Anthem review-in-progress: To infinity and beyond

The Pitch

Should a good game end?

Intense, cinematic fare like The Last of Us, Bioshock and Hellblade would argue so. All things are finite and, besides that, endings have power. They allow you to offer closure and put a bow on things. Better to craft an experience that leaves the player on a high note than one that peters out over time as their interest wanes.

Games like Destiny, Warframe, The Division and now Bioware’s Anthem would make the case otherwise. Torchbearers for the notion of live-service games (also known as games-as-a-service), they thrive on the capitalistic assumption that what players really want is limitless consumption.

If you like a thing, are keen to play more of it and the developer/publisher is keen to keep adding more digital content to meet that demand, then doesn’t everybody win?

Set in a savage future ravaged by ecological collapse and environmental catastrophe, Anthem is the latest multiplayer loot-shooter to hit the market. While it’s not entirely without merit, technical faults & short-sighted design makes it tricky to recommend even to fans of the genre.

If you asked me for a list of things I liked and disliked about Anthem, I could come back to you in a heartbeat. If you asked me who Anthem is really for, I’d struggle. Squint, and you can fool yourself into thinking the world of Anthem comes close to the bar set by the Mass Effect and Dragon Age games. But wipe the dust away from your eyes, and it’s hard not to see everything fans of Bioware’s past games have been fearing.

Skyfall

Bioware are a developer best known for evocative storytelling and memorable world-building. Their decision to try and shift focus towards literally anything else was (probably) always destined to court controversy. And, in fairness, there is a case to be made that Bioware and EA can kinda do whatever they want. They don’t - and probably shouldn’t - be locked into making the same style of games over and over again. Innovation, experimentation and evolution are good things to aspire towards when it comes to games design.

That said, the fact that Bioware are moving into the lucrative games-as-a-service model pioneered by modern mobile games (whose chief appeal for publishers is its capability to nickel & dime its player base ad infinitum) doesn’t inspire a huge amount of confidence.

Taking place in a desperate but lush vision of the future, Anthem sees players take on the role of Freelancers: Mercenaries in Iron Man-esque suits called Javelins. You’re equipped with mechanized armor that allows you to fly and tasked with fighting off the oversized fauna and hostile factions that exist outside the jungle sanctuary of Fort Tarsis.

There’s a little bit of setup here involving a mysterious phenomena called the Heart of Rage, a McGuffin called the Cenotaph, an ancient civilization called the Shapers, an evil empire called The Dominion and a big bad called The Monitor. Nevertheless, it isn’t long before you’re flying off into the wilderness and facing off against various factions to make ends meet and ensure the future security and prosperity of Fort Tarsis.

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The loop here is overtly similar to games like Destiny and Warframe, albeit more clunky in execution. If you’ve played either, you’ll be right at home. Between missions, you’ll interact with NPCs and tinker with your javelin in the hub-like settlement of Fort Tarsis. When you’re ready to fly off, you simply approach your Javelin and select the mission you want to pursue.

Completing said mission earns you experience and loot. Rinse. Repeat. A few dungeons aside, the entire world map is unlocked from the get-go and there’s even a freeplay mode that lets you explore and complete public events at your own leisure.

Annoyingly, you can only ever tackle one mission at a time. This quickly becomes a problem because the load times in Anthem are long and frequent in a way that I haven’t encountered in a good while. At times, it would take upwards of two and a half minutes just to enter Fort Tarsis.

As well as being frustrating in their own right, these issues actively make other aspects of the experience worse. They create friction where there didn’t need to be any. The pacing of its missions suggest Bioware want Anthem to be a game you can jump in and play but the reality just doesn’t hold up.

Launch the game, you’ll hit a loading screen. Leave Fort Tarsis? Another loading screen. Fall too far behind your squad because you spent too long in the last loading screen? Here’s another loading screen to catch you up. Completed all the objectives? Have a loading screen before we take you to the mission summary screen and then another one once you decide where to go from there.

