Anthem is a striking example of how familiarity breeds contempt. It makes, without a doubt, one of the best first impressions I’ve ever seen. It looks stunning as you delve into the Heart of Rage for the first time, wind kicking up sand and ash, heat roiling off rivers of lava. And that sense of awe continues for the first hour or two. I mean, come on, you can fly. It’s amazing. You’re bootleg Iron Man, rocketing through a lush jungle filled with crumbling temples and alien wildlife.
Then Anthem runs out of things to show you, and it all falls apart.
Everything has fallen to pieces
Here’s an anecdote I think sums up Anthem’s problems. I’ll try and keep it spoiler-light, but...well, to be honest I don’t really know why, because there’s not much to spoil. More on that later. Regardless, if you’re worried, stop reading.
Anyway, I’d finished up a bunch of busywork missions and finally reached a point where it seemed like the story was full-steam ahead. We’d tracked down the location of an ancient tomb, the resting place of a long-lost general with some insight on our current predicament. This place had been apparently lost to time, a ruin hidden deep in the jungle. It feels like an Important Moment in Anthem, one of the few. It’s the climax of everything you’ve done up to that point.
I reached the tomb. I opened it. I stepped inside. I prepared myself for amazement.
And you know what I found? Giant scorpions, the same filler-mob enemy I’d fought for over 12 hours at that point. They uh, “had a nest” inside this long-lost tomb. Alongside my crew of matchmade stranger-partners, I plinked away at these giant scorpions until they died, and then got to business inside the tomb.
It’s hard to explain the sense of disappointment without that 12 hours of context, but let me put it this way: It’d be like reaching a climactic moment in Skyrim or Dragon Age or some other fantasy RPG and finding out the long-lost emperor’s tomb was populated by, cliché of clichés, giant rats. Like, that’s it?
And this is the fundamental issue with Anthem: It never changes. What you’ll see 20 hours in is basically the same stuff you’ll see when you start the game—same abilities, same weapons, same paltry handful of enemy types, same missions, same everything.
I won’t deny Anthem makes a great first impression. I can’t deny that, actually. Right out the gate, the mobility feels fantastic. Flying with a mouse-and-keyboard takes a bit of getting used to, but soon I was hovering over the battlefield delivering huge payloads of fire and lightning to enemies below, then flying around a few pillars to dodge incoming fire, returning to a hover to pick off a few more enemies with my sniper rifle, going to ground to deliver a finishing melee blow, and so on.
The guns don’t feel quite as good as Destiny, but the abilities certainly do, and the first two hours are a pretty exciting time. After every mission I returned to base and swapped in new abilities on my mage-mech, the aptly named Storm javelin—first a lightning strike, then a series of fiery detonations, then huge chunks of ice, then an orb of fire that chased enemies around the battlefield. It’s very flashy, and fun to try out new combinations.
Again, the catch: It never changes. Within two or three hours you’ll likely have earned one of each ability. You’ll keep leveling, and keep earning more “powerful” versions of those same attacks, but since enemies scale to your level the damage numbers never go up in a way that feels at all meaningful. The awe-inspiring lightning strike ability you get at Level 3 is effectively the same one you’ll see at Level 20.
And as I said, familiarity breeds contempt. The first time you call down lightning on your enemies? Amazing. Like anything else, it’s susceptible to diminishing returns though, and by the end of the game it’s hard to elicit any excitement over seeing that same animation again.
The same goes for the guns. There are maybe two-dozen in the entire game, split into a few subcategories—assault rifles, sniper rifles, shotguns, and so on. You’ll see them all in the first two hours, and then it’s just a matter of picking the higher-level version of the ones you like using, forever.
There are perks on your gear. Those are ostensibly what distinguish a Level 21 weapon from a Level 2 weapon, tags that add slightly more assault rifle damage or more shields or whatever. In practice these aren’t very meaningful though—or at least, they’re not meaningful until you get to Masterwork weapons, which have interesting effects like “Instantly reloads shields when you empty the magazine.” Unfortunately the game doesn’t dribble Masterwork weapons out as you go, it saves them all for the end game, after you’ve completed the story and run the three “Stronghold” missions over and over again. Thus the vast majority of your time with Anthem as it currently stands is spent with the same handful of weapons, the same handful of abilities, and it quickly becomes a chore.
It’s a loot game with no interesting loot.
Missions likewise fall into a few categories with infinite repetition. Sometimes you go to a place and kill everything. Sometimes you go to a place and kill everything while standing in a small green circle, waiting for a timer to fill. Sometimes you kill everything while hunting down a handful of objects and returning them to a central area—either a magical doorway, or sometimes an ancient bit of machinery called a Shaper Relic.
That about covers it, really. And you know what? Whatever. Anthem is a shooter, and it doesn’t disguise that fact. Destiny, The Division, Warframe, Far Cry, they all boil down to the same limited number of actions, ad infinitum. But for some reason Anthem just feels more nakedly repetitive, and more artificial.
