Review – Anthem
Bioware has had a rough time over the past few years. With the controversial Mass Effect 3 ending, the boring Dragon Age: Inquisition, and the disappointing Mass Effect: Andromeda, many have speculated that they’ve lost their magic. Can Bioware’s newest IP end the streak of bad luck and bring Bioware back to the good old days?
Anthem is set in an unnamed world created by the Shapers from harnessing the Anthem of Creation. For some reason, the Shapers have abandoned their work before it could have been completed and the world has been left unfinished, leaving their tools which have led to cataclysmic events. You play as a Freelancer who sets out to shut down Shaper Relics before they tear the world apart and uncover their secrets.
The main storyline has you stopping the villain from harnessing the power of the Anthem for himself. It’s the most engaging plot-line in the game and yet I kept losing interest because it just never went anywhere. By the end, I wasn’t entirely sure what had happened. That’s not saying the story doesn’t do anything good, however. At around the halfway mark you learn about the history of the Anthem universe and one of its most important characters, General Tarsis. It’s the high point of the story that briefly had me invested and wanting to know more before dropping back into the mundane main plotline. I felt like the game was too invested in setting up more storylines to tackle in the future, but in doing so the whole story can’t stand on its own.
Being a Bioware game, you expect a wide range of likable characters and even though it’s not up to scratch, there is a solid effort. Haluk, a character that I didn’t like when starting the game, grew on me over time and ended up becoming a favourite of mine. His strong resolve is his greatest strength, but also his weakness. Then we’ve got characters like Owen, who are annoying from the get-go and only get worse as the game progresses. Anthem has a mixed bag of characters and for every likable character like Haluk, there’s at least one annoying character like Owen.
The real stars of Anthem though are the Javelins; four remarkably well designed exo-suits that you will spend the bulk of your time in. Each of the four Javelins can fly, dash, and hover around the world with their own unique mechanics that set them apart. My personal favourite Javelin, The Interceptor, is faster and more agile than its counterparts, allowing me to move in for quick melee strikes and back out again with ease. There’s also the hulking Colossus, the balanced Ranger, and the magic focused Storm, who is the most unique out of the bunch.
Controls are tight and the flying is smooth. Flying through the world of Anthem you’ll need to manage your Javelin’s heat levels. Staying closer to water keeps your Javelin cooler, which in turn allows you to stay in the air for longer. In theory it’s an interesting mechanic, forcing you to divert paths and get you on the ground more often, but in practice it just pads out the game length unnecessarily. I want to fly around the world and get to my objective and not have some silly limits on that.
Combat should be pretty familiar to those that played Mass Effect: Andromeda, mechanically it’s very similar and that’s a good thing. Shooting is satisfying and the mechanics make moving around the arenas a breeze. Alongside the variety of weapons you can bring with you, your Javelin has some abilities to assist you in combat. It’s not the deepest or most mechanically complex gameplay, but it’s fun and entertaining enough to make Anthem worth playing. It’s also where the games heat mechanic actually makes sense. Getting hit by fire enemies will ground you for a while but luckily arenas will often have some water in which you can walk or fly through to cool down your Javelin. It limits how long you can stay in the air but rarely feels too harsh.
It’s such a shame that even with everything in place, Anthem just ends up falling apart. The biggest problem is the total lack of variety found everywhere in the game. The enemies that you fight across the twenty hour campaign aren’t all that interesting. Besides a few bosses, you will meet all the enemies in the opening act. Missions often follow the same pattern; spawn in the world and fly for a few minutes to your objective. Once you get there you will either kill all the enemies around, collect X amount of objects, or stand in a circle to capture the point. It’s this cycle on repeat over and over again. After just a few hours, you will see everything the game has to offer. Whilst the combat scenarios are still generally fun, adding more variety would have went a long way to make Anthem feel like a more complete experience. Right now though, it’s just a repetitive chore.
