Every once in a while, a game comes along that that does something surprising, different, memorable. Anthem is not one of those games.
Much of this PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC game feels incomplete, while other portions are borrowed from games that did it better. The things that make Anthem special, like flying through magnificent, sun-soaked jungles in customizable exosuits, are ultimately overwhelmed by the drudgery of a now all-too-familiar loot grind, one whose sharp edges and confounding corners protrude unwelcomingly into what otherwise might have been an admirable glimpse into the live-game genre as imagined by the developers at BioWare.
Anthem’s core idea of “jetpacks plus guns” works excellently on its own, but nothing else in the game quite lives up to it. The missions are boring, much of the loot you find is useless, and the character progression is organized poorly. With all of these anchors dropped, the game is rarely able to get off the ground. When it occasionally does, the experience can be frictionless, heart-pounding fun. But sooner or later, like the exo-suits themselves, everything begins to overheat. Endless repetition punctuated by technical problems sends the machinery hurtling back to the ground with little left to do but let things cool off while waiting for the next content update, the next hotfix, the next post-launch roadmap tease, before rebooting the systems and trying again.
BioWare entered the pantheon of beloved game studios by helping to pioneer a role-playing game formula that grew out of Dungeons and Dragons with Baldur’s Gate, but eventually forged a new identity with the dual evolution of the Mass Effect and Dragon Age games. BioWare games in these series have ambitious narrative arcs augmented by consequential player choices, but also intimate and heart wrenching side-stories revolving around non-playable allies whose own goals, motivations, fears, and hopes take on equally compelling drama and urgency of their own.
When BioWare released Mass Effect: Andromeda, it was a rare misstep for the studio. It had the best gunplay in the series and an intriguing simulation of life in a burgeoning space colony, but with an underwhelming plot, botched character animations, and almost no memorable player choices. At the same time, BioWare was developing another game that it code-named Dylan, because it was meant to be the Bob Dylan of video games, one which would become part of the gaming lexicon for years to come. Months after Andromeda’s release, BioWare revealed what Dylan would be: Anthem, a multiplayer shooter in the mold of Ubisoft’s The Division and Bungie’s Destiny. Since then, I’ve been wondering how BioWare, known for gripping, single-player driven stories, would apply that to a genre premised on repeating the same missions over and over again just to watch numbers go up.
The answer: It would not.
Anthem exhumes the bodies of other developers’ loot shooters, mixes and matches them, and adds a bit of BioWare flair to the Frankensteined corpse. You can choose whether to say something kind or slightly mean when accepting a quest from someone. Gun battles in large arenas are primarily augmented by complex math resulting from the intricate ways different pieces of top-level gear interact with one another.
These additions are nice in and of themselves, but they don’t go far enough or make up for the technical problems and quality-of-life issues plaguing the game at launch. This is the first new franchise from BioWare in almost a decade, and the result feels less like a revolutionary new idea and more like a sequel to Mass Effect: Andromeda. It’s stunning to look at and the jetpack bodysuits feel great to control, but at best it feels less like a game trying to leave a lasting impression and more like a platform for something that will come someday in the future—maybe.
Anthem takes place in a harsh world filled with artifacts from a past civilization, which constantly reshape the terrain and cause natural disasters, caused cataclysms, in the process. Various factions battle for control of these artifacts, hoping to utilize their poorly-understood power for their own purposes. At the same time, roaming mercenaries called Freelancers get inside powerful, flying exosuits called Javelins and try to disarm the artifacts while fighting the monsters they spawn. It’s a good recipe for endless chaos, but not much else.
The story centers around locating an ancient Javelin needed to shut down an extremely dangerous cataclysm called the Heart of Rage. With the exception of a few cutscene-driven beats, most of it feels like filler while waiting for the real game to begin. Then, before I knew it, the credits began to roll, concluding what felt like more of a first act than a full arc. Along the way, there were run-ins with a militarist organization intent on using artifacts for conquest, outlaw groups, and a race of humanoid insects called the Scar who have created an intricate life for themselves out in the wild. This being a BioWare game, you might think you could talk to them and become embroiled in some complex, inter-species struggle. But like the rest of the game’s enemy mobs, they are for target practice and little more.
