Anthem is the next magnum opus by Bioware. Not only is the game uncharted territory for EA, who wants something sticky like Destiny, its also unexplored waters for a company who is known for their single-player RPG experiences. Not only that Anthem has the un-envious job of improving both Bioware’s and EA’s image which has been on the slide for the past few years. Does Anthem live up to these high expectations, or do the Javelins crash before they take off. Let’s find out.
For all intents and purposes, Anthem is going up against Destiny 2 and later Division 2, something that I dub lifestyle games. This review is going to be full of comparisons with Destiny 2, since I have played that game extensively, and I believe there is only place for one such game in your life at any point of time. The review will focus on whether Anthem should be that game or not.
At launch, Anthem does not have a PvP mode. Currently, the only way to experience the world of Anthem is with friends, with strangers or if you have it in you alone in PvE. Matchmaking is available for every kind of mission out of the box, so if any activity feels too tough, you can always take help from random players online. Main story missions, side-story missions, contracts, challenges, Stronghold missions (basically Bioware versions of Strikes) and even Freeroam has the option to match-make if you want to.
It’s actually not such a bad idea to hang with strangers early in the game. First, because for the first few missions there is going to be a lot of flailing around, jumping and crashing, figuring out hovering, trying out the abilities, spending time going through the codex to understand the lore, and trying out equipment, which can be mildly frustrating to team-mates. Better a frustrated stranger with no mic, than your friend who you convinced and bribed into a game right?
Secondly, the game actually rewards you with more experience when you play in a party. Plus it’s much easier to take down Titans (think boss battles) with 4 javelins around, and at least at normal difficulty, you don’t need a lot of coordination to take them down. So there is no special reward for beating missions solo.
But most importantly, it’s better to play the first few mission with mic-less strangers is that they are mostly story related. Destiny solved this problem by locking parties out the first few missions of the game. In Anthem, however, story-related cutscenes and voice over can easily be drowned out by team chatter. And there is a lot of it, unlike Destiny which depended on vague incomplete incoherent sentences, Anthem has some really interesting world building going on, so you would want to listen.
Story & narrative
This world building is on full display once you reach Fort Tarsis, the main hub. Tarsis is full of well-realized deep and fleshed out characters, which offer both insight and context to Anthem. At first, it may seem like everyone but you know what they are talking about (and it feels as if its going Destiny 2 way pretty fast), but about 2-3 hours in you would have settled in enough to know and understand what is going on.
Unlike Destiny 2, various NPCs actually have something to add rather than be reduced to a flashy quest giver beacon. There are lengthy and meaty conversations to be had with Owen, Zoe, Lucky Jack and many more which actually add not just to their personalities but also to their relationship with the player and the world of Anthem. All of them have origin stories, and they are ready to talk about it, instead of asking me to go to 500 reddits or piecing it together through 1300 cryptic grimoire entry. Spending time in Fort Tarsis isn’t just running around collecting missions and rewards, it also finding out more about the world of Anthem.
The story missions have more narrative value and context than in any other shared open world I have played. And unlike acting as a buffer between you and the end game content, the story is actually worth playing through, even when it has some predictable twists.
Gameplay & mechanics
What Anthem gains in the story however, it loses in gameplay. At its core, every player gets to pick a starter Javelin from 4 classes. Don’t sweat this decision too much, since you can eventually unlock even more Javelins at level 8, 16 and 26. And since most equipment on each Javelin is common, they can be scaled up to your current level pretty quickly, so unlike Destiny 2, you don’t have to start a new parallel play-through to explore another class completely. This also means that by the time you reach level 30, which is the current level cap, you would have tried out all the Javelins, and found out which works for you in the endgame.
To be fair, javelins do offer a variety of gameplay options. The Ranger is your balanced class meeting attack, defence, and speed in the middle. Interceptors rely on speed and melee attacks, with low defence. Storm, is your wizard class, able to huge elemental damage but unable to take much in return. Finally, the Colossus is your tank, high defence, low speed and looks like the Hulkbuster Ironman armour. The Javelins especially Interceptor and Colossus have been min-maxed really nicely, and instead of falling into a similar combo across all Javelins, you will find yourself mixing up your tactics as many times as you mix your Javelins.
