I feel like I’ve walked in on Anthem changing. There are naked bits everywhere, and they’ve been too distracting to let me focus on the bits that are ready for the world. Because on the surface, Anthem is an incredibly well put together game. As you soar around its world - known as Bastion apparently, although I can’t recall anyone in the game actually calling it that – you’ll be distracted by the beauty of the landscape that developer BioWare has created: the way the sunbeams break through the trees; the hiss of the waterfall hitting your red hot suit; the glint of your Javelin’s metal crotch as you superhero slam into an arena; or even the wafting tufts of a alien rabbit-like grabbit scrabbling across the screen. It’s all utterly beautiful. It’s also incredibly fun to actually play. The gunplay works well, the flying mechanics are fantastic, and I’ve lost hours to picking the colours and finishes for the various elements of my Javelin.
You’ve heard it all before, and honestly, that’s enough for the first few hours. You’ll be merrily exploring the world, decking out your Javelin, and interacting with all the new people you can chat to in your hub, Fort Tarsis. And then… Well, then you’ll realise that’s basically all there is. Because, in essence, Anthem is a waiting game. You’re going to be waiting as you move between sections of the game, waiting as loading screen after loading screen keep you from actually playing the game, and, sadly, you’re going to be waiting for Anthem to become the game you thought BioWare was making.
Anthem is flawed.
It’s actually flawed from the outset. After playing the game all weekend, I can’t honestly tell you what there is to recommend with Anthem. I was left feeling morose after several dabbles with the Anthem demo, and so I was ready for the full release to utterly change my mind – for it to convince me that the story is something to stick around for. Unfortunately, I don’t think Anthem got the memo. You play as a Freelancer, a mech-enhanced soldier who was once part of a respected group of enforcers that protected the planet, but after they failed to stop a cataclysmic event known as the Heart of Rage, they’ve faded into oblivion, struggling to make ends meet. The real game starts several years after this event, and you’re trying to change the people’s perception of Freelancers once again, because in the years since the Heart of Rage has basically been left to fester, turning everything around it to ash.
Obviously, your task is to head back in there, but the entire goal is basically shrouded in ash, with other missions thrown in for good measure. The game attempts to lead you through some kind of story mission structure, but unless you’re ready to read every codex entry you find (and there are loads), you’ll only get a glimpse of the BioWare world-building that the developer is famed for. There is a lot of talking, and a lot of words and locations thrown around that don’t ever get explained. Apparently, there are three factions I’m building rapport with, but I couldn’t tell you much about them.
The game fails to explain why it is that you’re doing these missions, or why you should care about the people you’re doing them for. By hiding the most interesting and useful information in the Codex and behind sub-menus, Anthem is basically asking the player to find reasons to care, rather than BioWare providing them itself, which feels incredibly odd.
It doesn’t help that the mission structure is also incredibly repetitive. The mass of loading screens are interspersed with fetch quests, small enemy settlements that you’ll have to kill your way through, and a plethora of puzzles that ask you to either collect a number of parts or light orbs that then have to be returned to a central point. Even Anthem’s good looks aren’t enough to distract you from the repeat ad nauseam of it all.
That’s before you even get to the point of the soon to be infamous Tomb mission given to you by your old pal Faye, too. It drops in like a massive blockade keeping you from progressing in the story, unless you spend some serious time diving into the game’s more open-world segments known as free roam. In order to unlock the doors to the tombs, first you’ll need to complete a list of challenges. These can range from pulling off 20 melee kills, taking out 50 enemies with your ultimate attack, or opening 15 treasure chests and it’s about as exciting as it sounds. Don’t even get me started on the fact that the so-called tombs beyond these doors don’t offer anything more than a grave and some loot. Not even a puzzle or a slice of narrative in sight. It literally made me swear out loud, forcing me to walk away from the game for a while. I can’t remember the last time a game made me grind this much for such lacklustre rewards.
There’s also an peculiarity to the way in which Anthem constantly pushes you to play with other people. It doesn’t feel like BioWare has properly accounted for the complexity that multiplayer can bring to what is essentially a single-player narrative experience. After ploughing through some of the story, I jumped into a squad with a buddy to see how much that would change my experience of the game. All of his missions suddenly appeared on my map but, unless you’ve got a photographic memory, it became impossible to decipher which of those missions were mine and which of them were his.
It’s also bizarre that, in missions, you are always at the whim of the friend or stranger that wants to push ahead to the next objective. Lag behind too far (aka a minute or two) and you’ll be told that you’re outside the mission boundary and are on a countdown to being teleported to the rest of your crew unless you can catch up within 20 seconds or so. Inevitably that means you’ll be facing another loading screen as punishment for falling behind or stopping to admire the scenery… The same occurs if you happen to respawn, as you’ll be warped to the start of the mission only to be immediately told that you’re outside mission boundary. So that’s two loading screens for one action. Plus, all those challenges you’ll need to check off for the tomb mission are locked to whoever does them. Opening a treasure chest in free roam (which you have to play with three other people) only counts if you’re the one to physically press the “open chest” button. It’s hugely frustrating.
“It doesn’t feel like BioWare has properly accounted for the complexity that multiplayer can bring to what is essentially a single-player narrative experience”
As is the Destiny Tower-esque Launch Bay space where you’re supposed to be able to mingle with your squad between missions. Well, that’s the general idea behind it – we launched into two different Launch Bays and couldn’t even see each other. The list of issues and irritating quirks goes on, and on, and that’s without even touching on the bugs that kick you out of the game, cause World Events to never complete or cut the audio altogether.
It’s so frustrating because there are occasional glimpses of what could make Anthem great. A story thread involving grain farming and two minor NPC characters you find in Fort Tarsis actually lets you decide the fate of their relationship through the game’s limited dialogue tree. Plus there are intriguing layers to your interactions with Tassyn, the head of the slightly evil sounding Corvus, that give you a glimpse of the BioWare famed for creating Dragon Age and Mass Effect.
But there’s nowhere near enough of the stuff that makes BioWare games distinctly BioWare. That’s the content that Anthem needs sooner rather than later because, at the moment, it’s existing solely in the shadow of Destiny. Not Destiny 2, which has steadily grown and evolved with the community, mind – but the Destiny of five years ago. Anthem is designed to grow and evolve over time, but unless that happens sooner rather than later it’ll be dead on arrival.