Anthem is the latest and greatest from EA’s Bioware studio, famed for its hugely loved Mass Effect series, among others.
Anthem has been in development for a long time, and it’s the first game to emerge from the studio that reflects the world, release schedule and structures of games in 2019. It’s an amazing technical achievement, but one that seems strangely shallow given its long gestation period. I found my time with the game compelling, the core loop engaging, but am not yet convinced that it offers enough to build a lasting community around it in the way that it so clearly wants.
Anthem is set in a world where the wild gods of creation have never left. Instead, their incredible creative force spins out of control, gives rise to monsters and keeps the remaining humans locked up in citadels called “Forts.” You are a veteran pilot of Iron-man suits known as Javelins, suits that can fly, shoot missiles, pack special abilities and more. As a “freelancer” you are tasked with some simple missions that slowly open up the wider conflict about to overtake your home planet.
Your time in the game will be split between a linked-up open world and your home base, Fort Tarsis. Fort Tarsis is a separate area instead of a shared space, as the story is about one freelancer. I found this set up quite dissonant to the gameplay in the open world, where playing with other freelancers is fundamental to the gameplay experience. The Fort is also where much of the story plays out, with many NPCs to chat to, and get to know. Unlike say Destiny 2, your character does speak and have a personality (male or female selectable), which I found refreshing, but they are an irredeemable do-gooder. And while you do get to select one of two options to respond to NPCs, conversation choices don’t feel as weighty as in previous Bioware games.
Once you move out of Fort Tarsis, you’ll be introduced to something that you will become extremely familiar with – long loading times. You’ll be loading into your inventory/loadout screen, into the mission select screen, into missions and even within missions – despite the appearance of a seamless world you will still be faced with loading screen in between certain sections. Perhaps we’re spoilt these days, but so much loading promotes a stop-start cadence that seriously hinders any momentum in the story or mission design.
Every activity in the open world features match-making, which as generally a solo player I appreciated. You can, however, spawn into a match-made mission halfway through, skipping crucial story details and removing almost any context to what you’re meant to be doing. Then you’re off to the next mission still slightly confused about what you’ve missed. If you want to experience all of the story beats, I’d suggest turning match-making off so you don’t miss anything.
At least the open world is a gorgeous, beautiful environment to explore. There is simply a gargantuan amount of detail on offer, with incredible lighting, even on only the “high” setting on PC. There are moments which demonstrate the extreme amount of care and attention that have been poured into this game. For me, it was joyful to fly low-down, just above a river as it weaves its way across the games map. Water spray and particles fly either side of me as I rush towards whatever mission that I’m off to next.
It’s just unfortunate that I never really felt like the exploration or mission structure tied together well with the flying. Where are the missions that are predicated on getting to the other side of the map as fast as possible, making me conserve precious heat long enough to stay aloft the entire time? Why don’t some missions make us fly through obstacle courses at high speed, giving us a bonus if we manage to do it perfectly? Why doesn’t the enemy design force us to fly up to meet them, chase them through ravines and through caves instead of giving them ranged abilities that knock us down and force us to hide behind pillars like every other shooter. Instead, it’s more just flying to combat arena A, then combat arena B, then C, then back to the start.
Fortunately the combat itself is quite good. Your javelin (of which there are four options) is equipped with special abilities and some unique weapons that work in tandem with other classes. At launch the Storm javelin seems to be the most popular, but we will see how that plays out over the longer term. Gunplay felt snappy and solid, though shooting definitely took a backseat to the javelin’s abilities which have only a short cooldown timer.
At least at launch performance on PC could be better. Even with a snappy Core i7-8700K and beefy GTX 1080 Ti I still only managed approximately 75-90FPS at 1440p with a mixture of high and ultra, and in moments of combat with explosions, alpha effects and hundreds of particles flying around I did occasionally see that number dip below 60FPS. A day-one patch is meant to improve performance somewhat, but considering that EA and Origin Access subscribers can play now I feel that it’s fair to mention it here, though you may not experience the same issues.
Ultimately after a couple dozen hours I came away with the feeling of wanting more, which is normally good for these loot-driven games. But this time was not in a good way. I was bored of getting the exact same rifles except with slightly higher numbers as loot and the combat abilities were great to use but ultimately repetitive. I’d love to see some more single-player content launch, and I haven’t had the time to see how the endgame holds up for extended play.
Making any definitive conclusions about Anthem at this early stage in its life would be foolhardy in the extreme.
Like Destiny, The Division, Fallout 76 or any number of “live games”, Anthem will twist and turn, be revised, patched and updated with new content as time goes by. Contact with millions of real-world players will do that to a game. So the game that you see in my review may be barely recognisable one month, six months, a year or even ten years into the future. Anthem feels like a game made by different teams in different locations who weren’t given the chance to fully integrate with each other. The story, while simplistic is told well, the scenery is gorgeous, the flying fun (who can go back to running around streets manually anymore?) and the shooting satisfying but it doesn’t gel in a way that feels natural and consistent. Anthem has a lot of promise, but it’s a promise that as yet remains unfulfilled.
Released: February 2019
Platforms: PC (Windows 10), also released on PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Publisher: EA Games