Enemy AI is laughable at best, not even bothering to take cover or attempt to flank you. They often just stand out in the open and shoot at you, that’s if they even remember to do so. On a few occasions I was able to drop an entire magazine into an enemy whilst he just stared at me. Anthem‘s idea of difficulty is not putting you into well designed combat situations with intelligent AI, it’s throwing as many enemies at you with high health pools as possible, a problem that only grows on higher difficulty settings.
Annoyingly, the game’s emphasis on cooperative play gets in the way. Every time you want to start a solo mission, the game will prompt you to play with a public group instead. Freeplay forces you in with a group if you want it or not. Whilst I understand that Anthem is primarily designed to be a cooperative game, the solo effort is lacking and these annoyances aren’t necessary. If one of your teammates make it to the objective before you, the game will usually just re-spawn you to them after a few seconds, even if you were only a few meters behind them. It’s aggravating how much the game tethers you to other players during missions. Thankfully in free-play this is a non-issue, but with only four players per instance the world just feels empty with every player doing their own thing. You rarely meet up to tackle a world event and when you do, everyone just breaks off and does their own thing afterwards.
Anthem is full of things that breaks the flow of the game. Why can’t I change my loadout on the fly? Why do I have to return to Fort Tarsis after a mission instead of staying in the world? Every single thing that you do results in a loading screen that can range anywhere from thirty seconds to up to three minutes. Not being able to change your loadout on the fly means you have to suffer around four to five loading screens every time you want to try out a new weapon. It put me off experimenting with new weapons in case they were bad and I’d have to suffer even more loading. Then you’ve got the horrible UI and the host of annoying bugs and technical issues: occasional crashing, enemies popping out of existence, and objectives taking forever to trigger to name a few.
Once you finish the main campaign there’s still plenty to do. Agent and contract missions take up most of these activities that let you delve into character stories, but it’s strongholds that are the main attraction. Longer sections of gameplay leading up to a boss. At the time of writing there are only three strongholds available in the game. Two of which are generally a lot of fun to play through, especially with a diverse team that shows the full potential of the combat. The final one however, is just a repeat of the game’s horrendous final boss made even worse by making him one of the worst bullet sponges I’ve seen in this type of game. Beyond this, the endgame will take you into higher difficulties with more challenges and a degrading grind. This is of course a live service and things could very well change overtime, but right now Anthem is not in a great state.
Anthem is gorgeous; flying through the world and just taking in the sights is something you will be doing often. The first time I launched into the air and flew towards my mission I was in awe of how beautiful the world is. It’s expertly crafted with plenty to see, from ancient ruins to the mysterious Shaper structures. In combat your screen fills up with glorious particle effects that never get old. It’s not overly distracting and does a good job of making your weapons and abilities feel more powerful as you blow up your enemies. The downside of this beauty is with the game’s optimization with frequent framerate drops even when lowering the settings.
Sound design is pretty good as well. Whilst the voice acting can be truly bad with some characters, most of the main cast does a great job of portraying their roles. Launching into the word and hearing the sounds of your jet-packs as you take off and eventually slam into the ground never gets old. Unfortunately, guns don’t sound as impactful as they should, even a high powered sniper rifle sounds weak. Then we’ve got the soundtrack. It doesn’t quite hit the dizzying heights of some games released recently, but it’s still very good and makes the experience feel much more epic.
Anthem is a game that I wanted to like more than I did, given its fantastic concept and great core gameplay. Anthem should have been a winner, but it’s turning out to be just another live service with nothing to stand out from the competition.
Visually beautiful with great particle effects that make fights feel extra explosive.
The core mechanics of Anthem are great, but it’s a shame they couldn’t do much with them.
Some solid sound design with a great soundtrack.
Baffling design decisions and dull missions bring down a potentially awesome game
Final Verdict: 6.5
Anthem is available now on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4.
Reviewed on PC.
A copy of Anthem was provided by the publisher.