Tak­ing flight with An­them

We sit down with Bioware and get the chance to step into its new world as we take a closer look at how the team is bring­ing its flair to open-world ac­tion

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“For me, An­them re­ally rep­re­sents that next evo­lu­tion­ary step.” So says Bioware game di­rec­tor Jon Warner as we sit down after an ex­hil­a­rat­ing hands-on ses­sion. As far as the Cana­dian stu­dio is con­cerned, this is how it steps for­ward into its fu­ture, but An­them could well be more than that. The way in which it is merg­ing nar­ra­tive de­sign and on­line me­chan­ics could in fact light the path for the next evo­lu­tion of mul­ti­player gam­ing. We’ve been en­thused by An­them from the mo­ment it was re­vealed at E3 2017, but our ex­tended hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence with the game has made us con­fi­dent that while it might be com­pared to the likes of Des­tiny or The Divi­sion, An­them is en­tirely its own an­i­mal.

Evo­lu­tion can be messy, how­ever. Progress, ad­vance­ment and in­no­va­tion are the lifeblood of the videogame in­dus­try, but there will al­ways be mis­steps and Bioware has made its share over the years. What­ever the fail­ures, the false starts and the pit­falls, how­ever, evo­lu­tion is es­sen­tial to growth for a stu­dio like this.

What stands out above all else is that this is Bioware’s vi­sion and ev­ery facet of its ex­pe­ri­ence is be­ing brought to bear, not so that it can keep mak­ing the games of the past, but so that it can lead the charge into a new fu­ture. An­them is dif­fer­ent from what has come be­fore, but it car­ries with it the core val­ues of Bioware.

“I think that if you look at all of our games, start­ing with Bal­dur’s Gate, and then look­ing for­ward, you’ll see that there is an evo­lu­tion of our sto­ry­telling tech­nique go­ing on,” Warner tells us, a sen­ti­ment that has been at the heart of what Bioware has been try­ing to de­fine here over An­them’s five years of devel­op­ment. Through ti­tles like Mass Ef­fect and Dragon Age, Bioware has es­tab­lished a sig­na­ture ap­proach to sto­ry­telling. It’s one that utilises a core cast of unique char­ac­ters to drive you deeper into a cen­tral nar­ra­tive, an all-en­com­pass­ing sin­gle­player ex­pe­ri­ence that, de­spite be­ing clearly au­thored, is pre­sented in such a way that you feel as if you have au­thor­ity over its di­rec­tion. Of course, Bioware knows that this isn’t the only way that it can lever­age sto­ry­telling to in­vest a player in a world and its char­ac­ters.

An­them may run counter to your per­cep­tion of what a Bioware game could or should be, but the game ac­tu­ally looks to re­tain its ties to the stu­dio’s legacy in a num­ber of ways that may sur­prise you. This is a game with a clear fo­cus on co-op­er­a­tive game­play, one that em­pha­sises ex­cit­ing ad­ven­tures and spec­tac­u­lar bat­tles within a gor­geous shared world oc­cu­pied by other hu­man play­ers. It took just a few min­utes with An­them for it to click into place with us, for us to un­der­stand that this is Bioware’s clas­sic ap­proach to world build­ing ap­plied across an all-new can­vas.

“You should prob­a­bly start think­ing of it in two streams,” Warner sug­gests. “There is a more tra­di­tional story, which fea­tures the free­lancers ver­sus The Do­min­ion – it’s a very well crafted story with a be­gin­ning, mid­dle, and end. Then there’s the story that goes on in the world; An­them is a world that was left un­done by its cre­ators, the gods left it and it has be­come su­per dan­ger­ous. That’s not a con­flict we will ever solve and so it’s a plat­form to tell end­less sto­ries on. That’s the job that a free­lancer has, and it will al­ways be a job for a free­lancer.”

There’s still a main nar­ra­tive thread that runs through­out the world, one that’s driven by your re­la­tion­ships with a host of con­flicted com­pan­ions, al­though all of this is weaved through­out a shared open world in which other play­ers and emer­gent events can help drive the con­struc­tion of sto­ries that Bioware never ac­tively con­ceived. This is a Bioware game in which the story never needs to end, told in an en­vi­ron­ment that we are des­per­ately eager to ex­plore more of.

