“Welcome to Anthem”
I was greeted with this message when I first opened my copy of Anthem. This little slip in the packaging invited me into a living, breathing world, only the starting point of a journey that would last years. I smiled as I put the disc in my PlayStation, thinking about BioWare’s promise of an evolving story in a mysterious world I could experience with my friends. Unfortunately, Anthem is just that: a promise, and it ultimately fails to live up to expectations or even deliver anything remotely above average. Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely still fun to be had in Anthem, but what little fun there is is bogged down by bugs, loading screens, and completely baffling design decisions.
In Anthem, you play as a freelancer, a sort of mercenary that pilots a javelin, this game’s equivalent of an Iron Man suit. You and up to three friends can suit up and fly out into the world of Bastion, tackling quests, contracts, strongholds, and world events. Anthem is also a loot-based live service game like Destiny or The Division, so you and your squad will come across various new weapons and gear during your adventures.
The javelins are easily the highlight of Anthem. Flying is awesome and it adds a lot of verticality to both exploration and combat. You are very rarely limited in where you can go in Anthem’s open world, and the world itself is gorgeous. Although it’s entirely comprised of the same jungle/ruins look, it’s lush and incredibly gorgeous. Whether its the top of a cliffside or the depths of a river, your javelin can get you there. Managing your heat bar makes flying more engaging than just holding forward too. Flying downward cools your thrusters, flying close to water slows the rate at which your thrusters heat up, and catching a waterfall or going underwater will completely cool your suit off. Movement is a lot of fun and it does a lot to break up the monotony of the experience.
Each of the four javelin types feels unique, and none of them feel useless. The ranger is your standard class with grenades and missiles. The interceptor is the most agile javelin and has an extra jump and dodge as well as a repeatable melee combo. The colossus is the tank, equipped with a shield and heavy armor, but it’s the slowest of the four. The storm can use devastating elemental attacks and can hover for an extended period of time. Each javelin class has its own strengths and weaknesses and each one is a joy to use.
The javelins all have their own unique ability sets that play off of one another in the game’s combo system. Some abilities in Anthem are designated either primers or detonators. A primer sets up an enemy with an elemental status like ice or fire, and a detonator deals a massive amount of damage to any primed enemy. For example, the colossus’s flamethrower can prime a large group of enemies, setting them ablaze, and then the storm can blast the area with lightning, resulting in a super effective team attack and an oh so satisfying “ka-chink” combo indicator. Seriously, the sound effect is the best part of combos.
Unfortunately, the combo system is never explained to the player. That goes for a lot of Anthem. I went my entire playthrough without knowing that each javelin type has a different perk for detonating a combo. Apparently the ranger’s detonators do a lot of damage to a single target, whereas the colossus’s detonators create an area of effect blast. The storm spreads elemental damage to nearby enemies and the interceptor gets something called aura, which I still don’t fully understand. Even simple gear customization is needlessly complex and frustrating. In my time with Anthem, I came across several javelin components that increased my blast damage by a certain percent. That’s great and all, but I don’t really know what blast damage is. I also can’t tell how exactly how much this blast damage is increased by, because Anthem doesn’t have a stats page. I can’t tell how much a 30% increase is because I don’t know how much I’m doing in the first place.
So much of Anthem’s gameplay systems are poorly explained or not touched on at all. The alliance system is especially confusing. It doles out coins to you and your friends at the end of every week depending on how much you contributed, but the contributions are vague and the results are even more so. You get alliance experience and feats at the end of every mission, but the game never tells you exactly what you got experience for or even what the medals it gives you mean. Even something as simple as daily and weekly challenges are unnecessarily obscure. The game tells you to check with Lucky Jak in Fort Tarsis (more on that later) to check your progress on your dailies, weeklies, and monthlies. You head over there and see one daily, weekly, and monthly, but in actuality you get multiple of each, they’re just buried in your challenge menu somewhere.
The core gameplay loop is satisfying enough, though. Shooting is a mixed bag. Guns feel punchy and the sound design is good, but enemies are far too spongy and don’t react to damage at all, so the only indication I’m doing anything are the numbers that pop out of enemies. Shooting mixed with flying, however, is fun. Navigating around shielded enemies to access their weak points or dodging an ash titan’s flame rings were enough to keep me engaged, and there are some truly epic moments when combos go off while the game’s excellent score swells in the background. Sadly, Anthem frontloads all its enemy types, so the enemy variety doesn’t change much over the course of the game.
This doesn’t help much when the mission objectives are horribly uninspired as well. Every single one of Anthem’s missions involves standing in a ring while waves of enemies come at you or collecting orbs and bringing them to a point. Every single mission plays out the exact same way with the exact same enemies, and it got stale very quickly. Even the strongholds, Anthem’s more difficult side content, are just these same two objectives just over longer missions. Anthem does very little to keep the experience fresh, and that’s a shame. It shows some promise at the beginning with upside down waterfalls and flight challenges, but it quickly forgets about these prospects and goes back to standard fare gameplay. Anthem’s mission design feels like wasted potential. So much more could’ve been done with Shaper relics and the Anthem itself, but in practice they just amount to glorified enemy spawners.
