I can’t remember the last time I played a game where the developer absolutely nailed the most crucial and challenging aspect while managing to completely shit the bed everywhere else. Anthem has an incredibly fun combat and movement system which should be the foundation for a great game or at least a decent one. However, the rest of Anthem is so utterly borked that you wonder if BioWare knew what type of game it was making.
Let’s start with the positives. Anthem’s combat can be exhilarating thanks to the abilities and their associated combos, plus the movement system that lets you fly out of danger, hover in the air to attack from above, or just chain a bunch of aerial dashes to get out of harm’s way.
Your attacking and movement abilities depend on which of the four javelins you use. The four javelins offer vastly different playstyles. I chose an interceptor, a nimble javelin that has a triple jump and can chain three dodges which, combined, lets you get out of most tricky situations. You’ll need that flexibility because many of its attacks require you to get in close to deal damage, before quickly flying out of danger. Interceptor is a lot of fun to play with and I highly recommend it.
I also played a bit with storm and colossus. Think of storm as a glass cannon mage, hovering in the air and throwing down spells to weaken enemies for everyone else. This is the most visually appealing class and a lot of people go for this one. Colossus is, as you might expect, the tank of the group. This one doesn’t seem to be too popular, but it’s a lot better than it looks once you get the hang of it and you can really feel the heft of this thing as you throw it around, for better and for worse. There’s also a ranger, which I haven’t personally played with. It’s described as being average and doesn’t sound at all appealing.
While Anthem may initially look like a shooter, it’s the abilities that provide the most gameplay variety and enjoyment. Each javelin has five abilities: two attacking, one support, one ultimate, and a basic melee attack. The two attacking abilities are on incredibly short cooldowns so you can use them a lot. You don’t save them for special occasions. The abilities are either primer, detonator, or neutral. If you prime an enemy and then detonate it, you perform a combo which deals extra damage and comes complete with an incredibly satisfying noise when you do it. You can also prime enemies for other players to detonate or detonate those primed by others.
All characters can prime and detonate but some are clearly better suited to one over the other. Storm is great for priming enemies from the air for an interceptor to go in and detonate with their melee attack. Colossus is better suited to detonating and can absolutely wreck large groups.
When you have a group of four players who vaguely know what they’re doing, this system can be absolute chaos in the best possible way. Yes, the screen becomes a complete mess, but I loved it. A good storm is an invaluable part of the team. With a storm hovering in the air, priming enemies, an interceptor can detonate them in quick succession with a series of melee attacks.
It’s fun to plow through huge mobs of enemies, but the lack of any difficulty before the level cap can lead to some laughable moments such as when big boss battles are introduced only for the boss to be destroyed with absolutely no skill. There were multiple moments during the story, and even in the end game, where dialogue would introduce the final baddie, such as an epic outlaw, or new enemy type such as a fury, and we would defeat it before the guy on the radio had even finished one line introducing him.
Anthem desperately needs a difficulty above hard that you can play before hitting the level cap, however, it is still fun to kill mobs quickly and easily (within reason). Anthem is constantly compared to Destiny, however, I had by far the most fun when it played like Diablo. I want to destroy multiple enemies with one explosion of color. I don’t want the grunts to put up any fight individually. I want the challenge to come from the sheer number of them and the occasional epic enemy or five. Don’t make me work to kill goons. Make me work to kill 100 of them as quickly and impressively as possible. Anthem is at it’s best when it throws out huge swarms of enemies and lets you go to town on them.
Providing an experience akin to Diablo instead of Destiny would also help hide one of Anthem’s huge flaws which is the almost complete lack of enemy AI. To say the enemies are as dumb as a box of rocks, would be insulting to both boxes and rocks. They stand around doing very little until you get close, at which point they make a vague effort to fire in your direction.
The action provides plenty of intense thrills, but the same can’t be said for nearly every other aspect of the game, like the story. The best spin I can put on it is that, by the standards of other looter shooters, it’s not that bad. BioWare cleared a low bar.
