Developer: BioWare || Publisher: Electronic Arts || Platform: PS4/Xbox One/PC
EA has really needed a win from BioWare recently. They had a decent amount of success out of Dragon Age Inquisition but really missed the mark with Mass Effect Andromeda (to the point where the division of BioWare that made Andromeda was absorbed). Anthem was going to be their saving grace as it really seemed like they were going to learn from all the mistakes previous shared-world shooters from other developers had made. The Demos were a bit shaky, based off of outdated builds (which defeats the purpose of a demo) and didn’t bode well for Anthem as a complete product. It seems like it really was indicative of Anthem, as my time with the game has resulted in the greatest amount of frustration I have ever experienced. Anthem is a game that is poorly built and poorly designed mess which does more bad than good.
We’ll start with what Anthem does well. Anthem sees the player assume the role of the Freelancer, basically a mercenary without a conscience, who was a part of a big war against an organisation called “The Dominion” (Trump’s space force) who wanted to control the power of the Anthem of Creation and use it for their own selfish gain. The story is not exactly bad, it is much better than the story of most other shared-world shooters (I don’t have time to explain why I don’t have time to explain) and while it starts off very strong, it quickly falls into the same traps of other shared-world shooters. Anthem’s strength in terms of writing has to do with all the minor characters and the supporting cast. As you progress through the main campaign you will unlock small dialogue trees with some of the characters around Fort Tarsis (the main hub area). While these mini-stories which aren’t really interactive and don’t have a big impact on the world, the characters within these self-contained stories tend to shine more than the main story writing does, which is strange when you consider how inconsequential they are. I found myself caring more about the bloke who was trying to start up a new fashion business rather than the fate of the world (a natural reaction, to be fair). Anthem does focus on being a story-driven game first and a shared-world shooter second, which is a shame because it does neither of those things well.
Anthem’s true strength is its general gameplay. The aerial mechanics make the game feel like it’s going at a different pace every time you play, as the movement mechanics complement defensive styles of play, as well as aggressive styles of play and everything in between. I found myself having an absolute blast with the Interceptor as it let me be stupidly aggressive and agile, which is how I like to play. You also have some great mechanics like the priming/combo mechanic, which is where a player can ‘prime’ an opponent by applying a status of some sort and that opponent can be hit by a combo by a player with a ‘detonator’ move, allowing for large amounts of damage. The general power climb is also relatively smooth and quite easily complements the level of power that you are supposed to be at according to the story… until you hit the Tombs section. This is one of the more painful sections of the game and really highlights the pacing issues. You’re nicely trotting along the story and you hit this point where you are meant to prove your worth/strength. This makes sense, not every power climb should be smooth and a few bumps along the way to see how you are developing as a player are a good idea, but forcing the player to spend hours completing arbitrary tasks which are not very consistent is a bad idea.
Anthem very quickly reveals some glaring flaws. We’ll start with the Freeroam activity because that’s where the least issues come up. Freeroam is basically patrol mode from Destiny. You wander across a big map, with nothing in it, in the hopes that you will encounter world chests and public events as they are the only remotely rewarding things in this activity. You are publicly matchmade into a group of four and the public events are more or less designed to be done by a squad, but because the game never has any form of indicator where they are, the entire team splits up in the hopes of finding one. Now, because you and your squad have split up, if one of you finds one then it will more than likely be completed by the time anyone else gets there due to how spread apart you will be. It’s stupid.
Anthem likes to make an emphasis on verticality and resilience, showing that while you aren’t an unstoppable force of metal, you aren’t exactly a glass cannon either. For a chunk of the difficulties (anything before the Grandmaster Difficulties), you can soak up a fair bit of damage, which is great because you never know where you are being hit from. Anthem does this brilliant thing where it barely communicates where things are coming from and the audio design is a mess, you more often than not you are being shot out of the sky without even realising you are taking damage. To make matters worse, pretty much all the enemies in the game use hitscanning instead of projectiles, so if you are in their crosshairs at any point, you get hit and there is no defence. The only enemies you can actively avoid taking damage from without getting out of their line of sight are the snipers and the missile turrets as they visually telegraph when they are aiming at you, the snipers even audibly telegraph it. That’s it. The boss in the one new stronghold that had not been seen before has something similar, but it hits you with a million other moves whilst charging its cannon so you get knocked out of the sky and THEN you get hit with the big shot. Whoever designed it this way so you could practically never tell where damage is coming from unless it’s right in front of you needs to go back and redesign it.
