With Bioware’s possible future riding on it, actually playing Anthem is kind of weird. The basic functionality of the shooting works well, but almost everything else surrounding the game makes it a muddled experience. It also doesn’t help that the game has the stability of a three-wheeled car. If you want the feel of driving a Reliant Robin Anthem definitely has your back.
Platform: PC, PlayStation 4 [Reviewed], Xbox One
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genre: Online Shooter
Release Date: February 22, 2019
Price: $59.99 (USD)
Honestly, Anthem feels like what a really good Starship Troopers (the book, mind you) game would be like. You are in a robotic exosuit, you can fly and hover and dish out death with a variety of weapons and suit abilities. I just don’t understand why the game is so damn dull.
Honestly, I haven’t a large clue of what’s happening in Anthem‘s story. The basic gist is that on this planet there is a lot of technology left by some ancient alien race that used the Anthem of Creation as a power source. This technology sometimes goes bad and starts terraforming the planet, resulting in monsters being spawned.
There aren’t a lot of meaningful characters in the game. In fact, I can think of only four. Two of them are decent but don’t factor into the story much. One has such an obvious allegiance switch it is almost a farce. The last is the bad guy who also doesn’t factor into the story much aside from just being evil. His character should have a big mustache welded onto his Javelin for all the twirling he needs to do. You can talk to the other, more minor characters, and occasionally have a few dialog choices with them, but it amounts to pretty much nothing.
It’s (Not) Your Destiny
From a gameplay perspective, Anthem is both a mirror and inverse of Bungie‘s Destiny. It’s a mirror in that the four-player squad system, how abilities are used, how dungeons are constructed, and how the UI is designed is very similar. The inverse comes from the game’s perspective. Destiny is a first-person game during the action. But when you venture into the social space it takes a third-person camera angle. Anthem is third-person in gameplay and while walking around Fort Tarsis the camera switches to a first-person viewpoint.
When you initially boot up the game and watch a series of intro videos, your first choice is whether or not you have a male or female voice. After a short tutorial mission to get you used to the controls, things go bad and the story flashes forward two years to the start of the game. Then another mission happens which teaches you the flight controls. Then, you pick out a face (out of about 21) that you can’t change, and begin the true journey.
Right off the bat, why do you pick a face? When you cannot see your character’s face at all in the game. Especially since in third-person areas, characters are always wearing a mech suit. The first person areas are completely sectioned off from other people, so even if you’re in a party with friends, you can’t see them there. There is a social space called Launch Bay, but it’s in third-person (in Javelin) as well. There are even cinematic sequences in the game where it would make perfect sense for you to get to see your face, but that doesn’t happen either.
Pictured above is a pre-order special armor suit from Mass Effect 2, which required you to have the helmet on through the entire playthrough. In Mass Effect 3, they at least gave you the option of disabling it during social situations. I have no idea why you cannot do that in Anthem.
The controls for this game are pretty simple and seem standard for the type of thing they’ve made. L2 to aim, R2 to shoot, L1 and R1 are used for grenades and your assault power, respectively. If you press L1 and R1 at the same time, it activates your utility item: a bubble that serves either as a shield or a temporary increase to the damage you deal. Square is reload, triangle is melee, circle is a quick-step dodge and X is jump (or a double jump). Finally, L3 is used as your dash button or to start flying around.
I’m Almost Iron Man
Flying does feel great in Anthem, even if it is somewhat limiting. You control your character’s yaw (left and right) and pitch (up and down) with the right analog stick. With the left stick, you control your speed (up and down) and can do some light turning with left and right. If you press circle when you press left or right (with the left stick), you do a barrel roll dodge move to break certain enemy target locks. It’s not used very much and sadly there is no anthropomorphized rabbit telling you when to do so.
You can mostly fly through the game’s environment, except for some areas where the system is disabled due to some story mission interference. When I say “somewhat limiting” above, I mean there is a heating system that kicks in when flying around. If you fly around too much, your suit overheats and you will fall back to the ground and have to wait about eight seconds for it to cool off. You can mitigate this somewhat by dive-bombing to the ground and pulling up at the last second OR by flying in a waterfall, which literally cools your jets quickly.
So, there is four Javelin classes you can eventually attain. You initially have to pick one to start with and the other three unlock as you gain more levels.
