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How BioWare Nailed the Thrill of Flying in ‘Anthem’

Anthem” takes place on a world teeming with alien wildlife, hostile factions, and towering monsters. But you won’t be able to see any of them without learning how to fly.

The big stars of developer BioWare’s sci-fi action-RPG (coming Feb. 22, 2019 to PC and consoles) are the Javelins, mech suits that skilled pilots use to protect humanity. They have Iron Man-like thrusters that allow them to soar through the environment, which is helpful for finding important artifacts or for flanking enemies from different angles.

At this year’s EA Play fan event, I spent 15 minutes with the new “Anthem” demo, which uses the same mission that BioWare showed off during EA’s E3 briefing. My adventure began on top of the Strider, a giant four-legged machine that also acts as your mobile headquarters. Three BioWare developers were in my squad to coach me through the basic features of my mech. One guy jokingly told me not to wander off the platform lest I fall to my doom (I later learned that Javelins don’t take falling damage).

As I walked around, I kind of felt like a baby bird, shying away from the rooftop’s edges and experiencing just a tiny bit of vertigo as I looked down at the lush forest floor below me. But getting airborne was quite simple. Using an Xbox One controller, all I had to do was jump with the A button and then click on the left analog stick (while still in the air) to activate my thrusters — and boom, I was flying right alongside my teammates.

Since you always travel in the direction you’re facing (wherever the targeting reticule is pointing at), navigation was also a breeze. After a few minutes, flying felt natural and intuitive, even in combat. It seems simple now, but according to technical design director Brenon Holmes, it took the team a long time to nail down the look and feel of futuristic flight.

“We’ve been doing flying prototypes for, oh god, years. And there’s been so many different versions,” Holmes told Variety. “So we’ve really been playing around with a lot of different mechanics, like how you get in and get out [of flying]. There have been versions with the HUD and without it. There’s been versions where you can fly in any direction, versions where it was only a glide kind of thing. But it’s definitely been a really long process to get where we are now.”

The developers knew that bad flying could easily cripple “Anthem,” where it’s such a crucial part of the experience. So they took the time to get it right through constant iteration and focus testing. However, they were also concerned about making it too fun, to the point where you’d never want to touch the ground again.

That’s one reason why the Javelins have a temperature gauge: If you fly around for too long and overheat the suit, you’ll drop from the sky like a pile of bricks. It will automatically cool down whenever you’re on terra firma, but you can also cool yourself by flying underwater or through waterfalls. And as you progress through the game, you can find special suit modifications that allow you to stay in the air longer than usual.

“With any kind of really fun mechanic, you don’t want to — it’s like having too much sugar. You don’t want too much of it all the time,” said Holmes. “So we try to find that balance where you can have enough fun, hit the ground for a little bit, and then take off again. Skilled players will be able to fly longer. They’ll know where the sources are, where they can cool themselves down and interact with some of the environmental effects.”

The other major reason you can’t just fly around forever (or up in the atmosphere for that matter) is more of a performance issue. Holmes explained that because of the way the game streams the environment around you as you play — so you don’t have to sit through load times in the open world — flying too far or too fast would result in ugly pop-ins and other graphical mishaps.

After all, the last thing you’d want to worry about in a heated firefight is not seeing your enemies because a bunch of textures wouldn’t load. It’s no surprise then that when I asked Holmes what he’s most proud of when it comes to “Anthem’s” technical achievements, the BioWare veteran could only think of one thing.

“Getting to the point where [flying] is now, where it feels so seamless and people seem to pick it up so easily — that’s definitely it. … It also seems to be what people are engaging with the most and having the most fun with. I still have a lot of fun just flying around, just the feeling of it,” he said.

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