Anthem‘s story sets expectations early on. The prologue throws out so many generic terms that you know exactly what type of story you’re going to get. There’s a McGuffin called Anthem. You’re a freelancer aided remotely by a cypher. There’s a group of fighters called sentinels. Massive walking transports are called striders. The big bad is called the Monitor who leads a group of enemies called the Dominion. The world is called Bastion. The javelin that has a lot of elemental effects is called storm; the big one is called colossus. Nearly every noun feels like the initial placeholder word used during development that never got replaced later down the line.
The prologue mission sees you, as a new freelancer, try to stop a cataclysm called the heart of rage. The mission goes horribly wrong, a major city is destroyed and most freelancers die during the failed attempt to stop the heart of rage. As a result, everyone now hates the freelancers for some reason although this plays little part in the story and is barely noticeable. A bad guy called the Monitor is after the Anthem which will give him All The Power and it’s up to you to stop him. This requires finding a special javelin suit and upgrading yours to travel into the heart of rage. The story is easily picked apart if you’re so inclined, although I think it’s so irrelevant that it doesn’t even deserve that level of scrutiny.
In addition, BioWare never effectively dealt with the issue of your character being front and center while also working alongside three others, and the bad guy is so generic that he wouldn’t even make it past the first draft of a script for a Marvel movie.
And don’t get me started on the terrible tomb quest. Once you’re about halfway through the campaign, the entire thing comes to a grinding halt with one of the worst and most blatant examples of story padding I’ve seen. You have to access four tombs, but to do so, you must complete a bunch of random and unrelated challenges such as a certain number of melee kills, revives, chests opened, world events completed, etc. The campaign’s pacing is wrecked.
The writing is generally of low quality, especially in the main campaign, strangely enough. I enjoyed the relationship between Haluk and his cypher Faye, but most of the others were either dull or annoying. I never connected with the protagonist at all. She was annoyingly chipper the entire time. As you know, I’m an incredibly bright and cheery person myself, but this was on another level. You get to make a couple of 50:50 dialogue choices along the way, however they only change the next line before the conversation goes back to the same place. The strongest writing is found in the lore entries and some of the side characters dotted around Fort Tarsis, such as the mother struggling to deal with the loss of her daughter.
Overall, it’s a huge missed opportunity, because Bioware created an interesting world, it’s just you have to look into the lore entries to see it. I despise bad stories being excused with “but it’s in the lore” nonsense. Lore should support a story not be the story.
Mission structure is flat out terrible and feels like a huge missed opportunity to do something with the flight controls. You go to a location, scan something, hold the fort while enemies attack, go to a new location, and repeat. You do a lot of flying between locations but, despite the excellent flight controls, there’s no aerial combat. Even a basic mission to chase down an airborne enemy would reduce the tedium of traveling between locations. Early on, this wasn’t a problem because the world is so gorgeous to look at. It’s one of the best I’ve ever seen in terms of straight-up graphical fidelity. Weather conditions such as electrical storms look great and flocks of birds fly in front of you as you travel. There are small towns and interesting ruins to stare at as you fly past. However, this novelty wears off after a while, and you’re left flying through an empty world, landing every now and again due to the strange decision to have your jets overheat far too quickly.
And then there’s Fort Tarsis, the small town you visit between missions. It looks incredible. Almost too good to be true. And it kind of is. Instead of making a hub for players to gather in large groups between missions, BioWare prioritized making the best-looking hub it could and in the process not only sacrificed the ability to mingle with other players, it made it excruciatingly slow and a chore to experience.
There’s an attempt to rectify the situation with a small hub area called the Launch Bay which you share with a couple of other players. It’s absolutely pitiful and a box-ticking exercise if ever I’ve seen one. From here, you can access your vault, start missions, return to Fort Tarsis, and check out your gear, but more likely, you’ll just forget it exists.
A huge part of Anthem‘s progression system is based around loot, and unfortunately, that loot is generic and disappointing. For the most part, you just keep upgrading the same guns to one with a slighter higher damage number. Inscriptions provide additional perks, but they are so completely random that you can get perks for items you can’t even use (e.g. a component for the colossus can give a buff to the pistol which a colossus can’t use).
Worst of all, there’s no stats page. Despite having plenty of weapons and abilities that provide buffs to everything from ammo counts to electrical resistance, there is no way to keep track of the cumulative effect of your stats. This is absolutely mind-boggling and again, makes you question whether BioWare knew what kind of game it was making.