There’s a kernel of the old BioWare in Anthem called Fort Tarsis, the single-player hub where you can meet characters, collect missions, progress the story, and learn about the world. Still, it’s but a shell of the bases in Mass Effect and Dragon Age players learned to call home. It’s interesting to explore in first-person view, slowly walking the cramped alleyways examining the pockets of humanity who have managed to survive the brutal dangers outside the walls. One particularly heartbreaking episode centered on an older refugee who thought I was her daughter, resurrected by the power of alien artifacts and brought back to her. I spoke to her frequently in between missions, trying to decide how to comfort her, how to help her, and whether to tell her the truth. Confined to our one-off conversations rather than the larger world, the side-story felt like an unfortunate compromise, as if connecting our specific relationship to an actual set of missions or other discoveries made outside the fort would risk complicating Anthem beyond its multiplayer loot chase. While some people in Fort Tarsis are interesting to meet, and wonderfully voiced, their capacity to excite and shock feels stifled by the game’s desire to keep players in a shared timeline.
Fort Tarsis has three main factions: Sentinels, the city’s guards, Arcanists, the city’s researchers, and Freelancers, the group you belong to, represented by a retired mercenary whose enthusiasm for the trade is on par with the parent who gets called up to be the assistant coach for their child’s sports team. Whether completing a quest for one of those groups or the odd contract submitted by another resident, missions all have the same structure: Go out into Bastion, the region surrounding Fort Tarsis, fly from one objective marker to another, then kill whatever spawns there until the person on your intercom congratulates you on a job well done.
Sometimes, missions will take you deep inside a fort for a big fight in a closed-off arena. Other times, you’ll find yourself fighting mobs in a big open plain. In either case you’ll be tasked with a) defending a point of interest, b) collecting pieces of a broken artifact to fix it, or c) killing a boss. Sometimes the broken artifact pieces look like glowing chunks of metal and have to be carried on foot. Other times they are orbs you can retrieve by flying. Sometimes, Anthem can be thrilling. But the missions can quickly start to feel like busy work, chores that stand between you and Anthem’s endgame, which consists of completing these same tasks but on much harder difficulties for better loot.
The natural wonders of Bastion can be scintillating to behold. Flying through a tunnel to come out on the other side greeted by a sunset cascading against the ashen cliffs of nearby mountain ridges is breathtaking. On more than one occasion, I’ve danced around in circles in a shallow pond just to watch the light reflect off the water as it ripped up along a pebbly shore. The game’s foliage is on another level, not in individual detail but in the convincing multitudinous variety that constantly bombards your retina. The shadows cast by all of the vegetation are impressive, as is the one cast by my Javelin as it descends down into a lush valley.
You’re basically Iron Man in the Garden of Eden. There’s just not much to do there besides the same old tedious tasks.
There are four Javelin suits in the game. The Storm is the equivalent of a mage class, with big elemental area-of-effect attacks. The Colossus is heavily armored and good for tanking, complete with an ability for drawing enemy attention. The Interceptor, is light and fast with a focus on melee attacks. And the Ranger is a sort of jack-of-all-trades, offering a good balance of mobility and defense while at the same time being able to deal high damage against single targets. In addition to each handling differently and satisfyingly on its own, their strengths and weaknesses allow for a range of options when it comes to composing a four-person squad.
A Colossus player could use their armor and shield to focus on patrolling the battlefield for downed allies who need to be revived, while a Storm player could use their pseudo-magic to clear out groups of weaker enemies. Then, the remaining Ranger and Interceptor could focus on coordinating combos to quickly deal lots of damage to heavier-hitting foes. Or, four friends could all ride into battle as the same class just for the hell of it. It makes teaming up more fun, since there are room for people to take on roles beyond “shoot good and don’t die.”
