I sat down with Anthem, BioWare’s upcoming shared-world third-person shooter, for 30 minutes today. I came away surprised at just how good it feels to move around in the game’s fantasy sci-fi world. Flying through its gorgeous environments on my way to kill some bad guys, fix an ancient relic, or take out a giant egg-laying monster felt great. Sprinting, jumping, flying, and shooting flow together well. I wouldn’t call it seamless, but it’s a big step forward from the moment-to-moment action in BioWare’s previous games.
The demo I played was the same one shown at EA’s press event and focused on combat and exploration rather than the game’s loot grind or story scenes. The promise of Anthem is as an MMO shooter that also tells a good story. I can’t really speak to any of that: outside of some initial chatter between crew members prior to my mission starting and a non-playable character occasionally feeding me directions over an intercom, what I played consisted entirely of me and three devs playing in a four-person squad going about our business looking for stuff to kill. BioWare has already confirmed the game won’t have character romancing and has yet to share much about the plot or how dialogue and other narrative interaction will work, so much of the game remains a mystery. Instead, the studio is focusing during this E3 on showcasing the game’s action. Based on my short time with the game, Anthem seems to have found its groove just over half a year out from its current release date of February 22, 2019.
I played in the Ranger Javelin, the game’s jack-of-all-trades exosuit, which had a satisfying combination of agility and defensive metal plating. People have joked that what’s been shown of Anthem’s gameplay so far looks like Iron Man The RPG, and based on what I played that’s almost exactly how it feels. The first thing I did was jump, expecting it to feel unwieldy like it did in Mass Effect: Andromeda, BioWare’s previous Frostbite-engine driven foray into double-jump platforming. Instead, the jetpack boost was more precise and easier to control. It’s not as intuitive or fluid as Bungie’s Destiny, a series to which Anthem will suffer no shortage of comparisons, but the Javelins let you do something those games don’t: fly.
I pushed in the left analog stick while in the air, and my Javelin immediately went into flight mode. Direction is controlled by where you look with the right stick, and pushing up or down on the left controls the throttle. The transition feels impressively seamless, similar to what I’ve come to expect when going into a thruster glide in Destiny. It’s something I ended up going in and out of easily whenever trying to flank a group of enemies, get a better vantage point, or simply escape danger. That said, there’s just enough friction so that you feel like you’re actually piloting an armored mech suit and not just weightless.
To keep the Javelin’s flight capabilities from feeling overpowered, the suit can overheat. When this happens you’ll be grounded until the cooldown is over, but during particularly long journeys it’s also possible to dip under a waterfall to cool off and stay in the air longer. While the cavernous jungle I was playing was big in scale to accommodate my maneuverability, there were also tighter corridors stitching open areas together, including underwater parts the Javelin can fly through. Instead of overheating in these parts, there’s an oxygen meter limiting how long you can stay under. While I never risked running out of air I could see it, like overheating, being an interesting way to cordon off secret areas and make exploration more interesting.
In addition to head-on flight, the Javelin can just hover around vertically by pushing in the right analog stick while in the air instead of the left. During this mode you can pull out your gun and shoot enemies while you circle the battlefield from off the ground. Combined, both abilities made it easy to take full advantage of the entire 3D space. Rather than just jumping around on the surface and following the paths in front of me, I could fly up onto a ledge to get the lay of the land and then fly to wherever I wanted. Once there I could drop down and go into hover mode closer to whatever enemies I was trying to kill.
The gunplay in Anthem is less exciting, though still functional. I only played with a very generic assault rifle. Though it was nice seeing little damage numbers spray across an enemy as I shot it, aiming, shooting, and reloading feel much more comparable to the Mass Effect series, which no one ever lauded for its impeccable gunfeel. Melee attacks, meanwhile, were extremely powerful and felt a little more satisfying, especially when launching them from the air, which immediately triggers a ground-stomp on whatever’s below. The Javelins also have ultimate attacks, and mine included holding down both the right and left bumpers to lock onto targets ahead of me while flying through the air to unleash a torrent of tracking missiles. I also had a pulse weapon on my right arm I could power up to knock enemies out of the air or slightly stun them, acting as a sort of crowd control. As I said, it’s all very Iron Man, but with the visual trappings of something like James Cameron’s Avatar.
Finally, I had a ice grenade, which instead of just automatically launching with the left bumper I could hold to target a specific area with a hologram overlay showing me its area of effect, more like an RPG than a traditional shooter. In addition to slowing enemies and dealing damage, this attack could be combined with the other members of my squad to deal bonus combo damage. For especially tough enemies, this was a must. We could have killed our enemies by just unloading all of our ammunition on them, but being coordinated and comboing effectively allowed us to be much more efficient. While the demo made everything intentionally easy, I could see figuring out how to combine special abilities from each of the different Javelin classes to best to take out hard bosses being an interesting puzzle to tease out with more than one solution.
It wasn’t clear where the missions I played will fit into Anthem’s overall game. The environments they took place in looked gorgeous though, with skyboxes that are on the level of or surpass anything else currently out there (I’m a sucker for a good skybox). At one point while flying through a series of caves I looked off to my right at a break wall at a giant alien structure in the distance, fragmented by blades of light. Whether or not it’s some place Anthem players will eventually be able to visit, I’d be happy to fly around levels like these. There are still a bunch of questions surrounding Anthem, some of which BioWare has spent the last few days answering (like will there be loot boxes? Answer: no.). It only took a few moments with the game for me to be convinced it will feel as good to fly around in as it currently looks.