One of E3 2017’s biggest surprises finally arrives on consoles and PC – and EA’s big foray into the live-service “games as a service” has a lot to prove.
An excellent combat system and beautiful visuals unfortunately can’t mask a game that needed a little more development time from storied studio Bioware to reach its full potential.
In Anthem, players operate as a Freelancer (essentially a “Hero for Hire”) – a highly skilled pilot of a mech suit called a Javelin. With this, they are tasked with completing missions around the game’s gorgeous world of Bastion for the various denizens of humanity’s last city, Fort Tarsis.
Bastion is a beautiful locale, full of waterfalls, tombs, underwater caverns and dangerous wildlife. It feels the closest to the Avatar movie in videogame form, and looks beautiful when flying through the skies, powering through water, or just when admiring the views from the walls of Fort Tarsis.
As the game’s key differentiator from other similar titles, the Javelin is at the heart of Anthem. Flying through the air as one of the four classes, dropping into battle and using a wide variety of mortars, missiles, grenades and melee attacks brings to mind watching Iron Man in full flow.
Each class has its own strengths and shortcomings, promoting a balanced squad for the game’s tougher missions (known as Strongholds).
The Ranger is an all-rounder, while the Interceptor is built for speed and closing the gap with melee attacks.
The Colossus is a hulking beast, capable of carrying heavier weapons and taking more damage, while the Storm wields elemental attacks while floating.
All four types of Javelin are fun to play, but most feel unique. Never is this more evident than in the excellent animation as the Interceptor backflips into its flight mode, or when the Ranger twists and turns to dodge incoming fire.
Each suit’s ability to fly plays into the world design in Anthem, with items hidden in caves and in hard to reach places – a benefit of allowing such vertical movement.
There’s always something to find, although within missions it can be hard to go off the beaten path when the game rounds up players on a near-constant basis.
Within missions, Anthem relies on its fun combat loop to negate the monotony of the majority of its objective structure.
Most levels conform to the “go here, shoot something, hold off a wave, move on” we’ve been doing for years, and while Strongholds up the ante with more difficult encounters, most of Anthem’s missions blur into one homogenous mass.
While its story is formulaic (not to mention quite similar to Destiny’s) Anthem distinguishes itself with truly excellent voice work and impressive facial capture.
Between missions, you’ll converse with characters around Fort Tarsis, with conversations ranging from lore-building to setting up side missions.
It’s here that we see signs of the old Bioware – some conversations and interactions are genuinely emotive, even with the player character’s disappointingly binary responses (and these choices sting every time, especially given the studio’s heritage).
Unfortunately, unlike Mass Effect’s Normandy, or Destiny’s tower, Fort Tarsis is a dull location – its labyrinthine corridors and reliance on a compass at the top of the screen to point out when conversations are available make it feel like a chore to return to after each excursion.
It’s also deathly quiet, save for any friends in party chat inadvertently interrupting a key plot point. It feels strange to party up for an evening’s play session only to tell friends to be quiet during cutscenes.
This is all exacerbated by the inability to alter weapon and gear configurations on-the-fly, meaning you’ll return to Fort Tarsis on a regular basis. For every travel there and back out into the open world, loading screens become a frustratingly common occurrence – some lasting much longer than others.
While a patch alleviated some of the waiting times, doing anything in Anthem feels like a test of anyone’s patience. Want to equip some new gear you’ve picked up?
You’ll need to return to Fort Tarsis (loading screen), access the Forge (loading screen), equip your new loot, then return to Fort Tarsis (loading screen), re-launch into a mission or free-play (loading screen) and then hope that your new choice of weaponry is better than before so you don’t need to go back again.
Assessing which gear best suits your needs is also a trial and error process.
At this early stage, there are plenty of item descriptions that are barely explained, including the “Combo” system that offers up incentives to “prime” and “detonate”, as well as some that have glitched descriptions which mean the benefits of each piece aren’t as clear as they should be.
Anthem’s loot feels disappointingly vanilla at this point in the game, each item being equipped to a Javelin’s slots as opposed to changing each piece of gear.
It means gear comes with statistical increases rather than facilitating a change in play style, and while there are plenty of viable builds, weapons feel disappointingly confirmative to genre archetypes.
There’s also a disparity between firing them – while the shotgun feels rewarding the unload on an enemy, the sniper rifles have such minor feedback that it almost feels as though they haven’t fired at all.
Where Anthem does shine is in its visual customisation.
Cosmetic gear can be purchased in-game or with real money and divorcing the game’s loot from cosmetics is a great approach, preventing armour sets looking kit-bashed together and preserving each Javelin’s appeal, but it does rob a high-level player the ability to show off a rare drop earned after dozens of hours of grinding.
Thankfully, every aspect of a Javelin can be customised – its paint, decals, and materials are all there to be tweaked incessantly.
One of Anthem’s biggest drawbacks is how it feels unfinished. While these types of game are often built on for months and months (and free content is coming), the amount of bugs here are disappointing for such a high-profile release.
Twice while playing, I experienced the entire screen turning black, forcing me to restart the game (and the mission), while I’ve also been kicked from the game back to the home screen four times while playing on Xbox One X.
Anthem feels like a game at war with itself. Between its beautiful world, fun combat, and excellent characterisation, there’s clearly a strong base for Bioware to build on from here.
However, uninteresting loot, a boring central hub and more bugs than one of its insect-filled caves mean there is much to do.
Here’s hoping for a swift fix for the game’s most pressing issues, because almost everything that works, works well. With some more polish, Anthem could be a great way to spend an evening playing with friends – just don’t expect the next Mass Effect or Destiny.
The Verdict – 3/5
- Excellent combat
- Visual customisation
- Beautiful world
- Technical issues
- Fort Tarsis is a mess
- Uninteresting loot