Friday, March 1, 2019

Amusement Park of Illusions

Want to go on another ride?
You won't have to wait in line,
but you will have to sit through loading screens.
...many, many loading screens.
I was thinking about Anthem and how it not only represents a step backwards for Bioware, but video games as a whole in a lot of ways.  I'm not just talking in terms of storytelling here, but also gameplay.  It seems the general consensus is the action in Anthem doesn't even hold up to Mass Effect: Andromeda - a game which, itself, was not well regarded.  Exploration, too, seems pretty basic in that the world of Anthem amounts to a large surface area with little underground (or underwater) places to investigate.  Sounds fine...except when you think about it, isn't that really just the original Legend of Zelda for the NES all over again?  RPG elements also somehow manage to be inferior to 8-bit Final Fantasy in that there's no way to view character stats.  What has changed dramatically is the presentation.  Everything looks and sounds impressive at first glance.  However, upon closer inspection it becomes obvious that all the glamour is hollow, paper thin, and completely lacking in substance.

When you look back at games like the Worms series, Red Faction 2 (and Gorilla), or even Minecraft there were genuine attempts to allow the player to make a mark on the world; specifically environmental deformation.  More recently, games like From Dust, Metal Gear Rising and Astroneer have taken small steps toward improving on the concept, but when it comes to live service games (with the possible exception of Fortnite) the design is noticeably regressive.  Every object and surface in the world is indestructible and enemies themselves are just bags of hit points that burst into non-existence once their damage numbers reach a predetermined threshold, only to later reform out of the ether much like a Disneyland ride that has just been reset in preparation for the next visitor.  There's no persistency, no such thing as injuries, crippling battle damage, or scaring; there are no thoughts of retreat or escape.  Things exist or they don't exist, and on top of all that the AI only seems to have two settings idle about or attack...basically everything has a switch with two setting: off or on.

The expression "wide as the sea, shallow as a puddle," is usually applied to content in video games, but in Anthem that can literally be applied to everything including the Javelin that the player controls.  I'm not talking about a lack of character development (although that is an issue), rather I mean where is the power plant, actuators, shield generator, sensors, communications equipment or weapons systems?  None of these components are represented in the mechanics of the game aside from flight thrusters which can sometimes be disabled temporarily (usually for mission scripting reasons).  The pilot, for all intents and purposes, is impervious to harm.  Even cosmetic damage like scorch marks, slagged armor, leaking coolant and sparking wires are completely absent from the visual presentation.  Sure, there's pyrotechnics and a cacophony whenever a fight breaks out, but that's it.  It's like if a motocross bike did a couple of laps on a race track yet didn't get a single drop of mud on it.

To some degree these sort of things are limitations any video game must wrestle with.  I don't need to explain why "personalized story" and "multiplayer adventure" are mutually exclusive, right?..and yet live service games will claim that it's possible to have your cake and eat it too.  It can be frustrating to hear complaints like "I wish I could grapple enemies," or "my melee attacks contect like a bar of wet soap."  I want to tell such individuals that this is the inevitable result of games that depend on least for companies that want to minimize bandwidth usage.  Would games like Anthem (or Destiny, for that matter) have been better had they gone the single-player offline route?  I don't know (it depends on how much you enjoy playing with friends online), but the potential for a more substantive experience would have certainly been there.  On the other hand if it's a live service, you are pretty much guaranteed to get something shallow, half-baked, and filled with microtransactions.

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