The scale at which you have to climb for power following Anthem’s story is actually a pretty smooth one. The basic difficulties give you just enough power to be comfortable-yet-cautious in the first Grandmaster difficulty and it goes up from there. However, the scale for difficulty in Anthem is what I find to be one of the biggest missteps. Before the Day One patch came in, the game was honest about how it scaled the enemies, and at its highest, it would increase enemies’ health and damage by 950%. Now that the Day One patch is live, it has since hidden these scaling numbers so now players aren’t exactly sure what they should expect. The idea that to increase difficulty you need to increase health bars by an insane amount is an aspect of design that The Division was heavily criticised for and it’s not doing Anthem any favours in the design aspect. A smart way to design it would be to add unique enemies that are exclusive to the higher difficulties to keep players on their toes and adding extra moves or behaviours to existing enemies. Throwing something new at a player is far more engaging than making them shoot the same target for over nine times as long. I get that these difficulties are built around having the communication to prime enemies and perform combos, but taking it to this level is just absurd.
Once you have made it past the main story in Anthem you are greeted with the endgame. This will be a hot topic of debate as I’ve seen many people praising Anthem for its endgame and others despising it. Anthem offers endgames challenges for you to try and accomplish which are incredibly laborious and the content by which you are meant to do so in is even more so. There are more or less two activities to really do. The strongholds, one of which is just a repeated story mission but the final boss has a larger health pool, and contracts. There are only two variants of the contracts and you have to do these activities repeatedly to get legendary contracts which are basically the same thing but a little harder and with a slightly better loot pool. To really capitalise on the loot pools you have to increase the difficulty to where it becomes stupid and even when you have done this you have constantly go back and forth between the characters Sentinel Brin and Freelancer Yarrow to get any of the contracts. To sum it up, you are doing the same five things repeatedly to unlock a different version of two these things, only to grind and get more powerful gear to do a harder version of the same activities with a difficulty scale that is very poorly designed.
Surely Anthem can’t do much else wrong, right? That’s where you are (unfortunately) wrong. Anthem is a game that is virtually impossible to play by yourself, as the really engaging content is locked to public matchmaking, which is an issue in and of itself. Players should not be forced to matchmake for activities like strongholds or freeroam as, sometimes, the longevity of these games comes from the solo challenges that players come up with, like with how Destiny players always try to solo the Nightfall Strikes, or how Warframe players solo the Sorties. There is a lot of fun in pushing the boundaries of what you, the player, can do. It’s also a cheap and easy way to increase the validity of a repetitious grind. Anthem fails on various points with that. You are pretty much always with a squad in Anthem and if you so much as lag a small bit behind, you get met with a warning that you are too far from the objective and then after a while, you are sent into a loading screen. If your loading screen takes too long then you are too far behind again and get put into another loading screen.
This is all without even beginning to outline all the technical issues I had with the game. Around 20 of my first 36 hours of the game were spent trying to get the damn thing to work properly. The game struggles to render in any form of acceptable manner when using a HDD, meaning that anyone that isn’t on that bleeding edge (for many the cost of a SSD is too high, which is fair), and you are in so many loading screens when using a HDD that you barely play the game unless you are on a higher difficulty. The game is not very stable and there is the issue where enemies fail to render but they can still shoot at you. This issue wasn’t solved until the game was moved over to my SSD, which is something that I should not have to do. The Frostbite engine’s limitations are definitely showing as it begins to be used in ways that it was not created for. BioWare should really have opted for an engine which better met their needs, like how Respawn Entertainment used the Source Engine for the Titanfall games and Apex Legends.
BioWare really dropped the ball with Anthem. It has a fairly average story, is rife with terrible design and problems, laden with as many bugs as a Bethesda game and the endgame is incredibly unenticing. I will admit that the general gameplay loop can be quite fun and the ability to experiment with builds to capitalise on mechanics like the prime/combo mechanic can make for some really enjoyable moment-to-moment gameplay. But issues like having a loading screen for absolutely everything, having loading screens for those loading screens, designing enemies that are incredibly hard to avoid damage from in a reasonable manner, a ludicrous difficulty scale, shallow and laborious endgame content, which, reveal a dissonance between the initial gameplay design and the rest of the game itself. Under no circumstance can I really recommend this game unless BioWare puts their heads down and make some serious changes to the game, like with what both Bungie and Ubisoft did with their respective games.
Reviewed on PC via well-played.com.au | Anthem Review
Mild Chilli Tastes Better
- Core gameplay loop including prime/combo mechanic is great fun
- Minor cast have some interesting dialogue
- So much bad design
- Game runs poorly and is full of unnecessary loading screens
- Frostbite is a garbage engine for anything that isn’t Battlefield/Battlefront
- Endgame is not very well designed
- Difficulty scale is stupid
- Forced public matchmaking