Anthem is a game that has had an extensively muddy development period. If one looked to find anything about the newest looter-shooter from Bioware Edmonton and Electronic Arts prior to its press-event last month, it was impossible to find an answer. Even official channels weren’t clear about what Anthem was really intended to be; there was a main story, but it wasn’t clear if it was single player or multiplayer. While it was stated to be a first person shooter it was never stated if Anthem was going to be a Role-Playing Game like previous Bioware titles or if it would diverge into another direction. Even now, hours after playing Anthem, its hard to say what the game’s core concepts are really designed towards. Even in talking to producer Scylla Costa last month, we couldn’t get a clear answer on the genre, “… it [isn’t] sci-fi nor fantasy but kind of sci-fantasy.”
After a long, complicated pre-launch and a disastrous lead-up to the official release, does Anthem really take flight, or do the Javelins merely stick in the ground?
Ignore The Anthem’s Song
Anthem to its credit starts off incredibly strong for a fledgling IP and builds up its world quite well. Set on the alien world of Bastion, the planet was formed by ancient beings known as the Shapers. Using powerful sonic relics, the Shapers endeavored to create a fully breathing world in just under seven days. However, when the mythical Anthem of Creation, a psionic elemental force, grew too powerful for them to control they abandoned Bastion on its third day and left it unfinished. Forgoing their ancient relics, the Shapers left the volatile world to its own and to herald the arrival of a new dawn.
Taking their first steps onto the world humanity created the Javelins, powerful exo-suits, and used them to establish a tenuous peace between warring nations. Headed by the Legion of Dawn, these pilots soon became known as the Freelancers. Mercenary in nature and kind of heart, the Freelancers took on contracts to protect people from the violent forces of Bastion. Most importantly they worked to silence the ancient Shaper Relics powered by the Anthem, which could do anything the mind could conceive. Some Lancers were turned inside out in an instant, others were vaporized in the blink of an eye. Nevertheless, they were all heroes until the Heart of Rage.
Approaching the world from the North, the Dominion armies laid siege to the city of Freemark. Intent on expanding their empire, the Dominion attempted to utilize a Shaper Relic to control the Anthem itself. The experiment detonated, annihilating the city, killing millions, and creating a cataclysm called the Heart of Rage. Now it threatens to consume all of Bastion, and the Dominion has become intent on controlling its power.
You play as a novice Freelancer, joining a team of elite veterans to try and silence the Heart of Rage once and for all. This is, without a doubt, the best introduction to a game I have ever played. The stakes are immediately high, the lore is wonderfully gripping, and the tutorial is full of visceral combat quickly introducing you to Anthem’s core Javelin mechanics. Playing both in California, and at home, I never stopped holding my breath as your pilot crash lands in the heart of a warzone, works to save his comrades, and the mission fails all around you.
And then, with most of the Freelancer forces destroyed, the Heart of Rage consuming their Cipher helpers, and the Anthem raging louder the game jumps forward two years.
This is the first and most fundamental problem with Anthem and it never stops recurring.
After the time jump and the continuation of the tutorial it is revealed that the Freelancers fell from grace immediately after their failed mission. They are turned away and spurned from society, and the world has fallen into disrepair. However, after arriving at Fort Tarsis, the game’s central hub, quite literally everyone wants to talk to your character. The game’s plot is started by an elite Intelligence Operative wanting to specifically talk to your character, the only surviving Freelancer who’s own ex-partners hate because they screwed up a mission to save the world.
Anthem suffers across the board in its narrative for this mentality, which is utterly mind-boggling in a Bioware game. Instead of showing ongoing character development and building up narrative hooks, it suffers too much from telling the player what happens. Some of this is inescapable, due to the game’s visible story being told strictly through cutscenes and in-mission communications. However, other instances occur where characters describe a major event, and then say something to the effect of, “Don’t worry about that though. It isn’t important.”
