If you’ve played Destiny or its sequel (and if you’re playing or are planning to play Anthem, I’ll assume you have) then you’ll be familiar with the engram system, whereby loot above a certain rarity drops as what is essentially encrypted data that needs decrypting into a replica of a weapon, either Legendary or Exotic, from Destiny’s storied past. It sounds like sci-fi hokum, sure, but it also presents a cast-iron, canonical reason why you can’t see what the best loot is straight away. Anthem, on the other hand, uses a similar system but with zero context. You can’t see your loot right away in Anthem because BioWare don’t want you to, and instead you need to schlep through every mission just to see what you’ve picked up, just because.
I draw attention to this right away because it’s one of the first things that really bothered me about BioWare’s looter-shooter, and is kind of indicative of its apparent me-too development process. There’s a sense throughout Anthem that it wants to be all the things to all the people, attempting to synergise a single-player, first-person story with shared world, PvE coop action. Some of it works, and some of it doesn’t, but the truth is the whole thing would have worked better if they’d just made a third-person story-driven single player game. You know, like they’ve done once or twice before.
Anthem takes place in or on Bastion (I’m still not sure if Bastion is the world or a country in the world), and more specifically out on the frontier beyond the safe confines of a city called Antium. The world is a dangerous place, made even more so by the titular Anthem of Creation, a powerful terraforming tool left behind by a race of God-like entities known as the Shapers. To defend Bastion from forces of evil intent on various nefarious goals, most notably control of the Anthem, the Freelancers exist. This formerly elite paramilitary group fell on hard times two years prior to Anthem’s story, when they attempted to quiet the Heart of Rage, a destructive storm created by the Anthem and powered by a device called the Cenotaph. It’s a lot to take in early on, but don’t worry: the key takeaway is that you get to fly mech suits around and blow shit up.
Your character, simply called “Freelancer” whether male or female, is one of the last of their kind, reduced to little more than a mercenary taking dangerous contracts for Coin and standing. Sadly, due to Anthem’s lacklustre mission design almost all of these contracts, and indeed the “critical path” story missions, involve standing in one place while a bar fills up, flying around to collect glowy things, or solving puzzles so occasional and rudimentary that they never feel like they belong here.
At times there’s an undeniable disconnect between what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, leading to the kind of resignation you expect from something like Serious Sam and not from a triple-A title at BioWare’s level. This doesn’t come from a lack of story, because in fact Anthem has lots of story – it probably even has too much story, which is why it tends to cram it into every nook and cranny of the depressingly stale Fort Tarsis. It’s everywhere in Anthem’s hub, scrawled on notes nailed to walls, left on tables, or wrapped in scrolls and each piece you find adds to your Cortex, a classic BioWare method of literally handing you chunks of exposition and backstory for zero effort on your part.
Rather, this disconnect comes from the fact that during the cutscenes you’re asked to invest in the characters and their plights, but then during the missions you deal with every problem in exactly the same way: you shoot it. Despite a brave mid-game story twist that kind of works and kind of doesn’t, Anthem’s plot plays it safe, presenting you with a cut-paste villain and lots of cardboard enemies to shoot at. But while the CGI cutscenes reach for emotional depth and occasionally come close to moments of genuine excellence (always, and I mean always, when Faye is involved), the upshot of every single one is that you need to go and kill some stuff again. There is none of Mass Effect’s exploration, none of Dragon Age’s moralising – all of which I’d forgive with the admittance that this is a different game, if only BioWare weren’t so keen to push such dull and inconsequential story directly into your face all the time.
Never is this more compounded than when in Fort Tarsis, a hub filled with people to talk to, 80% of whom bring nothing to the game beyond more backstory and padding. They give you dialogue choices that, aside a few rare occasions, don’t affect anything at all. Take a game like Skyrim for example, and calculate how many NPCs offer absolutely nothing but prattle. How many NPCs don’t drop some kind of hint towards some place worth exploring or some other character worth taking to? It’s not many, comparatively, and even the ones that don’t add anything are mostly entertaining. BioWare have added their version of this in Fort Tarsis as yet another way to try to please everyone, and it’s just boring.
Out in the world beyond Fort Tarsis, Anthem opens up considerably. I played the bulk of the game post-Day One Patch, which means the annoying tethering that force-teleported players together is less noticeable, but still there, and is still one of the biggest issues with the mission design. You are thrust into a beautiful open world each mission, and then funnelled with an almost bullying hand towards objectives. If you want to explore the world, you must do so in freeplay, which in comparison to the missions is simply not as exciting.
One reason for this is the Javelin itself. The flight is incredibly cool, and takes a few hours before it fully clicks, perhaps nearer to a dozen before you’ve truly mastered the innovative mix between flight and combat. However, for a device created for flight, the Javelin overheats in a distressingly short amount of time. You can compensate somewhat by getting it wet which for some reason cools it down, but really it’s just another example of BioWare giving us something cool and then obfuscating it. Traversal should be boundless (and you’re not telling me BioWare can’t come up with a sci-fi reason to make it so), while the overheating should only really occur when you enter hover mode. This removes the need to continuously fly close to water, but still stops you from endlessly raining down death from above like some kind of metal god of rage.
