Anthem and Finding The “Soul” of Looter Shooters

The looter shooter genre is currently hot but what gives meaning to its various titles?

Posted By | On 04th, Feb. 2019 Under Article, Editorials


Almost everything, when boiled down to its bare essentials, is about increasing the size of numbers.

The number of miles traveled, the amount of hours played, the square kilometers of an open world, the money earned – whatever it is, we need those numbers going up. We need those numbers going up to pay the bills, to unlock the goodies, to be satisfied. We want those numbers going up because bigger equals better – it’s something our brains have been conditioned to crave since childhood, at least in terms of socioeconomic status. Higher paychecks, a fatter bank balance, more mileage on a car – the list goes on.

Clicker Heroes 2

"So why do we seek the looter, the grinder, the slog when we could easily click that LMB or tap that screen for more instantly satisfying results?"

There’s something about looters that taps into that inner desire. A clicker game is more straightforward – perform this action (X) and the numbers will just keep going up. Perform that action enough times and there will be more intuitive ways to increase it like auto-clicking bots. Oh, and here are some special items you should click on and upgrade menus to navigate that will make the long-term benefits of clicking (i.e. Higher numbers and thus even more means to increase the click-to-number ratio). And don’t get me wrong – this may not be 2015 but clicker games still very much have their own niche and success stories.

So why do we seek the looter, the grinder, the slog when we could easily click that LMB or tap that screen for more instantly satisfying results? There are a number of different reasons. Much like clickers, the feedback loops of gameplay in looters push us to keep repeating the same actions for the sheer sake of performing them. See the combat in Path of Exile, Destiny, Warframe and even Diablo 3 as examples.

The key difference is in the more nuanced gameplay aspects like variety, ingenuity, skill floors and ceilings, competition and complexity. Production values can also play a strong part. Clicker Heroes 2 may look much better than its predecessor but it still doesn’t match the art-style, aesthetic, music and sheer presentation of the hottest looter shooters.

Warframe

"Then there’s the end-game. Ah, the end-game. It’s a smorgasbord of mysterious activities, modifiers, tougher challenges, secrets and repeatable content."

Take Bungie’s Destiny as an example. Story may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you consider a looter shooter but Destiny‘s lore has an exceptionally strong following. It was strong enough to encourage Bungie to not only bring back the Grimoire in Destiny 2: Forsaken along with an in-game codex of sorts to read it, but to also double down on tying lore into key activities. This has resulted in some activities like The Last Wish raid, The Dreaming City Curse, the Ace of Spades quest and so on being extremely well-received by the community.

Warframe, Path of Exile and Diablo 3 also have fairly strong lore that provides a good amount of context to the events unfolding. The stories in Borderlands 2 and Monster Hunter World are also relevant to the conversation as they present fun single-player experiences in their own right.

Then there’s the end-game. Ah, the end-game. It’s a smorgasbord of mysterious activities, modifiers, tougher challenges, secrets and repeatable content. Of build optimization, min-maxing, stats, grinding and pushing higher and higher difficulties. Every looter has an end-game system – Path of Exile‘s Atlas of Worlds, Diablo 3‘s Greater Rifts, Destiny 2: Forsaken‘s disappointing drops and pretty much everything in Warframe. Combine all this together, throw in a hefty amount of updates (or post-launch DLC) and you’ve got yourself a compelling looter. Right?

Not exactly.

"Borderlands 2 was the defining winner of both single-player and co-op looter shooters but there wasn’t a ton of competition."

BioWare’s Anthem has been in development since 2012. At the time, it seemed difficult to imagine the developer creating a looter shooter. Even with the Mass Effect franchise’s shift more towards a third person squad shooter in its gameplay, the RPG mechanics still allowed for a good degree of customization both in skills and weapons. More importantly, the decision-based story-telling, incredible world-building and characterization that BioWare had prided itself on still remained relatively strong. This was the case even after Mass Effect 3’s ending disappointed its fair share of fans.

However, back then, the looter shooter genre was still relatively young. Borderlands 2 was the defining winner of both single-player and co-op looter shooters but there wasn’t a ton of competition. Destiny was little more than a name with Bungie attached to it. Tom Clancy’s The Division hadn’t even been conceived. Warframe was still struggling to get off the ground at Digital Extremes following a long history of publisher rejections.

First-person RPGs were still defined by the likes of immersive sim games like System Shock, BioShock and Deus Ex. Far Cry 3, despite a fair number of skills to learn, was far more of an open world shooter than the “light RPG” approach that Ubisoft is looking to apply to Far Cry New Dawn.

anthem

"For all intents and purposes, Anthem looks to be fun when many of the technical hurdles subside."

When Anthem debuted in the limelight for the first time at E3 2017, it wasn’t really in the best spot to build enthusiasm. Despite a gorgeous gameplay trailer showcasing the world and the destructive power of its Javelins, BioWare was still under scrutiny for the failure of Mass Effect Andromeda. EA also faced its fair share of controversy in the coming months with its version of loot boxes in Star Wars Battlefront 2 and Need for Speed Payback. That’s not including all the rumours of development challenges, the subsequent delay or the relative lack of information regarding its gameplay. Anthem not being a traditional BioWare RPG would only be the first of its many hurdles.

