According to recent studies by Upwork and Freelancers Union, more than a third of the U.S. workforce is comprised of freelancers, and those numbers have risen considerably from just five years ago. In 2017 almost 50% of millennials are said to be working in a freelance capacity. This new way of conducting business is often referred to as the “gig” or “freelance” economy, acknowledging the increasing number of workers who are making their own schedules, hopping from contract to contract, and forgoing the benefits typically associated with working full-time at a company or organization.
So, in Bioware’s new loot shooter videogame, “Anthem”, where the character you play as is simply referred to by their title, “freelancer,” odds are good that many players will have an empathetic response when they learn the protagonist’s occupation. While other games in the genre like “Destiny” and “The Division” have been built from similar grindy, loot-driven frameworks, “Anthem’s” explicit use of “freelancers” exposes a synergy of player and character roles (just ask anyone who paid extra to access “Anthem” a week before the official launch only to essentially participate in what was ostensibly a late-stage beta test). “Anthem” is a “game as a service” title, offering a base platform with its initial installment upon which potential years of building and patching will take place, rendering a game that never truly ends and leaves players hanging in wait for a grand payoff. The “gig” that is playing “Anthem” promises a check in the mail at a time indeterminate.
In “Anthem’s” fiction, your freelancer is stationed in a massive fortress designed to protect inhabitants from a hostile world full of monsters and evildoers. Your “work” is donning one of four Iron Man-esque robot suits and flying/shooting your way through enemy hordes. The plot conceit is the dry, widely palatable setup that ancient alien technology has been discovered and everyone wants to get their hands on it for good or ill (one imagines a future update where alien weapons are “newly available”). Turns out there aren’t as many freelancers as there used to be, and so it’s up to you to prove to the rest of the fort that being a freelancer is still a viable occupation in hopes of increasing your numbers. And if nothing else, “Anthem” is about increasing your numbers.
As a “loot shooter,” the basic loop of the game involves taking on a contract, flying to an area and shooting things, collecting new weapons and attachments that spew from the deceased and literal treasure chests, equipping that new and better gear, and then repeating the process ad infinitum. It’s the expectation of games like “Anthem” that players will replay the exact same missions over and over again on the chance of receiving items with higher numbers attached to them. An endgame laundry list of challenges requires players to play 25 of the admittedly more intricate and unique Stronghold missions, but there are only three to choose from. You’re also paired up with up to three other human players, which lends missions a bit of a race-like mentality, especially when you are teleported up to the lead player anytime you stray too far from their sphere of influence, pulling you out of the already thin veneer of immersion within the game’s fiction and world. It is a nice feature for keeping you in the action and ensuring that your colleagues aren’t off wandering instead of helping, but it also hampers your ability to explore the “Avatar”-like jungle ravine open world outside of the freeplay mode.
If you’ve played a “Mass Effect” game, the feel of the third-person shooting is similar here, though the four different flight suits do offer considerable variety in how you approach combat. The speedy Interceptor class plays more akin to a “Devil May Cry” character action game, focusing on melee attacks where guns are only used to close the distance. The Storm class is essentially a floating wizard where you can rain down elemental strikes with spherical areas of effect. And everything changes once you finally get unlock Grandmaster difficulty settings and some Masterwork grade gear, which come with special perks like damage bonuses when firing at point-blank range, for example. And for battling the same droves of bugs and outlaws dozens if not hundreds of times, the loot treadmill at least pushes you to try new approaches at a fairly regular clip, even if that never fully makes up for weapons themselves being hopelessly banal compared to the customizable designs of the robo suits.
And it wouldn’t be a gig “economy” without some shops in which to spend coin. At launch the options for purchase are paltry, and the shopping experience underwhelming. Emotes are for sale and all you have to go on is a still image. Cosmetic adornments are posted too, but you can’t try anything on before purchasing, much less scope out alternate color schemes. If the freelance economy is the future, it sure is weird that “Anthem’s” marketplace is most akin to a traditional mail-order catalog.
At times it’s hard to see anything in “Anthem” but the overarching systems at work –systems designed for a casino-like dedication to keeping you engaged in pulling a slot machine lever. But there is another, decidedly more human side to “Anthem” that is surprisingly affecting: the characters. Developer Bioware retains a waning pedigree in storytelling, and although the core plot of “Anthem” is a rote sci-fi hodgepodge, the smaller one-on-one conversations you have with characters around the fort over repeated visits add nuance and humor to the world. A grizzled freelancer helps maintain a memorial wall for those who have been lost on contracts, and another freelancer sees that memorial wall as a manipulative façade for freelancer recruitment. Across multiple return visits, you’ll learn that both of those characters have more going on with them than just those core sentiments. The writing is there, but like the characters themselves, it doesn’t move beyond it’s firmly planted station and feels isolated from the game at large. “Anthem”’s character interactions do not form a “Mass Effect”-scale space opera, but still there at least are bite-sized nuggets of personality sprinkled throughout.
In fact, “sprinkling” comes off as an overall design philosophy for “Anthem”, which on the whole is a disjointed and clunky experience where the contact high of jetpack flight and rarified guns will last you through one arduous forced loading screen returning to your fort, but probably not the second one you need to sit through to get back into the action. The menu system is a nightmare of embedded layers that you’re better off avoiding (and for the most part, that’s something you can get away with). And even post-patch, “Anthem” has scripting errors and connection failures galore. The map of the fort shows where people are ready to talk to you, but sometimes when you trudge all the way over to them there’s no prompt to engage. It’s not uncommon to hear of players hopping (er, slowly shifting across load screens) between quickplay matches that are locked in unprogressable states, only to keep filling the openings with unsuspecting players when others bail upon realizing the instance is broken. And perhaps worst of all, hard crashes on PS4 are proving perilous for the console hardware itself to the point where it’s tough to recommend playing the game on that console at all until the most egregious of these technical problems are fixed.
It’s this user-unfriendly design that colors so much of “Anthem” as “work.” Loading into a random quickplay mission only to be met with an objective lacking any in-world waypoint or trigger to progress imbues “Anthem” with the kind of high drama normally reserved for filing an invoice with a new company. Your fellow freelancers mill about, cycling through the same three stock clap/wave/glowstick emotes before disconnecting back into another loading screen. The freelancers did everything right. They were told this was a viable option. They were promised riches. What they got was a gig, and oftentimes gigs fall through.