It felt like I was spending half my time in Anthem sitting in loading screens and that really ground away my enthusiasm for the game over time. Hopefully future updates for the game make it easier to just jump from one mission into another with minimal fuss. As it stands, the long-loading times are alone feel like a reason to go play Warframe or Destiny over this.

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Regardless, it’s a shame because the flight and traversal mechanics in Anthem absolutely live up to the hype. There’s a dizzying sense of verticality and scope to the world, and I wouldn’t hesitate to say that the experience piloting your javelin is second to none. If there is a game out there that does jetpacks better than this one, I ain’t seen it. And when it all comes together, the effect is breathtaking. There’s a fun rhythm to managing your javelin’s thermals and the wide-open level design also does a great job of forcing you to think creatively to overcome your already-superhuman limits.

By contrast, the combat in Anthem feels more scattershot. It’s not super surprising that the gunplay here isn’t as tight as that of Destiny. It’s a little more surprising that it isn’t even on-par with something like Warframe. Off the cuff, there are plenty of similarities to the firefights in Mass Effect: Andromeda but with an increased emphasis on mobility and the absence of any sort of cover-system.

Anthem’s combat forces you to think in three dimensions and - as well as that being fun on its own - this quality helps separate it from the competition in a way that matters. Using your javelin’s aerial capabilities to reposition or flank enemies is rarely not satisfying. Beyond that, there’s also a combo system that allows players combine their abilities for bonus damage - though it's not tutorialised all that well.

Unfortunately, the inherent strengths of these systems are undercut by the stale arsenal at your disposal. You’re limited to staples like rifles, machine guns, pistols and shotgun. As with Mass Effect: Andromeda, the guns in Anthem lack weight. They don’t have any of the unique lore or designs of Destiny’s weaponry and are without the snappy-feel found in Warframe.

The sum total of these ups and downs is a combat experience that feels chaotic in a way that covers up its shortcomings. Once three or four freelancers are in the mix, it feels impossible to keep track of what’s going on and after you’ve mowed down your first hundred or so alien goons, the next hundred goons begin to feel more like a chore than anything else.

The difficult curve in Anthem is also pretty generous, and it often feels like the only thing being challenged is your patience. You can always crank the difficulty up or tackle things as a solo player. However, I found that doing so only made the flaws in Anthem’s combat more pronounced and made the game less enjoyable.

The Legend Never Dies

Anthem’s science fiction backdrop is one of its more compelling qualities, second only to its flight and traversal mechanics.

Bioware’s decision to opt for an post-apocalypse filled with overgrown jungles, otherworldly canyons and curvy chasms pays dividends here. Though the character and armor designs aren’t quite as striking or diverse those in Warframe or Destiny, they’re far from terrible. The amount of AAA polish and raw production values here doesn’t fail to impress. Anthem looks like a game that was expensive to make.

At times, the tone of Anthem feels both unlike anything else Bioware have done before and a more-than-worthy counterpart to past Bioware settings. Yet, the world of Anthem is also one lacking in character and personality. The story missions wastes little time introducing a cast of overly-emotive (and incredibly-well voice-acted) companions, each of whom can be interacted with between missions. However, each of these characters rarely extend beyond the shadow of the archetype they fit into.

There’s the industrious sidekick, the fallible mentor, the old comrade and the mysterious benefactor. Few are terrible but none feel as three-dimensional or nuanced as Bioware all-timers like Garrus or Alistair. Anthem does occasionally give you the opportunity to flesh out your character through dialogue choices with these companions, but these interactions are largely binary in nature and comes across as very tacked-on.