BioWare has done its due diligence in offering more information and gameplay, going over the personalization options, loot, Elder Game activities, difficulties, potential build options and much more. Its communication with the small but growing community has been complimented for its transparency (even if that’s something that a number of different developers have adopted in recent times). The community wanted a social space to interact with each other and got the Launch Bay. The community spoke out about AI problems and BioWare acknowledged the same, noting it was a bug that was corrected. All post-launch DLC and story content has been confirmed to be free. In the words of BioWare GM Casey Hudson, “If there’s something you want more of, we can build it. If something isn’t right, let us know.”

Anthem in general looks all fine and dandy – this article isn’t trying to be skeptical abou the game’s development and monetization, whether it will live up to the hype or if it will “save” BioWare. I haven’t tried the VIP access demo and as such haven’t suffered the multitude of issues that cropped up like connectivity problems, infinite loading screens, performance problems and whatnot. For all intents and purposes, Anthem looks to be fun when many of the technical hurdles subside.

"At the end of the day, it satisfied that urge to keep killing enemies to get better loot, which would then be used to kill more enemies, repeat unto infinity."

Instead, I wanted to talk about my general skepticism around looter shooters. Anthem – and by extension, games like Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, Destiny 1 and 2, Fallout 76 and so on – represent a similar trend in the genre for the past several years. It’s a trend with regards to the looting cycle and the urge to grow ever stronger in these types of games.

Let’s take a look at Borderlands 2, considered by many as the blueprint for a stellar looter shooter. When it launched, the base game was already feature-complete and ticked almost all of the boxes. It had a fun and engaging story (with characters and writing that admittedly wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste), plentiful loot, a post-campaign raid boss for additional challenge and a strong progression curve that continuously made the player stronger.

Leveling up felt fun as did running around and completing side-quests, even if it was to kill a handful of Skags and Knuckle Draggers. Doing all kinds of random things to earn Badass Ranks was fun. There were four different classes to experiment with which all played differently from the first game, even if the Commando with his deployable turret seemed similar to the Soldier.

Borderlands 2 didn’t receive a ton of free content via post-launch updates. Instead, it received paid expansion packs with new story-lines, raid bosses, loot, areas and quests like Mr Torgue’s Campaign of Carnage or Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep. It received smaller paid Headhunter packs inspired by notable holidays and seasons. There were new characters and cosmetic packs as well. All of this had to be purchased and while there was plenty of criticism at the time regarding the content of the Headhunter packs, Borderlands 2 with all of its content still stands as the definitive looter shooter experience. At the end of the day, it satisfied that urge to keep killing enemies to get better loot, which would then be used to kill more enemies, repeat unto infinity.

Destiny 2 Forsaken_01

"Monster Hunter World is a great example of a looting cycle that keeps escalating, making you ever stronger."

It’s really hard to explain why it satisfied that urge so well though. Did it do something different in terms of its quest structure? Does it have better shooting mechanics? A more appealing visual style? Or could it be that the looting cycle just feels more complete? A game like Destiny 2 after its Forsaken expansion seems to satisfy many of the above conditions and even surpasses a few of them.

The looting cycle in a game like Destiny 2 is a little iffy though. The systems just don’t feel like they’re pushing you into a continuous cycle (and no, I don’t mean having a schedule or weekly checklist for pulls of the slot machine). True, you’re always grinding for something and some of the recent Exotics have stood out for their uniqueness and power. However, the game’s Power level grind and Enhancement Core economy feel stifling. There are some great weapons and Exotic items but for the most part, it’s a constant grind that can be fairly roughshod in its rewards, from cosmetics to something as simple as titles.

Maybe it’s that form of progression, going from start to finish, that’s so appealing. Monster Hunter World is a great example of a looting cycle that keeps escalating, making you ever stronger. Sure, that power will become only one component of the end-game process – skill, knowledge of the fight and the right conditions falling into place are just as important in late-game hunts. Not to mention that even with all the variables at hand, though, the looting experience eventually comes to a halt. Your build are as super-optimized as they can be and there’s really nothing left to hunt.

However, you can start a new weapon class and get on that grind again to experiment with new builds. While you’re still experiencing all of that same content again, the looting experience feels just as phenomenal. The fact that Monster Hunter World was never really considered a games-as-a-service title and more like a game that has a definite finish – as evidenced by the campaign itself and the upcoming Iceborne expansion – means that the looting cycle feels more robust.

Monster Hunter World Updated Event Schedule 7

"An excellent looting cycle is the soul of any looter. It may seem obvious but simply having a “good” looting cycle is not enough."

While Monster Hunter World does offer additional content that can offer pretty good increases in power – which you have to grind out, with Kulve Taroth being the biggest case of RNG – the games-as-a-service trend has other ideas. It wants your power to increase but for you to have relatively new experiences while keeping you on that collection/grind.