The Javelins each have one defensive ability, two attack abilities, two guns, and slots for up to eight components that grant various stat bonuses, like longer flying times or higher combo damage. Each of these pieces plays a part in the game’s loot cycle. The more a particular piece is used to kill enemies, like a Hammerburst rifle or the Ranger’s inferno grenade, the better versions of it you’ll eventually be able to craft using resources that drop from enemies or from breaking down older pieces of equipment.
Early on, the fun in Anthem comes from getting a new piece of equipment like an ice grenade and then using it to turn a nest of scorpions into popsicles during the next mission. The core of combat revolves around combos. First, you prime an enemy with a status or elemental effect, like being frozen, and then using a detonator like a missile shot from a shoulder-mounted launcher to deal extra damage. The flow of primers and detonators, each governed by a cooldown timer, combines well with traditional running and gunning to make it feel like there’s always something cool to do rather than just popping in and out of cover in between reloads. Add to this mix a quick-dash ability, double jumps, and the Javelin’s ability to both fly and hover, and the results can be downright mesmerizing.
Eventually, though, the lack of variety in the life of a Freelancer takes its toll, as does the litany of minor impediments whose inclusion in a game in 2019 is truly baffling. The current level cap in Anthem is 30, which in loot shooter terms means that almost nothing you do or acquire until then matters. Only after reaching that point, after around 20 hours of play, does the more interesting end-game begin. This is when it becomes possible to find Masterwork items and their Legendary variants, the rarest tier of equipment, each of which comes with a special name and Javelin bonus.
The Balm of Gavinicus autocannon, for example, gives you back 25 percent of your Javelin’s armor every time you hit two enemies with it. Others are much more involved. Tome of Precision is a Storm-specific amor component that increases electrical attack damage by 60 percent for five seconds after getting a precision kill on an enemy with a sniper rifle. I’ve acquired a handful of the Masterwork weapons, and what they lack in truly great gun-feel they make up for by offering the numerical complexity I crave from a more overtly role-playing style shooter.
Unfortunately, the structure of the game means none of this is accessible until much later on, and even then, collecting the Masterwork items you want is mostly a matter of luck. Rather than slowly craft a custom loadout over the course of the entire game, the best, most interesting version of Anthem’s combat is reserved for Grandmaster missions. These are versions of the same stuff you’ve already done a hundred times on a drastically higher difficulty. At this level, you have to communicate with teammates and know how to squeeze every last bit of efficiency out of your custom Javelin build, but just getting there requires a level of investment that isn’t currently worth the eventual payoff, at least not in a world full of so many other ever-evolving team-based shooters.
Slowing progress down is the fact that there’s no way to launch missions one after another. After you finish one, you have to go back somewhere: either Fort Tarsis, the forge where you can customize your loadout, or the launch bay, a small social space where squads can check their inventory and change out equipment without being split apart and having to reform. Each of these areas is separated by a loading screen. That means that finishing one mission, updating your Javelin with your new loot, and getting back to the battlefield requires going through at least three loading screens.
Once you’re in a new mission, there’s no way to check what you currently have equipped, let alone instantly swap out any newly-acquired gear. Most bizarrely of all, there’s no easily accessible screen to check your character’s overall stats based on their existing loadout. Even while tinkering around in the forge, none of the menus will display all the data from all of your equipment all at once. Given how much Anthem loves to bombard you with different numbers, percentages, and hyper-specific modifiers, the lack of any overarching character summary screen is a truly disappointing oversight.