Maybe it’s a story problem. It’s hard not to point a finger in that direction, because nothing in Anthem matters. When we previewed the game last month I typed out a few lines of Anthem lore as an example of how exhausting its world-building can feel, nonsensical sci-fi jargon falling out of every single character’s mouth, and the full release doesn’t fix the issue. It’s all “Anthem of Creation” this and “Legion of Dawn” that and “If you don’t believe that your javelin works, then it won’t work anymore.” No seriously, that’s a real plot point in Anthem, albeit one that’s mentioned in a single side conversation and then never brought up again.
Listen, I made it through 20-plus hours of Anthem and I still couldn’t tell you what the titular “Anthem of Creation” is. I have an idea—it’s some sort of world-creating force that’s gone awry. But why did it go awry? Who built it, if anyone? Why’d they leave it behind? Is it a machine, a pool of energy, or just a metaphor? I don’t know.
Likewise, Shaper Relics are hinted to be this incredibly dangerous anomaly we need to take care of, as Freelancers. Conversations indicate they can mess with space-time, or like...turn a person inside out, or level a city, or whatever. Nobody really knows! It’s a plot device with literally infinite possibilities!
Anthem wastes it. Not only do Shaper Relics pop up approximately every other mission (thus rendering them not quite as threatening as you’d expect) but the only ones we see spawn the same boring enemies you’ve fought a million times. That’s it. Sometimes it’s wolves. Sometimes its scorpions. It doesn’t really matter. Oh, there is one cool Shaper Relic, the Manifold, which does some interesting stuff-I-won’t-spoil in a cutscene, but only in a cutscene. The actual culmination of that particular storyline comes and goes in the span of two generic missions and is never mentioned again.
And this is the stuff I can actually explain. Lost to time? The rest of the plot. No seriously, I can’t tell you what Anthem is about. There are long, expensive-looking cutscenes packed with lore that doesn’t ever seem to come into play again. There’s a world-ending event, the Heart of Rage, that doesn’t actually end the world. Then someone else decides to take over the Heart of Rage, but it’s never explained why they want to do that or what they might gain from it, nor does it even do a good job explaining why you need to stop it.
It keeps trying, though. I’ll say this: BioWare sure did write a lot of story for Anthem. Problem is, none of it’s very interesting. Fort Tarsis is the main story hub, and the game kicks you back there after every mission to stand and have interminable conversations with a bunch of quirky characters who don’t really seem to have any idea how humans act. They’re constantly volunteering their most personal secrets to the first person who walks by, in a way that feels wholly unnatural and disconcerting even by video game standards, or prying into your past.
“You were always looking for trouble,” says your friend Owen. “Is that what made you want to be a Freelancer, do you think?” Nobody talks like that! Or at least, not unless they’re a therapist, a first date, or maybe drunk at 4 a.m. and that line’s delivered right after a couple of “I love you, man” slaps on the back.
One old man, within seconds of meeting him, tells you the story of how he let six other people die in a collapsed mine in order to save his own life. Again, you just met him, and he volunteers this information. And it doesn’t help that the whole experience reeks of uncanny valley, with characters that are stunning on a technical level but over-emote like the ghost of the The Polar Express.
This isn’t a traditional BioWare RPG, and it never really seemed like one. But I don’t even think the story’s very interesting by shooter standards. It starts kind of awkward, then fumbles the middle, then fizzles out at the end. I won’t spoil the finale of this arc or anything, but to give you an idea: After you’ve wrapped up Anthem’s campaign, it teases the next story arc (due to release in March) by introducing “Grandmaster Adams,” ostensibly the leader of the entire Freelancer organization—a character that’s literally never mentioned in the preceding 20 hours.
That’s the kind of writing we’re dealing with here. He’s apparently your leader! He runs the group you supposedly spent the last 20 hours rebuilding from scratch! And he doesn’t even factor into the story until after the fact. I honestly thought Anthem’s story up to that point was meant to paint me as the leader of the newly resurrected Freelancers, but uh, apparently not.
And now for the catch-all caveat: Anthem is an ongoing game. Like Destiny 2, like The Division, like even Rainbow Six Siege, there’s the potential for EA to build on this foundation, address the problems I’ve noted here, add in new loot and new enemies and new mission types in a way that meaningfully changes the game. There’s a chance we’re back here next February saying “Wow, actually Anthem is fantastic now.” It happened with The Division. It happened with Destiny. It could happen again.
All I can do is review the game I was given though, and the game I was given is mediocre. Functional? Sure. Flashy? Absolutely. But it’s a puddle disguised as a lake, a universe with so much potential that makes good on almost none of it. To make matters worse, I don’t think the core loop is interesting enough to keep me playing. The tougher end-game enemies are so damn spongy, and the shooting isn’t nearly as tight or as punchy as Destiny, a game that kept me playing long past the point I’d exhausted its similarly dreadful story. I’m just not having a good time with Anthem, nor do I feel like there’s anything left to discover aside from a handful of vaguely interesting Masterwork effects.
It’s going to take a complete overhaul of that loop to get me to dip into Anthem again. I hope BioWare can pull it off—again, other games have accomplished more with less—but we’ll see.