- Ranger: this is the all-around model. It is middle of the road and doesn’t have any particular specialization, but is the most versatile of the four. Its ultimate attack is a homing missile strike on an enemy or targeted foes.
- Interceptor: the fast/melee class. It is a very quick suit that is focused on melee strikes with two blades but sacrifices armor to be so quick. The ultimate attack allows the exosuit to become even quicker and its blades chop up enemies even faster too.
- Storm: The Storm Javelin is the closest thing to a Mage class. It can produce a lot of elemental attacks, ice, lightning, and fire to deal damage or incapacitate enemies. The Storm’s ultimate attack sends out a small area of effect where elemental damage just rains down from above, damaging everything within the circle. It is more mobile in the air than the other classes, flying further and hovering longer. However, it’s the weakest class when it comes to armor.
- Colossus: is the last of the Javelin classes. Remember Igor from Iron Man 3, the bulky robot that propped up the oil platform at the end? That’s what the Colossus is somewhat based on. This is the tank of the group, able to take a lot more damage than the other classes. It also has heavier weapon equipment like flamethrowers and railguns. Its ultimate attack is a mortar strike of three shells. The downside of the Colossus is that it is (obviously) slow and can’t fly as much as other classes.
I played 99% of the game with the Ranger class. I only played the other classes for the sake of this review because when I pick a class I tend to stick with it. Each class has its up and downsides but I found the Ranger to be the overall best class in my view.
Missions Types: All 4 of Them
Being a live-service, online-only game, you might think there are dozens of missions you can do to explore the world. In reality, all the missions can be boiled down into a few archetypes.
- Kill Everything: Pretty self-explanatory, all told. The game spawns groups of enemies you have to slaughter until it decides you’re done.
- The Wifi is Bad: This is a “defense” mission where you have to stay in a zone that is shown as a Wifi signal. Your goal is to prevent enemies from slowing the progress of the bar being filled up with you and your other teammates standing in it.
- Collect the Orbs: Collect these yellow orbs in the world to shut off some ancient machinery that is going nuts. You can hold onto three orbs at once and you’ll usually have to plunk 9 or 12 in the orb platform to stop it.
- Collect the Pieces: This is related to the Orbs, except with different stuff. You have to collect pieces of some busted machine to stop it. However, there are usually only three to six pieces of the machine to collect, and you can only carry one piece at a time. Also, you can’t fly when you carry a piece.
I should note that as of this writing, these missions account for ALL of the activities in the game, or at least 99.99999% of them. Sometimes, when you’re done with the battle, missions have you locate an object in an area, via Wifi, but this takes about 20 seconds. There are a few puzzle doors you have to open, and one dungeon with a cool boss fight (that the other two dungeons don’t have). But, that’s about it.
Quite frankly, most games really only offer a limited number of activities for you to do. Diablo 3, even now, typically has about seven or eight archetypical things available. I think the difference between Anthem and something like Diablo 3 is that it is WAY quicker in Diablo 3 to do this busy work. At least they try to mask the boredom of it. Also, Diablo 3, The Division (another closely analogous game), World of Warcraft, Borderlands, all have vastly more interesting worlds for you to explore.
Lastly, missions tend to operate on a “Rule of Three” system. You’ll go to an area, kill some enemies or find a clue, and go to the next area to do the same thing. Almost all missions have you do this in three spots, over and over. A few might require more, but none require less. It makes the game far more tedious and predictable than it should be.
There are about two and a half tilesets in this game, total. The first is the jungle, the second is underground (mines, ancient runes, etc.), and the “half” is because occasionally the jungle becomes a swamp. It has very little in the way of biodiversity or even interesting locations. You’ll also frequently have quests that re-use the same areas over and over. The game might seem big at the start but you’ll quickly find yourself hitting the boundaries of the map which then makes it seem small compared to other games of this type.
Fort Tarsis is your hub area. It’s where you go to pick up new missions, talk to people, pick up new info for your codex, etc. Honestly, It’s all bollocks, and to boot has numerous problems. Walking around the area is extremely slow. There is NOTHING to actually do here that is fun or interesting. The Codex entries you pick up don’t matter at all. And the load times to get into the Forge are bad.
Inside the fort is also The Forge and also the storage system (up to 250 items can be stored in there). The Forge is where you go to swap out Javelins, gear, create new gear, and to customize your exosuit. It pretty much lifts a lot from the Destiny UI system here, and actually works well enough.
