When a titan of the game industry gets into a genre the anticipation is always high for what they’re going to bring to the table. The looter shooter genre which came to popularity with titles like Destiny and The Division was seemingly set to see a new competitor this year in the form of Anthem from BioWare. I have to admit, even though I tried my darndest to stay away from the hype for it, I was excited to see what it would bring to the table. Heck I was even hoping it’d become another Destiny, something I could pick up every so often when a new DLC dropped to enjoy a casual raid or two. Unfortunately though those high expectations haven’t been met and the game that we’ve received seems to be cut down in scale and burdened with numerous problems that prevent it from achieving what it set it out to do. To be sure, there’s some great fundamentals in here, but we as gamers are tired of mostly finished games; especially from AAA developers.
The Anthem is a force of pure creation, left behind by the shapers of this world along with their various relics that forged this place that we now call home. Every so often the Anthem rises again, it’s unbound power causing chaos by ripping through the land. You, a rookie tagging along with famed freelancer Haluk for your first mission, go to tackle the Heart of Rage: a cataclysm that’s being caused by a device called the Cenotaph. The mission goes horribly astray however, with many of your fellow freelancers perishing at the horrors that were created. With that the hope that many in the freelancers is dashed and you spend the next couple years taking on odd jobs to keep the lights on. However it becomes apparent that an old power, The Dominion, is seeking to control the Anthem by using the Cenotaph at the heart of rage. It’s up to you, freelancer, to ensure that the ultimate power of creation doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.
If there’s one thing that Anthem gets right it’s the visuals which set the bar for what many other games will be compared to this year. They come to us care of the Frostbite 3 engine so it’s no surprise that it’s able to pull off all the modern graphics tricks in the book. Flying through the environments is a joy, the wide vistas providing many good screenshot worthy moments as you explore the world of Bastion. It can get a little visually confusing during heavy combat scenes (with the enormous amount of particle effects everywhere) and during puzzle sections (as puzzle items blend in far too well with the background) and I don’t think that’s something that’s ever going to change unfortunately. Performance is also pretty great as I never experienced a perceptible drop in framerates whilst I was playing. I did initially tweak the settings a little bit to get it running smoother, I think just by turning off AA. Other than that I didn’t need to touch anything else for the rest of my playthrough.
Anthem’s core gameplay sticks close to the looter shooter fundamentals starting off with you picking a particular character class that will define your playstyle. As you level up you’ll unlock the others and you’re free to switch between them you may not have enough gear to make one viable at your current power level without a little grinding. There’s a core story campaign which you’ll need to complete to unlock most of the game’s content including strongholds which are the game’s endgame content. You can customize your javelin’s weapons and abilities with loot drops, all of which have their own play style and synergies with each other. There’s also the usual tropes of daily/weekly missions, world events and a rudimentary crafting system to try and drag you back day after day. When all is said and done there is a decent bit of content in Anthem, maybe a little less than there was in Destiny when it originally released, but what’s lacking is a driving force to make you want to explore it.
Combat starts out being one of the most impressive parts of Anthem with all the abilities and dynamic aerial fighting feeling like something truly new to the looter shooter genre. The abilities are the standout parts of the combat, especially when you work together with your teammates to unleash some spectacular combos that explode in a glorious cacophony of particle and sound effects. I have to admit to having quite a lot of fun in my colossus with the shock coil attachment, an AOE lightning attack that just cooked enemies around me as a I walked at them and triggered off combos left and right. The ultimate abilities are incredibly satisfying as well, allowing you to do incredible amounts of damage against even the toughest opponents if you know how to use them properly. However after a time the combat starts to get samey and that’s when the cracks start to appear.
The guns, for instance, are nearly completely useless in comparison to your abilities. You’ll often be plinking away at an enemy for what seems like an eternity with your main weapons, just killing time until you can use one of your abilities again to do some real damage. This doesn’t even change with higher tier loot unfortunately as the abilities scale much better. The abilities to don’t change much past a certain point and most of them are just variants on the same thing like the flamethrower just being a cone version of the shock coil or the various versions of the mortar and flack canons. This, coupled with the lack of mission variety, means that after a certain point every encounter starts to feel quite samey and that’s when the boredom starts to set in. This is typically where the loot grind is supposed to be the draw card but unfortunately Anthem got this completely and utterly wrong.
