Strong alone, stronger together, Anthem is a fantastic action-RPG experience for solo players or groups.
Anthem is quite the game to write about. A new experience from the talented team at Bioware. The new IP from a studio that has brought gaming some of its best: Mass Effect, Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age. Some of these games are bona fide classics. Is it a worthy game considering the legacy? Is it a Destiny killer? Is it another letdown in the style of Dragon Age 2 or Mass Effect: Andromeda?
The answer to all of those questions is actually more simple than it seems. A lot of thoughts about Anthem exist, some good, more than a few scathing, and many of them harping of various technical aspects, more so than what Anthem actually is.
Anthem builds on a foundation of Bioware’s past to create something truly unique. It isn’t Destiny, Warframe or The Division. Those comparisons are made because they are easy and lazy. The loot shooter term is thrown on any game with guns and collecting gear, and in any case has never actually described what any of these games are.
Anthem’s gameplay is built off of Mass Effect 3’s incredible co-op multiplayer experience. In that mode, up to four players would pick a character class, choose a loadout, then engage in battles across various maps. It was expansive, had a ton of depth and really pushed Mass Effect’s combat into the stratosphere. Biotics, weapon selection and character skills were honed to perfection and it was easily one of the best co-op experiences ever created. That mode is the root of Anthem’s core structure. They took that mode and decided to build a completely unique and fully featured experience to wrap around that tight and satisfying gameplay loop.
Anthem places you in control of a freelancer of your creation. It’s not on the same scale of older Bioware create-a-character modes, but you do have a choice in terms of how they look. Freelancers are the men and woman contracted to venture outside of Fort Tarsis in large exosuits called Javelins. You will explore, fight and protect what remains of a world left in ruin. This world is in ruin because the quintessential alien force has left the world unfinished.
Yes, the trope of a highly advanced alien race leaving behind mysterious artifacts is back in full force in Anthem, but the approach is a bit different. Anthem isn’t just the game’s title, it’s integral to the lore and fiction they created. Shapers were a race of advanced beings who attempted to use the Anthem of creation, a power that could create and destroy. Nobody quite knows which came first, the Shapers or the Anthem, but the remnants of that time have created the beautiful, overgrown world Anthem takes place in.
Sweeping vistas and gigantic waterfalls lead to strange ruins that make your Javelins look small in comparison. It really captures the scope and awe the environment creates and has made me want to explore the game’s location and lore. Some places are breathtaking and almost feel like concept art was placed straight from an artist’s canvas to the game.
These environments are explored in perhaps my favorite part of Anthem, and that’s the feel of piloting and controlling your Javelin. Bioware has finally delivered on something Iron-Man fans have been waiting decades for. The feel of stepping off a cliff, going into free fall and then activating all thrusters and launching forward at high speed, taking in these locations from the skies. The weight of the Javelin, the satisfying thud when you land, or the sound of your jets activating and giving you thrust, are incredibly satisfying. After 65 hours, the simple act of controlling my character is just as fun and satisfying to experience.
Now, it’s not a fly-forever model. Every time you take to the skies for flight or hovering, your Javelin starts to overheat. If you overheat, your suit comes crashing down to the ground and takes a while to cool off before you can fly again. Anthem strikes a careful balance in regards to flight, giving players unlimited flight time would make several combat encounters a bit too easy to circumnavigate, but making heat management too cumbersome would take away from the fun of patrolling the skies. In that aspect, they nailed it.
It’s possible with coordination and good flight paths to traverse anywhere on the map without touching the ground. Hitting the deck and skimming a lake will greatly reduce heat buildup, and cresting waterfalls will reset the meter completely and allow you to fly much further once you get accustomed to it. At any moment while flying you can enter a hover, choose to free fall or take off again in any direction you’re facing. It’s truly a huge innovation and the flight system and controls will be examined and looked at extensively by the industry as time goes on. As for the rest of the controls, they hold up well enough but don’t have the same impact flight does.