All Javelins come with multiple weapons, components and armour slots, with more such slots getting unlocked as you level up. In battle, the Javelins would rely on these components and equipment to complement their play style. So while an interceptor, would equip components which would enhance its speed, a colossus would try to increase its defence as much as possible and ram through enemies with its shield, while the Storm javelin might want ways to combine Ice and Electrical damage to get the most effective combos.
Designed as a Third person shooter, with a loot-grind loop, it does the basics right, but it seems to be missing some polish. For starters, the shooting does not feel as crunchy as it should. All guns feel the same, and apart from the difference in their effective ranges I didn’t see how I would use different weapons in different situations. This gets further complicated by the fact that its difficult to spot enemies in the wilderness, and since Anthem implements a horizontal compass like radar (commonly seen in Fortnite and PUBG) instead of a mini-map one (Seen in Halo and Destiny 2), enemy spotting needs some getting used to, especially with the dense foliage you will find in majority of Anthem’s map.
Another thing that will need getting used to is hovering combat. Bioware introduced verticality to combat in Mass Effect Andromeda to middling success. Now its a core part of Anthem combat, as hovering gives you a tactical combat advantage in most situations. But it’s not easy to master, and not only because you are not used to it. Switching between Flying and hovering isn’t as easy as you would think (its about 3 button presses) which means in crunches, you would skip that mode more often than not. But you need to get used to it and ingrain it into your muscle memory because hovering combat is what you want to get the most out of Anthem.
Graphics, Performance & Sound
All of this non-intuitive gameplay is further crippled by a slew of bugs, huge loading times, and at times just frustrating design decisions. In all honesty, I expected bugs, that’s what happens when you play a new online game right. Right, but then why does is it so aggravating?
Its because this is not the first time. It literally isn’t. It’s frustrating and disappointing to watch these big studios fail in such a spectacular fashion, every single time. And this is not your small time Markers does not appear bugs, this is your screen is still stuck at loading, while you can hear the game in the background. This is your controller works, you can hear your Javelin move and shoot, but it stuck on loading for a straight half an hour. And this is not the open/closed beta. This is not the Early Access or whatever bullshit EA is pulling these days. This after Day 1 patch, 1 week into the game.
I could probably put together a sizzle reel of the various bugs that I encountered in my time with the game. And I want to like it. I want to like every game that Bioware makes, but they make it so hard. The loading times are sleep-inducing, and for a working dad who gets 2 hours each day, spending 45 minutes at loading screens is just not gonna cut it. It can’t. It shouldn’t. But it is, and it’s frustrating because they are everywhere. Loading when you enter the Forge, Loading when you enter the fort, loading when you enter the forest, and loading when you enter another area in the game.
Then there is this inexplicably un-navigable map, which shows me nothing but pre-programmed pointers; does not let me place any custom markers and seems to have a mind of its own about what it wants or does not want to show.
It’s like they decided to follow the Destiny road-map so diligently, that they even followed the feature-deprived rocky release of it as well. Such lifestyle games thrive on quality of life features, that lets you track your objectives as smoothly and as unobtrusively as possible. And waiting a year (on an average) and maybe even paying for them (in form of expansions/DLC) is borderline criminal.
At least visually, Anthem ticks the necessary boxes. The forest of Anthem look lush, the water looks wet, the caves look dark, and the enemies look dangerous. The Javelins too offer way more customization option than you would be used to, and it could be fun to drop into the Forge sometimes and paint and equip your Javelin with Hot Rod or Neon Green. But even here, the bugs spoil the experience. Extended texture popping, inconsistent spawning of enemies, spotty background music drops the fun level to bearable from amazing.
The sound department is where I couldn’t fault Anthem at all. The voice-overs, especially for various NPC, is extremely well done. The background theme, especially the hook jingle is pure goosebumps. Finally, while the sound effects for various guns, might not be on point, but the Javelins themselves sound and feel perfect. Especially when I was using the Colossus, where its weight was smoothly communicated to me not only through its movement animations but also the sound effects that it created when it moved, landed or just simply shield bashed everyone in sight.
I expect Anthem to get better. I expect to get it constant upgrades over the year and transform it into a much better game than it already is. But right now, in its current state, it would take a lot of commitment from an average gamer to stick to Anthem long term. Maybe the decision to be made here is whether you want to play Anthem when it gets better, or want to come along for the journey.