The good news about Anthem is that it gives a much better first impression than the demo-cum-beta held at the start of the month. Compared to being thrown to the wolves with a partially levelled selection of Javelins, dropped into a handful of early levels and a Stronghold mission, and having no grounding in the world, characters and story, having an actual introductory mission that eases you into the game’s controls and Javelin abilities just feels much better and more coherent.
The bad news is that this first impression doesn’t last long.
Anthem isn’t officially released until the end of this week, except it is. As with all EA games, EA Access and Origin Access gives subscribers a 10-hour trial a week prior to launch, but Origin Access Premium goes a step further for PC players, giving you the full game. Anthem is live, it’s readily available to people that want to play it, but without a “day one” patch to fix a variety of niggling issues and the early server wobbles, it’s been a frustrating experience. We’ve been playing the full game on PC and have run into bugs and odd design choices all over the place.
There’s bugs with disappearing enemies, with quests not properly tracking certain stats, with random crashes when updating player data that boot me back out to the main screen, with progression sometimes lost when that coincides with the end of a mission… It’s aggravating until it becomes a depressing normality, compounded by long and frequent loading screens.
The open world is huge and it’s delivered seamlessly, but every time you need to head back to Fort Tarsis, to the Forge to change you gear, and back to the open world for a new mission, or crash and have to start again, you’ve encountered far too many long loading screens. Installing the game on an SSD cuts the load times in half and seemed to help with some jarring performance issues in cutscenes and with pop-in, but that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
The weird limitations of the party system in the game are also annoying. You’re always pushed to play the game together and are matchmade with other players by default, and that stops you dropping in and joining a friend’s mission in progress. It was made weirder by the way we could seemingly only party up with friends when one of us was actively trying to start a mission, but thankfully once we were grouped up it kept us together (until an inevitable crash split us up.
Equally odd, for a game where playing as a foursome is the de facto experience, is that the normal difficulty is lacking in meaningful challenge. It feels as though the main campaign has been balanced for solo play, letting you breeze through it with no heed to the nuances of the game’s combat. I have to hope that it’s not too big a shock to the system once we can try Grand Master difficulties.
As it stands, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Storm, Assault, Interceptor or Colossus, it doesn’t matter if you’re chaining combos together with friends, or fighting off in a corner of an area, you can just wade in and have a blast. The combat is straightforward and pretty easy, thanks to dimwitted, light enemies and clearly telegraphed spawnpoints that can easily be spammed with the flashiest of ultimate attacks.
I’ve largely had negative things to say about the game so far, but I will also say that I’m actually enjoying a lot of what it does well. The open world is simply spectacular, the areas that you explore huge to allow for engaging flight. Every time you see the edge of a cliff that would be a perilous drop into death in another game, it’s merely a lip that you can swoop over to reveal a whole new area to explore. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this kind of sheer wonder in simply getting around a world.
The biggest strength of Anthem is blending all of this freeform flight with the third person combat, and it does so seamlessly, letting you go from running on the ground to hovering above the battlefield, flying up into the sky and back again, simply by jumping and then clicking either left or right stick. The Javelins add some really interesting points of differentiation to how this blends with their abilities. The Ranger is your standard Iron Man-esque soldier, the Storm is designed to float and hover, sending elemental attacks and sniping, while the Interceptor is just a lot of ridiculous fun with high speed melee abilities and twirling acrobatic leaps and attacks. The one I don’t gel with, the Colossus, is slow and ponderous, a tank that can absorb more damage, with powerful explosive weapons.
What’s bizarre is that Anthem simply doesn’t explain its innovative combo system. That can be done just within your own abilities and attacks, or through partnering with a teammate to set up or finish an combined attack. Most abilities are either a ‘Primer’, denoted by a small circular icon, or a ‘Detonator’, which has a little four pointed star. On the most basic level, doing these in that order gets you a satisfying combo sound and triggers a specific Javelin class effect, but you can also take into account the different elements that the abilities are based on, which might have a poisoning effect, freeze enemies in place, have a greater impact to shields, and so on.
In truth, the array of abilites that you have available to you can be a bit baffling early in the game. You earn new abilities for whatever Javelin your using at that time – which you unlock one at a time at levels 2, 8, 16 and 26 – but at this point in the game it’s simply a case of applying the highest levelled weapons and abilities instead of really looking at what they do. Without their roles really being highlighted, I went from being all about finishing with detonators to setting attacks up with primers and I didn’t even realise.
The story and world-building provide some motivation to plough through the campaign, but the acting and tone is fairly inconsistent and certainly won’t be held up as BioWare’s best. Even the best story in the world would only be a distraction from some fairly rote mission design. You head to a place, fight some baddies, collect some glowing orbs and probably fight baddies, stand in a circle and fight baddies, head to the next place, and repeat. By the mid-point of the campaign it’s not just a lack of invention, but worse, a drawn out set of tedious and menial tasks to complete in Freeplay. Some of these are basic, like getting Ultimate or melee kills, others are mind-numbing races through world events to open the chests of rewards the give you (an objective that is currently bugged), or things that need you to cheese them, like reviving another player three times. Putting these tasks before players in such numbers is poor game design and simply invites you to find a way to get it over and done with as quickly as possible.
And that’s basically the problem with Anthem. There’s some fantastic work that BioWare have done in creating this world, in linking flight with combat and how the Javelins can link together in battle… but so much of what’s wrapped around these pillars is a bit buggy and just inconsistent.
I’ll keep playing, heading past the end of the story and into the endgame before pinning a score on it, but it’s already clear that this is clearly another instance where a game hides behind being a live service for being rough and unrefined at launch. We’ve seen dozens of games in this position before, but for such a big budget game that should have been able to learn from its peers, I don’t know if that’s enough anymore.