God of War vs. Anthem: A Confrontation of Mythic Proportions
Now this is a pickle.
Let’s start at the beginning. I love BioWare. I’ve loved them since I played Mass Effect 2 in the fall of 2010, which was a great year for gaming. I’d even go so far as to say it was one of the best years for gaming ever, given that it saw the release of Mass Effect 2 and Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption. Mass Effect 2 instantly became my favorite game – a title that, with the recent release of Studio Santa Monica’s God of War, was recently confirmed as my favorite game of all time.
While God of War comes in a close, can-barely-see-it-with-the-naked-eye second place, Mass Effect 2 remains my favorite game because it does everything it sets out to so unbelievably well. It’s not a short game, easily boasting a 60 hour campaign, nor is it a boring game, with fun shooting and sci-fi-magic powers called “biotics”.
Perhaps most relevant, however, is the fact that Mass Effect 2 has some of the best characters and story of any story, from any medium, ever. This isn’t by accident; BioWare’s motto is “Rich stories, unforgettable characters, and vast worlds.” Anthem, scheduled to come out on February 20th, is BioWare’s next game. I’m excited for it, but I dread it in equal measure. The reason for this is simple – and it ties directly in with God of War, which I’ve already mentioned in this article, and will mention again, in a moment.
Simply put? Anthem is primarily a multiplayer game, with the single player story riding back seat to loot chasing and end game grinding. Why? Because BioWare – the legendary king of the single player, character and story driven games – sold out to Electronic Arts, the Evil Empire of gaming.
Now, to be fair, BioWare is trying something new that I happen to think is very cool: make a multiplayer game that has a BioWare standard of storytelling at its heart. If they can pull it off, that very well could be a new direction for the industry to emulate (and I’d be okay with it, to be honest, as I love multiplayer games as much as the next person).
The sad reality, however, is that effectively telling a story at the level of Mass Effect 2 (or God of War, or The Last of Us, etc.) is an immensely tall order – and that’s just talking about single player games. Adding multiplayer into the mix only muddies the waters, which is a questionable gamble for a developer to take, especially coming hot on the heels of BioWare’s disastrous 2016 release of Mass Effect: Andromeda, wherein BioWare took one of their best franchises (Mass Effect) and essentially ran it into the ground.
There’s more to the story than this, of course. Andromeda – usually referred to as ME:A – wasn’t made by BioWare proper. It also wasn’t an awful game after it saw some improvements. It wasn’t a great game, but it was fun to play and had cool combat. The problem was that ME:A was a lackluster successor to some of BioWare’s best work. It wasn’t what the Mass Effect franchise deserved. Ultimately, it turned a lot of people off of BioWare altogether.
Inevitably, fingers were pointed. They landed on EA, and - to be fair - this blame was at least somewhat deserved; EA did themselves no favors by declaring the single player game dead in 2010, and subsequently shifting the focus of the entire company to online multiplayer games.
Yet there’s something more important at play here, which is that EA was just the voice of what large game publishers were already thinking. In other words, EA didn’t move the industry in this new “multi-player” direction so much as it was that gaming was already seeing a renaissance in the online gaming experience, and EA simply acknowledged what they saw.
Big titles like Destiny, which came out in 2013, would further capitalize on and push along this transition. Subsequent heavy hitters (Overwatch, Player Unknown: Battlegrounds, Fortnite, For Honor, Rainbow Six: Siege, The Division and Ghost Recon: Wildlands, to name a few…) elected to either trim down or remove entirely their single player experience in lieu of an online gaming experience they could adjust and monetize for months, even years.
Most importantly, they all made a lot of money.
For a dark minute, it looked like EA was right.
The single player campaign was breathing its final, ragged breaths as a few heroic games fought for the future of the single player experience. Notable examples include CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher III in 2015 and Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in 2016. Their struggle was valiant - but still, it felt somewhat in vain.
In 2018, however, a new trend was beginning to settle in: good single player games with a DLC schedule and/or a multiplayer component that kept the companies happy and the fans sated. Red Dead Redemption 2, for example, offered a 60-75 hour campaign at launch, but would later monetize itself with an online mode. Structures such as this one seemed like perhaps the dust was settling with a compromise.
Yet there was a danger here. Take Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, for instance. I’m currently playing through this game myself, and I have to admit, it’s a great time. It’s a good game (maybe not a great game, but assuredly it’s good). It also offers an in-game shop wherein players can pay real-world money to artificially advance their character’s XP (experience points) in the main campaign. In other words, you can pay extra money to play the game faster.
If that doesn’t make you feel slimy, you’re not paying attention.
Then, something incredible happened.
God of War, by Studio Santa Monica, released to near-universal critical and audience acclaim. God of War is a purely single player game with absolutely no bells attached. There is no in-game store. There is no DLC on offer. There is absolutely no multiplayer component. The game isn’t obnoxiously long, clocking in at 20-30 hours for a normal playthrough, 30-35+ hours for a craved completionist (hi, hello, how are ya). It is – when considered against the dueling 60-70+ hour campaigns of Red Dead Redemption 2 and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey – a relatively little game. It’s also hands down one of the best games I have ever played.
Playing God of War felt like a revelation. It toppled the last real jaw dropper I can remember (The Last of Us, which also had an online component and in-game-microtransaction store) and launched to the number two spot on my list on the merit of its story, characters, soundtrack, stunning visuals, color, and cultural prescience. God of War is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. It is important. It is beautiful. It is necessary.
When God of War upset the 2018 Video Game Awards and won Best Game instead of critic favorite Red Dead Redemption 2, the gaming world was shocked in the best way possible.
Personally, I was strangely emotional when Studio Santa Monica took home the GOTY. Not because I didn’t love Red Dead Redemption 2 – I do – but because there’s something truly pure and classic feeling about God of War, with its absolute refusal to be anything but a single player experience. Not to mention, there’s something inspiring about seeing a team of 300 people take on a behemoth like Rockstar Studios, who – in addition to developing the game for nearly ten years with a total workforce of about 3,000 developers – spent a minimum of $170 million dollars on game development. Talk about David and Goliath.
So it’s even more fitting, somehow, that God of War – freshly adorned with it’s 2018 GOTY laurels and beloved by basically everybody who played it – finds itself in a de facto face off, through sheer happenstance, against Anthem, the new multi-player single-player hybrid monster from BioWare; a game upon whose success an entire developer’s future might very well rely.
In a nutshell, what happens with Anthem is important. The video game industry stands at a crossroads, and what happens this year could very well effect what kind of games we see being developed over the next decade. What’s worse is, I don’t know who to root for. On the one hand, I want God of War to set the standard for how games should be developed. I want studios like Studio Santa Monica, CD Projekt Red, and Naughty Dog to set our course. On the other hand, Anthem’s failure could spell the end for BioWare. The death of a massive game company isn’t only possible – it’s painfully, agonizingly common. I’m currently going through the heartbreak of watching Blizzard – another game developer I love deeply – fall apart at the seams. As for my prediction?
Business will go where the money is.
Ultimately, the fate of our games sits with us.
Buy the games you want to support, folks.