“The world of Anthem was left unfinished – abandoned by the gods.” That might be how BioWare open their description of the first act in Anthem’s live service, but it’s all too fitting for this flawed, inconsistent game at launch. Thankfully, we don’t expect BioWare to abandon their work for the foreseeable future.
First things first, and don’t be surprised to be hearing this yet again, BioWare have done a remarkable job with the controls and feel of the game. Flying is so wonderfully realised in this big open world and provides those natural moments of self-created fun. Instead of just aiming at the objective marker, you’re encouraged to swoop down and get close to the ground by the cooling effect that bodies of water provide, the otherworldly landscape is created such that there’s cliff faces, waterfalls, huge caverns, buildings, thick trees and more and it’s instinctively fun to skim past them as closely as you can. The only fly in the ointment is when your Javelin overheats, forcing you down to the ground to sprint for a few moments while it cools down.
That can still feel pretty seamless, though. You shift between running, hovering and flying with simple clicks of the analogue sticks, and it comes together beautifully in the third person shooting combat. The four Javelin classes each have different quirks and roles here, from the brutish, explosive support of the Colossus and run-of-the-mill soldier type Ranger, to the ultra-fast twirling melee attacks of the Interceptor and backline wizardry of the Storm.
Personally, it’s the latter two that feel the best fit for Anthem. The Colossus is too slow and ponderous, especially with weapons that have reload times that are just a bit too long, while the Ranger is a tad too conventional in its abilities. The Interceptor is a lot of fun, if disorientating when the effects heavy attacks are flying, while the Storm has by far the longest hover time, allowing you to float in the sky with an overview of the battlefield and simply spam with magical explosions and elemental abilities. I like Storm. Storm is the best Javelin.
There’s a lot of interplay between the classes, each of which have two attack abilities, a support ability and an ultimate attack. When switching between Javelins or playing through the story you’ll initially just simply choose the gear with the highest level number, jumping form one set of attacks to another, but they also have various effects beyond simply dealing damage and looking flash. Ice can freeze enemies, lightning and fire sap shields, while acid deals damage over time. Some are a Primer and others are a Detonator, which when used in that order will trigger a souped-up combo attack. That can be within your own abilities, or in partnership with another player. It’s not explained by the game in any detail, which is baffling, and means that this depth often isn’t used effectively by matchmade squads.
The main storyline is a fairly fun science fantasy romp, setting out this world of endless danger and cataclysmic events that only Freelancers (that’s you) can stop from going out of control and threatening humanity. There’s a few different factions that you’ll battle, from hostile bug-like creatures and beasts brought into the world by cataclysms, to the more humanoid Scars and other human factions in the Outlaws and Dominion. It’s the latter that are the real driving force in the story, as they seek to tap into the Anthem of Creation and bend the world to their will, led by the rather Thanos-like Monitor.
Unfortunately, the enemies you battle against aren’t terribly interesting. They’re relatively dumb in battle and spawning from clearly marked (and easily spammed) points. Things get more interesting when facing off against enemies in other Javelins and their equivalents, but on the whole the difficulty is kept low on ‘Normal’. The main exceptions are the Titans, who tower over you and dish out waves of area of effect and homing fire damage that’s nigh on impossible to evade. They also take a ludicrous amount of damage compared to other enemies, making them an arduous task for an organised group of four players, let alone a solo player roaming the open world in Freeplay.
The other thing that’s not particularly interesting is the mission design. Too often you’re simply heading to a spot and battling a few waves of enemies, heading to the next spot, searching for some items (possibly while battling enemies), and then getting a reward chest and a verbal pat on the back. One design quirk is that you’re constantly forced to mop up the remaining enemies after completing an objective. It soon gets old, as do the all too numerous times enemy attacks leave you with an overheated Javelin that takes a maddening amount of time before it even starts cooling down.
Boss battles at the ends of key story missions and the Stronghold levels can be more engaging, varying up their attacks, adding waves of basic additional enemies or shifting the battle to a different arena part way through, but again, the balance between difficulty and the sheer amount of damage they take can feel off. The final boss battle against the grand antagonist, the Monitor, for example, feels like it’s going to interesting places during the first two quarters of his health bar, then fizzles into tiresome monotony for the second half.
It feels like BioWare are so close to getting it right on many levels, only to get it just a little bit wrong. There’s some interesting and engaging characters with fun, naturalistic dialogue, but they’re dragged into a cliché filled story that isn’t up to BioWare’s best. You have this gorgeous connected open world, but if you lag too far behind your group, you’re ripped forward by the party gather system – this is still too heavy handed despite the day one update. You have a single player character that gradually unlocks the four Javelins, avoiding the faff of other games, and there’s some well-meaning decisions behind only awarding loot at the end of missions, but any loadout or Javelin changes from this force you back to Fort Tarsis and a string of loading screens that soon starts to wear. BioWare saw exactly where Bungie and Massive went wrong with Destiny and The Division at launch, but they only learnt half the lessons and made plenty of their own mistakes.
It’s also full of unintentional issues. A Day One patch is out now, but barely seems to scratch the surface of the many of the problems that Xbox One and PC players have endured during the EA and Origin Access trials, possibly even introducing more, if you look at the game’s Reddit page. Through the mission progression bugs and server errors, the thing that has perhaps become most noticeable for me is a feel of lag. It can be a wait for the next objective marker to pop up, a long gap between lines of dialogue, or how loot you pick up takes seconds to pop up on the right hand side of the screen. There’s also just the moment to moment action where enemies die in a way that feels detached from your attacks, while incoming area of effect attacks seem nigh on impossible to dodge.