Game name: Anthem
Release date: February 22, 2019
Price: US$59.99 (Standard Edition) Also available on Origin Access Premier (US$14.99/month, includes a growing library of EA games, as well as indie titles and older AAA releases from other publishers)
Available on: Origin
Genre: Loot shooter
Publisher: Electronic Arts
When EA revealed that BioWare was working on Anthem, a loot shooter similar to Bungie‘s Destiny franchise, the gaming world was divided between people who thought that this was a massive waste of talent, and others who were cautiously optimistic, hoping that the acclaimed RPG developer would be able to deliver on the promise of a truly memorable shared adventure set in a new sci-fi universe. A beautiful (but ultimately misleading) trailer was the talk of the town in 2017, and after missing a planned late 2018 release date, the full game has finally been among us since last week. So, how does BioWare‘s stab at the loot shooter genre stack up against existing offerings like Destiny 1/2 and The Division? Read on to find out.
Before we start this review I have to confess something, however. While most people would agree that BioWare has been consistently great, I harbor a deep dislike for both Dragon Age 2 and Inquisition (the latter of which I didn’t even finish, due to it feeling like a single-player MMO, full of fetch quests and artificial padding). I didn’t play Mass Effect: Andromeda, although I feel that shouldn’t really affect my expectations when it comes to BioWare games, as it was developed by a different team. With all of this out of the way, I am not the kind of guy who thinks that studios of the caliber of BioWare should be forced to keep pumping out games in a specific genre, and I didn’t think that going the loot shooter route was a bad decision on its own.
The first few hours of Anthem don’t do a really good job of showing off the rest of the game, as we get to experience a by-the-numbers story that feels like all the other sci-fi narratives we’ve seen in countless games before it. There’s a very limited character creation system, which will only affect our avatar’s voice at this point (we get to see our character’s face later, but it’s not exactly something to celebrate either). Missions will often revolve around getting somewhere, searching for stuff and then defending a particular location from waves of well designed, but ultimately samey-looking enemies. We can choose to complete said missions on our own or with the help of other people (either friends or random teammates, as the game offers matchmaking for every playable activity). Once all the objectives are completed, we’ll get a nice screen detailing our accomplishments during the match, and after a loading screen, we’ll be back at Fort Tarsis, a single-player hub area filled with NPCs that at first will look like window dressing at most.
Past the two or three hour mark, the story starts getting interesting, with new characters being introduced and overall better missions. Sadly, at this point, the game also decides to give the player a taste of its MMO origins, forcing us to go through a checklist of objectives in order to unlock the next part of the campaign. In the currently available version of Anthem, we might find out that a majority of the objectives have been already completed thanks to work we did for previous missions, but the pre-patch content that I played forced me to go through a very boring, cookie-cutter grind in order to progress. Thankfully, I was already hooked on the campaign and the gameplay, so I soldiered on. Advancing through the storyline will also gradually fill Fort Tarsis with new people to talk to, and while I don’t like the way this space is handled at the beginning of the game, some of the side stories we can unlock if we spend some time chatting with the inhabitants of the Fort are quite good, showing sparks of pre-Inquisition quality BioWare writing.
There are a few neat twists that I wasn’t expecting, and I’m happy to report that our playable character (known as the Freelancer throughout the campaign) has a very defined personality, unlike the Guardian in Destiny, or the Agent in The Division. Sadly, the usual BioWare dialog trees or gameplay-altering conversations are nowhere to be seen, replaced with (fully voiced) chats that require no player agency at all, with the exception of a few conversations that might ask us to choose between two options (which won’t really affect the outcome of the conversation in any way). I was aware of this lack of choice as I’ve been keeping up with the game, but BioWare fans who pick this title up based on the developer’s previous output will surely be disappointed to no end.
If it wasn’t for how fun the core gameplay is, I might have dropped Anthem during the two or three initial hours spent on repetitive objectives and generic-looking cutscenes. It is thanks to simpler systems such as the way our Javelins (jet-powered exoskeletons that act as character classes in Anthem) handle while flying through cascades, caves, rivers or even jumping around that I kept going. The basic combat mechanics are also entertaining on their own, though the real meat of the action is in the way Javelin attacks can combine to form combos (a really useful mechanic that isn’t explained through any sort of interactive tutorial, weirdly enough). Each exosuit handles very differently from its companions, and while we won’t have access to all four Javelin types at the beginning of the adventure, the game will let us choose the order in which we unlock them as we progress through the campaign.
I started with the bulky Colossus, which acts as a sort of tank, focusing the enemy’s attention on its massive shield as the rest of the teams delivers the killing blow. Aside from the two weapons we’ll carry at all times (which can range from simple machine pistols to more brutal tools of destruction such as a grenade launcher or a mighty autocannon), we can also make liberal use of a shield charge mechanic and three special attacks, two of which will vary depending on the pieces we have equipped, while the last is an ultimate ability that becomes available once a meter fills. So far, this is all normal stuff, but the interesting part is that we can use one of our special attacks (for instance, a flamethrower) to “prime” enemies for a combo which will then be detonated by our teammates’ abilities, or a different attack we have equipped. This system might not feel very important during the early parts of the campaign, but once we start doing harder content, it becomes almost a requirement in order to be able to complete missions in the most efficient way we can. The other three Javelins have their own ways of setting up combos, and even their play-styles vary wildly, with the quick and nimble Interceptor acting as a sort of counterpart to the Colossus, for instance, as with that exosuit we’ll have to rely on carefully timed dodges and fast melee attacks instead of just pulling out a shield and charging head-first into battle. Players seeking a more balanced gameplay loop might opt for the Iron Man-looking Ranger, a sort of “jack of all trades, master of none”, while people who just want to see the world burn will almost unequivocally choose the mighty Storm, a Javelin that is both incredibly powerful in an offensive role, and also the first to fall should the team lack a Colossus to direct enemy fire away from the Storm users.