For the pri­vate story, the part that be­longs to you and you alone, we have to look at Fort Tar­sis, your base of op­er­a­tions that no other re­al­world player will ever step into and in­ter­rupt. Here is where you’ll in­ter­act with your pit crew, build re­la­tion­ships with these core com­pan­ions, learn­ing more about them and defin­ing your place within this story. Fort Tar­sis is like the Nor­mandy, only many times larger and more in­volved than any­thing we’ve seen from Bioware be­fore. “It fea­tures into this idea that we had, it’s ‘our world, my story’,” says Warner. “[Fort Tar­sis] is a place where you get to be by your­self, with your NPC com­pan­ions, and re­ally spend as much or as lit­tle time as you want dig­ging into that side of the game. Then you can go out into the open world, that’s where the mis­sions are, and you can just freely ex­plore it.”

Fort Tar­sis is also where you’ll re­ally get to dive into the lore of this world and get a sense of what is driv­ing your story for­ward. It is, in some re­spects, also the emo­tional core of the ex­pe­ri­ence. You’ll see the hard­ships that the peo­ple of this planet are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing, how the half-built and bro­ken na­ture of it has in­flu­enced the devel­op­ment of its pop­u­la­tion. Bioware has said that the plots of the var­i­ous agents hand­ing out mis­sions will be beg­ging to cross over with one an­other, not least be­cause they of­ten serve dif­fer­ent fac­tions with com­pet­ing in­ter­ests. As large as Fort Tar­sis is, it’s ac­tu­ally a quite tightly knit com­mu­nity when you get down to it, it would ap­pear. Most in­ter­est­ing to us, we should ex­pect Fort Tar­sis it­self to change and de­velop as you take on mis­sions with the dif­fer­ent fac­tions, al­low­ing you to have a real im­pact on this per­sonal space in an oth­er­wise shared ex­pe­ri­ence.

But, this be­ing a Bioware game, as im­pres­sive as the world build­ing is vis­ually, it’s equally as im­pres­sive in terms of story and me­chan­i­cal rea­son­ing. While An­them is be­ing built as a play­ground for your imag­i­na­tion, it’s a play­ground built on a fic­tional world that has its own set of rules. The story of this place, of the Shapers who left this world un­fin­ished, and the ‘An­them of Cre­ation’ that is both the cause of so much trou­ble and the power that every­one ap­pears to covet, is all threaded through the me­chan­ics and de­sign of what ex­ists within the world. A great ex­am­ple of this is the Javelins, the ex­oskele­ton suits at the heart of the game. Suits that not only fa­cil­i­tate An­them’s in­cred­i­ble, ex­hil­a­rat­ing ac­tion, but feel per­fectly rea­soned within the fic­tion of this world.

“This isn’t a world of mass pro­duc­tion, there aren’t big fac­to­ries that are crank­ing out Javelins and weapons,” Warner re­veals, giv­ing us some in­sight into the ways in which Bioware has sought to weave lore through­out ev­ery as­pect of An­them’s cre­ation. “It’s more of a so­ci­ety that’s built around crafts­man­ship. A Javelin is ac­tu­ally hand crafted like an old school Rolls Royce.

It’s ac­tu­ally hand built. So, the weapons needed to feel sub­stan­tial and chunky. We started from that space, and it was a re­ally nice mar­riage be­tween de­sign and sound, ar­riv­ing at that place where the Javelins just felt pow­er­ful and good to wield.”

This in turn, ac­cord­ing to Warner, was born from how the game it­self was orig­i­nally con­ceived, as a small group within Bioware be­gan to con­cept the new IP after wrap­ping work on Mass Ef­fect 3. “Broadly think­ing about it, we knew we wanted to do some­thing that’s open world, we knew we wanted to do some­thing that was more so­cial, and so as we started think­ing of ideas, we let that be our guid­ing prin­ci­ple, and ar­rived at this in­ter­est in this,” he ex­plains. “We knew that we wanted to cre­ate

“that’s not a con­flict We Will ever solve, so it’s a plat­form to tell end­less sto­ries on”

a world en­vi­ron­ment that was pro­por­tion­ally very large, com­pared to hu­mans. And we started think­ing about how are we gonna tra­verse it, and what kind of tools we were gonna give to play­ers. It was a re­ally nat­u­ral kind of thing, ‘man, we should al­low play­ers to fly’. So our team put to­gether a re­ally quick pro­to­type, and as soon as you tried it, you were like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is fun.’ Then it was just re­fine­ment, end­less re­fine­ment and it­er­a­tion to get it to just feel so good.”

