Platforms: Xbox One (reviewed), PS4, PC
BioWare is one of the most respected video game developers in the industry. Thanks to their slate of hit games from their Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises, along with cult favorites like Jade Empire and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, fans are always looking forward to what will come next from the studio.
Enter Anthem. A new action role-playing game that would be consistently online, with an open world, and all co-op gameplay. This was a game that would put a unique twist on the MMO-lite games similar to Destiny and The Division, and offer players a new experience to continually return to grind for new loot and adventures with friends.
So how is it?
I am Iron Man
If you’ve been keeping up with the game, you’re probably aware of the rough “demo” weekends and some of the issues the game has been experiencing since its launch on February 22. Some of the things have been fixed, like being able to actually log in to the game, and other things, like loading times, continue to be worked on.
Overall, the foundation of the gameplay is solid. The world of Anthem is gorgeous and alive, filled with creatures, both dangerous and passive, living their lives among the lakes and rivers, waterfalls, mountains, forests, and abandoned settlements. I played most of the game on Xbox One X and a 65-inch Samsung QLED Smart TV, and the beauty of the game is profound, immersive and all-encompassing.
At the start of the game, you enter a tutorial wearing an exo-suit called a Javelin. You start off with the Ranger Javelin and learn how to use its abilities, like seeking rockets, and grenades, as well as your flying ability and ultimate ability.
As mentioned in our preview earlier this year, you feel like Tony Stark in an Iron Man suit. The flying is fun, the battles are action-packed with lots of colorful explosions, and you feel powerful. The game mechanics are solid, easy to control, and pretty smooth. I didn’t experience too many hiccups while traversing the planet. Up and down valleys and canyons, through tunnels, diving down underwater, then back and up in the air again, the flying mechanics are definitely a highlight of the game. The shooting is on point too. It may not be as refined and intuitive as Destiny, but it’s pretty good for a third person shooter and feels familiar for those who have played the Mass Effect franchise.
Once the tutorial and intro missions are finished, you’re able to choose one of four Javelins – Ranger, Storm, Interceptor, and Colossus. Each Javelin has their own strengths and abilities. As previously stated, The Ranger feels like Iron Man, with missiles launching from your arm, and an ultimate ability that brings multiple missiles to a target.
The Interceptor is nimble and quick, throws ninja stars, and has an Ultimate ability where your character is whipping around the environment slashing enemies. Colossus feels like Iron Man’s Hulk Buster, just a big hunk of mass that can cause a small earthquake when he pounds the ground, carries a flame thrower, and has an Ultimate that launches a massive, highly explosive mortar. I played most of the game with Storm, which uses elemental abilities like fire, ice, and lightning to take down enemies. Storm’s Ultimate is a combination of all three elements raining down on a targeted enemy.
Each Javelin is equipped with two guns, two abilities (each Javelin only gets one Ultimate), a support seal, which can include shields or attack/defense buffs, and components, which adds stats to gear and abilities. We’ll get to how to switch these up a bit later.
Anthem of Creation
On the story side, the Anthem of Creation is an entity that was used to by the Shapers, an ancient alien race, to create the world. The Shapers never finished creating the world because the Anthem was too volatile. Now all across the world are these unstable Shaper relics that create Cataclysms, which are random events that range from spawning mysterious creatures and creating portals to instantly changing the climate and weather.
Centuries later, you play as a Freelancer, a mercenary who is an expert Javelin pilot. Freelancers are hired by a cast of characters to venture out into the wilderness to save people, retrieve information, turn on old equipment all the while taking out creatures, outlaws, and the Scar alien race.
The overarching story of the game however is stopping the Dominion, an authoritarian faction, and their leader, The Monitor, from getting access and the power to control the Anthem. As with any video game villain, The Monitor’s goal with the power of the Anthem is to bring order to the world. Of course, we don’t trust the Monitor, not only because he’s doing despicable things to achieve his goal, but also because messing with the Anthem could possibly destroy the planet.
