Shaun Munro reviews Anthem.…
Reviewer’s note: This review was completed during Anthem’s “soft launch” period where it was available as part of EA/Origin Access prior to its physical street date of February 22nd. Though BioWare will be releasing a patch for the game on that date, it is not our expectation that the core experience will be markedly different from that represented in this review.
After seven years in development, BioWare’s Anthem is finally out in the wild, bringing with it an enormous weight of expectation that it might be “the next Destiny.” In so much as Destiny was also a colossally disappointing, malnourished sci-fi shooter upon launch, that much may be true, but where Bungie’s beleaguered shooter at least boasted thorough technical polish from the outset, Anthem is a thoroughly lacklustre effort almost from top to bottom.
Making head or tail of the game’s story is neither easy nor a task many will be motivated to actively pursue, but the (very) basic gist sees the remnants of humanity isolated behind a wall after the gods mysteriously disappear. Sealed within the safety of the primitive-yet-technically-prosperous city Fort Tarsis, players nevertheless venture out into the overgrown world as Freelancers, soldiers who don exosuits known as Javelins which allow them to safely traverse the world and battle threats from the Evil-with-a-capital-E outfit known as the Dominion.
In case you can’t tell from that dispassionate description, Anthem‘s strength certainly isn’t its story, which is a major disappointment coming from much-vaunted RPG storytellers BioWare (Mass Effect, Dragon Age). Though the ecotone of this newfangled tech existing within an ornate, ruinous world is vaguely interesting, almost nothing pertaining to the characters or the narrative actually is.
Sure, the exposition-heavy cut-scenes and FMV sequences look fancy enough – and benefit from solid voice acting throughout – but the bulk of the critical plot is typical genre nonsense that has little time for meaningful characterisation beyond name-dropping things and people you’ll likely forget near-instantly.
There’s quite a lot of story, too, even with the brevity of the campaign; lore dumps between missions can last up to five minutes, yet rarely compel on anything more than a most basically superficial level. Few would blame you for scrolling through your phone, or better still, reaching for the skip button. I did neither of those things, and despite rolling the credits on Anthem‘s story just a few days ago, I can barely remember anything about it.
To pivot to a positive, the core gameplay is decidedly more memorable, centred around traversal and gunplay – that is, flying around, exploring, killing grotesque alien creatures and looting their corpses. From moment to moment, it certainly feels very satisfying, and is probably the closest we’re going to get to an unlicensed Iron Man game that isn’t slapped with a fierce Marvel lawsuit.
Players are able to pick from one of four Javelins at the start of the game – such as the all-rounder Ranger, the Hulkbuster-like Colossus and the sleeker but more vulnerable likes of Storm and Interceptor – with a solid degree of balance between the suits, and a ton of cosmetic and tactical variation if the loot grind is especially appealing to you.
Outside of the rather unnecessary overheating restriction stopping you zooming around at will, flying in this world indeed feels quite fantastic, with players able to fluidly switch-up between barrelling flight and hovered shooting with the simple touch of a button.
Combat is meanwhile focused on players deploying combo barrages for maximum effectiveness, by combining ranged attacks with special abilities to pull off devastating assaults on tough enemies (such as, in a simple example, throwing an ice grenade in combination with a missile). Though there’s not much depth to the flying and shooting, they still present a slick framework on which other, more layered gameplay systems could clearly have been hung. But that’s really where things start to get rough.
Outside the loop of traversal and gunning, the core appeal of Anthem is the squad-based play, and on paper it’s a damn fine idea. Surging around the map and blowing things up in a squad of four Freelancers should be an easy blast, but the game constantly works against its own interests by actively impending the social aspect that makes similar titles fly off the shelves. For starters, there’s a total absence of text chat – a long-held staple of multiplayer PC games, to say nothing of consoles – and no communication system outside of voice chat, which so far appears to be adopted by few.
As a result, organising squad play can be more irritating than it should be, for though matchmaking appears fairly stable, there’s little way to indicate intent to your teammates, as is especially annoying during some of the brief puzzle-based sequences. Unless you’re playing with real-life pals and actually engaging in voice chat, it mostly feels like you and your anonymous comrades are just symmetrically, joylessly hammering on enemy mobs. At this point you have to consider if there’s really much point of the game having random matchmaking at all, when it feels so coldly detached and utterly impersonal.
The issues don’t end there; get caught behind during a quest and you’ll be met with an aggressively large text box informing you you’ll be forcibly teleported to your teammates if you don’t hurry up. But while a curated and controlled experience such as this might be more understandable during core mission gameplay, it’s undeniably baffling in Freeplay mode, a free-roam suite where players can explore the world, tackle world events and team up with others if they so wish.
Except Freeplay is bizarrely limited to the same four-player squad size of the core game, when it certainly wouldn’t have been unreasonable to expect anywhere from 8-32 players to reside within the same instanced world. Instead, there’s little potential to meet up with randoms, form impromptu teams or basically be social with other people. You are dropped into a rigid four-player server, and if those people stink, you need to leave and try again.
On top of this, exploring Anthem‘s world loses its vigour incredibly quickly, for as gorgeous as the game looks, its thrills are almost entirely puddle-deep. There’s desperately little of interest populating the world, with NPCs virtually nowhere to be found and only a handful of enemy types to conquer. If you were hoping for a diverse array of colossal bosses which would require the immense might of a well-minted four-team squad, that’s sadly nowhere to be seen for now.
Unlike even the most unambitious online open world, Anthem‘s doesn’t ever feel alive; it feels like a sterile, dried-up sandbox with little promise of serendipitous incident. And this is all the more annoying as online connectivity has proven uncommonly strong so far; I’ve encountered just a single disconnection through my entire time with the game.