Not only does the game get really repetitive really fast, the game also doesn’t work half the time. I experience not one, not two, but three game-breaking bugs that forced a restart. One time a cutscene faded to black and never faded back in, forcing me to close the game and start the mission over, completely ruining any sense of drama and frustrating me greatly. Another time my team was tasked with defending an area but the objective never spawned, so we had to wipe to get past the bug. It ultimately took three tries before the device finally appeared. During the final boss, one of my party members fell through the floor. One time the world was tinted red when I loaded in. Animations wouldn’t play on multiple occasions, people in Fort Tarsis would slide all over the place when I walked into the room, enemies wouldn’t take damage, damage wouldn’t register against me until I would get suddenly downed out of nowhere, my time with Anthem was not smooth in the slightest and the game clearly needed more time in the oven.
Loading times are another huge problem with Anthem. Loading screens are very, very frequent, and they last upwards of two minutes sometimes. Everything, and I mean everything, in this game needs to load. Let’s say I set out on a mission. Two minute load screen. I realize I have the wrong weapon equipped. Load screen back to Fort Tarsis. I walk over to the forge. Load screen. I equip a new weapon and leave the forge. Load screen. I get into my javelin and head back out. Load screen. All of that just to change weapons. In Destiny or The Division I can press start and have a new gun equipped in fifteen seconds without even leaving the field. These loading screens happen after cutscenes, when you enter a new area, and just about everywhere else, and they are a serious roadblock in enjoying the game and getting into a groove like you’d do with other looter shooters.
Since Anthem is a loot based shooter, new weapons and armor should keep the experience dynamic and distinct. This is only true in theory, because Anthem’s loot is garbage. There are nine weapon types which provide some decent variety, but there are only three weapons within each class. So, throughout my time with Anthem’s main story, I only saw three assault rifles. Most of the weapons aren’t even distinct from one another visually or functionally. The hammerhead assault rifle and the defender assault rifle are essentially the same gun, and the warden is only different because it’s a burst weapon. Most of the weapons in the game only differ in their fire rates. They all look pretty much the same. In a game with loot at its core, its unacceptable to have such a small pool of weapons that feel so similar.
You also get javelin components and abilities as loot drops, but, like the weapons, these come from a very small pool as well. Each javelin only has ten abilities and ten components. To put that in perspective, level 30 you can equip six of the ten components at once. That’s more than half of the total components available. They don’t even do much, they just give you stat boosts and decreased cooldowns. So, at the end of every expedition, I found myself skipping past the loot screen because it was full of the same guns and parts I had already seen, just with slightly higher numbers. The loot in this game is wildly disappointing, and the super low drop rates for masterwork and legendary weapons do little to spice things up.
Unlike Destiny or The Division, armor pieces do not drop during regular gameplay, leaving the loot pool feeling shallower than these other titles. My javelin looked exactly the same during the final boss as it did when I was just starting out. There is very little in the way of customization here. There are only three armor sets per javelin in total, and one of them is exclusive to the deluxe edition of the game. There are more armor sets and materials available in the in-game shop, though, albeit at sky high prices.
Oil and Water
Anthem’s gameplay is almost always at odds with its story, and as a result, it feels like two totally different games are constantly battling one another to come out on top. The majority of the game’s story segments happen in Fort Tarsis, the game’s hub area. Fort Tarsis is strictly a single player location and you play in a first person perspective there, making it the complete opposite of the usual gameplay. Here, you’ll talk to important characters, accept missions, shop, and customize your javelin. It’s a strange choice to have the hub area be a solo experience in a game so focused on cooperative multiplayer. It led to awkward interactions between my party members, and exchanges like “are you still watching that cutscene” and “hold on I’m talking to someone” were far too frequent. There’s no time to get to know characters or engage in optional conversations with your friends waiting for you, so Anthem is better solo in this regard. However, if you try to play the missions solo, the game tells you Anthem is best experienced with a squad. There’s a very apparent dichotomy here, and it’s frustrating to have two experiences with completely different feelings and tones contrasting with one another so heavily.
Fort Tarsis itself isn’t a great hub area, either. The movement speed is too slow, navigation is a mess, and there’s little to no reason to explore. Compared to the original E3 reveal, Fort Tarsis is empty, lifeless, and eerily quiet. NPCs have scripted conversations that sound incredibly fake and forced, and if you take a second to stop and look at them you’ll easily notice just how robotic the performances and dialogue are. Named NPCs have optional conversations that provide exposition and worldbuilding, but the majority of the cast is so uninteresting that I found no reason to walk deeper into the Fort to find these people. You’re also presented with two dialogue choices every now and then during conversations, but they are completely pointless and hollow, amounting to nothing but “yes on the left” or “yes on the right.” Partaking in these optional conversations does reward you with faction loyalty points, but the rewards are so miniscule that it’s more effective to just earn them out in the field instead.