The on-the-ground portions of Anthem function well enough. Guns feel weighty and have solid sound design. The game even allows the option to increase the volume of successful bullet hits on enemies, which is a nice touch more games should take note of. However, whether through networking issues or general latency, the actual physical impact weapons have on enemies is rather ho-hum. Even when wielding a massive grenade launcher, or an epic shotgun, getting right up on enemies and emptying the clip never quite satisfies the way it should. The look, sounds and feel of each gun never translate to enemy reactions. Most of them just keep on trucking and could care less about the gigantic mini-gun you are shredding them with. This aspect of Anthem is by far it’s weakest point. Even when obtaining masterwork and legendary weapons, the enemies never give across the feeling of something truly devastating hitting them.
The gun play isn’t terrible, it just pales in comparison to the powers and abilities each Javelin brings to the table. On high levels guns feel like a stop-gap, a bridge to hold you over until your next round of abilities are ready to use. Those abilities are where the true power is felt in combat. Each of the four javelins all bring a large variety of gear and attacks, alongside their own combo style and ultimate attack.
These abilities and attacks truly feel awesome. Running around as a Colossus with my shield out as a fellow Storm is flying overhead and launching huge, arcing bolts of lightning to enemies in front of me is an incredible sight to behold. When Anthem is at its best it feels like the long one-take fight scenes from the Avengers films. All four classes in lockstep coordinating attacks and darting around huge battlefields leaving destruction in their wake. It feels like a dance, carefully choreographed to get through the tougher encounters and requiring coordination and team work in a way other games in this genre just don’t ask of the player.
Anchoring the combat is the return of Mass Effect’s combo system. Each character class has several primer and detonator abilities. Ideally in combat you want to try and prime a target and then detonate him to create a combo which does massive damage. Each class is capable of doing both of those aspects themselves and it works well enough, but Anthem truly shines when the team is working together to keep those combos chaining throughout each combat scenario. It’s a thrilling and engaging system that rewards player skill, teamwork and unique builds which will keep you coming back for more at hour 60, the same way you would at the start. The powers, teamwork and combo system make up for the lackluster gun play. The combat is really good, but it could have been truly one-of-a-kind if that aspect matched the rest of the experience.
Each character can level up to 30 and has several slots for equipping gear. Two weapon slots, three ability slots and six components are the gear that will actually affect your power and gear score. As for cosmetics, Anthem is more Warframe than Destiny. Gear doesn’t impart a new physical appearance for your javelin. Instead you can unlock different armor pieces and vinyls and choose the materials and colors of your different parts to make your Javelin unique to you. These cosmetics can be acquired via in-game coins or a currency called shards that you pay for with real money. So far the game’s cosmetics are slim to none, with only a couple of different armors and looks to unlock. More are coming when the game officially launches on the 22nd, and during a live Q&A Bioware laid out plans for in-game cosmetic unlocks via strongholds and end-game activities. Regardless of future plans, Anthem does not offer nearly enough different looks to satisfy players who really want to dig into that aspect of customization. Only time will tell how far this aspect goes, but as of right now it doesn’t offer much in that regard.
Now that we have established the core gameplay and combat Anthem offers I can talk about my favorite feature. Fort Tarsis is your central hub for everything Anthem. It’s your staging point for each expedition and where all of the drama unfolds as the story develops. In many ways Anthem’s narrative structure is very different than other games of this style. All of the freedom and flight and wow factor of the open world combat gets completely up-ended in Fort Tarsis. You’re out of the suit and walking around first person as you slowly walk to each character and begin to explore them and their roles in the fort. This is where the Bioware of old shows through, with a rich lore and characters abound including Haluk, your old freelancer partner, Owen, your cypher who is eager to get a Javelin of his own, and Brin, a Sentinal member who has a tough time being social. The Fort is home to so many characters and all of them are brought to life with outstanding performances across the board.
