The Good: Stunning graphics. Good music and voice acting. Flight can be exhilarating.
The Bad: Repetitive kill and fetch quests. Surprisingly dull combat. Uninteresting weaponry. Crazy long loading times.
The Ugly: Unstable, always online requirement results in numerous drops. Opportunities for microtransactions up the wazoo.
What happened to Bioware? I mean it; where did they go? This is the studio responsible for KOTOR, a game I sank easily 100 hours into, and Neverwinter Nights, which was the first game to convince me that a computer RPG could be just as good as live pencil-and-graph-paper role-playing, and Baldur’s Gate, which I recently started replaying on my tablet. Which is to say nothing of the Mass Effect trilogy, and Dragon’s Age (which I haven’t gotten around to yet, but swear someday I will). And they put their collective heads together and work on a title for more than two years, and Anthem is what they come up with? Seriously? Then again, they’re also responsible for the most recent Mass Effect, so maybe we should all have seen this coming.
The backstory: Humans have established a colony on some far-flung planet littered with random bits of techno junk left behind by some previous super-powerful race called the shapers who harnessed an energy called the Anthem of Creation (I guess The Force was already taken). The stuff they left behind is too complex for us to understand and is pretty dangerous. When a bad guy leading an army called the Dominion attacked a city and attempted to use an artifact stored there, the resulting cataclysm destroyed the city and resulted in a region of instability called The Heart of Rage. You play as a mercenary who pilots an armored suit (like a clunky Iron Man) called a Javelin. Javelins used to be loved and respected before the whole losing the big battle and the Heart of Rage thing, so now you’re nickel and diming your way along, making a living with your suit of armor any way you can with the help of your cipher (Spider Man’s man in a chair). Where’s the Dominion these days and what’s up in the Heart of Rage? That’s for you to find out.
So, let me start with what I like about Anthem. This will be real quick. The new video engine looks amazing; as good as any game I’ve ever seen. It lacks destructible environments, which definitely would have added something (at least the ability to blow down trees), but like a Miss America contestant – pretty on the outside, empty on the inside – Anthem’s got the pretty down pat. There are beautiful mists and waterfalls and forests and impressive ruins and wild critters roaming about. Just lovely. The music is also very nice. Typically, in games I either don’t notice the music or hate it, but in this case, I actually liked it. I won’t be putting it on my iPod anytime soon, but neither did a feel the need to dig down through settings menus to try and figure out how to turn it off. Voice acting also, really well done. From a gameplay perspective, the only part I found really enjoyable is the flying. Your Javelin flying range is limited only by heat load, so you can step off a cliff and soar (the maps are really well set up for this), go into a hard dive to shed some heat, skim along the surface of a lake to stay cool, or glide past a waterfall. I think they got the feel of the weight of the suit and its responsiveness in flight just right. I’ll add that overheating is no big deal – you just drop out of the sky like a rock, but no matter how far you fall there’s no penalty. I’ve never seen a suit damaged or destroyed by falling, and once you’ve cooled off, you’re ready to fly again. I think it would have been far more interesting to have some fall damage to really let the player experience the interplay of pushing the flight as far as possible but always wary of the risk of pushing too far. I see it as a questionable gameplay design decision, but it’s far from the worst one.
The worst one is the always online thing. Sure, I get it: there’s a cooperative element to the game, so that needs to be online, though the cooperativeness of the community is often at question – more on that later – but I had the game kick me offline while playing a frigging cutscene. I had it go offline while wandering around the fort (which is a totally single player activity). Probably Bioware will point the finger at my ISP, and that’s fine, but I played more hours of Fallout 76 than is probably good for my mental health and never had it drop me more than once or twice in all those hours. Anthem kicks me at least once an hour, and in one particularly buggy stretch three times in fifteen minutes. And every time it kicks you, it restarts you from where ever it considers the last save point which, for a game that is always online, can be a fair distance in the past.
But I would say the most unforgivable sin of Anthem is that it’s just flat dull. You wander the town – very pretty eye candy aside – and pick up missions through conversations with few branching options. Can you go outside and find this thing for me? Escort that guy? Rescue this other guy. Check out this information? They all amount to essentially the same thing – fly to a place, brief battle, fly to the next place, brief battle, etc, return home, collect experience and plow through the loot you picked up. Most enemies make no attempt to take cover or dodge or anything – they stand in one place and shoot at you, or run straight at you, and try to beat you with numbers. Some of the “boss” enemies are more interesting, but there aren’t nearly enough of them, either in quantity or variety. Weapons are all gun variants, with some rockets and grenades thrown in, but there’s nothing particularly memorable. There are some interesting suit augments which add electrical, acid, fire, or freezing damage to your attacks which allows you to personalize your combat style somewhat and build up what the game calls combo attacks (like freezing an enemy and slamming them with a physical attack, or using an acid attack to soften up the enemy armor). You can also use a sword, which is a little more exciting and visceral, and lets you use your flying jets to make little jumps and sliceinto your enemies, but even scything through dozens of dumb enemies gets old quickly.
Missions are cooperative, and since I lack a social group on the Origin service, the game would just pair me with three random people. For all the teamwork we do, they may as well pair me with three random AIs. Sure, we all go to the same places and we’re all shooting at the same enemy, but there’s no coordination or communication at all. An alternative to cooperative missions is free missions, where you just go out into the world and look for icons indicating something of interest. The world you enter has three other players, just like cooperative missions, but they’re out there doing their own thing. The maps are quite large, and I would rarely even lay eyes on another player unless I used the map to specifically seek them out. Perhaps playing with friends works better, but the meager cooperative experience bonus is not enough motivation for the players to team up.
I could keep beating this dead horse, but I’m sure everyone reading this gets the idea, and I haven’t even discussed the copious microtransactions (the paint job on your armor is free, but want a special decal or a pose, that’s going to cost coin, and you can also purchase things like crafting materials which are far from cosmetic for real world dollars) or that loading screens can take two or three minutes even with my new, zippy SATA3 SSD. Above all, I’m surprised that even on the drawing board someone thought Anthem looked like a good game. Probably the same doofus who greenlighted the most recent Mass Effect.
Reviewed By: Phil Soletsky
Publisher: Electronic Arts
This review is based on a digital copy of Anthem for the PC provided by Electronic Arts.