You’re lavished with loot from the get go, which isn’t an issue in and of itself, however it’s not entirely clear which piece of gear is better than another due to the downright confusing stats page in the forge. Most upgrades don’t really feel like they change much either, especially for upgrades that are in the same weapon or slot class. Without a meaningful power progression you don’t really feel compelled to seek out better gear. Worse still it doesn’t really seem like playing on the harder difficulties (at least pre-end game) nets you any more or better loot, completely negating the reason for taking on the additional challenge. The difference between hard and normal can also be the difference between getting stuck on a mission for an hour and getting it done in 5 minutes, further pushing you towards simply playing it on the easiest and breezing through. Whilst I didn’t bother with any endgame activities I’ve heard that this situation continues on even there which honestly doesn’t seem like a good way to increase player retention.
Flying around the environments starts out feeling exactly like what was promised back when Anthem was first demoed although, for some weird reason, they decided to limit your flight time when you’re flying between missions. This is supposed to be counteracted by you diving every so often or flying through a waterfall to cool your javelin’s jets but neither of these seem to work consistently. I could understand limiting flying in combat but for exploration? It just feels like that was done to make the world feel artificially bigger than it actually is. Even then though you can see all of the world in a pretty short timeframe if you’re so inclined as the overworld isn’t as big as it seems at first glance. You also can’t fly over any of the mountain ranges you can see in the game, instead you get pushed back down by jetstreams, further limiting how you can travel. I think many of us were drawn to this massive world that you’d be able to explore in a giant mech suit but instead what we’ve got is a limited world with limited options to explore it.
Decoupling your javelin’s look from its armament was a good idea on BioWare’s part although, weirdly, they’ve essentially given you unlimited customisation options right of the hop. Sure there’s only a couple types of javelin cosmetic sets available but you’re given dozens of different materials and unlimited colouring options right at the start of the game. This means that you can basically craft your own visual style right away without much need for you to go searching for a bit of loot to make your javelin look awesome. Whilst I appreciate the ability to do this it further diminishes the value of end game loot as part of the appeal is wearing your high tier gear in front of others, signalling you’ve done the game’s hardest challenges. Combine this with the other loot issues and you’ve basically got very little reason to pursue any end game activities at all.
This is also not mention all the base technical issues that plague the game, even after the proper “release” (side note: if the game is playable by the general public, it’s released. Anyone who says otherwise is being disingenuous to deflect negative feedback). Crashes and disconnects aren’t common place but do happen and without any kind of checkpointing system if you were in the middle (or at the end, in my case) of a mission you’ll have to do it over from the start. The UI is total garbage with even the simplest tasks taking ages to complete. Want to tag something as junk for mass deletion? That’ll take about 3 seconds to complete, just as long as it’d take for you to deconstruct the item manually. Challenges don’t track properly in the UI either and you’ll often get notified about tracking something which you’ve already tracked. Navigating between different panes defies usual UI conventions as well, often meaning you’ll end up completely quitting out of a particular menu by accident rather than going back to the previous tab. Anthem really needs some love when it comes to the quality of life department as simple things like this shouldn’t be so hard.
Anthem’s story was set up well for it to go anywhere the writer’s pleased and, for what it’s worth, I enjoyed it for the most part. Sure the villains, characters and various plot twists are predictable and one dimensional but the world behind it was pretty well fleshed out. The voice actors also did a great job of bringing the script to life as well and I was surprised at the number of big name talent I recognised reprising their roles in Anthem. Honestly had the core game been better the story could’ve really shone but, unfortunately, it’s hard to enjoy a good story when so much of the rest of the game just isn’t up to par.
The weight of expectations has proved to be too much for Anthem as the game we’ve received after so much anticipation has left us all wanting. To be sure the game’s opening moments are extremely fun, bringing a fresh perspective to the looter shooter genre and setting you up for what feels like an epic BioWare experience. However the shine starts to quickly wear off as it becomes apparent that there’s just not a lot of variety in the core aspects of the game and little outside that to keep you motivated. The conclusion of the main campaign is where I left Anthem as there was nothing left there that I wanted to explore. It’s a real shame honestly as it feels like Anthem could’ve avoided many of these mistakes but simply didn’t. Perhaps future DLCs and patches will bring it back up to par, much like it did for The Division and Destiny, but we gamers are long past the point of wanting to play games that aren’t finished.
Anthem is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $89.99. Game was played on the PC with 15 hours total play time and 19.5% of the achievements unlocked.