Character development around your Lancer’s main cast of associates constantly occurs off-screen. There are few, if any, moments of emotional development in the game’s narrative between characters, even in conversations between the player and the varied cast. That’s not to say that NPCs aren’t vibrant; Owen, the Lancer’s personal Cipher, is a wonderfully colorful member of the story and consistently brings levity to otherwise tense situations. Even the main villain, The Monitor, is wonderfully vaudeville, oppressive in all ways and just powerful enough to instill feelings of dread. But development is never on screen for players to enjoy, making the story feel hollow and distant in what could be wonderful twists or eye-opening situations.
Take Flight Over Bastion
Those sentiments, however, are utterly detached from Anthem’s gameplay. Stepping into a Javelin and taking flights over Bastion is freeing during gameplay, from the actual mechanics of flight to taking the battle across the landscape. Each of the four Javelins have their own playstyle, from the magocratic Storm to the shield-bearing Colossus, the elusive Interceptor and the mercenary Ranger. Each handles slightly differently, with its own class-based abilities and impact on group dynamics. These four exo-suits, while sharing similarities in their loadout, have their own defining abilities and characteristics that make them just as vital in an expedition as any other.
Each Javelin can host a pair of firearms from the standard FPS fare: shotguns, assault rifles, marksman rifles, sniper equipment and more, meaning elegant Storms can take a floating position and knock off enemies should they wish, or the melee driven Interceptor can work to maximize their shotgun spread. Even the Colossus has its own heavy-weapons access, tooled to its up-close melee design. There is an incredible amount of synergy most players can find between weapons and Javelins, though I found the former often took a serious backseat. Playing predominately as the Storm, Colossus and Interceptor I very rarely used any of my loadout as my class-related abilities were either so numerous or so powerful as to make any other weapon mostly useless. The Storm and Colossus especially suffer from this, as the former’s abilities are so powerful they can easily neutralize boss-level enemies and the latter’s are so constant as to make any low-strength mook trivial.
This illustrates another issue despite Anthem’s pure level of fun; the power curve and state of progression as you develop is broken. While it is undoubtedly fun to enforce your will on the denizens and victims of Bastion, playing with certain Javelins makes every single encounter trivial, especially when Components are introduced. Using the Colossus, every enemy fell under the fury of one sound: donk. Using just two components it became incredibly easy to run over every single foe that was smaller than my monolithic Javelin, making any encounter without a boss relatively meaningless. The Storm also suffers with similar problems, as its fast-charging ultimate ability drops three massive explosions which can combo off of each other, chaining for astronomic damage that can easily two-shot bosses.
As each Javelin is incredibly potent on its own accord, stacking together in group-play makes entire expeditions that, while in other games, would be a serious time investment in Anthem can merely take five minutes. Switching Javelins as you unlock them, however, is essentially knee-capping yourself, as equipment and gear drops are tailored to the Javelin you are playing. If you do not have universal components to increase the survivability of your new Javelin,which most players will not, you either suffer with your choice or stick with the original suit.
Multiplayer, to an extent, is forced into the progression for every Lancer whether you like it or not. Anthem is always online, and it will default you into a multiplayer expedition should you decide you wish to explore Bastion outside of missions. Even mission-play is pseudo-forced, as the experience of each team member is shared amongs the group. This means that if you engage in solo-play for the story not only will you often find yourself outgunned when multiple elite monsters spawn (not scaling in difficulty as Bioware Producers have claimed) and then dragging behind as you miss out on thousands of experience points.
That doesn’t stop one from flying in style, as each Javelin is customizable to an incredible degree. Every part and piece of your gear can be tweaked, mixed, matched and adjusted through various texture types and colors. Certain parts can be bought and exchanged through Anthem’s in-game store, which can be purchased with in-game or premium digital currency. Once again, here’s where the cracks begin to show in the design, as grinding out this in-game currency can take quite a long period of time. I regularly only got perhaps one or two thousand every mission, where every part costs at least ten times that in the store. Furthermore, the store’s contents change over to a new set each week, meaning the equipment you’re hoping to splurge on can quickly be gone if you’re not investing your time wisely. Customization continues to have its own problems as you progress in the game, as you can neither adjust your mech’s appearance or loadout without leaving the open world and returning to Fort Tarsis. What would take two menus in another game takes upwards of five minutes in Anthem.
