Games as a service is fast becoming a popular way for developers and their publishers to release AAA titles at full price yet continue to generate revenue from them through DLC and things like season passes. The trouble is that rarely do any of them launch particularly well. This is mostly down to us knowing the initial slice we get is a small part of a bigger picture, with gamers often feeling short-changed by the initial launch offering. Anthem is BioWare’s first foray into the looter shooter genre and for good or for bad it is also a game as a service.
Set on an unnamed planet full of weird and wonderful wildlife you take on the role of a Freelancer, a faction of Javelin pilots who take on contracts and see themselves as keepers of the peace. These Javelins are exosuits that enable the wearer to fly and combat some of the strange beasts that can appear thanks to relics that harness the power of Anthem’s MacGuffin, The Anthem of Creation. This unseen device, through relics of a bygone age, has the ability to terraform parts of the planet, cause water to flow backwards and, more scarily, generate giant beasts that are no match for mere mortals. Without the Freelancers many of the planet’s cities would’ve likely been lost long ago and were revered by the populous thanks to their thrilling heroics.
We start things off ten years before the main campaign as a wet behind the ears rookie. It is, however, a baptism of fire as a huge cataclysm threatens the people of Bastion, a nation in this unknown world. These cataclysms envelop the surrounding area with storms and giant creatures, and effectively render the area inhospitable. This particular cataclysm is dubbed the Heart of Rage and things go from bad to worse rather quickly. On your way in your Javelin is knocked out of the sky and it’s here that you begin your story. You are then guided through getting back on your feet by your crew’s Cypher, a person who is able to “hear” the Anthem of Creation as well as see things through their pilots. It is this sequence where you choose your pilot’s sex and are given in-game tutorials on how to jump, fly and shoot.
It’s a neat way to incorporate a tutorial and in no time we were jumping around, hovering over our enemies and laying waste to all the killer scorpions. Which was great until things got even worse as we learnt that other Freelancers were dropping like flies. After the group’s Cypher, Faye, orders a general retreat two hulking Titans — an incredibly tough foe — appear in the Heart of Rage, the group leader Haluk demands they stay and fight. As he is ignored and dragged to safety in this stunning opening mission. The scene is then set for a world rich in lore, interesting characters and some rather exquisite voice acting.
Fast-forward to the present, and the Heart of Rage is still present over the now abandoned city of Freemark, the Freelancers have dropped down in people’s estimations. Faye and Haluk are in the wind, and it’s just you and your new Cypher, Owen eking out contracts and building up a reputation. When an agent of Corvus, Bastian’s equivalent of the Secret Service, enlists your services, the main story arc kicks off.
If there’s one thing that Anthem has going for it — and right now there isn’t a lot — it’s that the story is actually quite good, if a tad short. As it stands, the main story can be cranked out in under fifteen hours and the normal contracts and missions in just over twenty. Considering BioWare is better known for far more epic and winding tales that take upwards of forty hours to complete, you finish things knowing they’ve only just started. However, it’s well told, paced rather well and really shows where BioWare’s strengths lie. Told mainly through cutscenes and interactions at the main hub of Fort Tarsis, we slowly learn what happened in Freemark, more about this chapter’s main bad guy The Monitor, and more importantly, more about the people who inhabit this world
If you spend the time in Fort Tarsis and engage in every possible conversation you start to see why many people were excited by the prospect of the next BioWare game. There’s plenty of lore to get stuck into through picking up texts alongside some rather interesting people; one in particular stuck with us as his only aim is to make Fort Tarsis a safer place to live by banning puddles. Each add their own colour and point of view of the world adding to your understanding of where you, as a Freelancer stand, but more importantly it makes you care.
There are conversation choices but, unlike BioWare games of the past, these seem to have no effect whatsoever on anyone or anything around you. It’s like they’re thrown in there because they were expected of a BioWare game. The sad fact is that they really don’t take your playthrough to any alternate places and Anthem would be better off without them. They’re an unnecessary distraction and add little real value to the story. No matter what options you choose the story will play out the same way, so unless our choices in conversation come to fruition in later updates they’re rather superfluous. All of them take place in Fort Tarsis and whilst you do meet some new characters in the field your only real interactions with them are back at the hub. It feels a tad disjointed and it’d be much more enjoyable if missions in the storyline could be linked and engaged with whilst out in the area around the Fort.
As it is, once you complete your mission you are taken through a mission successful screen with your squad composed of either friends or matchmaking companions and your XP is handed out. Alongside just finishing the mission you earn extra XP by completing challenges such as hitting weak points of enemies, raising downed allies or using explosives. These aren’t unique and can be earned on every mission. Once you’ve been through all that you can choose whether you go back to Fort Tarsis, the Forge should you wish to check out your loot, or a public lobby where you can create another crew and buy stuff. This last location is, however, devoid of all life and new missions cannot be obtained here — it was added late in the development cycle due to feedback and it shows. There are no NPCs, no conversation, nothing. Much like the conversation choices, Anthem could do without this add-on and whilst some fans may’ve clamoured for it, BioWare should’ve stuck to its guns on this one.
