So the Anthem demo happened.
I’ve played a lot of Anthem over the past two weekends and while it’s not the dumpster fire some might lead you to believe it is, it definitely has its share of problems.
Before we get into the gameplay, the story, and all that fun stuff, I have to mention the plethora of technical issues I encountered during my time with Anthem, especially during the VIP Demo weekend. Server issues were rampant. I logged less than an hour of play time the first weekend because I couldn’t even get into the game. When I did, my time was cut short by infinite load screens or crashes. It was a mess.
Luckily, the second weekend fared much better. I could actually play the game, which was nice. However, textures wouldn’t load, the draw distance was abysmal, environments were barren, enemies would despawn, and the framerate was consistently below 30fps on PS4 Pro. All of that on top of a noticeable graphical downgrade from what we saw at E3 2018.
There was an abundance of gameplay glitches too, not just visual ones. When I would die, my respawn timer would count down from 5 and then say “respawning”, but I never did. I had to wait for a teammate to come and revive me, but a lot of the time squadmates would be AFK or just not even care. I just had to wait or abandon the mission. Sometimes enemies wouldn’t take damage from my attacks. Other times they would take damage but they’d just ignore me and stand in place. I had to close the game once because the exit button stopped working while I was customizing my javelin.
During most of the time I spent with Anthem, Anthem did not work. Considering this game is out next week for EA Access subscribers, it’s not in a good spot. But how’s the gameplay? Surely flying around in those cool suits and shooting ash titans with your friends is a good time, right? Well, sort of.
The javelins are awesome. Learning to balance flying and hovering with being on the ground and managing cooldowns creates a relatively high skill ceiling. A really good Interceptor, for example, won’t get hit often if they utilize their jumps, dodges, and flight efficiently. Each javelin handles differently from one another. The Ranger is the balanced one and handles just like you’d expect it to. The Interceptor is the agile glass cannon that can weave in and out of incoming fire with three jumps and quick dodges. The Colossus is the tank and it has quite a heft to it, so it can’t move too quickly, but it can take a lot of damage. The Storm is essentially the Warlock from Destiny, relying on elemental attacks to do damage and handling way floatier than the other three. Navigating combat arenas in whichever javelin you may choose feels good, and nailing your cooldown management so you don’t overheat is a fun challenge on top of regular shooting.
Of course, you won’t be spending all your time flying. Anthem is a shooter, not a flight-sim, after all. Unfortunately, the gunplay in Anthem just isn’t good. A game’s shotgun is an easy way of telling how good the shooting is. Destiny? Great shotguns. Doom? Even better. Anthem? It’s like I’m shooting marshmallows instead of bullets. I spent most of my time as the nimble, close-range Interceptor, so I would fly in and expect to blast somebody point-blank with my shotgun, except it didn’t feel nearly as powerful as it should’ve. Using a shotgun in Anthem feels like using an Airzooka. The rest of the arsenal feels a bit better, but enemies are spongy and don’t react to getting shot. Guns in Anthem just feel weak, and that’s a shame when its competitors do it so much better.
What Anthem does better than its competitors, though, is team play. Anthem has a combo system that’s very poorly explained, but once understood, it adds a layer of depth to the combat system. Some javelin abilities are primers, which usually afflict enemies with a status effect. If these enemies are then hit with a detonator ability, it’ll combo with the primer and do a lot of damage. Having a squadmate prime a bunch of enemies with a flamethrower so I could fly in and detonate with a melee ability felt good, and combos like these are a necessity at higher difficulties. Not every ability is a primer or a detonator though, and those falling outside of either category seem useless in comparison.
The customization system is pretty deep. Not only can you paint each individual part of your javelin, but you can also change the material and the wear status of each part. Want to run a bright pink leather Interceptor? You can. How about a battle-scarred red and black Colossus with metal plates laid over rubber? Go for it. There was only one additional vanity set available for each javelin in the demo, but people got really creative with mixing and matching just the base set and the one extra one we got. It seemed the first minute or so of every mission involved my squad and I inspecting each other’s javelins and looking at the cool designs other players had come up with (or laughing at ridiculous material/color schemes). Player expression is a huge part of this genre, and Anthem nails this aspect so far.
Anthem’s endgame has me worried, though. The endgame will consist of daily missions, strongholds, of which there are only three, and cataclysms, events that change the open world and present players with new challenges and rewards. Daily mission and strongholds offer a decent amount of content, especially the strongholds, which last about half an hour or longer on harder difficulties, but I feel they won’t be enough to keep players engaged for a long time. Cataclysms, ideally, offer the variety Anthem so dearly needs, but the “small tease” we got right before the demo ended worries me. All it did was change the skybox and spawn strong enemies, but that’s not a big enough change to keep players interested, and the spawn rates are so low that you just end up flying around aimlessly for 15 minutes until you find one ash titan.
Hopefully a strong campaign will make up for a relatively weak endgame experience, and Anthem might actually be able to provide one. The mission design was simplistic, it’s the same go here and kill this design philosophy that so many multiplayer shooters employ today, but some of the boss fights were really cool and made me utilize my movement abilities to dodge area of effect attacks or weave in and out of rings of fire. The writing also didn’t make me want to gouge my eyes out, which is a plus. The scenario the demo let us play through kept me somewhat engaged, but cutscenes dragged a little. Of course, it’s hard to judge the full story now, but Anthem does show some promise in that regard.
The majority of the game’s narrative segments take place in Fort Tarsis, the game’s single player hub. Here you’ll pick up quests, shop at vendors, and talk to people. It’s strange having the hub in a game like this be strictly single-player, but a social hub is coming at launch. There are some other strange decisions about Fort Tarsis, like the movement speed being way too slow, or having a generic five second song loop right next to the vendors, but Bioware has stated they’re adding some quality of life features for Fort Tarsis for the game’s full release, and the social hub will hopefully alleviate some of the other issues with the antisocial nature of Fort Tarsis.
Anthem has a lot of problems. The gunplay needs some work, the game needs a lot of technical improvements under the hood, and it’s in desperate need of substantial endgame content. However, what’s here is a promising foundation that could possibly blossom into a fantastic cooperative shooter. I just hope it won’t be too late by the time that happens.