Bioware is one of those companies that should know how to put the RPG genre under its belt and run it into the endzone. These are the people behind Baldur’s Gate. Star Wars: The Old Republic, Jade Empire and the beloved Mass Effect series*. The hope was that Anthem would bring back the Bioware of old that could make a competent game again. The Bioware that delivered amazing stories like the narrative masterpiece that was Mass Effect 2 or the sprawling characterizations of everyone in The Old Republic or the epic lore found in Baldur’s Gate.
The short answer is no.
The story of Anthem could be the biggest highlight of the game especially when you compare it to the original Destiny at launch or when Ubisoft debuted The Division. The unfortunate thing is that the story is just not up to the par that Bioware is known for. The opening cut-scene that plays delivers some of the best lore that is amazingly well told, and entrances and immerses you into the reasoning of why you would play the game. Once that scene finishes and you've played the game a bit however, you’re left wondering why we didn’t get the game that plays out in that story and instead got what we got in the final product. It’s a very generic story of a power-hungry villain who’s after a power source, and as the Freelancers, it’s up to us to stop him by doing generic mundane tasks to fetch keys and collect stuff to do….things. The missions don’t even build up what is happening in the game world as most of the story is told in the game’s main hub. Boring dialogue and throwaway choices in lines that offer no true impact on the story just push it along and it’s about as empty and bland as when original Destiny launched with its barely-there narrative. None of the choices influence game play so having it in there serves no purpose other than to be an illusion that Bioware was attempting to do something with the story. All the characters are one dimensional and no matter what you choose the story is the exact same no matter what you play through. If you thought Mass Effect 3 was the worst of the trilogy and had the worst ending in a video game, prepare to have even that momentous occasion truly usurped by Anthem’s flat ending and anticlimactic battle.
The main social hub, Fort Tarsis, is quiet and empty and serves as a reason to watch load screens pop up every few times before you load in and out of it. Every NPC delivers nothing important but gets highlighted between missions making you think they have something to say when it’s just there to make sure you haven’t fallen asleep between the missions. The story and world building that’s attempted to be built here is well acted, but they’re not given enough time to grow. Some of these stories you’ll care for and feel some sort of emotion toward, but they have no impact on the main game whatsoever. Fort Tarsis’ emptiness and soullessness often spills over into the very characters themselves, making the narrative drama poorly set up and lacking any true impact. The highlight of something like The Citadel from Mass Effect is just gone. It’s a lifeless husk of what once was, instead giving us a boring walking simulator between the looting and the shooting of the missions and free play.
The main core of any looter shooter like Destiny, The Division or even Borderlands is the gun play and the chase for gear. This tends to be the main game play loop for this genre and the trick is to make sure the player doesn’t realize they’re in a repetitive loop by making the encounters engaging, switching up mechanics so that they work within the systems that the game provides and having enemy AI that is smart and reacts to what you do during the firefights. Anthem has absolutely none of that and is set in its way with boring gun play and two cooldown abilities that you spam until everything is dead. The enemies aren’t smart, they seem to be able to shoot you from across the map with pinpoint accuracy no matter how much you dodge and have little to no tells when you’re being pinged from offscreen. Simply put, the core gameplay found within Anthem is just unexciting. You don’t feel powerful and is reminiscent of Diablo III before that game got fixed and became enjoyable. What makes this even more frustrating is that the gear that drops from these encounters is often not worthwhile despite how frequently it drops.
As you level up the gear system is supposed to slowly pivot towards giving you what you’re after, especially in the harder end game styled encounters but even while farming the endgame Strongholds (Anthem’s end game dungeon type experience), I was still getting white and blue drops (aka common and rare gear) when these experiences should at least occasionally drop purple (legendary gear) to satiate the grind a tiny bit. Now the extra gear isn’t put to waste as you can dismantle it for materials to put towards other items, but when the guns aren’t impressive, and you can’t upgrade your armor with it, it makes it a pointless thing to collect and offers no real reasoning to acquire said gear. There are literally only two guns worth the effort to put the time towards, and everything else to grind towards is just Master-worked versions of gear you’ll already find in the game. The entire point of Masterwork gear is to make you feel powerful, but all it is in truth is a tier showcase so that you can play through the game on its various Grandmaster difficulty levels which is like the Torment system found in the Diablo series.
