Today BioWare’s demo for their upcoming online coop shooter Anthem went live, sort of. An apparent problem on the back end and some weird infinite load screen bug have made it difficult to actually explore the game for any sustained period of time. At the time of writing, the game still isn’t accessible for a lot of the EA Access and Origin Premier subscribers who can play this weekend. Fortunately, I was able to spend close to two hours with the game before getting booted. I came away excited but skeptical.
I first got a chance to play Anthem at E3 last year. I hadn’t expected the game to look or feel as good as it did. Intuitive movement and controls aren’t something I normally associate with BioWare, though I’ve enjoyed the studio’s past action role-playing games despite their clunkiness. After seeing how different it felt to move in fight in Anthem, it quickly became my most anticipated game of 2019.
Returning to Anthem’s world today has cooled my enthusiasm slightly. The demo, which BioWare has gone to great lengths to note is a separate slice of the game and balanced somewhat differently when it comes to the in-game economy and leveling, starts in Fort Tarsis, Anthem’s main narrative hub. From there players have the option to embark on a few different types of missions, solo or with up to three other people, to achieve specific story objectives or just to explore and grind for loot and XP.
Playing on an Xbox One X, the game doesn’t look as visually striking as when I played it on a high end PC at E3. The natural lighting effects on my first outing through the mountainous jungles outside the base, for instance, aren’t as impressive as what I’ve become accustomed to in games like Destiny 2 and even Fallout 76. The interior of a temple was brown and ugly. (The diegetic music in Fort Tarsis’ open air market whips, though.) I also encountered multiple, lengthy load screens when entering different parts of the map, as well as between missions and respawning from death, though it’s hard to know how much of that is a result of the game’s current server-side maladies.
Combat is more visually interesting, bordering on effervescent. Anthem’s particle effects help give each fight a little zing. Ice attacks, fiery explosions, and shield effects collapsing fill the immediate vicinity with a ton of satisfying visual details. Despite the visual flair, aiming is a bit stiff. Numbers indicating damage pour over enemies rather than having the enemies physically react, but the sound effects of each bullet leaving the chamber make me want to keep shooting everything I can find. Being able to fly is wonderful, and moving around Anthem in general feels phenomenal, but I find myself falling into a strict rhythm of fighting enemies from behind bits of cover, moving to a new place, and then taking cover to fight more enemies. So far I haven’t come across many encounters that really require or reward using the verticality my suit affords me to try to outmaneuver my opponents.
There are a ton of options to customize the look of the Javelins, the mech suits you wear when adventuring out in the world. There are options for switching up the colors and textures of several layers of the suits’ metallic and cloth components, as well as your gun. I’m excited for possibilities when it comes to bedazzling them in the coming months. At the same time, I didn’t stumble upon that many interesting items in my initial outings outside of a few components to augment some of my Javelin’s defense and melee damage. Anthem doesn’t seem like the type of shooter where new equipment is constantly dropping from dead enemies.
Though I was dubious about another online multiplayer game with NPCs, so far Anthem’s characters seem like real people with fully-formed personalities. Matthias, who I recovered an artifact for, is both incredibly knowledgeable but also unsure himself, a dichotomy he oscillates between during conversations in subtle ways rather than remaining one note. I’ve only chatted up a handful of characters, but none of them seem like stilted, one dimensional personas who only exist to add lines to your to-do list. The residents of Fort Tarsis look like Final Fantasy X’s Al-Bhed in their skin-tight cutoffs and high-tech surgeon masks. (The jury’s still out on whether that’s a good thing or not.)
Anthem’s current demo period runs through the weekend. I plan to play a bunch more of it during that time, leveling up to unlock other Javelins and exploring some of the missions on tougher difficulties with a full party—assuming the servers are working at least. The game’s next demo period, which runs the weekend of February 1, will be open to all players, and the complete game launches on February 22.