This isn’t to say that Anthem will fall into the same rut. That’s because, well, I haven’t played the full game so I can’t say it will. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if the game quickly descended into grinding out Coins and collecting cosmetics. Borderlands 2 and Monster Hunter World didn’t have infinite content or a tons of stuff to collect (if you’re not seeking those coveted Attack Jewels, that is). What they had were stellar looting cycles that encouraged players to keep coming back.

An excellent looting cycle is the soul of any looter. It may seem obvious but simply having a “good” looting cycle is not enough (for me, anyway). Offering players great loot isn’t enough. Letting players create super OP builds is great but still not enough. And yes, as great as the combat can be in some games, it’s still not enough. It’s having all of these factors in conjunction with an excellent looting cycle – even if players are stuck with the same guns and load-outs at OP8 in Borderlands 2 – that ultimately defines a looter’s existence. It’s one of the reasons I feel that even an action RPG like Diablo 3 that faced so many problems at launch is still played to this day. And also why titles like Path of Exile and Warframe, which continue to refine their looting cycles along with everything else – power, depth, combat, lore, enemy types, encounter design and so on – manage to stay relevant. Yes, even when they have their own ideas for “games-as-a-service”.

"History has shown that some of the best looting cycles are those which “end” and yet, encourage you to keep replaying because the cycle is just so much fun."

What is Anthem‘s soul at this point? Some will try and call it a Destiny rip-off. Some will say it’s like Warframe meets Mass Effect. But I think much of my skepticism for Anthem‘s looting cycle comes from the games-as-a-service tag as a whole. History has shown that some of the best looting cycles are those which “end” and yet, encourage you to keep replaying because the cycle is just so much fun. In that respect, I’d say Path of Exile has it down better than Warframe simply by virtue of how it handles the cycle.

New Leagues often hold all the new content – if you want to experience the new content, you’ll have to create a new character and experience the looting cycle again. However, refinements are made to the old content as well to keep that cycle fresh without messing with the core. Warframe takes a slightly different approach, continuously introducing new activities, weapons and cosmetics while also revisiting and refining old content. Of course, it also goes off the deep end and introduces stuff like hover-boards, open worlds, and soon-to-be space combat.

Don’t get me wrong. Anthem‘s soul can’t be properly defined without playing it. Comparisons to Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer are tough because that was a just co-op shooter at the end of the day. Anthem wants to encourage socializing and working with groups (“Stronger together” and all that jazz), combining abilities together while also flying about, taking in the world and completing your weekly activities. Eventually this world will expand and so (hopefully) will the story which focuses mostly on one player.

Anthem_04

"My main worry with Anthem is that its looting cycle won’t encourage players to think out of the limited box that the developers have provided."

You could say that Anthem is the natural progression of Mass Effect 3 and Andromeda‘s multiplayer. Like those games, the basic fundamentals of movement, UI design and quality-of-life features still need plenty of work but the core combat is incredibly solid. But in terms of a looting cycle and progression, they couldn’t be more at odds.

My main worry with Anthem is that its looting cycle won’t encourage players to think out of the limited box that the developers have provided. Players will become more powerful and probably solo Grandmaster 3 difficulty after launch without many problems. But the confines of the system will still be readily apparent. Borderlands 2, Path of Exile, Monster Hunter World (to a pretty good extent) and even Diablo 3 encouraged us to think differently with each new character.

The experience was refined for a singular playthrough but still provided tons of fun for those who kept coming back. I feel that the games-as-a-service approach to looter shooters (and some looters in general) doesn’t even offer the best possible singular playthroughs with their limited playgrounds. I mean, sure, the campaign for Destiny 2: Forsaken was good and The Division’s main story-line was perfectly acceptable.

But for me, neither of those games had the same impact as seeing Sanctuary rising from the ground or unraveling the mystery of the New World while encountering all these fearsome beasts for the first time. Neither really made encounters feel vibrant thanks to all the crazy ways to combine abilities or the variable factors of monster AI and environmental conditions.

Path of Exile

"Time will tell if its looting cycle stands out as an experience unto itself rather than simply keeping players hooked, chasing a dragon that never existed."

In terms of end-game content, neither gave me the kind of rush that building Armageddon Brand in Path of Exile and running through hordes of enemies, dropping literal houses on them at every turn, could provide. Let’s not even talk about the sheer sense of power that a Shadow’s Mantle with Impale provided in Diablo 3.

This doesn’t make those games bad by extension and it doesn’t mean Anthem will be bad if it pursues the same approach. For the time being, Anthem needs to work on its fundamentals and refine them to near-perfection if it wants to capture the audience it’s seeking. It’s just funny to me how after all these years, we’d praise looter games for keeping us on the hamster wheel, constantly grinding away to glory. When in reality, they offered intricate journeys that took us to satisfying conclusions. Maybe the grind is getting to me and I’m yearning for the old days. Maybe I’m just skeptical about Anthem in general, having sunk so many hours into so many other looters.

Whatever the case may be, BioWare has its work cut out for them. In an industry that’s constantly seeking the next big thing, a fair amount of hype has latched on to Anthem. More soaring and less sinking would definitely be preferred as this stage but time will tell if its looting cycle stands out as an experience unto itself rather than simply keeping players hooked, chasing a dragon that never existed.

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.


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