Anthem is a dirge for game design
This is Anthem. It’s super-suit barrel rolls, jet-assisted power punches, and raining fire from the sky. It’s exploring the ruins of a long-dead precursor race that created the world with a song. It’s sniping, machine gunning, and shotgunning your way through overwhelming odds. It’s bum-rushing bad guys while slamming them into a bulwark of steel. It’s holding the line against hordes of merciless enemies. It’s standing up and protecting a civilization on the brink. It’s BioWare taking the lessons learned in Mass Effect and applying them to a wholly original and exciting world. It’s a triumphant chorus.
This too is Anthem. It’s loading screens on loading screens on loading screens. It’s an inventory menu that you can’t access unless you’re home. It’s brain-dead enemies that sometimes forget they’re fighting you. It’s multiplayer that doesn’t care about synergy or tactics. It’s loot that bores you and doesn’t seem to matter until the end of the campaign. It’s non-player characters vomiting their life stories at you. It’s BioWare ignoring the lessons learned in the rest of gaming and throwing their hands up in surrender. It’s a sad trombone.
Which Anthem will sing to you?
Early on in Anthem’s story, a grizzled soldier named Yarrow tells you how the evil Dominion laid waste to a bustling city in the world of Bastion. You are shown a flashback as Yarrow narrates the battle. Scores of Javelin armored suits leap into action while fiery artillery strikes the walls of the town. Giant lumbering Striders, four-legged armored transports, hammer at the gates and smash through the ramparts. Helpless citizens flee and cry for help, while Freelancers and Sentinels give their lives to hold off the invaders. It’s the most exciting fight in the game, and it’s a non-interactive cinematic.
The core of combat is fine. You shoot things. You dodge lasers and waves of energy. You use powers to set up combos. You hide behind pillars to recuperate your shields, and hoover up heart icons to top up your health. You guard hot-spots while a counter ticks down and baddies pour in. You retrieve MacGuffins and disable doohickeys. It can, at times, be fairly engaging, but none of it is as good as that cinematic. You’ll never see that kind of fight in your twenty to thirty hours of play. Instead, you’ll get a rote series of fetch quests, horde events, and uninspired boss battles.
How did BioWare, veterans of making games with fine-tuned progression systems, make this uninteresting slog of bad loot and dull advancement? How could the developers that gave us Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and even Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood create such a technically incompetent mess of loading screens and disconnects?
I have a zippy solid state drive, and a beefy PC, but Anthem wants to make me stare at a loading screen every few minutes. That’s when it isn’t crashing or unintentionally logging off the server. At about three hours in, Anthem just forgot my progress and set me back to the beginning and lost my loot. I took that as my hint that I needed to stop for the day. One time, the sound cut out during a mission, and my only fix was to quit and restart the game. I’ve seen multiple crashes. Even after the much ballyhooed “day one update” that came out a week after launch, Anthem is still a “Games as a Service” tragedy.
Anthem can’t even get loot right. The guns are a copy-paste parade of incremental stats until you get to your late twenties in level – near the end of the campaign. You’d at least expect there to be some sweet armor bits in chests to collect and show off since the game really wants you to be grouped up all the time, but you’d be wrong. Cosmetics are all in the real money shop. A guy named Prospero (really guys?) will sell “thunder and lightning” for your super-suit so you look good going into battle. Open your bank account to get a new vinyl to apply to your Javelin, or hoard the miserly trickle of in-game coins. There’s no excitement to finding a new gun or suit power because you know it will be like the one you’re using now, just slightly better. Anthem is the anti-loot looter shooter.
Anthem hates loot so much, it won’t even let you use the stuff you gather while you’re out and about. Found a cool rifle during a mission? You’ll have to go back to the home hub to actually put it in your loadout.
That hub, Fort Tarsis, may be the biggest misfire I’ve seen from BioWare. It’s a terrible collection of store menus to browse while having NPCs blather story bits at you. It’s an outlet mall that you have to slowly trundle through in first-person mode, I suppose because someone thought that was more immersive than clicking on menus. Walk here. Walk there. Collect a document to add to the in-game encyclopedia. Leave as fast as you can.
The story, such as it is, is mostly told by the inhabitants of the hub. A couple, like your tech-wiz controller, Owen, are well done and memorable, but most may as well be speakers set into the walls. Bland regurgitation of lore and backstory do not make a compelling narrative, but Anthem is convinced that if it just keeps haranguing you with this junk, you’ll eventually care. Every now and then, you’ll choose a dialog option that doesn’t have any impact on the story. What else do you have to do anyway? Sit and watch another loading screen?
It’s telling that even BioWare seems to understand how terrible the hub is because they give you a “launch bay” area that condenses all the town’s stores and menus before a quarter of the campaign plays out. Thanks, folks! Now do something about the rest of the game.
While we’re here, why am I walking around Fort Tarsis alone? What happened to my multiplayer squad? Anthem wants you to play it as an always connected multiplayer affair, but as soon as you go into the hub, the game splits your group up and you’re each in your own hub instance. This is the same game that puts me into a loading screen to catch me up to my group if I get more than fifty feet away during a mission. Nice consistency Anthem!
Trudge your way to the endgame and what do you get? Three harder stronghold missions, (two of which are just re-purposed campaign scenarios) a freeplay option that lets you explore the map, but still wants you to match up with three other people, and the ability to re-play the campaign missions. One of the endgame challenges is beating twenty-five strongholds, so I hope you like the three that the game currently offers.
When everything matches up – no crashing, minimal loads, a good group, and a decent mission – Anthem shows so much promise. You’re space Iron Man, zipping around the treetops, dropping elemental bombs and sniping aliens while hovering like a battlefield god. This is the real sadness at the heart of it all. There’s a game here that could grow into something quite good, but a promise is just
How did BioWare, veterans of making games with fine-tuned progression systems, make this uninteresting slog of bad loot and dull advancement?