BioWare clearly copied a lot of features from similar games without understanding them. Take “world events” for example. These pop up at random while you’re in freeplay with the idea being that you go in and kill waves of enemies alongside a bunch of other people in the same instance. They’re like Destiny’s public events, except they don’t work at all here because instead of taking place on a small map with a lot of people, they take place on a huge map with only four people. The chances of you all being in the same place at the same time are remote, and as such, you’ll end up doing most of them yourself.
And then there’s the map. It’s a typical modern-BioWare map, which means it shows a basic overview of the topography and, to quote Malcolm Tucker, is about as much use as a marzipan dildo. Oh, and you can’t add waypoints to the map. Again, you have to wonder how on Earth the game ships with that missing.
Finally, I should warn you about the load screens. Yep, there’s a lot of them. I can understand the load before booting into the world, but most of the others scream of a lack of optimization or just decent forethought. For example, there’s a mission where you must pass through a load screen and into a small cave only to find that the door you need to pass through is locked, so you head back outside which of course necessitates another load screen thirty seconds after the last one. This is absolutely absurd. Why isn’t this small cave loaded in as part of the main world? If you need another load screen for the section after this, put it at the door which you eventually unlock. Or hell, have the locked door be out in the open world. Anything that avoids two unnecessary load screens.
I’m sure BioWare tried to cut the load times down as much as possible, so let’s assume they’re all necessary. Even then, there are things BioWare could have done to help the situation, like not having such a strict tethering system. If you so much as fall a few seconds behind your team, you’ll be warned that you need to catch up and given a countdown timer. Typically this is 24 seconds, but sometimes it’s a lot less if a certain event has triggered. If you don’t catch up in time, you’ll be booted to a load screen before returning to the game. When your game already struggles with load times, why would you exasperate the situation in this way?
Let’s go through some of the bugs quickly because, to again quote Malcolm Tucker, I have a list of Anthem bugs longer than a fucking Leonard Cohen song. Most of these will be patched, and some have already, so I’m discussing these more to give an idea of how rushed out Anthem was and to encourage you to wait before buying.
For starters, there’s the usual wealth of connection problems and lag issues that you expect from online games near to release. It is what it is. I can’t be bothered to get too angry about it. It’s almost comical at times. Once I lagged out which dropped me behind my team which in turn meant the tethering system kicked in and booted me to a load screen. I had to quit the game nine times due to the sound completely cutting out. There were numerous soft locks and crashes to the desktop.
Missions break on a regular basis, especially if you boot in via quickplay. There was often no objective marker, so I just flew around for a bit with other people who were just as lost as me and then gave up. On one occasion, we all got stuck in a room because the barrier keeping us in didn’t disappear after we completed a mission.
One of the most annoying bugs was when I got locked out of the final boss room on a series of missions I’d been working towards for hours and missed the resolution. I’d been barely a second behind my team but the barrier shut in my face. Another time this happened, I was able to travel far enough in the opposite direction to trigger the tethering system which put me into the boss room just as it was all over.
Cutscenes bugged out occasionally such as when I saw the inside of my character’s face or had a conversation with someone’s back. The list of bugs could go on for a while. It’s not quite on Fallout 76 levels, but it’s far from acceptable in a $60 game.
Just to make things worse, there are microtransactions as well, although thankfully they are limited to cosmetics. At the moment, an epic skin sets you back around $8, but given that there will likely be higher levels of cosmetic gear added later, you should expect to see the price reach at least $10. You can buy cosmetics with in-game currency as well although don’t expect to be able to buy all, or even the majority, of the fancy stuff on offer without forking over real money.
I almost forgot to mention the end game content and that’s because BioWare almost forgot to add any in. The end game is repeating three strongholds again and again. One of these strongholds is a mission you do earlier in the game and another is literally the final mission, so really there’s only one piece of brand new end game content. It’s ridiculous. More is coming, of course, because that’s the way things work now, but you should wait for the end game to get padded out before investing your time and money.
It’s crazy that BioWare did the hard part so well by creating a system of combat and movement that I absolutely love, while failing nearly everywhere else. Hopefully, Anthem can be fixed and with any luck, BioWare will look to Diablo 3 for inspiration, not Destiny, because that’s where Anthem‘s true potential lies.