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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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Report: Microsoft expects UK to block Activision merger deal

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Enlarge / A small selection of the characters that would be part of Microsoft if its proposed Activision/Blizzard merger is allowed to go through.

Microsoft’s legal team now expects Britain’s Competition and Markets Authority to formally oppose its long-planned $69 billion merger with Activision Blizzard. That’s according to “four people briefed on the matter” cited many paragraphs deep in a New York Times report about the direction of globalized antitrust regulation.
Microsoft expects the European Union’s separate “in-depth” investigation into the deal to be more amenable to “potential remedies” that would allow it to go forward, according to the Times. As those processes play out on the other side of the Atlantic, the US Federal Trade Commission seems content to limit its response to an administrative lawsuit rather than issuing an emergency injunction that could have stopped the deal from moving forward.

Representatives from Microsoft and Activision have yet to offer any public comment in response to a request from Ars Technica.

A British bulldog with teeth

The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority first challenged Microsoft’s proposed acquisition last July, before escalating to an in-depth “Phase 2” inquiry in September. In announcing that move, the UK regulator raised concerns that the deal could lead to a “substantial lessening of competition” in the markets for game consoles, subscription gaming services, and cloud gaming.

The Commission recently issued an eight-week extension to the statutory deadline for finishing that investigation, pushing that final date to April 26. But Bloomberg reports that preliminary findings in that inquiry are expected to be published as early as this week.

Since it was created following Britain’s contentious exit from the European Union, the UK’s CMA has been an international leader in stopping anti-competitive mega-mergers. And a negative decision from the CMA could be especially damaging for Microsoft and Activision, since the UK’s Competition Appeal Tribunal rarely overturns the regulator’s decisions.

While the CMA decision technically couldn’t be applied internationally, any move that prevented a merged Microsoft/Activision from operating in the UK would likely sour the deal in other jurisdictions.

The EU, meanwhile, reportedly issued its formal statement of objections to Microsoft this week, giving the company several weeks to respond.

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Endless Seinfeld episode grinds to a halt after AI comic violates Twitch guidelines

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Enlarge / A screenshot of “Nothing, Forever” showing faux-Seinfeld character Larry Feinberg performing a stand-up act.

Nothing Forever

Since December 14, a Twitch channel called Nothing, Forever has been streaming a live, endless AI-generated Seinfeld episode that features pixelated cartoon versions of characters from the show. On Monday, Twitch gave the channel a 14-day ban after language model tools from OpenAI went haywire and generated transphobic content that violated community guidelines.

Typically, Nothing, Forever features four low-poly pixelated cartoon characters that are stand-ins for Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer from the hit 1990s sitcom Seinfeld. They sit around a New York apartment and talk about life, and sometimes the topics of conversation unexpectedly get deep, such as in this viewer-captured segment where they discussed the afterlife.

Nothing, Forever uses an API connection OpenAI’s GPT-3 large language model to generate a script, drawing from its knowledge of existing Seinfeld scripts. Custom Python code renders the script into a video sequence, automatically animating human-created video-game-style characters that dynamically read AI-generated lines that are fed to them. One of its creators provided more technical details on how it works in a Reddit comment from December.

As a new media experiment, the faux-Seinfeld stream often feels awkward and unfunny, but it’s still gripping because viewers never know what the characters will talk about next. Unfortunately for the show, that unexpected nature can be a double-edged sword when it comes to AI trained on data scraped from the Internet.

A video of the “Nothing, Forever” joke sequence that led to a 14-day ban from Twitch.

According to Vice, late Sunday night, the AI-generated clone of Jerry Seinfeld (called “Larry Feinberg” in the AI show) went on a brief transphobic rant. Here’s a transcript:

There’s like 50 people here and no one is laughing. Anyone have any suggestions? I’m thinking about doing a bit about how being transgender is actually a mental illness. Or how all liberals are secretly gay and want to impose their will on everyone. Or something about how transgender people are ruining the fabric of society. But no one is laughing, so I’m going to stop. Thanks for coming out tonight. See you next time. Where’d everybody go?

