Anthem is out, and the reviews have largely not been very positive. They tend to go like this: looks pretty, good combat, too many bugs, disruptive loading screens, not enough variety, disappointing loot, uninteresting characters, an eerily lifeless hub to walk around in, and a mediocre-at-best story. As of the posting of this article, the PC version of Anthem has a Metascore of 60 (based on 55 critics) and a User Score of 4.5 on metacritic. That’s even lower than the 72 Metascore (based on 37 critics) and 4.9 User Score for the PC version of Mass Effect: Andromeda. To put that into perspective, Andromeda is the game that caused the closure of BioWare Montreal. So it’s not a good sign for the future of BioWare that Anthem is actually doing worse in the reviews department.
So what happened? How did Anthem — which was to be BioWare’s next great IP — end up this way?
In the months to come, I’m sure we’ll have a report compiled from BioWare insider interviews detailing the Anthem train wreck (as we eventually had for Mass Effect: Andromeda). But for now, I can only surmise that BioWare simply went in the wrong direction and ended up paying for it.
But that isn’t what this article is about. This article is about how Anthem could have been great.
What Could Have Been #1: A Breath of Wild Air
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Wii U version in my case) has become one of my favorite games of all time, and for good reason: The exploration in that game is practically unrivaled in modern gaming. There’s always something interesting to find — a new area, a new type of environment, a new tower, a new shrine, a new stable... I’ve never made any significant progress in the main story because I’ve been too busy exploring the massive landscape.
Look at the beautiful landscape in the distance in the above Anthem screenshot. Unfortunately, what you see isn’t really there. It’s all window dressing. Try to make your way out there and you’ll run into an invisible wall and eventually be placed back into the mission area. But imagine if it hadn’t been window dressing. Imagine how incredible it would have been for Anthem to be a single-player game that allowed you to explore the landscape for hundreds of virtual miles, encountering different friends, foes, environments, structures, secrets, and side quests along the way. You could have always come back around to forge ahead on the main story path (just like I haven’t done in Breath of the Wild), but the exploration by itself would have provided hours upon hours of fun.
What Could Have Been #2: Anthem-Lands
Long before games like Destiny and The Division came along, there were the Borderlands games: simple games that were all about killing enemies, collecting large amounts of loot, and having fun with the huge cast of eccentric characters. But the absence of a Borderlands 3 in this console generation has left a void — a void that Anthem could have filled. I think a Borderlands-style looter shooter with no microtransactions would have been very well-received. Want to plow through all of the quests and side quests by yourself? Go ahead. Want to team up with some other people? Great. Just like in the Borderlands games, you wouldn’t have felt like you weren’t getting the “right” experience no matter how you were playing. And the team at BioWare could have gone nuts with comedic one-liners, Mass Effect in-jokes, and quippy dialogue, while still providing an interesting enough story for the average player to sink his or her teeth into.
What Could Have Been #3: Surprise! It’s a Mass Effect Game! (Mass Effect 3 spoilers below)
This is my favorite “What if?” for Anthem. Deep down, this is what I was hoping Anthem would be.
Nobody in the large ensemble cast for the Mass Effect trilogy is guaranteed to live all the way to the end. But Liara T’Soni is a Mass Effect mainstay that can’t be killed until the very end of Mass Effect 3 — and even then, the player has to practically try to get her killed by both not having enough EMS (Effective Military Strength) at the end and having Liara in their squad for the final push to the beam.
In order for my Anthem idea to work, BioWare would have had to decide on the high-EMS Destroy ending as the canon ending for Mass Effect 3. Either that or they could have made Anthem as one possible story path from the end of Mass Effect 3 (with possibly others to follow). With the high-EMS Destroy ending, Liara would be a guaranteed survivor, the Reapers would be gone, and the organic species of the galaxy wouldn’t be altered.
Mass Effect 3's standard ending (which existed before and after the Extended Cut DLC was released) showed the Normandy in a crash-landed state on an unknown-to-the-player exotic planet somewhere in the galaxy. What little we were able to see of it indicated that it’s a lush green world with high cliffs. Do the above images remind you of anything you may have seen recently?
