Red’s Read on Anthem
Anthem reminds me of Monster Hunter: World in a lot of ways. For one, I’ve never been that interested in the shooter-looter genre, just as I wasn’t interested in… whatever genre the Monster Hunter franchise falls into. Both games stood out to me initially for their really nice graphics and really well produced scores, but unexpectedly ended up catching more of my interest. One foot-stomp I’ll continue to make is how critical, and yet underrated, the soundtrack is to successful games.
On my slight tangent for a moment, I have to note that Sarah Schachner knocked it out of the park with an epic score featuring Wagnerian calls to the hunt flanked by dramatic strings and emboldened brass that could easily have come from a John Williams composition. There’s plenty of innovation with unique effects and instruments and some sections that sounded like they could have been inspired by Maurice Jarre. Overall, Anthem is one of the best scored games I’ve played in a long while.
Sound in general is a homerun for Anthem as the effects and ambient sound all contribute to an interestingly vibrant environment and vie only with textures and lighting effects for biggest contributor to the exceptionally well-crafted world. You couldn’t pick a better setting for a game. Heroic stories require an epic setting, and Bioware’s sound and art teams crushed it with Anthem.
I could easily gush for an entire article about how incredibly well the scene is set in this game, but you’re all here to find out what I liked and didn’t like about the gameplay. As I mentioned earlier, I expected the game to hold little of my interest, but I found aspects to it that I liked. Despite the successes, there could be some long-term challenges for Anthem, though. To borrow from a certain online celeb, let’s just jump into it…
Take the Good
Bioware shows off their tendency to create large evolving worlds again in Anthem, which has a very large explorable world filled to the brim with unique alien beauty. I’ve barely explored the map, and I’m already impressed with what all is there. The world really shines in Freeplay, which is your mode for gathering crafting materials and for just exploring the world.
The interesting thing about Freeplay is that you don’t run into many enemies and those you do are nearly always pretty weak. It is possible to find the occasional group of more difficult hostiles, which tends to make the mode more interesting than it would be otherwise. Some of the daily and weekly missions have you in Freeplay gathering materials and can often use a bit more excitement, so it makes for a nice break.
As you play through the story, the world around you changes over time, too. Another staple of Bioware-developed games, it gives you a feel of momentum in the world. The story I’ve played through to this point has been relatively straight forward and not particularly creative, but I’ve still enjoyed it. The voice acting and cut scenes all combine to create for a very enjoyable experience.
For me, it’s like going to an action movie. You know the plot really just serves to setup awesome fight scenes, but you don’t care. Yet, sometimes those movies introduce characters that are entertaining enough to capture your attention, and that’s what Bioware has done with Anthem. I haven’t found myself caring much about the story as a whole, but there are a number of individual characters that have me laughing every time I talk with them.
The third thing I’ve really liked about Anthem, and what most everyone cares about in particular, is the gameplay. It’s not a complete success for me as it feels very much like this is a game for console controllers, and that can’t help but make me view the game as yet another console port, though an admittedly successful one on many counts.
The developers got the character animations and sense of movement down very well, though. While I started off having a little trouble controlling my character and struggled at first with getting a feel for the combat, it eventually started becoming natural and more fun. The aim assist is real, but I don’t particularly mind it in this context. Some may, so it’s worth mentioning. More importantly, your avatar moves and feels epic in Avatar, and that’s something that requires just a very soft touch to pull off well.
There was clearly a lot of attention paid to making your character feel heroic even at lower levels. They didn’t do it just by crowding you with truckloads of fodder to mow down, but through far more subtle indications. The way your character dodges a ranged shot or impacts the ground after a prolonged fall. The sound, animation, and even the environment all work together to give you a sense of being special in a very intelligent and far more believable way than most accomplish.
Take the Bad
Anthem isn’t without problems, though. Frostbite 3 continues being a pain in my rear with random glitches that make no sense. I’ve had the sound just cut out mid-battle on multiple occasions, and of course you can’t restart the game to fix it because you’re in the middle of completing a mission. That truly stinks because you miss out on chunks of the story told through in-mission dialogue and so much of that aforementioned audio goodness. I’ve also had random connection problems after completing a mission that caused me to miss out on the experience and loot from the mission.
Crafting is weak sauce. I’m not sure the game wouldn’t be better off without it, though a more complex and involved crafting system could do a lot to make the game more interesting over a longer time period.
The game also just loads oddly sometimes. The loading feels a little jerky and the intro animation for my selected javelin has never managed to get to the end. Sometimes I just jump to the next screen a couple seconds into it, and sometimes the video has a few stutters in it before moving to the next screen. I haven’t updated my rig to the latest and greatest yet (on the table, just a lack of time problem), but it’s still on the higher end of spectrum. I get that I may be loading faster than the flashy javelin video can wrap up, but wish I had the option to skip rather than being forced to do so.
I’m also starting to find the missions and gear more than a little repetitive, which I also realize is sort of a standard component of looter-shooter games, so I wouldn’t count it too heavily against Anthem except that there are really great (and also extremely limited) Stronghold missions. Like Freeplay, you have a very large playable space to play in that feels much more globally relevant than normal missions.
I get that Stronghold missions are hand-crafted, but it feels like there really should be a lot more of them considering the production value of the rest of the game. I also really would like to see more missions based in Freeplay to capitalize on the larger playable area and give a better sense that the normal missions are part of the larger world and not something happening in a parallel universe with more mobs.
I also really found the crafting to be kind of disappointingly light-weight. I realize that’s because the progressions system in these sorts of games has to be relatively linear, but I think they could have done a better job of making the gear you can equip a little more complex. Collecting bits of progressively higher-tier base material so that you can build a progressively higher-tier piece of equipment doesn’t really do much for me. I’d rather have a crafting system that played a better supporting role to the game.
The Facts of Life
I really didn’t expect to like Anthem that much. It’s a game designed to be light on strategy and heavy on the shoot-‘em-up, and that’s not really my bag. I’m far more of a strategy guy and would always rather have a game with more meta. That said, sometimes you find a guilty pleasure, and Anthem could be one of those games for me. I probably won’t admit to playing it, but my friends on Origin will be able to tell you otherwise over the next month or so.
Bioware did a great job making you feel powerful in the game through all the little touches, which demonstrate their clear mastery of the digital medium. The game also looks incredible and sounds even more amazing, but I’m worried about the longevity of the game.
Unless javelin pilots are flexible like Stretch Armstong, they’re breaking bones every time they get in one of these things. You know your legs don’t bend like that, right? Suits would also have to be customized to each pilot’s joint locations. You can’t just jump in one and drive it… I’m looking at you, Owen.
Other looter-shooters have gone on to do well, though. I understand that Destiny only had about six hours of story content, and I’d estimate Anthem probably has three or four times as much. Crafting systems for the two games are more similar than not, and that bodes pretty well for Anthem.
I think their success is going to be tied to how fast they can generate quality content in the form of shorter story arcs and interesting missions. Despite the success of Destiny, I get the sense that semi-multiplayer games like these are losing a little of their momentum and require a little additional TLC from devs in order to extend their lifespans a bit. EA and Bioware have a plan that starts in March, which should tell us a lot about whether that post-launch support will be there in force or not.
Will Anthem have longevity? Probably not from me despite how much there is to the game that I like, but I believe there are still enough gamers who dig that sort of game that they’ll be fine without me. I don’t think the developers can deliver canned content fast enough to keep my personal interest, but there is the large audience that’s happy with that grindy style you find in the looter-shooters. Even if it really is waning, that audience is still plenty large enough to keep the title profitable, and thus actively supported, for a while yet.