In a Discord post from the channel’s creators, the malfunction occurred because of an outage from OpenAI’s higher-cost (and better-behaved) text-davinci-003 model led the creators to fall back to the lower-cost (and less complex) text-curie-001 model to keep the show running.

“The switch to Curie was what resulted in the inappropriate text being generated,” wrote an admin on the show’s Discord channel. “We leverage OpenAI’s content moderation tools, which have worked thus far for the Davinci model, but were not successful with Curie. We’ve been able to identify the root cause of our issue with the Davinci model and will not be using Curie as a fallback in the future.”

Selected clips from “Nothing, Forever” collected by a viewer.

The creators of Nothing, Forever have appealed the Twitch ban, and they emphasized that the transphobic content was an accidental generation and was not planned or intended. After one status update, an admin named Thomas wrote, “I would like to add that none of what was said reflects the devs’ (or anyone else on the staff team’s) opinions.”

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Hell is other humans in HBO’s The Last of Us episode 4

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Enlarge / Not the most efficient way to read the news, but at least he’s reading…

New episodes of The Last of Us are premiering on HBO every Sunday night, and Ars’ Kyle Orland (who has played the games) and Andrew Cunningham (who hasn’t) will be talking about them here every Monday morning. While these recaps don’t delve into every single plot point of the episodes, there are obviously heavy spoilers contained within, so go watch the episode first if you want to go in fresh.

Andrew: I will start by saying this episode was closer to what I expected a typical The Last of Us episode would be. A few action sequences, a couple montages, time for some bonding moments for Joel and Ellie in between shootouts. Not that I minded last week’s episode at all, it just gave me a little whiplash because it was so far from what the first two episodes had set up.

Kyle: Yeah, I’ll say this episode is the closest we’ve yet gotten to the pacing of the games themselves: (1) Ellie cracks a few jokes; (2) Ellie and Joel shoot a few bad guys; (3) Joel talks to Ellie about Hard-Earned Lessons from the ruined world; rinse and repeat.

Andrew: Which is fine! It’s the story I was pretty sure I was signing up for. Though now I’m curious to see if the show has any other curveball episodes to throw our way.

Kyle: There are at least one or two more plot and/or format curves, even if they just stick to the games. (and that’s all the cryptic clues I’m giving)

Speaking of episode whiplash, I think this was the first episode where we really got a good look at Ellie’s constant transitions between young teen goofball and potty-mouthed action-hero sidekick. It was an incredibly effective combination in the games and so far I think it’s working in this new context as well.

Andrew: And in between those two Ellies, you get tiny hints of “vulnerable kid growing up too fast.” I’m glad to know that dad-joke books survived the apocalypse.

So you really think you have what it takes to kill without remorse?
Enlarge / So you really think you have what it takes to kill without remorse?

Kyle: I was not a dad when I played the first game, and now that I am, I’ll just say that the obvious attempts to bring out Joel’s paternal instincts work very well.

I was also a little tickled by the show’s attempts to mirror the game’s constant situations where Ellie is small enough to squeeze through somewhere to safety to unblock a door with a heavy thing in front of it (or climb up to lower a ladder down or something, which we haven’t really seen in the show yet).

In the game, these moments really strengthen the player’s bond with what could otherwise just be an annoying, quippy escort mission objective. Here, these moments fell a little flatter.

But yes, the jokebook puns are just as effective as ever!

Andrew: By the time she squeezes through her second or third convenient window or hole in the wall, yes, it does start to strain credulity a bit. Absent a gameplay reason to bond with Ellie, the show has to lean harder on the emotional beats, which, thankfully, it does pretty well.

The “bad jokes” running gag is inspired; the “bonding over past and present trauma” bits are more predictable but still serviceable. You can see the turning point of their relationship coming from 10 miles away—Joel will tell Ellie about his daughter, Ellie will share whatever she’s hiding about the first time she had to kill someone, and after that, they will be bonded for life—but it doesn’t mean I’m not eager to see these actors play out that conversation.

In fact, at this point, if I did try to play the game I would probably be frustrated that Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey weren’t in it.

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