Most of their stories play out with a much more stripped down dialogue choice system. At most you get a left trigger or right trigger response to most dialogue and that’s as far as the branching pathways go. Despite the simplicity on the surface, the choices and answers you select will make a difference in these characters’ stories and how they develop over the course of the game. Even your character, the freelancer, is a character unto themselves, and it really helps flesh out all of the stories Fort Tarsis holds. You can only go so far with a narrative centered around a silent protagonist, which Bioware wisely avoids completely.
It all feels different than the usual “save the world” style of story telling. Anthem doesn’t feel like a trilogy, it felt to me more like a TV series. The smaller scale of the critical story line and the ancillary tales you participate in all feel like TV drama. It’s a concept I didn’t really think about, and if Anthem wants to continue as a service, then it’s a model that could work out well for its future.
What the game does have right now though is an interesting story. It sets the table for this world, its characters and plots. The villain is not truly fleshed out or meaningful in any way outside of a great visual design. The only thing of importance he does is set the stage for all of the smaller character stories to take place. As a backdrop for your personal story to unfold, this game does a great job at letting the Fort and its characters grow as the player does. It’s really awesome to experience and it’s been some of my favorite character stories in a game since the Mass Effect series.
Matching the combat and story telling are Anthem’s visual and audio design. It’s a drop dead gorgeous game, and easily one of the best looking titles I’ve ever played. Small effects such as the heat wave from the Javelin turbine are incredibly detailed and the whole world is rich with these small touches. When combat gets intense it’s a lot to take in but never gets messy in regards to visuals. For a game called Anthem, the sound design steps up just as much, if not more so, than the visuals. It’s easily the best original score in a very long time and the sound design adds a lot of punch to the game.
Every time a combo detonates, you can distinctly hear it, and positional audio helps you keep track of where the enemies are attacking from in the large outdoor battles. The audio and visual elements are intertwined. The Anthem of Creation is a force controlled by music, and the design echoes that sentiment through the entire game. Portals will distort and pulse like speakers, audio cues and references to midi and synth distortion on voices near the Anthem of Creation are all excellent nods to the nature of sound and forms of music that an audiophile will get a huge kick out of.
The only blemish on all of this lies with Anthem’s various technical issues. In my extensive testing I’ve encountered several bugs ranging from small, like my arm glitching through my body, to large, such as sudden crashes back to the desktop. The bulk of the issues I encountered were mostly related to networking issues. Constant disconnects and having to leave the room and rejoin to get missions to load weren’t as bad as others made it seem, but it certainly was an annoyance. Since I began playing on the Day One update for a few hours, I’ve yet to encounter any more network issues and several other issues have been cleaned up as well. Time will tell if this update holds up, but on PC, which is the platform I reviewed it on, I had a much smoother experience post-update.
Even despite the technical issues, I never let it deter me from playing on. The game itself ran great and most complaints seem to be about the game’s structure more than the technical problems themselves. The menus are a bit convoluted, but they are pretty simple to navigate and everything is presented clearly to the player. Not being able to open an inventory on the fly is a design choice and one plenty of other games have done before. It didn’t bother me in the slightest, and it was nice to keep the action going instead of pausing every 20 seconds while people sort through their gear. For some, this may be a problem, but I honestly was never bothered by it and it didn’t interfere with my ability to enjoy the game.
Anthem is a great new start for Bioware. A lore-rich, co-op RPG with a fantastic combat engine and visuals to match. It’s some of the most fun I’ve had playing with my friends in a long time and if you have the chance, give it a shot with your crew. Average gunplay and a lack of visual customization don’t prevent Anthem from being a great time. The real test will be if Bioware can keep up the cadence of delivering content on a frequent basis to keep the player base moving forward and prevent it from becoming stagnant. They have already laid out an extensive roadmap, but the launch day Anthem experience is fully featured and has a ton of content to get through. Strong alone, stronger together, Anthem is a fantastic action-RPG experience for solo players or groups. Don’t miss it.