There are other things that seem to be missing. The game’s only vendor is for a handful of cosmetics which can be purchased with either in-game Coin or real-money Shards. Over the course of playing through the main story, I earned around 100,000 Coins, enough to buy one set of Javelin armor and a couple emotes. Neither of these things affect gameplay, but because they are the major tools for changing the appearance of your Javelin, having access to so few at such a high cost is disappointing. BioWare has said the store will refresh every couple days. This has currently left me in the unfortunate position of holding onto my coin in the fear that I might spend it on one set of armor only for one I really wanted to appear a few days later.
There’s another resource in the game called Ember, which is used for crafting top level gear. The reason to do this is to get a more optimal version of a Masterwork item. While each comes with a preset buff, it also has randomized ones, incentivizing players to farm the resources necessary to re-roll their Masterwork item until they get the version of it that best synergizes with the rest of their build. The ember required to do this can be farmed during missions or purchased with coin, although it costs so much coin that you’re much better off spending that earned currency on cosmetics instead.
Free-play, the game’s mode for when you just want to explore Bastion at your own pace while completing the odd World Event or two, can be just as galling. There is currently no way to set markers on your map for places you want to go to, although BioWare says it will add the feature in an update. There’s also no way for other players to know where a World Event is taking place at any given time, meaning in many cases you’ll be forced to complete them alone. Should you die, you’ll have to respawn. Unfortunately, Anthem’s map being as large as it is, and its respawn system being what it is, this usually means being placed back in the map up to a few minutes away from where you were originally killed. By the time you get back whatever objective you were working on, it may or may not still be there—along with any treasure chests that appeared if another player finished the activity.
Progress can be hampered by disconnects and bugs as well. While stability has improved since the game’s initial launch on February 15 on PC and Xbox One for EA Premier and Access subscribers, I still occasionally encounter problems. Sometimes I get booted from the game with an error message about trying to update my player data. Other times new mission objectives have failed to appear after the previous one was completed. More often there’s simply a bit of latency that makes it hard to dodge enemy attacks. I’ll appear to have successfully gotten out of the way, only to spontaneously die three seconds later.
Anthem seems to be pushing the limits of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. While I haven’t had any significant issues in my time with the game on either console, the menu screens can also be sluggish to populate and navigate, and while playing on console I’ve noticed that cutscenes occasionally stutter. Within a few minutes of playing Anthem on my PS4, the fan kicks into hyper-drive.
Perhaps if BioWare has its way, Anthem will still be up and running on the next generation of consoles in a few years. BioWare says it has a “long-term vision” for Anthem, and there’s now a calendar on EA’s website showing what some of those next steps will be. These include new missions in free-play, additional cosmetics and legendary missions to be added in March, and guilds, leaderboards, and weekly stronghold challenges in April. This “first act” of new content is intended to be capped off in May with a new cataclysm mission. To sign on to Anthem at the beginning, as with any live game, is to charter an untested vessel for a difficult voyage in which it might never reach its ultimate destination, or even leave sight of the port.
It’s possible that Anthem’s best days are ahead of it. It’s likely not an accident that the first screen you see after loading the game is list of what’s new with the game. But that truth, as with all live games, cuts both ways. There are a number of good reasons to feel like Anthem shouldn’t have been released in this state. Its being a live game will provide BioWare with ample opportunities to make Anthem a better loot shooter, but it’s unlikely that they will make Anthem a better BioWare game.
Maintaining a live game means keeping track of a shared world that remains unified for all players. BioWare said it committed to not doing paid expansions in part because it didn’t want to fracture the game’s player base. That’s not a vision that leaves much room for telling unique character stories driven by individual players’ choices.
As much as Anthem can be fun to play at times, there comes a point in every game like it where some snag leads you to look at the clock and, for an instant, see your whole future with the game flash before your eyes. The weight of the hours you’ve already spent playing it get projected out into the coming weeks and months, and the fatigue of a futile climb up the ladder from rare loot to rarer loot begins to set in.
In Anthem, it doesn’t take long for that exhaustion to turn into dread, as you stare into the soul of the game and all that stares back is the ghost of someone continually rolling the dice in the hopes of getting a better gun.