany goes green in She-Hulk: Attorney at Law trailer

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She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, starring Tatiana Maslany, starts streaming on August 17 on Disney+.

Marvel has released the first trailer for its latest spinoff series, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, and it looks like it will be a lot of fun. Bonus: Mark Ruffalo reprises his role as Bruce Banner/Hulk and teams up with She-Hulk, played by Orphan Black star Tatiana Maslany. Marvel also announced that it has begun production in Atlanta on Echo, a nine-episode spinoff series centered on the deaf gang leader Maya Lopez (Alaqua Cox), who was introduced in last year’s Hawkeye.

Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige has described the series as a “half-hour legal comedy” (with superheroes) and said it would hew closely to John Byrne’s take on the character in the comics. That would be The Sensational She-Hulk series, known for its metafictional approach, in which She-Hulk occasionally broke the fourth wall, walking through ads and even arguing with Byrne as the writer. The character has been a member of The Avengers, the Fantastic Force, and S.H.I.E.L.D., and it’s expected that She-Hulk will eventually appear in the MCU films.

Per the official premise: “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law follows Jennifer Walters as she navigates the complicated life of a single, 30-something attorney who also happens to be a green 6-foot-7-inch superpowered hulk.” In addition to Ruffalo’s “Smart Hulk,” Tim Roth will reprise his role as Emil Blonsky/the Abomination from 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, and Benedict Wong will be back as Wong, most recently seen in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Jameela Jamil plays Titania, a super-strong rival of SheHulk; Ginger Gonzaga plays Walters’ best friend; and Renee Elise Goldsberry plays Amelia.

We saw the first footage from She-Hulk last November during Disney+ Day. The brief teaser featured Maslany and Ruffalo in an homage to the 1970s live-action Hulk series, with Walters uttering Bill Bixby’s trademark line, “Don’t make angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” This new trailer introduces us to Jennifer Walters (Maslany), a successful single lawyer who has just been asked to lead the superhuman law division of her firm. But then her cousin, Bruce Banner, gives her a blood transfusion, and she gains some of his Hulk abilities. Fortunately, he makes a great mentor, training her to channel her powers by focusing on her anger and fear (aka “the baseline of any woman just existing”).

We get a brief glimpse of Roth’s Blonsky in prison and in his Abomination form, as well as Jamil’s Titania. And it looks like She-Hulk will be trying to find Mr. Right (or perhaps Mr. Right Now), as we see her swiping through a dating app and carrying one of her dates to the bedroom, bridegroom style.

As for Echo, we’ve already met Maya Lopez, aka Echo, in Hawkeye. She was the deaf commander of the Tracksuit Mafia, capable of perfectly copying another person’s movements. And she was on a quest to discover the true identity of Ronin, the assassin who had killed her father. That put her on a collision course with Clint Barton/Hawkeye, who had hung up his Ronin gear for good.

When the two adversaries finally battled it out, Barton revealed that someone working for Maya’s boss wanted her father dead. That boss turned out to be Wilson Fisk/Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio). In the Hawkeye finale, Kingpin escaped, only to be confronted by an angry Maya, who had learned the truth about her father’s murder. We heard a gunshot, but who was shot? And was it a fatal wound?

Enlarge / Alaqua Cox stars as Maya Lopez, aka Echo, first introduced in last year’s Hawkeye.

YouTube/Marvel Studios

The Echo series seems to be an origin story. Per the official premise, the character’s “ruthless behavior in New York City catches up with her in her hometown. She must face her past, reconnect with her Native American roots, and embrace the meaning of family and community if she ever hopes to move forward.” D’Onofrio will reprise his role as Kingpin, and we’ll even get to see Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock/Daredevil, briefly seen (to fans’ delight) most recently in Spider-Man: No Way Home. Zahn McClarnon will play Maya’s deceased father, William Lopez.

She-Hulk: Attorney at Law debuts on Disney+ on August 17, 2022. Echo is slated for a 2023 premiere.

Listing image by YouTube/Marvel Studios

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We made a PlayStation Plus explainer that’s better than Sony’s

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Layers upon layers.

Since Sony announced its upcoming transition to a new, multi-tiered PlayStation Plus subscription service in March, the company has tried to explain that service’s many benefits with thousands of (sometimes confusing) words across two blog posts and an FAQ. We have tried to break down those benefits with our own posts composed of thousands of more (hopefully less confusing) words.