And that re­fine­ment process has paid off, be­cause there re­ally is noth­ing else quite like the ex­pe­ri­ence of pi­lot­ing a Javelin in this world. If we had to force a com­par­i­son, it might be to the swing­ing me­chanic in Spi­der-man, but only in the sense that both man­age to cre­ate a feel and mo­men­tum that is like a per­fec­tion of some­thing so many have tried be­fore. Warner puts a large part of it down to how the cam­era is be­ing used as well as the tight flight con­trols, be­cause when the cam­era was wrong, mo­tion sick­ness could be­come an is­sue. “It’s not on the game and char­ac­ter, and the con­trols to feel right, it’s got to be about the cam­era as well,” he tells us. “Yeah, there were it­er­a­tions where I would pick up the con­troller and say ‘I can’t play’. So yeah, it was a chal­lenge.”

That’s one chal­lenge that we are happy that the stu­dio took on and was able to over­come. The Javelin suits set An­them apart from the com­pe­ti­tion with ease.

The free­dom of move­ment you are granted across An­them’s sprawl­ing open world is ex­hil­a­rat­ing; the de­gree of pre­ci­sion you are granted over the con­trol of your suit, be it in air or on land, is in­cred­i­ble, par­tic­u­larly as you are able to move at break­neck speeds. While we were given limited op­por­tu­nity to go off and ex­plore, we gained a clear sense that this is go­ing to be a world – be that on our own or in the com­pany of other free­lancers – that we are go­ing to de­vote many an hour to whip­ping across in search of se­crets and un­der­stand­ing.

At this stage, we’re still yet to see the true ex­tent of just how large this open-world is, but given the ways we are be­ing given to ex­plore this en­tranc­ing space we get the feel­ing we are yet to even scratch the sur­face. A par­tic­u­lar high­light is how you can tran­si­tion seam­lessly from fly­ing through the air to pro­pelling your­self through wa­ter.

“It’s shock­ing, isn’t it?” Warner con­sid­ers. “You know, hon­estly, I think that we, as gamers, have kind of been ac­cus­tomed to, or trained to think of our worlds as table­tops. So, as you’re run­ning across it, and you come to wa­ter, and you get in wa­ter, it’s like oh yeah, I get that.

"But when you add this ex­tra ver­ti­cal­ity to it, and there’s now a weird tran­si­tion be­tween the two, it’s just like why weren’t we do­ing this be­fore.”

Of course, the other core pil­lar of the mo­ment-to-mo­ment game­play that is go­ing to be of para­mount im­por­tance is the feel of the com­bat, some­thing that has been some­what il­lu­sive for Bioware in the past. How­ever, with that hand-made feel be­ing strived for through­out the weapon de­sign, the stu­dio may fi­nally have cracked it. While the speed and pre­ci­sion of the Javelins may im­bue nav­i­gat­ing the open world with a sharp sense of im­me­di­acy, this also ex­tends out into each of the com­bat sce­nar­ios we find our­selves fly­ing into con­tact with. The ver­ti­cal­ity of the maps helps bring a new di­men­sion to bat­tles, en­sur­ing that it al­ways feels as if you are on the verge of be­ing com­pletely over­whelmed by en­emy forces.

We are able to meet each emerg­ing threat head on thanks to each Javelins ma­noeu­vra­bil­ity and ca­pac­ity for smart in­ter­play be­tween weapons sys­tems. Each of the four suits avail­able at launch – each ef­fec­tively tak­ing on a dif­fer­ent stan­dard­ised class role – come with a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent weapons and suit abil­i­ties, and these can be com­bined in com­bat to cre­ate spec­tac­u­lar scenes of large-scale de­struc­tion that’s as pleas­ing to the eye as it is crip­pling to en­emy

“YOU’LL NEVER JUST GO OUT ON LIKE A MIS­SION AND SEE OTHER PEO­PLE FLY­ING AROUND”

de­fences. In­ter­est­ingly, Bioware has de­signed its com­bat sys­tems in such a way that it doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily re­quire play­ers to be in con­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion to get the most out of this side to the game – an in­stinc­tual re­ac­tion to the fact that many con­sole play­ers have longa­ban­doned their mi­cro­phones, even in co-op driven ex­pe­ri­ences.

