Hands on with Anthem’s endgame Javelins & Strongholds

There’s a few questions still hanging over BioWare’s Anthem as it races toward release in just a few short weeks. The VIP demo did more to make us worry about the server stability than it did reassure us over BioWare’s decision not to brand it a beta, performance on consoles seems to leave something a bit to be desired at this stage, and why the hell can’t you run in Fort Tarsis? Hopefully those should be shored up by launch, but the real question should be how Anthem can hold up two weeks, two months, two years after launch as a live service. What happens when you reach the endgame?

While we won’t really have an understanding of the game’s weekly activities, seasonal events and how the story evolves until after launch, we did get to go hands on with some of Anthem’s endgame activities, taking on a Legendary Contract and two of the game’s Stronghold missions, which are equivalent to dungeons or, in Destiny parlance, Strikes.

They’re your traditional dive into an area, with various arenas full of enemies on the path to a Stronghold boss that is more than happy to soak up damage. One thing that I did notice in the level design was a bit of a tendency to push the players to explore an area and grab a few little balls of light to return to a trigger point. It’s a rather blatant way of getting you to head to different corners of the world around you, and helped me to appreciate the sheer scale of the world that BioWare have created, but it does feel a little forced especially when having to do all the leg work if you’re playing solo.

One of the levels was that featured during Anthem’s E3 reveal, with the weird Swarm Tyrant and its arachnid-like minions, while the other led to a Scar quadruped robot tank being defended by shield arrays. Both of them would bring out minions to help break up the slog of simply battling a boss with a large health bar, and the walker having shields defending it allowed us to strategise and choose when to drop its shields so that we could deal the most damage. At first glance, they’re varied enough to hold interest through multiple plays, especially as the difficulty ramps up in higher levels.

The end of mission screen crawls through various points, awards and eventually reveals all the loot you grabbed, but it’s pretty obtuse to anyone that isn’t well versed in the game, what they have and what they want to get. You can compare stats in the Forge, but not here, and that could make cutting the chaff from the wheat a little tricky. I have to also say that the menu system as a whole is a bit obtuse. Switching between Javelins is a strange overlay in the Forge that feels unclear how to back out of, it’s a bit weird organising your party to head out on a mission, and so on. It’s flashy, but could do with being a bit more streamlined.

The first port of call before and after a mission is always going to be The Forge. It’s here that you can customise and upgrade your Javelins with new armour pieces, new abilities and equip different weapons. We already spoke about the unparalleled freedom that you have in changing the colours and materials that your Javelins are made from, allowing you to get a huge amount of visual individuality even with the stock parts, but you’ll also naturally be able to earn and buy replacement parts that take that much further. There’s a distinctive look to the general silhouettes that each of the four classes have, and that’s retained by the handful of replacements that we saw in the preview build and the VIP demo, but whether it’s adding a hood to a Storm’s cloak or breaking up the previously smooth surfaces of the Interceptor armour, you’ll be able to find a unique look. Of course, there’s also plenty of emotes, taunts and dances. There always is these days.

Much of the game’s longevity will surely be built around replaying and challenging yourself with increasingly difficult runs of the Stronghold missions. These are straight runs through an encounter, but you have the option to set them to easy, medium, hard and up through Grand Master difficulty tiers. Once you hit level 30 with your character, it’s then all about the power of your Javelin and gear, with that number pushing incrementally higher as you add higher level gear to your collection.

We got a glimpse at some of the different gear abilities that can be swapped out, with a broad set of possibilities. You could swap out a Storm’s Wind Wall Support Seal that repels incoming projectiles with a Quickening Field that increases gear recharge rates, or get a better, rarer version of the same that has different buffs and stats. This Javelin is all about ranged elemental attacks, so you pick between a freezing bolt, fire and lightning. Meanwhile the Interceptor is all about getting up close and personal with a Sudden Death Strike System attack that makes explosions when you hit enemies, but can be swapped for a ranged plasma throwing star, or go for misdirection by projecting ghosts that warp around.

It will be fascinating to see just how deep this rabbit hole goes as people explore different character builds and find better ways to beat the bad guys, but I can also see it being a bit of a turn off for more casual players. I distinctly remember being lost with the endgame looting in The Division and how the many different gear items could possibly interact and amplify each other, and I essentially gave up on min-maxing character stats and chasing perfect rolls in the first Destiny, let alone now that this side of things has returned in the second. How much appeal that chase has in Anthem will determine whether it has the staying power to thrive.

For me that’s really the key question that remains for Anthem. Outside of that, it’s got a wonderfully fluid movement system that enables you to get around the vast feeling world with ease and seamlessly blends with a combat, while the story that BioWare are telling takes us to an interesting Science Fantasy world that looks to be full of better fleshed out characters to interact with than Anthem’s peers. If they can strike the right balance with its endgame, keep players engaged with meaningful and interesting feeling game events, then they could be onto a winner.

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