The Launch Bay is the game’s social hub, and you can choose to go here instead of Fort Tarsis after completing missions. It has everything the Fort has but without any of the people, so it’s ideal for endgame grinding. Everything is much closer together here and you don’t even have to leave your javelin. You won’t be coming here much until you’ve finished the game, though, because the story requires you to head back to the Fort frequently.
The story itself is a big letdown, especially for a BioWare game. Some characters are sort of likable. I found myself caring for a very small handful of characters, pretty much just my squad, Haluk, Faye, and Owen. While the squad is cool, the freelancer you play as is completely insufferable. They spout nothing but awful tough guy one-liners and have absolutely zero character development, making me wonder why the character was even voiced in the first place. The plot iself is misguided and rushed. Character motivations change on a dime, things happen and are quickly forgotten, and the villain is laughably generic and only gets maybe ten minutes of screen time. Right when the story starts to pick up, right when I start to get invested, the story ends. And when I say it ends, I mean it just kind of ends. So many plot threads are left open and the game even teases more things to come which will surely be addressed in post-launch story updates, not that that excuses the rushed ending of the main storyline. Anthem’s story very much feels like the first season of a TV show. Not everything is resolved and there are still very important plot points that need to be addressed, and they will be in the coming future. It’s just what we have now isn’t anything special to begin with.
There are also a few roadblocks in the story that force you to complete mundane checklists in order to progress. The tombs quest, which tasks you with such exciting jobs as opening fifteen chests, reviving five players, getting fifty melee kills, and so on, has been adjusted, now tracking the objectives from the start of the game, but by the time you reach the tombs quest you’ll still probably have some busywork to do. The second roadblock isn’t nearly as bad but you still may have to grind in the open world to get some of the materials necessary to progress.
When story segments are present during missions, the multiplayer aspect of Anthem can ruin them. If another player loads into a mission before you, you’ll miss the first dialogue because it’ll start playing when the first person loads in. If you another player is ahead of you, you’ll have a short amount of time to catch up or you’ll hit a loading screen and be teleported to them, missing any dialogue in the process. Same if you deviate from the mission area even slightly. These “return to mission area” and “return to party” messages happen way too often and are way too sensitive.. They also cover your javelin heat meter, so it’s nearly impossible to manage flying with that message on screen.
Strong Alone, Stronger Together
After completing Anthem’s main story, you’re given a few new challenges with some direction, but for the most part, you’re on your own. Welcome to Anthem’s endgame. You and your friends are now free to tackle the game’s most challenging content.
Anthem’s endgame consists of three main parts: strongholds, contracts, and freeplay. Strongholds are raid-like missions with multiple objectives (although they’re mostly the same defense and orb collection missions) and a boss at the end. There are only three available right now, one of which was available in the demo. Another is just the final story mission repeated. Anthem is in desperate need of more strongholds. They’re the game’s best content and they provide the greatest rewards, but having only three isn’t enough to keep things fresh while grinding.
Contracts are missions comprised of random objectives in the open world, usually defending a point or killing enemies. These are the weakest part of Anthem’s endgame. They aren’t handcrafted missions and it’s very apparent that they aren’t. They feel like filler but they can drop decent gear, so they’re good to do every now and then.
Freeplay is the bulk of Anthem’s endgame. You venture out into the open world and find chests or complete world events. There are a fair number of world events and the spawn rate is not too bad, so you won’t be starved for content out in the field. World bosses like ash titans can also spawn at random, giving you and your team an opportunity for good loot every now and then. The only problem with freeplay is navigation. Getting around is a pain, and you can’t place map markers, so trying to find a specific point is needlessly difficult. If you die during a world event, it’s not on your map, so it’s frustrating trying to find your way back.
Anthem’s endgame also has grindy checklist challenges called the Challenges of the Legionnaires. These involve repetitive busywork like completing 100 world events or 25 strongholds or 25 contracts. These are designed to be done in the background as you enjoy Anthem’s endgame experience, but the rewards are so small that it’s not even worth checking your progress.
Anthem hopes to inject longevity into its endgame through its grandmaster difficulties. Once you hit a certain gear score on your javelin, you can start grandmaster 1, and then once you get enough gear from that you can move up to grandmaster 2, and then grandmaster 3. Even though the difficulty increases, Anthem’s endgame still boils down to repeating the same small amount of content over and over for very little reward. There isn’t anything to work toward, no additional content like raids. It’s hard to see why anyone would want to continue playing with an endgame state as weak as this.
When you buy Anthem, you’re buying a ticket to ride. Just like with other live service games, Anthem will surely grow and improve over the course of its life, but the foundation BioWare has provided is supbar. Anthem’s story is bland and forgettable, the game is plagued with technical issues, the available loot does little to excite me, the endgame is downright anemic, and most importantly of all, Anthem is confused. BioWare couldn’t decide what it wanted this game to be, and unfortunately, that hurts both sides of what could’ve otherwise been an excellent game.