Anthem’s been a bit of a roller coaster for me. The game’s initial announcement had me excited, but it was clear over the course of development as BioWare began to show more and more of the game that there were some alarming red flags. With so many disastrous launches for looter shooters (and other live service games) over the past few years, surely this one would learn from the mistakes of its peers and not subject players excited for the game to yet another redemption arc. Right?
Unfortunately, even though Anthem made a solid first impression, the game’s many issues didn’t take too long to become readily apparent. And so here we are, again.
Before we get into all that, let’s touch on some of the things Anthem does right. For one, Anthem’s story turned out to be one of the game’s highlights for me. I don’t really care about story in an ARPG, but I was pleasantly surprised with what I found. The plot itself is simple and straightforward, but I really enjoyed my interactions with the game’s various characters, both major and minor. Performance capture in Anthem is some of the best I’ve ever seen and many of the characters are interesting (and often amusing) enough that I looked forward to speaking to them every time I returned to Fort Tarsis. Characters such as the awkward Sentinel Brin, the town gossip Neeson, and the hilarious pair of fashion designers Gunther and Marl all stuck with me.
Nothing here will win any awards, but the story of Anthem did what it needed to do to get me interested in the new world BioWare has created and I’m already hoping that at some point we’ll be able to venture to other cities only mentioned in conversation and codex entries, such as Antium and Heliost. Fort Tarsis isn’t as bustling with life as it could be, but there’s a lot of little things to appreciate aside from the colorful characters. Everything from codex entries, to the way things changed as I unlocked additional features, or even the constant reminder that I helped a down on her luck baker every time I pass through the market and notice her back at her stall. These are subtle things, sure, but things I hope to see continue as BioWare updates the game over time.
Combat is easily the best part of Anthem and it’s the reason I’m still playing the game daily despite its many problems. The mobility offered by flight isn’t just a gimmick, it completely changes the way combat feels to play. Anthem also differentiates itself by focusing on ability usage over guns. How much you enjoy this will be preference, but it fits perfectly for me.
At its core, Anthem’s combat is very similar to Mass Effect Andromeda, only here I’m not hiding in cover, I’m hovering and rushing at enemies at high speed in my javelin exosuit. I’m able to regularly pull off crazy stunts like flying through a hail of gunfire while simultaneously locking onto an army of Scar with my Ranger’s micro missiles ultimate ability, fire it off mid flight, and then leap out of the air to slam down right onto a turret with my shock mace before finishing off both it and the remaining Scar. These moments are thrilling and they aren’t rare.
The game’s intense and highly mobile combat is simply addictive. Even though I’m well into Grandmaster difficulty and decked out in a variety of Legendary and Masterwork items, I keep coming back for more. I’m having a hard time going back to previous favorites, such as The Division, because Anthem’s combat tempo and mobility has just about ruined my ability to enjoy cover shooters.
But really, that’s about all Anthem’s got going for it right now. The game is riddled with so many bugs and baffling design decisions that I could probably spend an entire piece going through them all. The user experience is an abject disaster. The UI is overdesigned, painful and confusing to navigate, and worse, it’s lacking in important information and features. Anthem, an ARPG, doesn’t even have a character sheet to keep track of all my various gear bonuses. Those gear bonuses are also inconsistent and unclear on the gear itself, with weirdly described affixes such as “Shield Refresh+-8%” and both Speed and Recharge used to describe cooldown reduction in different places. I can’t even keep track of all of the bugs and old ones are now replaced by new ones in the game’s latest patch. Prior to the day one patch, many of the game’s item affixes didn’t even work, so I had no idea if anything I picked up was actually doing what it said unless I took the time to test it myself. Now, an audio cutout bug that didn’t affect me in the previous patch has suddenly begun to plague my experience. Missions can bug out entirely and not allow you to progress unless you reset them and start over. Beyond that, the list goes on.
The entire gameplay loop is interrupted by painfully long load screens at almost every moment. Even on a high end system with a fast SSD, it still takes forever to do anything, and it’s more the frequency of these load screens than anything else. First I load into the game, then if I want to change anything in my inventory I have to physically go to the Forge (another load screen both in and out), and then I have to get into my javelin and load into whatever activity I’ve chosen. If I get too far from my group (outside of Freeplay), the game’s tethering system will teleport me to them, necessitating yet another load screen. If I go down in combat and respawn? Load screen. And when I’m done and load out of the mission, I can’t just take another mission and head back out, I have to do it all again.
Freeplay, a mode I would normally be inclined to enjoy, is hampered by the inability to locate events on the map without actively scouting out for them or even the ability to set waypoints. The game forces me to play Freeplay with three other players and scales the world for those players, but gives me no way to actually coordinate with them. We aren’t grouped up, I can’t warp to them if they’re far away or communicate with them (the game lacks text chat, any sort of ping system, and VoIP usage is infrequent at best). The entire experience in Freeplay is frustrating. Personally, I feel Freeplay could be Anthem’s secret sauce if these issues were sorted out, but right now it’s just a jumbled mess.
Loot is in a sort of a mixed bag. While leveling, it’s almost completely uninteresting. Once I acquired a single version of an item, I got all I was going to get out of it until I found a Masterwork or Legendary version at endgame. The standard rarities just don’t offer enough differences to matter much beyond simple increases in power. Masterwork or Legendary versions can sometimes be exciting ways to change up the way I play, but many of these items are situational or simply useless. Worst of all, as far as guns go, these endgame items are the same boring designs found while leveling, only reskinned with decals. “Volt Rifles” like Jarra’s Wrath from the game’s reveal are nowhere to be found.
I know BioWare can come up with better (and unique) gun designs as we have plenty of examples to point to in the Mass Effect series. This is a sci-fi world where the technology left behind can warp reality, send waterfalls flowing backwards, unleash terrifying creatures into the world, and even split characters into three separate entities. Why aren’t there any weird or crazy gun designs? Where are the unique Masterwork or Legendary perks that take advantage of the limitless possibilities this new IP offers?
Options for personalization are also anemic. The system is incredibly robust, with the ability to customize individual javelin parts with different pieces, paint, decals, and even materials. Different wear states, animations and emotes are also available. The problem is there isn’t much of any of that available. Total suits available for each javelin right now include: the default javelin suit, the Legion of Dawn suit, one suit available on the cash shop (which can also be purchased with in-game currency), and one suit available for in-game currency in the Forge. This isn’t to say that you can’t create some slick looking designs, but I was expecting quite a bit more here, even just to start.
Even if you enjoyed the story or love combat as I have, even if you can put up with all the bugs, inexplicably absent features or confusing design decisions, there’s simply not a whole lot of content in Anthem to play through. The game relies heavily on the same subset of mission objectives for most of the content in the game. Whether I’m playing through the critical path, contract sidequests, or even Freeplay, it all kind of blends together because I’m doing the same sorts of things. Once the critical path is over, all I’m left with is repeating unrewarding contracts (except for the limited Legendary variety), frustrating Freeplay, or three short dungeons.
Six months or a year from now, Anthem, like many of the other games before it, may be a wholly improved experience and complete its redemption arc, but right now it may as well be AAA Early Access. I’ll continue to play it for as long as the combat remains entertaining, but if you’re on the fence, you may want to wait a while on this one.