What are you buying?
One of the more insulting things about the game is the online store. The Fort contains two store fronts, which are located almost across from one another, and they sell the same things. There is the “Premium” store, where you can shell out in-game currency or use microtransactions, as is pretty standard now.
The problem is, there isn’t anything interesting or fun to buy. All the store sells are decals for your robot suits. Different victory emotes for the results screen. Some different material types for your Javelins, and crafting materials (which you really don’t need). After the mess that was Star Wars: Battlefront 2, EA decided to do away with many of their greedy impulses, but this store feels empty and generally worthless, even if you are a big fan of this game.
A Technical Mess
Straight up the biggest problem with Anthem, aside from the hackneyed story, useless store, limited mission variety, and lack of gear, is how much of a technical mess the game is.
For example, I was playing with a friend on a story mission. When the mission finished, I was able to go to the next mission but he wasn’t, even though we were both located in the same area. It didn’t ring up as completed for him, despite him being with me every step of the way.
Another fun bug occurred during one of the last story missions. You have to go to this old base, meet someone, and then fight out of it. The mission has an objective of “Defeat the Dominion Troops” (to escape the base). I was in a random group with three other people. We got to this part and enemies spawned, and spawned, and just kept spawning. We killed enemy troops for a good half hour before I figured out the mission bugged out (the mission dialog also glitched), forcing me to quit and restart the game. I then queued up again with three more random people, did the same mission again, and while the dialog didn’t glitch, the enemies spawning did, and this once again went on endlessly until I quit the game AGAIN.
I then googled it and discovered it’s a known bug for the mission Fortress of Dawn. The three suggestions I read were to have your party kill themselves, do the mission in a private party, or to just do it solo. I elected for the third option and completed the mission in about five minutes.
There are other fun bugs like enemies clipping through the environment. Enemies suddenly becoming VASTLY over-powered and unkillable (a particular Titan was one-shotting the entire party, you would respawn and it would immediately kill you again. Objectives not updating quickly, enemies disappearing randomly, and so on. I’d have more clips of some of this stuff to show, but the PS4 system menu takes forever when you try to access it through this game and I haven’t the foggiest reason why.
One last glitch/funny thing: when you start the game on PS4, it says “You have entered a blocked scene and cannot record this”, then it shows the BioWare logo video. Once it gets to the Anthem title screen, it waits about seven seconds then it says “You have left the blocked scene, you can now record again.” WHAT IS SO SPECIAL AND UNIQUE ABOUT BIOWARE’S INTRO VIDEO?! This is the biggest mystery in all of gaming!
Combat Ups and Downs
Moving in a more positive direction, I’d like to somewhat praise the combat. For as much as I’ve been negative in this review, the actual shooting does feel very solid. Guns handle differently, it’s fun to use your abilities to take down a threat, and I just enjoy knocking down enemies.
The problem here is that you’re basically doing the same exact things at level 2 as you are at level 30. You may swap out your homing missile for a charge beam, or your regular grenade to a frost one, but that’s about it. You’re still firing the same types of weapons and your ultimate ability still does the exact same thing, over and over. There is little actual progression for when you level up aside from occasionally unlocking a new Javelin or unlocking passive upgrade slots.
I played The Division 2 beta last weekend just for a few hours but there is a CLEAR upgrade path in that game. Not just from your own equipment, but you have the passive skill tree and the active one. Your turret skill can either be a regular assault turret, to a flamethrower, artillery, or sniper turret, depending on how you want to use your unlocks.
The homing missile barrage of the Ranger class stayed the homing missile barrage for as long as I played. Even swapping out my robot suit didn’t change much, aside from the active abilities, ultimate ability and the armor/flight length I had. It just feels like character progression in the game is busted, even without that now infamous level 1 rifle issue, because so little of it actually matters.
Between this game and Mass Effect: Andromeda, I have a real hard time deciding which is the worst game. While Andromeda was laughably bad, Anthem is just incompetent on almost every level aside from the core action system. I literally cannot fathom that when they put this game out they thought it was a game worth shipping, even if you account for the usual Day-1 patch that games have these days. Almost every gameplay system should have been scrapped or at least had another year to get worked on. Who knows, Destiny eventually got into a good place with patches and expansions, so maybe Anthem will also. The problem is, EA really isn’t known for fostering a supportive and understanding corporate environment.