by Shannon Haeglar
In my eyes EA has long been one of the four horsemen of the gaming apocalypse. Activision, Bethesda, Valve and EA all continue to make millions of dollars despite their best efforts. Anthem is the next unfortunate IP to suffer at the altar of EA’s business strategy. This game was consistently lacklustre in pre-release but showed a glimmer of hope with its unique gameplay and the studio’s pedigree bolstering its potential. BioWare has been held as the gold standard in character driven storytelling and the hope was that they would somehow mesh the loot shooter genre with the narrative prowess we have come to expect. Unfortunately, Anthem falls short on both these fronts and ever trips getting back up with a litany of technical issues.
I rolled into Anthem with tempered expectations, much like Fallout 76. I have long been looking for one live service game that I could call my own. Many people discover that one game that keeps them coming back with new content and an ever-evolving story. Ask any truly dedicated Destiny player and there is a depth of story and a breadth of experience there for those willing to put in the time. The hope was that even if Anthem was mediocre it would have enough there to hook me in the long run and finally turn into that guy that says, “yeah, it sucked at launch, but you should really try it now.” Sadly, I have finished my time with Anthem and unless someone comes to me and says that I don’t see myself ever going back.
Anthem has the basic sci-fi story slapped onto its loot shooter frame. You are part of an elite something or other (Freelancers), there is an ancient progenitor race/god race (Shapers) that has left behind some inscrutable technology (The Anthem of Creation). The technology creates problems in the world (Cataclysms) and it's your job to stop them using your special skills/items (Javelins). Finally, there is a rival faction (The Dominion) that seeks to control the progenitor technology for their own selfish reasons and are being led by a fanatical figure hell bent on their master plan (The Monitor). The plot is trite with the possibility of cool expansion and twists but anything they try to foreshadow or misdirect is telegraphed so blatantly that much of the story is predictable and, I hate to say it, boring. One of its key flaws is the game does exactly what the start of this paragraph does. It throws sever proper nouns at you in the early stages of the game with no setup or explanation and expects you roll with it. Your player character knows what’s going on, why don’t you? You can go and find out all the exposition you need if your willing to sit in the in-game encyclopedia (The Cortex) and read for hours about the world minutia. I did skim through some of it and it can be interesting but none of it is added to the game part of the game in a meaningful way, so it might as well not exist.
When you start to play the game, it hints at the possibility of a game greater than itself however it stumbles on its own mechanics and technical problems, which we’ll get to later. Basic gameplay is a standard third person action shooter, but the distinction comes in the Javelins. You are in control of your own Iron Man like mech suit that allows your own distinct play style and abilities to shine in the forefront of the action. I truly think the Javelins are something special. They are what this game sells itself on and they are the reason I played this game for hours past the point of fun. Currently there are four Javelin types in the game and they are each unique. The Ranger is your stock standard soldier type class where the focus is on the shooting and maximising damage through guns. You do have a collection of secondary abilities that include a rocket launcher style weapon but honestly the base was boring; I switched as soon as I could. The next is the Colossus and there’s no getting around it, it’s the Hulkbuster. A giant bulky mech that revels in blocking damage and dishing it out while being the middle of the fray. Don’t pick this if you mean to dodge because you can’t, instead you just raise big shield and take the hits like a champ. After that you may want to move onto the Storm, essentially space mech wizards. These guys have the longest hovering time of all the Javelins and therefore they spend most of their time hovering over the battlefield raining elemental fury down on all that oppose them. Finally, my main and personal favourite: the Interceptor. This is the whirlwind melee-based suit. The idea is that you head in face first into battle, deal as much damage as possible in a few seconds and swoop your way out. These suits are squishy as all hell, so you really need to keep an eye on your health and shields because dashing in and out of combat is your best survival tactic.
