The prospect of exploring a new world is often filled with promise. Adventure lies ahead, danger lurks around every corner, and there's the possibility of epic stories with each outing. Anthem looked to offer up such a series of adventures, both crafted by the veteran team at BioWare and by the players themselves. With a lush, open planet to explore aboard an Iron Man-like mechanical suit, the result should have been something special. The idea of taking flight and battling alongside friends promised to be a wondrous gaming experience.
Unfortunately, Anthem is the latest blockbuster to fly too close to the sun and drown in a sea of unrealized potential. There was so much about BioWare's latest that I was looking forward, but a slew of technical issues, some mind-boggling design choices, and a subpar (especially for BioWare) narrative only led to disappointment.
The spark of creation fizzles
BioWare is no stranger to the world of space opera, so there were some elevated expectations with Anthem's story. Like the rest of the game, there was certainly potential here. The world was crafted by godlike beings called the Shapers, who created everything and left everything to the planet's people. The Anthem of Creation is a relic of pure power, chaos, and creation, one meant to be left alone. Even attempting to control a piece of it leads to total chaos, as demonstrated by a cataclysmic event called the Heart of Rage.
What happened at the Heart of Rage drives Anthem's main characters, including the unnamed Freelancer, former cypher Faye, former Javelin pilot Haluk, and central villain The Monitor. The pieces looked to be set for a captivating story, but it just wasn't there. The main character proves to be an uninteresting protagonist, while Haluk and Faye are more recognizable by their irriating character traits than anything else. As for The Monitor, he's barely there as a villain, only showing up in a few scenes and offering some generic motivations for why he wants to control the Anthem. It came across like Sci-Fi 101. It could be that BioWare's past work left me expecting more, but The Monitor felt like such a by-the-numbers bad guy. Nothing about him truly stood out.
None of this is helped by the latter half of the story, which gets wrecked by dumb twists and an anticlimactic final sequence. Anthem does set up a bigger conflict down the road, but with how let down I felt by the main story, I don't feel any kind of desire to see the next chapter.
On top of this, the NPCs prove to be dull and long-winded. None of them are particularly interesting and conversations with them proved tiresome. After a while, I was aching to skip them entirely. Unfortunately, in trying to live up to BioWare's reputation for offering consequence-driven dialogue choices, nearly every conversation with an NPC offered a binary choice. This only added to the frustation, because none of these choices had any particular bearing on the story or the main character's journey. It felt like the game further dragging out a boring exchange.
Anthem's greatest strength is its four Javelins, the mechanical suits that players don to explore the world. The Javelins are lethal weapons in themselves, offering players multiple weapons, along with gear that can take out multiple enemies at a time. There's a true feeling of power with these suits, with each Javelin variety offering different abilities. The Storm, for example, gave me the power to wipe out multiple foes with elemental-based gear, while the Colossus made me feel like a tank, withstanding punishment and doling out area-of-effect attacks.
Javelins can also perform powerful combos, with certain elemental attacks working along with certain types of firepower. Finding strong combos is a joy, whether it's in combining forces with another player or discovering the extent of one's own single Javelin. Sadly, players can only access their loadouts between missions and Freeplay sessions, so anyone looking to test their combo potential on the fly doesn't have that option.
Beyond the Javelins' firepower, BioWare does nail one major element that makes Anthem stand out. Flight is amazing. The flight mechanics are some of the best I've seen in a game in a long time, complemented by the world was put together. There are high mountains to explore, luscious grasslands, murky swamps, outlaw camps, breathtaking waterfalls, and hidden caves all over the world. Because flight is so intuitive, exploring the world is a breeze and it's very easy to get lost in just flying around.
With all of that said, it's time to look at the humor in that last point.
Open (world) to criticism
With the power of the Javelins at my fingertips, I was initially excited to get into Anthem's story and work on some missions. Unfortunately, this is another area where there's a myriad of problems, so much so that it's hard to fathom where to begin.
The first thing to point out is that Anthem has moments where it's a technical mess. Load screens were a nightmare to the point that it felt like I was spending more time staring at loading screens than in an actual mission. When I actually was in a mission, there were several instances of enemy pop-in, textures that would occasionally drop out, and high-powered boss characters that would die with about 20 percent health remaining.
