Anthem: Review (PS4)
Ever since the industry caught a glimpse of EA and BioWare’s newest IP, Anthem, the discussion surrounding the game, both positive and negative, hasn’t stopped. From being wowed by the stunning flight mechanics of the Javelins, to scratching our heads trying to figure out just exactly when we could play the game, one thing has been abundantly clear: people, myself included, love talking about Anthem. While the game certainly has its faults, there is plenty that BioWare gets right and those elements make Anthem an enjoyable, albeit slightly repetitive, experience.
In the months leading up to Anthem’s release, my biggest concern was the story. We knew that we’d be getting a game that was going to be similar in scope, mechanically, to other, established properties such as Warframe and Destiny 2. Similar to both of those games, Anthem involves shooting through waves of enemies to clear various missions while you rank up your character, weapons, and armor. The market for this genre of “loot-shooter” has become incredibly saturated, and the fans of these games aren’t the easiest to please because of that. Even Destiny 2 didn’t truly satisfy its player base until the release of The Forsaken this past September, a DLC that completely changed the way the game was played. In order to carve out a unique spot in this overpopulated lineup, Anthem needed a few ways to differentiate itself from the pack and make people stop playing the other games so they could devote time here. My belief was, on top of the Javelin flight mechanics, the story could push Anthem away from the other competitors. Unfortunately, the story feels largely like a new version of the same tale we’ve seen time after time.
Anthem starts off as you play an unnamed, though voiced, Freelancer who teams up with a couple of fellow Freelancers named Faye and Haluk. The first mission is an attempt to shut down the Cenotaph in The Heart of Rage. Naturally, things don’t go as planned leading to a catastrophic mission failure, and the scattering of the Freelancers as a whole. Two years pass and we come to find out that your character has made a home on Fort Tarsis. You’re then able to choose your starting Javelin and are given your choice of the four: Ranger, Storm, Interceptor, or Colossus. The Ranger is more of a standard issue, using frag grenades and homing missiles as special attacks. The Storm is a little quicker than the Ranger and uses elemental attacks such as frost, fire, and lightning for specials. The Colossus is the strongest and slowest, and comes equipped with a handy shield. The Interceptor is the quickest of all, using recon beacons and an acid bomb for specials. Once the Javelin has been chosen, you find out your character has been working closely with his/her cypher (psychics who aid Freelancers on missions by providing intel) Owen, and the two work on contracts that come up in an effort to aid anyone who may need it. As time passes, and without spoiling too much, you are reunited with Faye and Haluk as you attempt to stop a new antagonist known as The Monitor. As you can see, this is all incredibly familiar and the story itself doesn’t cause me to feel any real emotions towards the outcome. However, the one piece of this game that truly makes the story work are the wonderfully designed characters.
Each NPC is full of personality, voice acted to perfection, and the facial animations are second to none. The story as a whole feels average, but talking with these characters, reading in-game emails they send you, and watching their interactions during cutscenes give you a sense of immersion into their world. I started to care about what happened on missions because I actually cared about the characters that were involved. During my time in Fort Tarsis, even though navigating through the fort was slow and cumbersome, I still felt compelled to speak with as many of the secondary characters as I could. Those interactions provide not only insight into their personal histories, but the history of this world as a whole. The inclusion of a voice for your character adds a great deal to these interactions as well. You’re able to choose between two separate answers at various times during your conversations. The choices aren’t in depth by any means as they usually range from “nice comment” to “sort-of sarcastic comment,” but it does add to the immersion the player feels. BioWare using compelling characters to tell a story is nothing new for them, and those characters are a major strength in Anthem.
On top of the strong characters, the gameplay mechanics do a great deal in allowing Anthem to carve out that unique path. The Ironman-inspired Javelin suits are an absolute blast to fly around in, and shooting your way through hordes of enemies is a thrilling experience that makes it difficult to leave the gorgeously rendered world. The third-person shooting mechanics feel responsive, and give the various weapon types their own unique feel. Additionally, the different special moves that accompany the four separate Javelins lead to thrilling combos that promote teamwork and create some user-made, visually stunning moments. There is something to be said about the “gameplay loop” that is found in Anthem, because whether you’re roaming the world in free-play, fighting through strongholds, or playing through the various quests and contracts - when you’re in the world you don’t want to leave it. The problem is there are plenty of things that can pull you out of that immersion.