When you are out on missions and contracts you get a feeling of how good Anthem could be with a few tweaks here and there. Flying is really good fun and having to cool your jetpack forces you to think of unique ways to get around in order to extend your flight time. Whilst you can improve their cooling through components for your Javelin, learning how to skim the surface of a lake to keep things cool, and to watch the surface scatter as you fly inches above, flying is very rewarding. So is learning how to use the combo system and utilise your squad to maximum effect. By combining status effects such as freezing with blast damage you can inflict far more damage than they can alone. Used wisely within a squad you can down big enemies relatively quickly and since Anthem takes the bullet sponge approach to enemy difficulty, knowing these combos is a useful skill to have.
When you do engage the enemies the verticality offered by flying a Javelin really pays off and once you get a hang of the controls you’ll soon find yourself really enjoying these encounters. They’re full of explosions, heavy gunfire and the latter missions really do test you and your team's ability to work together. What’s unfortunate is that sometimes you get dropped into a mission that’s part way through meaning you can miss almost entire missions and complete them without lifting a finger. It seems odd that the matchmaking system would dump someone who’s working their way through the story into a storyline mission that’s almost complete and it yet it does, often.
Equally frustrating is that after waiting a minute or two loading into the mission — for those who haven’t installed on an SSD — you are greeted with a warning to head back to the mission area in fifteen seconds. It’s then you notice that the rest of your group is halfway across the map and there’s no way you’re getting there that quickly. The timer then runs out and you’re left looking at another loading screen. Whilst this one doesn’t last too long this pattern of loading screen, game, loading screen repeats itself often enough to get annoying. After a while you start to miss the days where loading screens could be hidden behind long elevator rides.
The missions themselves also get rather repetitive after a while and mostly involve going to point A, kill some enemies, heading to point B, killing some more and then hitting your final point where you taken on some higher level enemies. They don’t require too much finesse and even the hardest type of mission, Strongholds, lacks any massive skill requirement to complete. There are some puzzle elements to them and some missions but they are pretty straightforward. Even when you up your mission’s difficulty to hard or above, from what we can tell, is just increasing the number of higher tier enemies and the number of bullets needed to take them down.
It’s a real shame, then, that Anthem launches as a game that seems confused about its identity. Had it been a traditional BioWare game and launched as a single-player epic with a huge and expansive forty-hour campaign we’d wager it’d be having much more success than it is. There are flashes of this type of game in Anthem from the faux conversation choices to the wonderful start to our story but it is tempered by its faults, including frequent loading screens, graphical glitches and a fair number of crashes. In fact, one of the crashes we experienced broke the game enough that it took several re-installs and some random poking to get things working again. We still don’t know how we got it to work again but we didn’t question it either.
Unfortunately it seems that, despite spending over six years in development, Anthem hasn’t been able to heed the lessons from watching the launches of Destiny, Destiny 2 and The Division. Whilst all three of those have gone on to moderate success they all suffered from launch issues, chief among them was feeling somewhat anaemic at launch. All of them suffered from bugs and glitches but most importantly they all had a story that felt lacking until future content came about to flesh things out. What, for us, elevates these three above Anthem is that their variety and offerings on launch feel gargantuan by comparison. There’s no PvP in Anthem, there are only three Strongholds and the post-game quest to become a Legionnaire just feels obtusely long.
Using Destiny 2 as an example there are several planets to explore, the Crucible for PvP and missions you can engage with whilst in Freeplay, not to mention the rather awesome public events. Ignoring PvP since Anthem doesn’t yet offer it, you’re left with repetitive missions and public events that lack the grandeur of Destiny’s mostly down to the fact that each Freeplay instance only loads in one squad of four compared to Destiny’s sixteen. During our Freeplay adventures we rarely crossed paths with other Freelancers in our instance. We knocked off several public events on our own with only a couple ever really feeling like we needed others to complete it.
The further we got through Anthem’s story and then post-game content the more we felt we were looking at a game that feels uncomfortable being a multiplayer title. Hopefully, as things develop and new features and content are released Anthem will slowly become less awkward. In all fairness Anthem isn’t a bad game and when everything clicks and you’re knee deep in a mission you can even have fun but for us this was always tempered against the bugs, glitches and the feeling that it could’ve been so much better. Many gamers, ourselves included, looked to Anthem and BioWare as the game and world we always wanted after the relative disappointments of the vanilla Destiny games.
As such we created our own hype machine and like any game that gets hyped before anyone’s even played it, we were always opening ourselves up to disappointment to some degree, just not as much as we have experienced here. The shining light is that Anthem does show a lot of promise and given the likely investment it’s received from EA, BioWare isn’t going to abandon it anytime soon. If we’re lucky and use history as our guide Anthem will likely start to come into its own over the next twelve months. If it doesn’t we could easily be looking at the most disappointing game to come out of BioWare’s stable to date.
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