It would also help to solve one of Anthem’s other issues: the open world itself. Bastion is beautiful, and no mistake. It’s a lush paradise of forests and cliffs, draped with glistening waterfalls and decorated with the scattered ruins of an ancient civilisation. But it all looks kind of samey. There are no other biomes, and the reason for this is either that BioWare have no imagination (which we know for a fact is not true), or it would interfere with the Javelin mechanics as they stand. Obviously, they wouldn’t even get off the ground in a desert environment, while they would fly endlessly in a snowy one. Instead, we just get a rather clement countryside with occasional bouts of rain for 25 hours of the campaign, and a potentially endless endgame. Yes, there are indoor environments, but they range from blue-hued cave to gold-hued temple-cave and nothing in-between.
The important factor to remember here, though, is that Anthem isn’t all bad. In fact, the minute-to-minute action is very good. The transition between flying and fighting is immensely satisfying, as is the synergy between Javelins. Each of the four archetypes brings something different to the encounter, and there’s just enough build diversity that even if you load into a squad full of the same class, you could all be rocking different weapons, buffs and elemental damage types. The ideal squad, of course, seems to be one comprised of each class. With a Colossus tanking, an Interceptor harrying the enemy with lightning-fast melee, the Ranger providing DPS and shield support, and the Storm just raining down elemental hell, there are few challenges at Normal or even Hard difficulty that you can’t surmount even with random players.
Depth can be found in the combo system, whereby some of your special abilities prime a target for a combo and others act as detonators, heavily increasing the damage of the combined attacks while also dishing out additional effects such as chained elemental damage or AoE explosions. Weapons, however, despite filling out the required slots (sniper rifle, marksman rifle, heavy pistol, shotgun, etc…) are pretty samey and utterly unremarkable in their design. Even Masterworks, the highest tier of loot, just look like re-skinned versions of the vanilla guns. There’s none of the mystic gravitas of something like Destiny, where the highest tier of weapon feels eldritch, ancient and quest-worthy. Likewise, despite being able to apply colourings and decals to the Javelins, there are no legendary armour sets to unlock or find, and if you want to change your armour beyond the hue, you’ll need to spend in-game Coin or Shards bought with real money – and even then, there are only two alternative sets per Javelin available at launch (not counting the per-order bonus).
Performance-wise, yes, Anthem runs better than the demos did, but so it should. Why that’s even a point worth mentioning I don’t know, but it’s important to point out that it doesn’t run perfectly, it just runs better. On X it’s consistently stable and gorgeous; on PC it sings with a high framerate and amazing visuals. On vanilla consoles, however, it struggles, with a constant loss of framerate, rubber-banding and the same disappearing-enemy glitch we saw in the earlier builds. There are also still issues server-side with people being kicked, and a sound bug that pops up now and then and makes you play the back half of a mission in utter, chilling silence.
It’s not unfair to say that Anthem has serious issues, not only technical issues but deep, ingrained issues that will take more than a few patches to fix. The loading screens are numerous and excessive in length, the loot economy is almost non-existent until the endgame, and then 8 out of 10 drops, even at Masterwork level, are trash that don’t improve your build. The shooting feels satisfying in of itself, but inconsistent damage feedback and signposting means you can often be one-shotted on a higher difficulty and you’ll have no idea how or from where, and the enemy AI is laughable. Enemy ground troops will literally stand in a group, in the open, and shoot at you. They don’t run for cover, or even try to move, and even enemy Javelins can’t engage with you. A Javelin-to-Javelin dogfight would be epic, and in canon, but nope. They just hover in one place, shoot, move, and repeat it until you kill them. What passes for open world bosses, the Ash Titans, are the same, in that they will stand rooted to one spot and spam the same attacks on a cycle that will one-shot you the first few times until you realise that they’re easy to avoid – at which point you’ll only have the issue that every single higher tier enemy is simply a damage-sponge, which only becomes more and more frustrating at higher difficulties.
I went into Anthem utterly hyped and ready to commit. And there are elements of it that are keeping me playing. Despite the poor AI, there is still a nice rhythm to the combat when your group synergises, and the flight is hugely satisfying regardless of the overheating. The world, too, is beautiful but limited, and really acts as an appetiser for things to come. But that’s the biggest problem of them all: Anthem doesn’t feel like a game we should be playing now. It feels like a beta, an early access experiment we should be playing for free while BioWare listens to us and polishes or removes problem areas.
There are some solid voice performances (again, Rochelle Neil as Faye is such a standout she makes the other performers sound amateur by comparison), and some cutscenes, dialogue and flavour text that prove BioWare still know how to craft a compelling world. The endgame will continue to grow, and for now I’m still chasing loot and hoping for something god-tier, but I’m not… hooked. I’m just playing, maybe still hoping to find magic where there is none. Maybe still hoping something will click that hasn’t already, but that’s on me. At the end of the day, BioWare have done the best they can with Anthem, but that may be the saddest thing of all.
Flight feels cool
Minute-to-minute action is fun
Core gameplay loop is there
Disappointing loot economy
Poor enemy AI
World feels hollow