Conversely, despite the wide customization options for your Javelin, character customization in Anthem is dreadfully weak. Depending on if you chose male or female voice-work at the start of the game, you’ll have up to 24 pre-rendered faces for your Pilot to choose from. As Fort Tarsis is really only explored in first-person, however, this means you’ll only see the face during pre-rendered cutscenes where the Javelin’s helmet is open, which are so sparse as to make it meaningless.
Fort Tarsis itself is a wonderful testament to a better time, and where you’ll be spending most of the story outside of the Javelin. As you progress and earn reputation with the city’s several factions, Fort Tarsis will grow and develop with you, making it one of the more vibrant characters of Bastion. There isn’t much to say about these segments as there simply isn’t much to do in Fort Tarsis proper. Aside from picking up missions or watch in-game cutscenes, everything else can simply be done in one menu or another either tied directly to the customization menu or one of the stores right at the front of the city.
End Game? Game End.
Anthem’s post-story end-game is perhaps the weakest link in its long chain, lacking any defined method progression aside from a dedicated grind for loot. As players progress in the story they will unlock Stronghold missions, which require a team of Freelancers. These strongholds will see them raid an outpost of predefined enemies, silencing Shaper relics and more before facing down a major boss. That is the entire Stronghold system.
After completing Strongholds players will receive Blueprints. These blueprints are the only manner in which to acquire Masterwork quality equipment and drops randomly off of each boss. This means you cannot target specific loot drops you may need for your character, even in the early stages of the game. Much like World of Warcraft’s current system, you simply must take the equipment with the best stats if you hope to increase you power level, which strips away any hopes of player agency.
I cannot understate that playing Anthem is uproariously fun. Twisting and diving through the skies in your Javelin is remarkably entertaining and the class-based gameplay sets a wonderful groundwork for the game. It does not, however, excuse its faults in power progression, artificial end-game lengthening, and the most fixable minor hurdles made to waste players time. Some design decisions are head-scratchingly obtuse, resulting in frustration more than exaltation. Its continued bug-riddled state, even days after launch, only exasperates these issues with incredibly long load-times, constant crashes, and such a drain on processing power that it frequently overheats both CPU and GPUs. Simply put, you’ll spend more time dealing with the game’s issues than actually flying over the world of Bastion.
Anthem does very little, if anything, to innovate on both the looter-shooter and MMO-lite systems. In some regards it takes several steps backwards, with randomized loot-tables shared by all bosses, a lack of communication or group system, and low-bar social features. Its customization is even more confusingly built, giving both the best and the worst Bioware has ever offered in its games.
Anthem’s community, at least what I have encountered, is skeptical but otherwise positive about the game. Most players, however, simply won’t waste the time to talk as each in-game mission is of utterly negligible difficulty. As such, Anthem’s community features are incredibly bare-bone, and leave little to be desired.
Graphics/Sound – 8/10
Built on the Frostbite engine, Anthem is wonderfully beautiful to look at (when its not suffering from massive and sometimes total graphical failure). Its world is constantly populated with something to look at, and every sound effect is chunky and realistic. If Bioware had included VR functionality, I truly and fully believe you could become completely immersed in Anthem.
Value for Money 5/10
Anthem has an incredible amount of gameplay to offer for the MSRP. However, over time, this gameplay continues to diminish in quality, to the point where its hard to argue whether its worth the purchase at all.
Anthem is an MMO-lite looter-shooter with potential sadly unrealized. Most of its design decisions feel woefully underdeveloped, despite how it excels in its frankly addicting gameplay. The interjection of a freemium forced economy as well as the simultaneous extension of and lack of any traditional end-game or development beyond the main story screams of publisher intervention. Anthem’s systems are absolutely wonderful, but they feel crippled by its other design decisions.
Disclaimer: Author was flown out to EA Redwood Studios to preview game and received a copy for the purposes of review.Related: Anthem, Bioware, Electronic Arts, MMO, Review, Shooter