Each Javelin suit is a force to be reck­oned with, but should a team fo­cus fire on the same group of en­e­mies the small-arms weapon fire and more im­pres­sive abil­i­ties will com­bine nat­u­rally. It en­cour­ages play­ers to work to­gether as the re­sult of do­ing so is clear and im­me­di­ate. It feels like a wel­come an­swer to some of the prob­lems that con­tinue to crop up in other genre games. When we said that the Javelin suits set An­them apart from the com­pe­ti­tion be­fore, we weren’t kid­ding around. “There’s an in­ter­est­ing va­ri­ety of [weapon com­bi­na­tions], and one of the in­ter­est­ing things is how that ac­tu­ally flows. It doesn’t re­quire a great deal of co­or­di­na­tion,” Warner tells us. “Which is nice, be­cause it re­ally speaks well of the flow of the game. But then as you’re re­ally go­ing after more dif­fi­cult and so­phis­ti­cated con­tent in the game, and you are hav­ing that nice, tight co­or­di­na­tion, you can get some re­ally spec­tac­u­lar re­sults.”

It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to say that Bioware is hop­ing for a sim­i­larly pleas­ing re­ac­tion in how it com­bines the on­line and solo ad­ven­ture ex­pe­ri­ences of An­them to­gether.

While Fort Tar­sis is the hub for some­thing close to a tra­di­tional Bioware role-play­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, the open spa­ces of the planet be­yond its pro­tected walls are where the emer­gent chaos of mul­ti­player and co-op can take hold. It’s a space where you can spend time with friends and share the ad­ven­tures you find or meet up with new play­ers and as­sist in their jour­neys. Im­por­tantly, it’s down to you to de­cide as to how you want to ap­proach that.

“You’ll never just go out on like a mis­sion and see other peo­ple fly­ing around,” ex­plains Warner. “If you go into the world in free play, you might en­counter strangers who are just out there, but you don’t have to hang out with them. If you want to be play­ing with other play­ers, but maybe your friends aren’t on­line, when you start a mis­sion, other free­lancers who would be able to see you, you open up the world map, and you can ac­tu­ally see what other peo­ple are at­tempt­ing to do, and you can just say, “Oh, I see. I wanna join that.” And peo­ple can join you mid­way to give you re­in­force­ment help. Once you’re done with that kind of ex­pe­ri­ence, you split apart.”

In this re­spect Bioware is reach­ing into a new skill set, test­ing it­self against some­thing more com­plex and con­vo­luted than be­fore, but we won­dered if that might al­most be quite re­fresh­ing. “Yeah, it is, it’s very re­fresh­ing, it’s in­vig­o­rat­ing,” Warner en­thuses.

“And usu­ally, when you talk about a Mass Ef­fect, or a Dragon Age, peo­ple in­vari­ably end up talk­ing about the plots or the points, and it’s very re­fresh­ing, when peo­ple talk about An­them, they talk about fly­ing or fight­ing mon­sters, or the gear, the Javelins, and it’s been a great op­por­tu­nity for us to put game­play first.”

It’s also in­ter­est­ing to note that while open world and on­line gam­ing aren’t con­sid­ered to be in Bioware’s wheel­house, the stu­dio isn’t en­tirely with­out ex­pe­ri­ence in these fields. Mass Ef­fect 3’s mul­ti­player has of­ten been cited as an im­por­tant in­flu­ence on the di­rec­tion of An­them as well as a rel­a­tively un­der­rated el­e­ment of that game’s re­lease, while the Austin team has been able to pass on its best knowl­edge of main­tain­ing a live game ex­pe­ri­ence. “Our team in Austin, work­ing on The Old Repub­lic, they have a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence do­ing this,” Warner agrees. “So, it’s re­ally just lever­ag­ing dif­fer­ent team mem­bers to get the right ex­per­tise.”