First and foremost is the often talked about loading screen woes. EA did issue a “day one” patch for these issues, but I can assure you the loading screens are definitely still annoying. It’s not so much the length of these screens, as my experienced ranged anywhere from 15 seconds to 1.5 minutes, but it’s the frequency of them that is more annoying. If you finish a mission there’s a loading screen to show you how you did, then there’s a loading screen after you choose whether or not to go to the Forge or Fort Tarsis, then there’s a loading screen when you boot up a mission (this is definitely the longest one), and lastly there are loading screens in the middle of missions when you’re required to enter certain areas. Loading screens are nothing new in games and they’re certainly not exclusive to Anthem. They are noticeable and definitely lead to a loss of that immersive feel, especially considering in order to change your equipment loadout on your Javelin, you have to go the Forge (basically your workbench), which will lead to at least two loading screens for you.
Forcing players into the Forge in order to change their loadouts is a curious decision to say the least. I understand on the one hand that forcing players to stay through the duration of a mission to see what loot they’ve collected, and then equip said loot, is a nice touch in an effort to stop players from disappearing in the middle of a mission. The problem lies with if you’re looking to try out a new weapon type, say for example a sniper rifle, but you’re not sure if it’ll be a good fit for you. You need to load up the Forge, equip the gun, fire up a mission or free-play, test out the weapon, and if you like it - great! What if you don’t like it? If it turns out that the weapon doesn’t suit your play style, you just sat through about five or six loading screens to figure that out. That isn’t fun; it’s just plain annoying, and led me to power down the game on more than one occasion.
In terms of the missions themselves and the loot they lead to, there is a sense of repetition after a few hours of play time. Too many missions revolve around the idea that you need to find an area, fetch a few glowing orbs, and attach the orbs to an object all while you battle it out with the hordes of enemies. Since the gameplay mechanics are smooth and fun, I found myself overlooking the repetition and enjoying the combat. However, I can easily see people losing interest as many of the missions feel very similar to one another. To switch things up from time to time, you are welcome to play through the Strongholds, but until you beat the main campaign, you only have one to choose from. These are very similar to strikes in Destiny 2 and require you to solve a few of those minor “attach orbs to object” puzzles while you battle enemies en route to an eventual big bad at the end. Teamwork is essential to complete the objectives as well as eliminate the final boss. Strongholds provide a great distraction from the main story and are fun to play with a crew of friends, but as it stands now there are only three to choose from once the main campaign is complete.
The loot that you are chasing is similar to what we’ve seen in other games of the genre. As you rank up, you move from acquiring common and uncommon items to rare and epic. I played through on the normal difficulty and noticed a good amount of the “rare” loot dropped once I ranked up enough. However, I didn’t get my first “epic” item until the very last mission of the campaign. I can’t speak for how the loot drops differ at various difficulty levels as I played through on normal, but it seems I’ll have to grind a fair amount in the endgame to reach the current level cap of 30. There is plenty of reason to continue playing after that endgame, though. As you rank up you’ll unlock all four Javelins, giving you a great reason to use the ones you may have neglected as you climb towards the cap of 30. The game provides you additional contracts to complete, the two new Strongholds I mentioned, and public events that occur in free-play as activities to keep you playing once the main story is complete.
Anthem is an enjoyable game with its fair share of faults. I’ve been booted from missions a handful of times and am aware that certain folks aren’t so lucky with their crashes. You can’t ignore the issues the game has, but at the same time, it’s impossible to ignore all of the things the game gets right. BioWare has created a very strong foundation that, yes, you can argue needed more time in the oven to cook. The plus is we know there will be more content as the year goes on and that is something I am looking forward to. Carving out a unique path in an overly saturated genre is no small feat, but there are plenty of unique elements present in Anthem that can lead to success and longevity.