It’s entirely plausible that Joker (the Normandy’s pilot for those who don’t know) crash-landed on the same planet we see in Anthem.
But how do you get enough genetic diversity from the probably small crew of the Normandy to end up with an entire civilization of humans in the future? Well, it’s possible that a human colony already existed on the planet (since we don’t know anything about it other than glimpses of the way it looks). If the Normandy crew met up with them, then we might have ended up with descendants of Joker and other Normandy crew members.
If you watched the Extended Cut version of the high-EMS Destroy ending, you may remember that the Normandy is shown taking off from the planet at the end of it. But where would they go? They would have gone to the nearest mass relay only to find it severely damaged and probably would have had to turn right back around for the planet they had just come from (since the odds are that that planet would be the only one in the system capable of supporting life). With the next viable solar system hundreds of years away without mass relay travel, they would essentially be stranded in that system. And while the Alliance would probably be hard at work trying to repair the mass relays, they would have to start with the one in the Sol System (where all of their forces were concentrated for the final battle with the Reapers) and then very slowly travel to the closest relay-having system to see about that relay. Work could obviously go much faster if other species were working to repair other relays at the same time, but what if the Normandy ended up in a system that had nobody with the knowledge or the resources to repair that relay? What if it was an abandoned system save for the Normandy’s crew and a small human settlement?
Abandoned by whom? Well, the gods (the ones mentioned in the 2018 Anthem cinematic trailer). But who are the gods? Who are the Shapers? Who created the Anthem only to abandon it? That’s where things get interesting, because the gods could be...
Leviathan’s species. If you haven’t played the Mass Effect 3 DLC called ‘Leviathan’, it involves Commander Shepard discovering the remnant of the species that was unwittingly responsible for the creation of the cycle that wipes out all advanced life that isn’t a Reaper every 50,000 years. (They created an extremely powerful artificial intelligence that went rogue, turned on them, and initiated the 50,000-year cycle.)
Before nearly all of Leviathan’s species was wiped out by the first Reaper invasion, they were the dominant species in the galaxy and were even worshipped by less advanced intelligent species. So it’s possible that their scientists would have had the time and resources to work on something as massive in scope as the Anthem. And it would have made sense to confine the project to one planet while it was still being developed.
But when the Reapers invaded, the project would have had to have been abandoned. And when Leviathan’s species was almost completely wiped out (driving the few that were left into hiding), they wouldn’t have been able to go back to their project.
The Anthem project might have been shut down and hidden by Leviathan’s species before they abandoned the planet, and then it might have laid dormant for eons until a member of the Normandy’s crew unwittingly reactivated it.
The reactivation of the Anthem would have led to the building of a walled city and the creation of javelins to explore the newly hostile land. And the person who unwittingly activated the Anthem (and was then unable to shut it down) might have been exiled from the city — whether it was a self-imposed exile in shame or a forced exile by angry inhabitants.
You the player — just another freelancer — start playing through the game with no idea that it has any connection to the Mass Effect universe. Eventually, one of the NPCs tells you a rumor that there’s somebody living out in the wilderness who knows more about the Anthem than anyone else on the planet. You go looking for that person and discover that it’s none other than...
Liara T’Soni. She’s an archaeologist, so it makes sense that she would have been exploring the planet for signs of previous inhabitants. She eventually stumbled across the Anthem and unwittingly reactivated it. And even though she can’t shut it down (maybe because it automatically shielded itself and can no longer be approached — I don’t know), she’s been studying it and the area surrounding it to learn what it does and who may have originally developed it. After she explains what Leviathan’s species is, she says that she discovered that the Anthem was originally developed by them, and then she reveals something startling: With the Reapers destroyed (which she may have surmised from the fact that the Catalyst was successfully activated and that no Reapers have ever come for them), it’s only a matter of time until Leviathan’s species comes back for the Anthem. This could set things up for a second and possibly even a third Anthem game.
Now this is just a rough outline featuring a few story points. A lot of story content would obviously have to be added for this to be made into an actual game. But I hope I’ve laid a decent foundation for something that could have been.