In terms of de­vel­op­ing a live world nar­ra­tive, prob­a­bly the best ex­am­ple of the form right now if Epic’s Fort­nite. While it’s quite clearly play­ing in the bur­geon­ing Bat­tle Royale space, Fort­nite’s abil­ity to lever­age an on­go­ing story through­out its sea­sons of con­tent – of its in­tro­duc­tion of new el­e­ments to a sin­gle map space that de­vel­ops around the play­ers with­out dis­rupt­ing the core ethos of play – is clearly go­ing to have in­flu­ence all through­out this genre. Warner doesn’t get too much into how An­them will tackle shared world events,

but Bioware seems to be putting a plan in place, recog­nis­ing how im­pact­ful those kinds of meta-sto­ries can be to con­vinc­ing us we should spend more time in the world. “We’re look­ing at it as kind of a holis­tic ex­pe­ri­ence, and mak­ing sure that we’re pay­ing at­ten­tion to, and do­ing things that will en­gage play­ers across the board,” Warner says. “Ev­ery­body’s got kind of a dif­fer­ent mo­ti­va­tion. Pro­vid­ing lots of in­ter­est­ing rea­sons to come back.”

Im­por­tantly though, so much of this is up to us as play­ers to en­gage with or not. Many Bioware fans have been drawn to the stu­dio’s work be­cause it is about solo ad­ven­tures and im­mers­ing your­self in a world. Whether or not that im­mer­sion will be bro­ken by the pres­ence of other play­ers, we’re not sure. From our ex­pe­ri­ence, we sus­pect it will sim­ply re­quire a dif­fer­ent flavour of sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief to buy into it all. That all said, you can play solo if you want to. “You can choose to play through the cam­paign as sin­gle player,” Warner con­firms. “You go into your op­tions and you set this for in­vite-only ex­pe­ri­ence. And, you know, you can do that, and it’s com­pletely vi­able. But it re­ally does shine and sing when you’ve got full sup­port.”

What we were pleased to dis­cover more than any­thing play­ing An­them was that for all that it is an evo­lu­tion of what Bioware does, we could feel the roots of all of its great­est strengths reach­ing back. An­them is a game that hon­ours this stu­dio’s past achieve­ments, but isn’t weighted down by them. An­them is a shared world de­liv­ered in a way that only this team could make it. “It’s very im­por­tant to us that we cre­ate im­mer­sive worlds, where you can have com­pan­ion­ship, and where you get to be the hero of your own story,” con­cludes Warner. “I think those el­e­ments are very much in­tact with An­them. We’re adding things to it, we’re adding these in­ter­est­ing so­cial sto­ry­telling el­e­ments to it. But, those mo­ments, that com­pan­ion­ship and strong char­ac­ters, those are very much there.”

Bioware is eager to put the con­tro­versy of Mass Ef­fect: An­dromeda be­hind it, look­ing to­wards An­them as a re­fresh of sorts for the stu­dio. If any plans for sin­gle-player DLC had in­deed been planned for An­dromeda, they have now been put on hold as the stu­dio puts its full weight be­hind its ex­cit­ing new project.

An­them is a co-op fo­cused third­per­son shooter set in a sprawl­ing open­world, a space that you can choose to ex­plore alone or with friends. It will be launch­ing 22 Fe­bru­ary 2019.

An­them is at its best when played co­op­er­a­tively with friends, the Javelin suits com­bin­ing in com­bat seam­lessly to cre­ate some truly spec­tac­u­lar bat­tles against the en­emy forces that oc­cupy the world.

Each of the Javelin suits comes equipped with an ar­ray of unique pow­ers and weapons, each of which can be cus­tomised and per­son­alised as you progress through the main story and take to ex­plor­ing the world.

There will be ar­eas of An­them’s open world that will be sim­ply too dan­ger­ous for you to ex­plore at the be­gin­ning of the game. Pow­er­ful en­e­mies such as the Ti­tans can only be tack­led by ex­pe­ri­enced groups of free­lancers.

While it may look like an­other shared-world shooter on the sur­face, this is still a clas­sic Bioware game at heart. An­them is still whole­heart­edly fo­cused around char­ac­ters and the re­la­tion­ships you build with them across the story.

We don’t feel as if it is much of a stretch to claim that An­them is go­ing to be one of the best look­ing games of 2019. The stu­dio is get­ting ex­cel­lent re­sults out of DICE’S Frost­bite en­gine.

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