Some of this was addressed in the day one patch released on Friday. Load times are slightly better, but they still come frequently. Worse yet, missions are far too strict about keeping you on your mission path. If you stray even by an inch, you'll get prompted to stay in your lane or get automatically sent to a loading screen to get you back on track. In many cases, even if you are on the right path, you'll get the warning anyway and suddenly get whisked away to the loading screen. It's a constant nuisance and ruins any flow.
But patches can only do so much to make up for conscious design choices. The biggest issue is that Anthem is an always-online game, even where it doesn't need to be, and it's ultimately to the game's detriment. There were several instances, even a few after the day one patch, where I was in the hub city of Fort Tarsis talking to an NPC, only to get cut off in mid-conversation with a disconnect message and thrown back to the main menu. That meant more loading screens and starting everything over again. And as mentioned earlier, these aren't exactly stimulating conversations. Starting any of them from scratch almost made me scream. All of it has me wondering why the hub world needs to be connected online in the first place.
Then there's the concept of the open world. World events happen, but sometimes they aren't a person's cup of tea and they just want to engage in the story missions. So how about a mission that forces you to engage in Anthem's open world? Yes, this is in reference to what will almost certainly go down in gaming infamy, the Tombs of the Leigionnaires. This is where players must open four Tombs of departed Javelin pilots, but to even access them, players must grind out certain stats. Some of these stats include finding collectibles, treasure chests, and taking part in tedious open world missions, many of which involve fetch quests or standing in a spot and shooting at waves of enemies. While it took me close to 15 hours to finish Anthem's story, a lot of it was because of this artificial padding.
It's not just this mission, either. There's a second mission later that tasks players with hunting down Titans in the open world and I can only imagine where I'd be if there didn't happen to be a weekend-long event that put four Titans on the map. This is where I started to notice that certain boss-level Freeplay enemies, like the Titans, are clearly scaled for four people to face them. But Freeplay only puts four players in at a time, so if all four of those players are recluses, like myself, they're left to try and take on a tall task like this alone. That leaves them to either get destroyed in a few hits or slowly chip away one hit at a time, which is an excruciatingly slow process.
The other trick to taking down Titans, of course, is finding them. They're not marked on the map, so that's a problem. But I want to set that aside and talk about one of Anthem's other big issues. This is the year 2019. How is it possible to not allow players to set a waypoint marker on the map? This is killer when trying to find a Freeplay goal, like one of the tombs. Anthem does not allow players to set a waypoint marker, which essentially forces them to fly around without knowing if they're going in the right direction unless they open their map every few seconds. It's not helped that the Anthem world is massive. So imagine my aggravation knowing my Javelin could fly, was armed to the teeth, but apparently had a half-functioning GPS.
Finishing the Anthem story ultimately leads to new goals and new Strongholds opening up. These are more intense dungeons and offer a nicer window into what Anthem could be. Unfortunately, the loot leaves a lot to be desired. Sometimes I'll get a good weapon that's bogged down with inconsequential modifiers or something underpowered that I can't even use at all. There's also a Grandmaster difficulty, meant for the best of the best, which unfortunately means "enemies on steroids," rather than anything outside-the-box creative.
My biggest takeaway from Anthem is that it's yet another heavily-hyped game with a lot of promise that has a good chance of being awesome in its second year. Anthem's teases for the future, including the one that comes after defeating The Monitor, do look enticing. But I'm not looking for Anthem to be its best game in Year 2 or 3. I'm looking for Anthem to be a good experience now. And like Destiny, like No Man's Sky, like Fallout 76, like The Elder Scrolls Online, Anthem could be a great game by next year. But that doesn't make it a good game now. Right now, Anthem is not good. And given what's come out of BioWare in the past and the kinds of lasting, impactful experiences that the gaming world knows BioWare is capable of delivering, that's truly sad.
This review is based on a PC digital copy provided by the publisher. Anthem is available now on Origin, the PlayStation Store, and Xbox Live Marketplace for $59.99. The game is rated M.
- The Javelins feel powerful and distinct from one-another
- The open-world is gorgeous
- Flight feels amazing
- Story missions and Strongholds are totally doable with teams of strangers
- Strongholds offer a great window into what can be a good game eventually
- The story is dull
- Main characters are flawed and the villain is boring
- NPCs are uninteresting
- Missions feel grindy, especially when they force open world gameplay
- Load screens are frequent, even post-patch
- World events are uninspired
- Loadouts can only be accessed between missions
- Can't set waypoint markers, so it's easy to get lost
- Loot doesn't feel worthwhile
- 'Always online' game ultimately works against it
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Anthem review: The real heart of rage