You can choose between different suits called Javelins to play around with, but aside from the Storm and Colossus ones the rest leave little to be desired. The Ranger is one to avoid because while it is a good generic all-around class, it’s too straightforward for the kind of game Anthem wants to be. The fast-paced Interceptor Javelin is where it gets interesting and the verticality of the game begins to shine through, but once you get the Storm Javelin, the rest of them pale so hard in comparison. It’s the only Javelin that doesn’t require frequent stops on the ground since your Javelins can overheat and be locked down for brief periods of time, but it can hover for minutes and rain down attacks on enemies while scoping out the area for your team members if you’re with a squad. Chaining abilities together to form combo damage is fun when with a team that can communicate and coordinate attacks, but for the most part as a solo player, you’re just going to want to shoot stuff in the face. Bioware was blind into making the experiences so separate from solo to group play and it’s an awful mistake to come from a developer with such a huge pedigree in the industry. Anthem is better with a squad when you’re grinding for gear, but the campaign is best played through alone. It fails to find that balance between the two, but none of it compares to the large speed bumps that come across when you’re playing the game.
These hiccups are not just bugs and audio glitches, but in load times so ridiculous it’s clear this game wasn’t ready. You go into Fort Tarsis, load screen. You land in Fort Tarsis and want to change your gear. Load screen. You exit the gear menu. Load screen. You select your mission and go to begin it. Load screen. You got matched up with a team that started the mission already and they’re ahead of you? You would think you can run to catch up to them but no, the game will put you into a menu screen to teleport you to where they are at. Yes, there are load screens during this process. The agony of it all is if you somehow clipped through a floor during this mission and fell into the vast void of polygonal textures and must restart the mission. There were times I just turned the game off when this happened.
I get that this is a live service game and some of this will change over time. There is a huge update patch when the game “officially” releases on February 22nd, but fixing load times and the reward economy does nothing when the overall experience of the entire product is a chore to play through. That this “Day One,” patch isn’t truly a day one patch when us early access players have the full game a full week early says a lot about the state that this game launched in. Simply put, this game wasn’t ready.
The main campaign should take you roughly 15 hours to complete and by that time you should fall between level 21-25, with the level cap being 30 wherein you can begin the true meat of the looter shooter genre and its endgame. You’ll have access to three Stronghold missions which are a sort of end game dungeon type ordeal with mechanics and encounters that you and your squad can play through. One of these is the exact final mission in the game, and if you played the beta, you’ve already done the other. They’re not terribly long, taking roughly 15-20 minutes to complete but when one of them is literally the final story mission in the game, that means there are truthfully only two endgame activities to farm for materials and master worked gear. I’m not even going to count the Contract stuff because all they are is free play activity bounty like things that offer a reward that isn’t entirely worth doing. It’s a repeat of completing the various mission types repeatedly on higher difficulty levels and when you combine it with lackluster Javelin abilities and the frequent load times, what should be a fun game experience becomes a terribly unrewarding chore.
One would think that Bioware at least paid attention to the missteps by games like Destiny or The Division when they first launched and be able to capitalize on that knowledge and not make the same mistakes. While Destiny and The Division would eventually grow into better games after a DLC (or two) and some updates, they did so because the core loop of the looting and the shooting was fun to experience and played well. They just made the rewards more worthwhile and plentiful, making changes to the loot economy so that the player was satisfied in playing the game even if they were doing the same thing with mild variety sprinkled in. The endgame in those games included high level Raids or raid-like experiences alongside high level co-op missions that offered high level rewards. Destiny even offers end game rewards to chase in their seasonal events.
The chase was always there and live to experience whenever you wanted. It gave you a reason to come back every weekly reset and do it again. I just don’t see that happening with Anthem, mostly because the core game play experience is just so mundane and dull and frustrating to sit through that if you’re like me, you got bored. A patch to fix load times, enemy damage and the reward economy is fine and all, but nothing can be done to change the game play unless you can change the entire game from the ground up. We still don’t have a clear picture on any future end game activities coming to Anthem, let alone if the game will support things like a Raid or anything close to that and whatever the Cataclysm coming up will be serves little to look forward to if I still must deal with mundane enemy AI and design and monotonous gun play. Bioware just simply wasn’t up to the task to throw their hat into the ring and shout, “Me too,” when other titles have either been doing it longer and better or have changed so much and grown that they’re ahead of the curve without even trying.
It isn't all doom and gloom, however. Despite my dissatisfaction with the end product, there is still much to like here: For starters, the game is visually stunning. From the foliage to the architecture, everything is jaw-droppingly beautiful and encourages exploration. The creature design is simply cool and awe-inspiring in scale. The core mechanics themselves are things that would work had the rest of the engine not failed in the ways I mentioned above. The very concept of Anthem, i.e. running around in an Iron Man suit shooting alien creatures in the face, is a thing that I genuinely wanted to like.
Ultimately though, Anthem is a colossal disappointment not just as a game, but as an experience altogether and showcases exactly what’s wrong with the live service model in today’s day and age:
It’s fired up with all engines ready to go, but much like your Javelin when you hover too long in the air, it comes crashing back down to the ground hard. In the end, Anthem fails to launch.
*Obviously discounting Andromeda for the purposes of this piece. We gave that game enough justly deserved flak.