Of course, a shooter must also be judged on the arsenal of guns it offers, and on that front I’m both happy and sad regarding Anthem. Shotguns feel powerful and have enough range to make most enemies think twice before engaging us. They can also send foes tumbling to the floor, something that is otherwise reserved to explosive ordinance, Colossus charges, or special abilities. Certain sniper rifles can also convey a very believable sense of power, as they deliver ordnance that explodes on impact, or at the very least does enormous amount of damage to unshielded opponents. Sadly, the very nature of Anthem means that as we venture deeper into endgame, the same weapons we were using to blow apart hordes of baddies will start feeling a bit underpowered, as enemies gain more and more health as a way of balancing our increasingly powerful arsenal. This is a problem that makes itself very apparent when we play with weapons such as assault rifles, light machine-guns or autocannons, as our foes will barely flinch when being hit. Looks also suffer when compared to a dedicated shooter like Destiny, and most guns look very similar to each other. Even Masterworks weapons (high-end death-dealing tools that are pretty much required to make any progress during endgame content) don’t look so different from run-of-the-mill guns, although they offer nice stat boosts or gameplay-altering mechanics that make them more than worthwhile when dealing with high-level content.
Speaking of high-level content, once we get to the endgame, things start looking a lot less like Destiny, and a lot more like Diablo 3. The basic idea is that we should run the currently available content on the highest possible difficulty level our character can endure, as dictated by the gear we have on us. As with Diablo 3, higher difficulty levels will also mean that there’s a higher chance of Masterworks or Legendary drops, which in turn, will be required if we want to have a fighting chance at even higher difficulties. Weapons and gear drop with random rolls, so we’ll be looking at a pretty long commitment if we intend to min/max our way through the endgame. A crafting system is also available, but the requirements are a bit on the crazy side for high-end gear. I do have a concern with the way the difficulty of the encounters is tuned, as right now everyone is running the same Stronghold (Anthem‘s equivalent to a dungeon or Destiny Strike), since it’s considerably easier than the other two equivalent missions, and the rewards seem to be the same. Couple that with a noticeable lack of content (three Strongholds and random Legendary Contracts that play out like the thousand missions we’ve played before), and you get a recipe for disaster if the development team doesn’t start tinkering with the rewards for each dungeon. Min/maxing is fun to an extent, but you can only play the same two or three missions so much before you decide that enough is enough.
This isn’t the only weird decision that made me scratch my head in disbelief at Anthem. Something that players will notice pretty much from the start is that the game doesn’t let us change gear once we’ve started a mission. This means that should we equip a new weapon we’ve never tried before, or a special skill, or some build we saw on the Internet, and not like it, we’ll be forced to either complete the mission or quit to the Fort and lose any progress we’ve made (and abandon our teammates). On its own, this choice doesn’t sound THAT bad, and Anthem is not the first game doing something like this. Sadly, what I haven’t mentioned so far is that BioWare‘s latest suffers from loading screen-itis, a rare sickness that puts loading screens at every turn. These pesky intromissions can last from a few seconds (when the game teleports us back to our group during a mission, for instance) to lengthy periods of time that might even get to the minutes on some occasions. If the game wasn’t so keen on forcing us to sit through loading screens for every imaginable action, I wouldn’t care so much for this issue, but it’s amazing that a 2019 release expects players to sit through up to thirty seconds in order to be able to change their gear once a mission has ended (and we’ve already experienced a loading screen).
Cosmetic customization has been touted as one of Anthem’s core features, yet it’s currently an extremely barebones offering. Players can alter the color and texture of their Javelins, but aside from that there isn’t a lot of leeway, with a few addons being sold through an ingame store (that accepts two types of currency, one earned by completing missions and challenges, and one bought with real money), and the promise of more to come in the future (so far, I’ve seen the store rotate between the same few items, although I don’t know if this is a bug or an intended feature).
Aside from the long loading times, I’ve also encountered a fair share of technical issues, ranging from entire parts of the map failing to load (and ironically, causing a new loading screen as my character fell through the floor) to situations where the game decided to mute itself suddenly, with the only fix being a complete restart of the application. According to BioWare, that bug will be squashed soon, but man, is it awful when it happens mid-Stronghold and you are forced to complete the rest of the activity in an eerily silent environment, devoid of all sound and music (which, by the way, is excellent, courtesy of Sarah Schachner who also worked on Assassin’s Creed Origins‘ OST).
And yet, even after running into all of these issues, Anthem had me hooked for the past week, as I raced first to complete the campaign, and then to get ready for endgame activities. Even with the current dearth of content, I keep logging into the game so I can have a good time pulling off explosive combos with my crew, surviving tough encounters with spidery-looking bosses and getting disappointed at yet another unlucky roll. There’s something incredibly satisfying in Anthem’s combat and traversal system, a feeling that so far had only been achieved by the likes of Diablo. If BioWare can fix the technical issues and pump out enough content before the playerbase gets tired of running the same Strongholds over and over again, they could have a very addictive title on their hands. As things stand, time will tell if this diamond in the rough can graduate into a full blown Pink Panther.
7.5/10 (Very good)