From the very first trailers for Anthem, I was admittedly a little too excited. For every ounce of skepticism my friends and others had, I held reassurances that this would be the game to take all the best parts of BioWare’s strong writing — and the increasingly popular looter-shooter formula — and combine them in perfect harmony. Having now played the game (at release and preview events), I choose not to rely on the tired rhetoric that all “these games” release in a poor state. I won’t make excuses for a gameplay loop that actively dissuaded me from continuing to play. And I am certainly not holding my breath that things are going to get better any time soon.
When Bubsy 3D released, everyone agreed that, even though it controlled badly, this was about as good as 3D platformers would control on release. It’s well documented that other platformers, most notably Mario 64, had similar control schemes at launch. In the following months, with feedback from players, Nintendo patched their flagship game into what it is today. This trend continued, and we all now accept as fact that lessons cannot be learned from past game releases. Instead, developers all continued to release similarly unfinished products, only to polish, mend, and finish them later. Rest assured, this is how things are meant to be.
Anthem, the latest in a string of shooter-looters, is a fine example of how complacent industry suits and consumers alike have become towards live-service 1.0 releases. Instead of building on the foundation of games like Destiny and The Division, Anthem flounders on the same launch pad in spectacular fashion. Rather than focusing on things like its user interface or annoyingly-obtrusive loading screens, BioWare have crafted one of the most abrasive AAA-gaming experiences in recent memory.
If a “hook” is what developers shoot for when creating their core gameplay experience, Anthem’s equivalent would be most like a “terrible fart.” Instead of feeling the need to chase loot, grind levels, and glide around to my heart’s content, I felt tired at the thought of completing another repetitive mission objective. After finishing a lengthy session, my brain could scarcely recall any detailed picture of what I’d been doing, and I felt a strong aversion to going back for more.
In the second mission of Anthem, BioWare blows their load and show the player every one of the four activities they’ll be completing for the remainder of the game. One: fighting enemies (almost always Scars) in a set location until you may proceed. Two: collecting floating motes of light and dropping them into a well of ferrofluid to unlock something. Three: collecting physical objects and bringing them back (without flying) to a location. And four: standing in the middle of a green ring until a bar fills up. These are the objectives used in every mission, and I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s what you’ll spend nearly all of your time doing.
So let’s talk about that combat. This is when I found myself having a legitimately good time, and it makes a good first impression, to be sure. Hey, these particle effects look good. Did you see that animation? Woah, a combo makes a “cha-ching” sound, awesome. Wait, what’s a combo?
Abilities feel punchy and effective, while the gunplay feels more like a last resort in comparison. That is to say, none of the guns feel particularly effective, so spamming abilities on cooldown, while fun, becomes a necessity as the difficulty increases. But even the best part of Anthem is hampered by a lack of variety, and fighting the same bland red Scars and faceless grunts for hours on end starts to dilute the experience.
Flying, another highlight of the experience, is fluid and satisfying. While traversing the world, there are several tricks one can employ to make it just a little further before overheating, like a brisk trip through a waterfall. It’s Anthem’s world that feels like the letdown here; it’s a plastic affair that doesn’t feel like a place anything in it naturally occupies. Loading screens at the entrance of every modestly-sized cave are a huge immersion-breaker, especially compared to the immense scale of Destiny 2’s free-roam planets.
We talked shoot, now let’s talk loot: Anthem’s drops are largely boring. You’re constantly showered with weapon and component drops after each mission, but you’ll scrap upwards of 90 percent of them. There are only a handful of different choices when it comes to weapons and munitions, and besides offering raw stat bonuses they functionally feel identical. I ended up just throwing on whatever had the highest power level because I knew from a gameplay perspective I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference either way.
Compounding this, not having cosmetic distinction tied to any loot drops severely hindered any satisfaction I felt from obtaining new gear, no matter how rare it was. This is made all the more frustrating by an NPC literally designed to shill premium armor and other cosmetics, taunting me to come see him if I ever wanted to “bring the thunder.” When Javelins are supposed to carry the entire weight of the player’s identity, gating all the cosmetics behind a paywall (or a hefty amount of grinding) in a full-priced game feels like a slap in the face.
The main reason I think I feel the desire to bounce off of Anthem rather than to stay on the gear treadmill is the dissonance between its multiplayer action gameplay and singleplayer storytelling. “Our World, My Story,” the slogan thrown around by marketing when Anthem was first teased, was overstated, to say the least. Dialogue choices are binary, with some conveying the same point in altered tones and none of which impact the main story.
After each mission, you’re loaded (painfully) into a post-mission results screen before being (painfully) loaded into Walking Simulator City to chat with NPCs. These diversions serve only to move the story forward in an isolated, lonely bubble that feels miles apart from where the action is happening. I found Fort Tarsis — the game’s fortitifed human settlement — more of a chore than a narrative reward and dreaded nearly every interaction it offered.
Anthem’s story is lackluster, but I did see flashes of BioWare’s signature writing in some of the dialogue. The voice acting does wonders to bring even the most banal lines to life, and I found myself growing more fond of some characters (particularly Matthias) as the story progressed. While I never felt it meshed with the core structure of a blam n’ scram game, the utilitarian narrative of a big bad trying to harness a mysterious and elusive power was one of the few highlights in my experience. It’s also the basic plot of Destiny 2’s main campaign. Speaking of which, the Grimoire is here in the form of a Cortex. And it’s worse, somehow. Oh joy.
For a game with six years of development funded by one of the wealthiest publishers in the industry, Anthem feels unfinished. Bugs are hiding everywhere, and any amount of scrutiny is bound to result in some glitch or visual quirk. Enemies sometimes vanish into thin air. The pre-order-bonus marksman rifle sometimes actually continues to “fire” after the mag is empty, resulting in sound but no muzzle-flash, and making the ammo counter go into the negative. The UI occasionally lies about your ultimate ability being available, which is predictably frustrating. It’s all about as polished as steel wool.
This is to say nothing of the lack of content, with only three strongholds and obvious length padding in the form of the infamous “Tombs” quest. The fact that BioWare patched said quest to start tracking all the tediously required “challenges” from level three shows a lack of confidence in their own product. If they’re so willing to fold on such a major design choice, I worry that player criticism will replace whatever direction the team had when making the game.
For every good idea in Anthem, there’s a major drawback hiding around the corner. Gliding carelessly through the air is balanced with horrendous loading screens. Using fun abilities is flanked by boring loot and premium cosmetics. Promising writing is let down by a stilted hub world that is infinitely more tedious than interesting. I wish I could be hopeful for Anthem’s future, especially since BioWare put out 90-day roadmap, I just worry that the fundamental issues I have with the game’s design will take more than a few patches to smooth out.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided by Electronic Arts.
Anthem is two core ideas clashing violently, making for an abrasive and dull experience. On top of feeling incomplete and low on content, it struggles to achieve even a mildly addicting gameplay loop: a death knell for games of its kind.