Though the suits provide interesting options and visuals for combat, the mission design lets down the core mechanic in way that’s pretty much unforgivable. The game forces you into multiplayer matchmaking and is balanced as such so you would expect the missions to take advantage of the mixture of different Javelins on offer. Unfortunately, they do not. Most of the missions boil down to go here, shoot these guys, thanks for shooting these guys, now go there, shoot those guys, thanks for shooting those guys, end of mission. Occasionally they throw a small match the symbols puzzle in or collect these orbs or a game of hot and cold using a bad in-game compass but in the end, you shoot stuff. Even in the stronghold mission, the game’s more premium tier content, you shoot stuff, then you shoot more stuff and finally some big stuff pops up and you shoot that too. Maybe it was more an issue with me having the Interceptor as a main but there were very few instances of big boss type encounters where I could take advantage of my skill. Mostly sitting back with an assault rifle got the job done. I only really entered the fray when I was bored and in a team where I knew they would help me out when I inevitably died; typical glass cannon tactics.
Anthem doesn’t make it easy for you to experiment or have fun with its systems outside the mission structure either. The customisation is somewhat fun as the detailing on the suits is good and they do make it easy to fine tune a design you like best. I’ve seen some truly awesome looking Javelins in my time with the game and I made a pretty damn good-looking Power Ranger, so it gets points there. However, customising the gameplay parts of your suit is equal parts complicated and superfluous. You can add two guns to your suit along with three abilities, two mapped to the individual bumpers and the third activates when both are pressed. Finally, there are components which add passive abilities to the suit as well which range from percentage increases in damage to recharge time buffs. The issue is none of it felt substantial enough to warrant experimentation and the process to do it is excruciatingly long. There is no way to change the loadout in-game or in mission, rather you need to complete or quit what you’re doing to load back into Fort Tarsis. After that you can then load into the Forge to make all the changes you want but you’re stuck with it until come back after your mission and make the changes again. I understand the idea they are going for here. You’re going out into the wilderness with a highly advanced piece of technology, you can’t just rip it apart and make changes on the fly but, I should be able to pick up guns and change them. Your main form of combat has no room experimentation and if you do decide to try something new and it sucks your stuck with it.
All in all, these parts of the game don’t make it bad it just makes it boring at best. You know there is potential in this vast world and the unique idea of the Javelins hints at a far more complex and rewarding combat system, but Anthem won’t let you have the fun you know you can have. The game looks great, I stumbled across some absolutely stunning vistas and intriguing structures in my travels around Bastion. However, this is where the game’s fatal flaw reveals itself. For all the time spent on making the game look great and play competently, it is completely and utterly busted in other ways. I’m willing to give a certain amount of leeway to the launch week of online games but this was on a level not seen since Fallout 76. The game crashes out frequently, there are quests that won’t activate even when all conditions are met, the frame is unstable at best and the UI around the mission design looks like it was designed by someone who has never played a game in their life. When I say “busted”, I don’t just mean technically, I mean on a fundamental level the concept for the core gameplay loop is broken. The loot drops are tied to your current class level meaning you won’t see rare items until you’ve gained enough uncommons, then it's all you see. For a loot driven game, the loot feels meaningless. You don’t gain experience during the combat or encounters, rather its tallied at the end of a mission or freeplay session meaning if the game crashes part way through you can say goodbye to any experience you may have earned. They do allow you to keep the loot you gain but then again it feels meaningless so enjoy that. Part-way through the story your progression is blocked by a series of tiresome daily challenges like get five multikills or open fifteen chests. The list of incompetence grows each day since launch as they have issued many patches breaking, fixing and re-breaking the game in several ways. It has been a long time since I’ve played a major release that was broken it turned me off the game entirely.
Anthem is the unfortunate by-product of the EA business model, opting to put player engagement over player enjoyment. The entire experience seems designed to make you play this longer than you should in the hopes you’ll buy something from the featured store. Sad news there is all the items are cosmetic and honestly, I haven’t found one that looks good enough for me to care. It’s truly disappointing as there is clearly so much potential in the BioWare property that sits just below the surface. This game may follow the trajectory of Destiny and continue to improve over the next couple of years to a competent and fun game but as the past would indicate, EA is not one to bank long term on a game that fails out the gate. It’s a shame as Anthem is a beautiful game with a fascinating concept that has been plagued with a failing infrastructure and seemingly no clear direction.
A deeply flawed game with glimmers of hope, those looking to get in better be extremely patient. 4/10