header is screenshot from Anthem
There But For the Grace of Games, Go I
Ed Smith

For me, the title of Anthem is a misnomer. When I think of an “anthem”, I think of a stadium filled with Liverpool fans bellowing “Never Walk Alone,” or everybody, drunk, convivial, towards the end of a party, crooning “Wonderwall” in unison. “Anthem” connotes togetherness; national spirit; a choir of voices. It may not always be pleasing to the ear (despite, and in fact possibly because of, it always being played at the climax of every club night I ever went to as a student, I still cannot stand “Mr. Brightside)”) but an anthem is usually graceful—it commands a mass of disparate individuals and influences, forming together into a voluminous whole.

Anthem, meanwhile—BioWare’s latest videogame, Anthem—though it boasts a litany of both creative and conventional game mechanics, a varied palette of colours, shapes, and other, idiosyncratic visual elements, and a constant volley of music and sounds, fails to unify them and thus give them grace. Especially with regards to the game’s central gimmick, a jetpack which allows players to soar above the landscape and attack enemies from above—and how this becomes combined with the sprinting mechanic, which depicts the player character (the Freelancer) using her robotic power suit to kind of ice skate across even the most jagged terrain—one of Anthem’s objectives seems to be to create a sense of fluidity, a freeness of movement which has the rub-off effect of making the combat seem likewise agile, or balletic. The experiential result, however—the way Anthem feels when you play it, or looks when you watch it—is decidedly graceless. Battles will routinely take place in large but enclosed arenas, wherein successive collectives of enemies randomly, separately spawn, some at the west of the arena, some in the east, some in the centre, etcetera, and rather than flying or gliding around the game in any fluent sense, this results in players jaggedly, abortively doubling back on themselves, scrambling across the maps, taking out enemies like they’re dozens of small fires breaking out in a kitchen.

Anthem’s presentation, too, is chaotically arranged. Some of the mechanical conventions of modern, large-budget videogames to which it adheres are contrary to the inventiveness of its movement system; where its jetpack and sprinting encourage—or attempt to encourage—elegance and speed, Anthem’s vast retinue of weapons, power-ups, and abilities slow players down, and force them to fuss and manage. On top of skittering hither-and-tither to greet enemies, combat invariably, perpetually, involves accessing menu and map screens, scrolling through a list of objectives and information. In-between missions, players are confronted with the option of customising their character and weapon loadouts, to the nth degree. This, actually, is where Anthem’s struggle with gracefulness is brought into sharpest focus.

Although the concept of grace may be linked with the concepts of ability, and expression (when you imagine the most graceful dancer, you are likely to imagine also the most experienced and professional dancer, who has practised all of their motions, flourishes, and sautés, and is confident and proficient in deploying them) in Anthem, providing the player with a range of possible motions—combine gun A with special ability C and perk B—and allowing them the freedom to use, or express them as they prefer, is precisely what robs the game of grace. Gracefulness need not always mean minimalism—the matador, in his vibrant, lavish traje de luces (literally “suit of lights”) is far from minimalist but still extremely graceful—Anthem feels far too busy. The between-mission customisation screens, the numbers that spray out of enemies every time they’re shot, in combination with the aforementioned bags of abilities and unarranged levels, remain constantly in the way of Anthem’s core quality and only notable characteristic, the simplicity and lissomness of its character’s motions.

To me this has implications beyond simply Anthem being a bad game. If the game’s expected, standardised, and fashionable mechanics—what current, big game doesn’t advertise on the breadth of its weapon and character customisation options? Between PUBG, Fortnite, and Apex Legends, when has it been more acceptable or vogue to set even single-player campaign battles, rather than corridors or Middle-Eastern warzones, inside circular, enclosed, multiplayer-style arenas?—are the ones to most-greatly obscure its novelty, and identity, to me that encapsulates how neither of those things can really survive videogame production; how the form, or what the form has currently mutated into, ultimately eats ideas, like Anthem’s most-interesting and core idea, to stage gun combat like elaborate dance and gymnastics routine. As much as anything, this is a personal judgement call: the next person might value and prefer arena battles and weapon choice above the illusion, or sensation, of grace. But I feel like in videogames the latter is rarer than the former, and so naturally more precious.

Ed Smith contributes to Edge, Rolling Stone, Paste, GamesTM, and PCGamesN.