Bioware is back with a brand new sci-fi adventure, and we've been exploring the studio's strange new world.
After a week in paid early access on PC (and a 10-hour trial on Xbox One) Anthem is finally out in the wild and has been updated with the all-important day one patch. We've been playing all week, both before and after the bug-squashing update, and it's finally time to sum up our thoughts on a game that impresses and disappoints in almost equal measure. First, let's cover the basics for those who missed our review impressions from earlier in the week.
Anthem is EA's play for the social shooter space. Following in the footsteps of games like Destiny 2 and Warframe, Bioware has crafted a third-person sci-fi shooter that's designed with one thing in mind, to pull players into a near endless loop of shooting and looting. In some respects, Anthem is absolutely successful in this endeavour, and there are times when you're soaring through the air in your mechanised war suit - here called a Javelin - and raining hellfire down on your enemies, and it's hard not to be impressed with what has been achieved. There are moments when the combat feels divine.
It looks incredible too. Anthem is a beautiful game crammed full of elegantly designed locations to explore, both open expanses and smaller nooks that are hidden away in a huge sandbox built to reinforce the world's mysterious lore. It all looks fantastic: the enemies are weird and wonderful and menacing, the Javelins look badass and flying them around is a pleasure, and the characters you talk to are - apart from a few wonky animations mid-conversation - realistic and personable. If nothing else, Bioware has crafted a lovely-looking game and we certainly enjoyed it from a visual perspective. In fact, the production values are, generally speaking, top notch. Everything is slick, from the aforementioned visuals through to the stunning score and some quality performances from the cast. You won't find any Andromeda-style silliness here.
The story has you taking on the role of a nameless freelancer tasked with nothing short of saving the world - or at least completing act one of the story of how you saved the world. With a colourful cast of characters by your side and chattering in your ear, each player is taken on a journey whereby the people who live on this strange planet are dependant on your fighting force of heavily armoured super soldiers, the Freelancers. In this story an old enemy has reappeared and, rather unsurprisingly, they're hell-bent on world domination using the mysterious Anthem of Creation. Naturally, it's up to you to stop them.
We mentioned the combat already but there's plenty to tell. There are four different types of Javelins to choose from and you unlock them as you play. We opted for the middle-of-the-road Ranger class for the most part, but you can go heavy, light, or wear a cape and float above the battlefield while raining fire and ice down on your foes. Despite their different starting points, the Javelins can be personalised to a reasonable extent, with room to choose your grenades, two weapons, an ultimate attack, and a bunch of slots for additional upgrades. Then you've got the customisation options, and you can tweak your armour with different materials and colour schemes, all propped up by a prominently positioned cosmetics store.
The gameplay loop is pretty straightforward, although there is a story that underpins your first run through the game. Simply put, you're tasked with heading out to a hotspot, killing what's there, and then hoovering up the loot that drops from your foes. It's pretty uncomplicated and not particularly inspired, but at least you know what you're getting, and of course, the emphasis is on team play and bringing your friends along for the ride. That said, the social element doesn't always work to the benefit of the player experience and if you fall behind for any reason you'll find yourself dragged along to the next encounter whether you like it or not. Similarly, if your teammate/s work out one of the light puzzles when you're not paying attention, you'll have zero idea about how you progressed through that section.
While the weapons themselves are generally pretty boring thanks to their conventional design (which may well turn out to be a problem given the wider emphasis on loot, we shall see), the gunplay itself can be pretty amazing, and you'll feel all-powerful as you zoom and swoop around the battlefield, dispatching your foes in style. It's a good job too because overall the mission design isn't particularly inspiring and there's not a huge amount of variety there. This is one area where we can imagine Bioware getting creative over time as more content is added, but at launch there's not a huge amount of nuance to the offering.
The same could be said of the storytelling, which is normally the cornerstone of any Bioware adventure. Here things have been streamlined down to the bare essentials, with two-choice conversations rather than branching dialogue trees. It's a more on-rails experience than we've seen from the studio before, and while we preferred the old way, this new approach isn't without merit. For starters, there are some fun characters waiting to be discovered, and while your interactions with them are limited, they're mostly well-written and competently performed. It also lets Bioware tell a more authored story, but the implication of this shift is that those longing for a game built around cause and effect won't really find that here.