And speaking of time, the core Anthem campaign experience likely won’t set you back more than about 15 hours. That length wouldn’t be so much an issue were it all prime rib BioWare material, but between the feckless story and glut of missions poured from the same unimaginative bucket, there’s little motivation to continue beyond the admittedly gratifying flight and combat.
The overwhelming majority of the game’s missions boil down to flying to an area, triggering an object, remaining within the locus of said object while shooting a wave of enemies and repeating twice more. It is mission design so lacking in creativity it practically qualifies as self-parody – a tongue-in-cheek critique of the dearth of imagination defining so many loot-based titles operating under the popular games-as-a-service model.
And as fun as the shooting can be, enemies are largely either of the bone-header variety and stand around gormlessly as you launch a missile salvo at them – at least on Normal difficulty – or are pure bullet sponges. The uninspired rogues gallery is just further indicative of a purely formulaic story and gameplay loop, and one that’s not so much low-effort as it is no-effort at all.
Mid-way through the campaign players will also tackle a sure-to-become-infamous quest known as “Tombs of the Legionnaires”, where they’re required to open up four different tombs by fulfilling more than a dozen fetch quest requirements, such as killing enemies with special attacks, completing world events, harvesting plant materials and finding special murals scattered around the map.
In total fairness, some of these tasks aren’t particularly arduous, but there’s one big problem – according to BioWare reps, the fetch requirements are supposed to apply to everything you’ve already hoovered up, and yet, myself and many others have reported this not to be the case. As a result, I was forced to spend roughly three hours grinding out the requirements, draining much of my enjoyment for a time and bringing the story to a brutal halt.
Making things even more taxing is the indefensible design decision to have treasure chests – of which 15 must be collected – only claimable by a single player within a squad. As a result, you’re actively encouraged to be the first player to open the chest, and in a game that’s apparently selling itself on the joy of playing in a team of four Iron Men, it is head-smackingly stupid to pit players against one another, Hunger Games-style, in this fashion.
Between this, the excessive cut-scenes, the forced slow-walking around the game’s hub world Fort Tarsis and the excruciating abundance of loading screens, it’s really quite embarrassing that Anthem‘s story can be cleared at a relaxed pace in such little time. The core movement and combat may be robust, but even they can’t paper over the gaping cracks in the game’s infrastructure.
The idea with looter-shooters, of course, is that the post-game is just the beginning, but without giving away what’s waiting for you post-credits, it ain’t much. Unless you’re particularly inclined towards the loot grind and monotonously rehashing events you’ve already partaken in, it’s simply a case of waiting with bated breath until BioWare drops more content, apparently in March. How much faith you have in this process will vary, but speaking of the day one experience, the endgame is sorely lacking. Games can only be reviewed as they are found, and not for how they might be, after all.
Perhaps even more troubling than all this, Anthem feels fatally flawed from the ground up technically speaking. The infamously tricky EA-mandated Frostbite Engine once again proves the bane of a third-person title, not only probably responsible for the overabundance of bugs and crashes, but also resulting in terrible optimisation, and even on decent gaming rigs with SSDs, you might be waiting up to two minutes for loading screens to finish.
It’s not just the length but the sheer number of them, too; moving between the main game world, Fort Tarsis, the loadout menu known as The Forge and back between them requires individual loads, and it’s absolutely maddening. Was there really no way to combine at least a few of these elements into a seamless whole? Fort Tarsis, which unfolds via first-person perspective, ultimately feels so disconnected from the core experience that it’s easy to believe another dev team tackled it without having access to the main game.
And let’s not forget Anthem‘s thoughtlessly laid-out user interface, comprised of needlessly complex nested menus more likely to cause a headache than actually get you where you want to go. It’s not even sleek or remarkable to look at, making its patent lack of function all the more annoying. Even 20+ hours into my game, I still struggled to quickly navigate around the menus, which is both absurd and a potential killer of its long-term viability.
But one area where Anthem really can’t be put down too much is its aesthetics. Visually, this game is a glossy wonder without question; played at 4K resolution, flying across lush vistas is a fleetingly ethereal experience, and the various dingy dungeons you’ll visit throughout are layered with gorgeous dust and ambient lighting effects that feel truly cutting-edge.
Its graphical accomplishments are undeniably handicapped by the world’s overall emptiness, though, because were it teeming with life and also geographically diverse, it’d look even sharper. In conjunction with the visuals, the splashy sound work is also pleasant to the ears, with crisp gunfire proving immensely satisfying for those with beefy sound set-ups and solid voice acting propping up the nothing-plot, though the generic-o musical score mostly just fades into the background.
Though Anthem will probably become a slightly better game over time, it would be foolish to expect so many conceptual and infrastructural issues stuck to the game’s bones to be remedied. There will be less bugs for sure, but short of patching in a better story, more exciting mission types, a more intuitive multiplayer set-up and a streamlined UI, Anthem will likely always be a bit of a frustration, if not quite a mess. That’s certainly what it is now, anyway.
And though curious players can at least give it a try for minimal investment on EA’s Access subscription service, clearly many were hoping that Anthem would be a full-fat AAA proposition from the jump that’d keep them coming back for hundreds of hours. For all but the most compulsive players, though, that simply won’t be the case.
Slick flying and gunplay collide with infuriating design choices throughout Anthem. But its biggest problem is a lack of soul – this is a cynical, committee-produced product bereft of any significant creative spark.
+ Gorgeous visuals.
+ Entertaining flight and combat.
+ Thunderous sound design.
– Plot and characters are a bore.
– Open world feels empty and lifeless.
– Counter-intuitive multiplayer.
– Story missions are samey and dull.
– Campaign is sub-15 hours long.
– Unremarkable post-game content (for now).
– Frustrating technical issues.
Reviewed on PC (also available for PS4 and Xbox One).
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more video game rambling.