BioWare is known for their storytelling acumen, but the overarching story really didn’t move me, hardly at all. What I found more interesting were a couple of the side quests and story threads dealing with tertiary characters like Sentinel Dax and Freelancer Yarrow, who both are trying to solve mysteries in the world. There’s also more story and lore to be learned about the history of the world and its inhabitants by talking to the characters in Fort Tarsis, your character’s homebase, but I honestly didn’t feel motivated to spend the time talking to the characters that didn’t have a mission for me. That’s mostly because of the tediousness of the game.
A tedious adventure
When I say tediousness of the game, it’s across the entire experience. Anthem has a great foundation for a fun game here, it just takes patience to get to the fun – starting with the loading screens. There’s a loading screen for every aspect of the game and they’re not short. There’s loading into Fort Tarsis to accept a mission or quest, loading into that mission or quest, loading in and out of a menu to change your loadout, and sometimes loading to enter other areas of the world during a mission. Once you’re done with a mission, you can’t stay in the open world and explore or start a nearby mission, you have to load into either Fort Tarsis, The Forge (where you change your loadout), or the Launch Bay (where you can connect with other players). Then start the loading loop all over again.
BioWare really, REALLY encourages you to play the game with friends or enter matchmaking, so I suspected that the long load times had to do with the constant matchmaking, but even when I went private, the loading was just as long. I’m not really sure how they can fix the loading requirements, but it definitely is something that takes away from the experience.
Speaking of matchmaking, when you enter the mission, it’s usually with three other players, including Freeplay, the game’s open world mode. In missions, the matchmaking works fine and does a good job of keeping everyone together and focused on the task at hand. In Freeplay, however, you’re very much alone. Yes, you are matched with three other players, but a lot of the time they’re on the other side of the map, far from where you are, while you’re trying to take out a Titan by yourself. It would have been nice to have some help. Comparatively, Destiny 2 can have up to nine players in an area at one time, so there’s always help around when it comes to public events.
Another tedious aspect of the game is in regard to the loot and changing your abilities and loadout. As you play through the game, enemies will drop different tiers of loot – Common, Uncommon, Rare, Epic, Masterwork, and Legendary. When you pick them up, you don’t know if it’s a weapon, ability, or gear piece, until after you complete the mission. Meaning you can’t equip it until you load into The Forge. Also meaning you can’t try out your new weapon or gear UNTIL you load into another mission. So if your new shotgun or assault rifle sucks, you’re stuck with it until the end of the mission, unless you exit the mission and head back to The Forge, thus taking you back through the loading screen abyss. Ugh.
There’s also the tediousness in Fort Tarsis. The movement is slow in the Fort (they’ve actually sped up the movement, so it was worse), so the inability to launch into a mission from wherever you are in the Fort doesn’t really encourage me to walk around to talk to NPCs. If I’m on one side of the Fort getting a mission from Sentinel Brin, I want to be able to launch right into it after I’m finished talking to her. Instead, I have to slog all the way through the courtyard, past the ponds, through two pairs of double doors, and through the marketplace to my Javelin to start. I’m not really trying to stop and talk to anyone.
With these types of games, where the player is encouraged to return to previously played areas and content, there has to be something to chase. For the most part, the missions are solid, albeit very repetitive, which is to be expected. And as you play through the missions and participate in Freeplay’s random events, you level up, topping out at level 30, and continue to earn loot.
Once you hit that level 30, you replay the same content, at a higher difficulty to earn Masterwork or Legendary weapons and gear. These weapons and gear will randomly drop when replaying through the content. That wasn’t enough motivation for me to keep playing through the same content over and over again hoping to get something I like. What I like about some of Destiny 2’s endgame content are the specific missions and challenges to get a specific weapon or reward. There isn’t any of that in Anthem’s endgame, and everything just feels aimless.
Hopefully in the coming months more purposeful endgame content will be added to the game. BioWare has a fun, good game in there somewhere it just needs some additional development and maybe snatch an idea or two from what worked in The Division and Destiny franchises.