The story fills the gaps between the action and we enjoyed it for the most part, but the side content is mostly there only to add context to the violence you're about to inflict on your enemies. It doesn't help that the hub world of Fort Tarsis is a fairly unremarkable place that, along with all the loading screens, sucks the pace out of the experience. Much of the time you're limited to walking around slowly, visiting the people who are just standing around waiting to deliver their lines. It's not just a place to chat to your new-found friends, you have to return there after every completed assignment even if all you want to do is head straight back out into the field, and the snail-paced trudge around your base to get new missions is a little frustrating too. The main campaign suffers from pacing issues as well, and the middle act is an absolute grind where you've got to fulfil a number of targets (such as opening chests and completing world events) in freeplay in order to progress the story. You could also argue that the co-op structure is at odds with the lone hero narrative we're told; we've experienced the same disconnect many times before, most notably in games like Destiny, but the single-player hub world only reinforces this feeling in Anthem.
Things improve in the second half of the campaign and we were reasonably pleased when the credits rolled, although it's also fair to say that the studio could have brought more lore to the fore instead of hiding the good stuff away in codex entries. It's also a shame that the overall pacing is a bit spoiled by the loading screens and busywork, but we still enjoyed most of the narrative despite its disjointed presentation (although we can also appreciate that it might prove quite divisive). Once the story is finished you can, of course, crank up the difficulty to grandmaster and go after legendary and so-called masterwork weapon drops, and these are a bit more interesting than the rank and file guns, but not enough to make constant replays essential. The game is certainly designed with repeat plays in mind once the campaign is done, with additional difficulty levels to attempt, two more strongholds to tackle, new challenges to undertake, and replayable versions of earlier missions. Whether you'll want to keep going back again and again is another matter.
There's a wealth of information relating to your adventures in your codex, but this part of the game wasn't well explained or used in a particularly meaningful way. In fact, this criticism can be levelled across much of the game as so much is left up to players to work out for themselves, although we found that vagueness to the detriment of the overall experience. The game's complexity has been hidden away under the surface to keep the base experience as streamlined as possible, but that doesn't translate to depth, rather it means certain systems are saddled with obscurity.
Of course, with this being a social shooter the emphasis is very much on teamwork and working cooperatively, and there are plenty of synergies waiting to be discovered with different Javelins combining their abilities on the battlefield, bombarding enemies en masse or taking it in turns to attack while your colleagues move to flank. You can blast through the missions without too much trouble on the regular difficulty, but once you've cranked up the challenge you will definitely feel the benefit of coordinated planning. Some of the larger enemies can be a real slog to put down, especially on the harder settings when the monstrous titans and their ilk can feel a bit bullet-spongey. Still, the combat works just fine, and while the melee attacks could have benefitted from a touch more nuance, in general, Bioware has been building its expertise in this area over recent years and it shows. The co-op portions of the later Mass Effect games are a testament to the studio's growing skill in the arena and Anthem is the evolution of that.
It feels strange to be praising the combat in a Bioware game while longing for a more substantial narrative experience, but that's what we're left doing after spending north of thirty hours with Anthem. The action is fast-paced and engaging, and some of the combat encounters look spectacular, but it's a shame that there wasn't a touch more variety when it comes to mission structure. It also doesn't help that there have been a fair few technical issues to hamper the experience, with crashes, missions not loading properly, and strange in-game bugs. The aforementioned vagueness doesn't help matters either, nor does the overall pacing, as it means you're often yoyoing between interesting conversations and exciting combat, with these highlight moments chained together by boredom and frustration.
For all its faults, Mass Effect: Andromeda was the opposite of Anthem, which leaves less to chance but is much less textured as a result. Bioware's DNA can still be felt throughout this strange adventure, with world design that often evokes the spirit of Mass Effect and a story that engages and entertains even if it is a rather distilled and disjointed experience compared to the studio's usual work. It's far from perfect, however, with some strange design choices holding things back, as well as pacing issues that stifled the flow of the core experience. It looks and sounds phenomenal, though, and in terms of the pulsating combat and engaging world design, there's a lot to like. It's just a shame, then, that the studio decided to streamline its signature style to the degree that it has, because if this gameplay had been coupled with meaningful choices and a bit more variety, we'd be talking about the studio's return to form. As it stands it's still very much a matter of having to wait and see what the future holds for Anthem.
7 / 10
Looks and sounds great, some fun and well-written characters, the open world is really interesting in terms of its design, some fantastic combat, flying around like Iron Man is super cool.
Disjointed storytelling and pacing issues, technical problems even after the day one patch, too vague at times.