As we’ve struggled to make sense of the new offerings, though, we’ve found ourselves wanting a more concise, readable summary that breaks down each tier of the new PlayStation Plus at a glance. And we figured if we wanted that kind of quick reference, some of our readers might, too.

So please enjoy this breakdown of the new PlayStation Plus, as clear and concise as we could make it without leaving anything important out. We’ll try to keep this post updated as Sony adds or clarifies new features.

Pricing/benefits summary

Essential Extra Premium
Monthly price $9.99 $14.99 $17.99
Quarterly price $24.99 $39.99 $49.99
Annual price $59.99 $99.99 $119.99
Two monthly downloadable games X X X
Cloud saves X X X
Online multiplayer access X X X
PlayStation Plus Collection (on PS5) X X X
Downloadable PS4/PS5 games X X
Ubisoft+ Classics game lineup X X
Downloadable PS1/PS2/PSP games X
Streamable PS3 games X
Streaming access to PS1/PS2/PS4/PSP games X
Time-limited game trials X

Essential tier benefits

Two monthly downloadable games

  • These are usually PS4 games these days, sometimes with PS5 enhancements
    • Since the beginning of 2020, PS Plus has offered 11 PS5 exclusives and 5 PSVR exclusives
  • You can access these games for as long as you maintain your subscription

Cloud saves

  • 100GB of cloud storage per console for PS4 and PS5
  • Limit of 1,000 save files for PS4

Online multiplayer access

  • No subscription is needed for free-to-play games like Fortnite.

PlayStation Plus Collection (on PS5)

  • A collection of 19 “classic” PS4 games that are playable on the PS5
    • Not available on the PS4
    • Full game list, which hasn’t changed since 2020, is available here

Extra tier benefits

Downloadable PS4/PS5 games

  • 62 titles announced so far, “up to 400” promised in March
    • 50 PS4 exclusives (playable on PS5)
    • 9 PS4 games with PS5 “enhanced” versions
    • 3 PS5 exclusives
    • 38 first-party titles, 24 third-party titles
    • Full list of titles announced so far available here

“Ubisoft+ Classics” game lineup

  • This isn’t the full 100-game Ubisoft+ lineup launched in 2019; it’s a cut-down version for PlayStation Plus owners
  • The “Classics” plan will launch with 27 titles and expand to 50 by the end of 2022, Ubisoft says
  • Full list of announced titles so far available here

Premium tier benefits

Downloadable PS1/PS2/PSP games

  • 28 titles announced so far, “up to 340” (including streamable PS3 games) promised in March
    • 19 first-party, 9 third-party titles
    • 9 PS1, 18 PS2, 1 PSP title(s)
    • Full list of titles announced so far available here
  • “Some” classic games will have “improved frame rates and higher-quality resolution compared to their original launch versions”
  • “Some” PS1/PSP games will also have new UI and save-anywhere/rewind capabilities
  • PS2 games announced so far will be “remastered,” though the specific meaning of that is unclear at the moment

Streamable games

  • Stream to a PS4, PS5, or PC
  • Streaming currently available in 19 countries, plus 11 more starting in June
    • Full list of streaming availability by country available here (scroll to the bottom)
  • 29 streamable PS3 titles announced so far
    • 21 first-party, 8 third-party titles
    • Not remastered
    • No downloadable versions for PS3 games
    • Full list of titles announced so far available here
  • Streaming for available PS1/PS2/PS4/PSP games was mentioned in Sony’s March blog post but was not specifically called out in its latest update
    • The fine print says that “streaming may not be available for certain games”
  • PlayStation Now currently has a much wider list of streamable PS2/PS3/PS4 games

Time-limited game trials

  • 6 titles announced so far
    • 2 first-party, 4 third-party
    • 2 PS5 exclusives, 4 PS4 titles with PS5 enhancements
    • Full list of titles announced so far available here
  • Trials will last two hours “for most games”
  • Trophies/save data from the trial carry over if you buy the game

Other notes

  • Remaining PlayStation Plus subscriptions will be converted to Essential subscriptions
  • Remaining PlayStation Now subscriptions will be converted to Premium subscriptions
  • If you have both PS Plus and PS Now subscriptions remaining, you’ll be converted to a Premium subscription for the length of the longer remaining subscription.
  • Some PS1/PSP games purchased as downloads will be downloadable for free on a PS4/PS5, even without a PlayStation Plus subscription

Planned transition timing

  • Asia (except Japan): May 24
  • Japan: June 2
  • Americas: June 13
  • Europe, Australia, New Zealand: June 23
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