Anthem Review – Humble Beginnings

This review has taken many different shapes over the last week and a half that I have spent with Anthem. If you’d asked me a week ago what I thought of Bioware’s first foray into the ‘games as a service’ category, I’d have told you I was tearing my hair out. Playing during the game’s week of early access, thanks to an EA Access Premier subscription, I was fighting through a seemingly endless barrage of game-breaking bugs, glitches and load times. These issues, I felt, were dramatically altering my perception of a game I thought I could otherwise enjoy. I decided to bide my time, and struggle through as best I could, but hold my review until after the day one patch dropped, which happened to release a day before ‘launch’, despite the gaming having been fully playable for six days prior. The patch promised to fix a lot of the issues I had with the game, so I waited. And I’m so glad I did; I am now properly addicted.

Some issues persist, but for the most part, the game works just fine now. After the most recent 1.03 update, I’ve not had any of the issues that I had been previously experiencing. On occasion, I would arrive at a waypoint and none of the enemies load, but I still take damage. A couple of times my game would crash, and sometimes take my PlayStation out with it. The only issues I have now include the Vault, where it seems to take too long to scrap un-needed loot, the Expedition Screen and squad UI not displaying what it ought to, and sometimes the inability to revive players and change which mission your tracking. The much talked about load times have been dramatically reduced but remain all too frequent.

Now that it’s functioning better, I’m enjoying Anthem for what it is. The game we have now is really the beginning of something bigger, much in the way that Destiny, The Division and other ongoing games have evolved over time. I think Bioware has done a great job establishing the world and introducing a litany of characters, including Faye and Haluk brilliantly portrayed by Rochelle Neil and Nick E. Tarabay. There’s a lot of lore to sink your teeth into, and mounds of data entries to explore if you want to dig into it deeper. The story may be underwhelming and simple, and the bad guy so vanilla it hurts, but it’s relatively easy to follow and condenses a lot of this lore into a rather digestible narrative that can be wrapped up quickly. If you pay attention – which I understand can be difficult whilst in the squad’s party chat – there’s a decent enough plot to be enjoyed with big set-pieces, a couple of surprises and character development that mightn’t be comparable to Bioware’s previous work, but is at the least reminiscent. The post-credit scene, however, has me more excited about what is still to come; the story teases some far more interesting stuff that I’m sure will be explored in future story arcs. At the very least, I need to commend the main campaign for getting me invested in Anthem’s world.

But the game does a less than impressive job of introducing you to its systems and efforts to do often gets in the way of telling the story. Early into the game, as you may have already heard, you are faced with the ‘Challenges of the Legionnaires’ in which four tombs you need to explore are gated off until you complete a set of three or four challenges. They range from fairly basic tasks, like opening chests and gathering collectibles, but others require a bit more effort, such as fifty ultimate kills, or three multi-kills, or fifteen combo triggers. The game forces you to go out and explore everything else the game has to offer in order to progress the story but offers you no guidance as to how to achieve this. Thankfully, I was able to suss it all out via trial and error, but a wealth of community content has now accumulated online, for which Bioware should be very grateful.

Story progress is again derailed later on so that you are forced to make some progress working with the Factions. This is essential to unlocking Legendary Contracts in the endgame, which reward you with some of Anthem‘s best loot, but breaks up the pacing once again. There’s a mission that involves waiting for someone to complete something, such that you have to “do any Mission, Contract or Freeplay”. There exists this conflict between telling the story and showing you everything the game has to offer that drove me up the wall. Constantly being confronted with load screens also hinders storytelling, as does joining Expeditions midway through and missing chunks of dialogue.

There are some questionable decisions made. Not being able to access the Forge – where you customise your Javelin’s appearance and loadout – other than when you’re back at base in tedious. I’d much prefer being able to swap weapons on the fly or add component upgrades as you collect them. Similarly, not being able to access your Journal to check out missions on the Expedition Launch Screen is also weird. Social controls are majorly clunky and you can’t drop waypoints on the map in Freeplay. All of the quality of life features we’ve come to expect as standard in games such as this are just non-existent with no real explanation as to why. Lastly, there are dialogue options when talking to all the characters in Fort Tarsis, but they seem inconsequential. It’s just all a bit puzzling.

The fact that Fort Tarsis is closed off just for you is also weird. The Launch Bay provides a Tower-esque social space, as in Destiny, but it’s literally just a large mainly empty room. They do a reasonable enough job for justifying why an eclectic mix of Freelancers join you on your Expeditions and I feel could have explained why more might have been milling about the Fort. I feel like they opted for Fort Tarsis as being a strictly private, first-person perspective place for the sake of immersion, but it comes at the expensive of the social side of things. For a game that’s supposedly all about multiplayer – and it absolutely is, this is not a game meant to be played alone – again there seems a mismatch.

However, it’s easy to forgive these weird design decisions and clunkiness when the moment to moment gameplay feels just so damn good. The maneuverability of the Javelin is fantastic and helps create fast, frantic and explosive gameplay. Flight works well in areas big and small, and is useful for both evading enemy attacks and setting up your own. I cannot express enough just how much satisfaction there is in jetting about, diving underwater, bursting through a waterfall, setting some Scars, Dominion or Outlaws on fire, then summoning a bolt of lightning from the sky. The sound design compliments this brilliantly. Beyond the incredible score – which includes some very cool didgeridoo – there are these awesome sound effects that sort of ‘ching’ when you land a combo. It creates an addictive gameplay loop with varied enough enemy design to constantly present new challenges. The environment design is also top-notch, with incredible diversity throughout the world. At times I was reminded of Avatar or Halo as if I was in some kind of idyllic science-fiction mashup. Everything feels, looks and sounds fantastic.

Sadly, this is not enough to make the underwhelming endgame content any more exciting to grind through. The three strongholds are either very similar or in fact repeated Expeditions, so besides the Legendary Contracts you might acquire, there’s not a lot in the way of new missions to complete. There’s little reward for the grind to level 30 except for the Grandmaster difficulty, which allows you to repeat missions some more in the hope for some of Anthem‘s best weapons and cosmetic unlocks. Really, you’re just being asked to invest your time in levelling up your character as much as you can until new content drops in the coming months.

For all its flaws, it has to be said that Anthem is a lot of fun. Some 60 hours in, between both PC and PS4 where I’m onto the endgame in both, I still enjoy the moment to moment gameplay. At least for now, I am still enthusiastically completing every mission and contract required to complete the rather demanding challenges set for you in the endgame, repetitive as it may be, in the quest for more Masterwork weapons and gear. This is thanks to the slick, addictive nature of the gameplay, and the fact I can hang out with my mates, but not a lot else.

All things considered, it will only get better. Future content drops and continued patching to iron out the many kinks will likely improve the game a great deal. I suspect, after a couple months, the game will feel drastically different if the community sticks around, as I suspect they will. In the space of a week and a half, it has already come a long way, and I look forward to what this game will turn out to be, even if it has me a little disappointed right now.

Anthem shows a tremendous amount of promise, but what is currently available is disappointedly below standard. Expectation unquestionably plays a factor, but with the talent behind this game and a high standard already set by other very similar titles, I think it's fair to expect better. Anthem's thrilling gameplay, quality presentation and sound design redeem what is otherwise a puzzling mess of questionable design decisions, and telltale signs of a game under pressure to hit the release date. I have no doubt that the game, given time, will only improve and likely be deserving of much better praise than I can give it now.
Tight, thrilling gameplay
Flying feels amazing
Varied enemies and environments
Brilliant sound design and score
Loads of lore
Questionable design decisions
Underwhelming story
Still some minor bugs
Disappointing endgame
Below standard quality of life