Thematically, there’s a preoccupation on humanity surviving in the face of impossibly harsh conditions that feels like a natural offshoot of Mass Effect: Andromeda that’s easy-to-grasp and immediately compelling. Unfortunately, these threads never really coalesce or come together into anything particularly compelling beyond set-dressing. Anthem does a great job of making me want to know more about its world. But it isn’t nearly as good when it comes to delivering on that desire. It sometimes feels like the game is actively recoiling away from the more interesting aspects of its premise, and falling back on bad habits like exposition dumps and tired cliches.

And Anthem’s broader design seems to be filled with missteps like this. It’s frustrating that the game locks you to first-person when you’re running around Fort Tarsis and uses the third-person perspective for everywhere else. For all that the game plays up and leans on its kinetic traversal systems, it’s keenness to strip them away from you comes across as bizarre.

It’s equally weird that the game eventually roadblocks your progress through story missions by forcing you to complete menial achievements like opening 15 chests - and then it doesn’t provide any clear way to track your progress towards completing said objectives. The game’s myriad technical issues don’t help the situation much either.

Beyond the lengthy load times and the occasional disconnect, I encountered plenty of texture pop-in problems, crashes, UI elements that wouldn’t load correctly and sudden frame-rate drops. Sometimes, I’d struggle to find a mission objective only for an entire environment to load in minutes after the fact. Other times, the sound in the game would suddenly break, requiring a full-restart - a bug that has seemingly-carried over from Andromeda.

Moment to moment, the Anthem experience isn’t without its merits. However, strung out across the framework of the typical loot grind experience and hindered by technical problems, it doesn’t take long for even the small things to feel grating and tedious.

Given the unique setting and the traversal tools the game gives you, the possibility space for what an Anthem mission could be is staggeringly large but the reality of what’s on offer is so remarkably constrained. Even in its more story-driven moments, the mission design in Anthem rarely ventures outside staples like defend the point, kill the enemy and collect the things.

The Bottom Line

If the expectations you afford to a modern Bioware game is one with consistently-compelling gameplay, a world you want to lose yourself in and a ton of polish, then Anthem makes for a tenuous fit. It’s not an outright failure but it falls far short of what it could be. Classic Bioware fans won’t find what they’re looking for here and, jetpacks aside, there’s just not enough content here to poach fans from competitors. If anything, my experience with Anthem actually made me want to go back and play more of those alternatives.

Anthem is uplifted by a unique setting, stunning visuals and thrilling sense of scale and speed. However, it’s brought back down to earth by a thousand inevitable comparisons that leave it wanting. The gunplay isn’t as good as Destiny. The suit designs aren’t as interesting as Warframe. The load times are too long and far too frequent, stifling any momentum the game manages to build. The mission design is boring and while the world feels big, the speed with which you move around it quickly reveals this to be illusion. The narrative - usually Bioware’s secret weapon - feels more-or-less missing-in-action, and Anthem suffers for it.

Given that is it is a live game-as-a-service, there’s always the possibility that Anthem may yet improve and become the game that EA want it to be in the future. EA & Bioware have already committed to resolving at least some of our technical issues with the game’s Day 1 patch. However, that promise does little to change the fact that you can go and spend your money to play Anthem right this moment - and the thing you’re getting is kinda mediocre.

Anthem feels more like a game that exists because of existing trends rather than one driven by a desire to inspire its own legion of imitators. It's ambitious but it's not ambitious in the same way that Bioware's past games have been. It doesn’t feel like there’s anything in Anthem that the next Destiny or Division can learn from here, aside from Anthem's easy mistakes.

As good as the jetpacks are, Anthem can’t help but feel like yet another take on an increasingly-tired formula. You've probably played a game like this one before and, given the current direction of the games industry, you'll probably play plenty more like it in the future.

There are moments where Anthem soars but the weight of its shortcomings always sends it plummeting before long.

Anthem is available on Playstation 4, Xbox One X and PC. If you pre-ordered the game or are signed up to one of EA's Origin Access subscription plans you can play it right now. Otherwise, the game officially launches on the 22nd of February.

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Fergus Halliday
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