Bioware’s MMO looter shooter, Anthem, isn’t quite what I hoped.
Whatever happened to pacing? Anthem gets some elements right, and others unfathomably wrong. Not even mildly comparing it to The Division or Destiny would be naive. It stands alongside them in a genre populated with games-as-a-service that all want to seem like the next big thing, but each is flawed in one way or another. Anthem follows in the same footsteps, making similar mistakes. There’s a lot to like, but it still has a long way to go.
In Anthem you take on the role of a freelancer, part of a group of battle-hardened fighters who lost to an unstoppable force in the Heart of Rage, leaving them discarded by those they tried to help. You’re disliked, even outright hated, by those around you. After the Heart of Rage, the freelancers by and large went their separate ways, but you went straight back out there doing what you could, helping those at the settlement of Fort Tarsis in Bastion. As a premise, Anthem’s storyline piqued my interest; I was invested in the idea of being part of a group who’d lost their way, their belief, and their reverence. Bioware uses its expertise in strong character writing to create allies whose trust and adoration you must win back, and adversaries who see you as a past relic of a lost battle. It’s a shame, then, that the main story never really evolves to anything more than a generic ‘there’s this item the bad guys want and you have to get it first otherwise bad things will happen’. The Anthem of Creation is what you’re fighting over, and it can leave disasters, storms and mutations in its wake.
While the purpose of Anthem’s loose narrative is to act as a framing device enabling you to explore the world of Bastion in freeplay, it never gets the pacing quite right. At one stage the main story progression is at the mercy of the speed of your own exploration, and this stop gap in the story is a detriment to the combat. For the first few hours of Anthem, it feels as though the combat, the abilities, and the combos will stay fresh, fun, and engaging throughout the story. But further into the game, that pace of progression slows to a halt, and cracks across the whole title begin to seep through. At least Anthem’s story is long, but when it falls into eventual tedium, that length feels too endless.
As a freelancer you have a choice of four Javelins: Ranger, Storm, Colossus, and Interceptor. Javelins are exosuits used by freelancers, each with its own unique abilities. You pick one after the tutorial and unlock the remaining three in your preferred order while levelling up. It seems I picked my favourite from the off, Storm. Ranger is a more balanced Javelin, Colossus is a tank-like, heavy Javelin, and the Interceptor is a quicker, often utility-based Javelin. The Storm, though, may be one of my favourite things about Anthem. It provides its wearer with the ability to hover over all battles while raining ice, fire, or electricity from above, which is a hell of a lot of fun. My friends are playing as Colossi, and the potential combos between the two Javelins make teamwork worthwhile and rewarding.
Each Javelin has two standard abilities, a melee and an ultimate. Sound familiar? However, credit where it’s due, Anthem has a wide variety of abilities, and the four Javelins have unique abilities and armaments to them. Comboing abilities with your allies across all four Javelins is satisfying to pull off. The breadth of customisation for these Javelins from the get-go is impressive, which stops in-game microtransactions feeling too important. Those who become committed to Anthem will of course spend more money on these cosmetics, but hopefully Bioware is committed to the ability to customise not being intrinsically tied to microtransactions.
Anthem’s sound design in combat gives a great feeling of weight, and the audio feedback you get after pulling off a successful combo is incredibly gratifying. However, I’ve encountered a bug where all of the audio cuts out for seemingly no reason, with the only fix being to restart the entire game. Bioware seems to hit the trifecta on audio issues; I’ve also experienced cut outs, desync in cutscenes, and delay in combat. Often I’ve had one of my allies, Owen, update me on world events I’d already completed three minutes previous. Audio glitches aren’t the only bugs, either. Even following Bioware’s extensive day one patch, there are still quite a few. The list of bugs and their collective annoyance could take up a good number of paragraphs on their own; thankfully few are game breaking, but they all too often interrupt any sense of immersion.
The world of Anthem is pretty, but largely empty. Missions require you to follow a set path in the world; any deviation produces a warning you’re leaving the mission area – a message you’ll see a lot when playing with others. It’s a beautiful world at times with ancient ruins, and caves dotted around that are begging to be explored. Sadly, when I did spend time off the beaten path, there was very little to be found. A shame. There’s plenty for those that’ll get sucked in by the lore Bioware has created, but for most players there’s little more than filler, and rep points.
What Bioware is best at – character writing – feels pushed to the side in Anthem. In between missions, you can talk to characters around Fort Tarsis, and he dialogue is often funny and well-written. Quality voice acting across the board lends to that, too. Most conversations tend to not involve the main story, with characters having their own mini-stories about bakeries, a desire to own baby pets, or a long-lost daughter. These conversations are an absolute joy. They’re a highlight of the game, but being so disconnected from the fighting out in Bastion, it almost feels like Anthem is at odds with what exactly it wants to be. These characters are interesting to talk to, have touching moments, and the dialogue choices at times have you pondering an ethical or moral decision, even if they don’t affect too much. Having to then go into missions with complete randoms creates a disconnect between me and those affected by the central story at Tarsis. Anthem really needs a more engaging central story to bring these two halves together in a more cohesive way.
At this point in time, Anthem feels like a title that needs more work. I want to like it, but damn does it make it hard. Like the games that came before it in this genre, I’ve no doubt that Anthem will get better and bulkier with updates over time, but if Bioware takes too long in getting there, I fear most of the player base will have moved on. For what it’s worth, Anthem does show a lot of promise, and I do sincerely hope that Bioware can get new content out efficiently while addressing the various problems currently plaguing the game. In a few months’ time I’d love to be able to say that Anthem is significantly better, and the best this genre has to offer. But as it stands now, it’s a long way from that point.