After a long period in which it was difficult to really define what Anthem really is - beyond it feeling like EA's answer to Destiny - Bioware's multiplayer shooter is finally starting to come into focus and it looks pretty decent.
Speaking at a panel at PAX West titled 'Anthem: Our World, Your Story', Bioware laid out exactly how the game is going to be structured in order to accommodate a hefty emphasis on single player story content in a primarily multiplayer experience. Here's how it works.
In Anthem, you play as a Freelancer - a javelin pilot (javelins being the powerful exosuits) who is relatively independent, much in the same vein as a ronin or superhero. As well as tackling missions, your job is to try to acquire shaper relics - these are relics left behind by mysterious progenitors 'the shapers' in order to harvest the energy of the anthem of creation. These are dangerous, powerful artefacts and one of your goals is to find them and power them down to avert disaster. You are supported in these activities by a pit crew; a small cast of characters in charge of keeping your suit in good nick. You also receive tactical information in the field from your Cypher - specifically a man called Owen. When out on missions, you can team up with friends or matchmake with strangers online. After each mission however, you return alone to Tarsis city; specifically, your instance of Tarsis city.
Tarsis is the place in which all of the single player story content is housed and it was clear from the panel that Bioware is placing great emphasis on making it feel fully fleshed out. The trading city is populated by quest givers and ordinary NPCs alike, and talking to them will allow you to develop relationships and make important story decisions that influence the tone of events to come. The story will be played out in multiplayer missions as well, of course, but there won't be any story decisions for you to make in those sections - you are in charge of all of your own decisions in Anthem.
We got an example of this structure as we learned about an NPC called Mathias. At one point during Anthem, you'll be given a mission to find and rescue an arcanist. You can matchmake with anyone else who is able to do that mission (or anyone who's already completed it) and then set off together to bring Mathias the hapless arcanist home. Once the mission is over you receive loot and XP, and then Mathias becomes an NPC in Tarsis. At this point, each player is free to interact with him in whatever manner they choose without having to accommodate input from any other player - he's your Mathias alone, in other words. As you talk more with Mathias you can develop a strong relationship with him, you can be nasty to him, or you can ignore that aspect altogether.
What you can't do, however, is do yourself out of receiving any future missions. While your relationships with NPCs in Tarsis may not always be positive, quest givers will never shut you off from taking a mission - Bioware being keen to make sure everybody has access to all of the game's content no matter what choices they make. When it comes to NPCs who aren't mission givers, mind you, the gloves are off - we were told that certain choices will have 'more permanent' consequences with these characters.
We were also told a bit more about exactly how these relationships work given that this is one of those rare Bioware games in which you can't have sex with something. Anthem offers the 'same effort' when it comes to relationships, but that effort is spread across more characters with different relationships; sometimes these are just friendships, sometimes you'll find yourself digging into the past of the character. You just won't end up humping them. These relationships and characters are apparently going to be developed further after launch, with new dialogue, adventures, information and character content being added to live servers after the fact. Indeed, there seemed to be an air of genuine excitement of the possibility of adding story content that has a specific place in the game's timeline, free from the writing restraints enforced by a piece of DLC that could take place at any time during a playthrough.
In a slightly sheepish nod to Mass Effect: Andromeda, the panel also covered the way role playing conversations are presented in Anthem. While missions take place in third person in order to give a sense of the javelin suit's power, all Tarsis city content takes place in first person in a deliberate move to make the player feel a bit smaller. While previous Bioware games have featured role playing conversations that take place without any specific camera work or setting, they have been keen to avoid doing the same in Anthem. Every conversation, we were told, has been staged and lit properly in order to ensure that each interaction has the proper sense of impact. Good news, since it seems you can expect to spend a lot of your time in Tarsis talking to people.
The different take on relationships as well as the overall game structure is indicative of Bioware's apparent drive to set Anthem apart from some of its other properties; 'Anthem is not Mass Effect, Anthem is not Dragon Age,' we were told. All in all, I'm far more interested in playing Anthem than I was before - there seems to be a decent amount of story on offer and I like the idea of being able to explore it at my own pace and in person, rather than solely listening to radio chatter while zipping about the place and shooting at enemies. A central hub that isn't just a place to manage loot and start the next mission is also pretty inviting - it's a strong contrast to the tower in Destiny, which rang hollow for me at the best of times.
A multiplayer shooter it might be, but it seems like Anthem might well manage to become a decent single player at the same time, which would be quite some feat. There's no PvP mode at launch as a result - the developers wanting to focus solely on getting the core experience right - but if I have to sacrifice deathmatches for an actual, robust single player story, it's a trade off I'm willing to make.