Days Gone and Anthem, in a AAA-studded E3 catalogue, are still filling up column inches throughout gaming outlets and forums. The majority of traction, however, is not down to universal positivity, but due to their highly mixed receptions. Both games satisfy completely different gameplay palettes, with Days Gone as a strictly single-player affair, and Anthem unsure of whether it wants to be a single-player game or an MMO, contrary to what BioWare is stating. However, viewed critically, both titles reveal deeper issues sweeping 2018’s E3: an industry-wide tension between single-player and multiplayer.
Of course, Anthem and Days Gone serve different market goals, with the former hoping to become a cross-platform staple, and the latter acting as further support for Sony’s single-player consistency. Both games, though, have received lukewarm reception for different reasons: Anthem for seemingly directionless design and Days Gone for failing to stand out from its single-player-oriented peers. Between the chasm of each game’s goals lies a commonality of two titles treading creative water. Days Gone, which has received torrents of comparisons with The Last of Us, needs to make the most of this E3 to differentiate itself to the single-player market. Even if Days Gone shows off more of its unique environments, huge enemy hordes, and pretty diverse combat system, that will not be enough if it struggles to emancipate itself from The Last of Us‘s shadow.
The question that arises, then, is how does Days Gone define itself from its peers? By even attempting to cross over into similar aesthetic ground as another single-player title, the project is painted as being wholly unoriginal and boring. Effectively, the single-player market is becoming crowded, with games running out of creative elbow room; as soon as a new title touches the aesthetic or philosophical sensibilities of another, it is immediately discredited. When a market becomes crowded, companies look for ways to inject new life into them. If Anthem, for example, served as a single-player-focused title, it would draw unfavourable comparisons to previous BioWare series, including Mass Effect. Of course, this sentiment is mere conjecture, but the reception for Days Gone, along with other single-player titles, suggests a trend that single-player games are criticised for a lack of originality far more than their multiplayer counterparts. Multiplayer series, from Fortnite to Battlefield, thrive on relatively small changes and alterations from competitors, yet single-player games do not seem have that same luxury of borrowing heavily from peers. As a result, the integration of online play is not just a gameplay or economic choice, but a decision to give BioWare enough breathing room to create a series free from single-player expectation.
Comparisons, though, are always rampant, with Anthem drawing comparisons with Destiny. Anthem is seemingly hoping to borrow multiplayer aspects from that title whilst adding a new, single-player-focused element. However, Anthem, too, is struggling to find itself in within a muddied sense of what it is actually trying to be. Despite comments from BioWare stating that Anthem is not an MMO or a multiplayer game with “story bolted on the side,” the fact that the title is online-only, has no romance options, contains an awkward transition between single-player segments and multiplayer environments, and contains little to no party dialogue ends up indicating a game absent of any BioWare charm. As a reaction to the responses of solo games such as Days Gone, Anthem has sought multiplayer as an avenue out, but has forgotten that it needs actual character first. By foregoing a firm single-player or multiplayer foundation, Anthem is on its way to becoming an awkward amalgamation of too many systems, with the single-player aspect possibly ending up being relatively anaemic.
Following Metro Exodus’s surprising announcement that it will be sharing a release date with both Anthem and Days Gone, perhaps that is the outlier that will, at least critically, overtake both titles. Metro, unlike Days Gone, has the privilege of being sourced from material outside of games; an argument exists that titles in the vein of Metro are immune to the conflict between single player and multiplayer as their foundations lay within literature, not gaming itself. By positioning itself outside of the wider cultural and industrial expectations of video games’ inspiration, and by committing to a linear, single-player experience, Metro may be, for many, the most enticing release on February 22.
The commonality ends due to each game’s final approach: Days Gone has committed to single-player, whereas Anthem has attempted to stretch itself between single and multiplayer and will likely lose itself in the process. Both titles point to an E3 that is underpinned by an anxiety about where games are going and a tension of whether single- and multiplayer design can be homogenised. For certain, judging by the response to EA Play, gamers are crying out not for a cross-over of styles of play, but for plain old creativity and thoughtful design.