Bioware took a lot of people by surprise when it unveiled Anthem. Going from the studio's more linear, story-focused games to something that seemed to be more about fighting strange creatures and getting better weapons and equipment alongside other players probably wasn't a move that many of us expected. Was the studio leaving its roots behind to follow in the footsteps of games like Destiny and The Division? Well, we've had the pleasure of playing the first hours of the game and can reassure you that Bioware is stilling following its own path. They're just exploring the view while they do it.
Everything starts with an impressive cinematic that gives a short summary of who the Freelancers are, why the world isn't filled with the Iron Man-looking suits, and how everything got so bad that most of the population doesn't dare venture outside of the fortress known as Fort Tarsis. It's clear that Bioware has laid the groundwork for a fascinating universe filled with mysteries and potential. The fortress has many interesting characters that you can talk with or overhear talking about their daily problems and pleasures. We really enjoyed how this allows us to digest as much or as little story as we want in classic Bioware style. Ben Irving, the game's lead producer, told us that this allows the studio to keep building upon what he prefers to call narrative instead of story, and we can understand what he means. Obviously we can't say how things will develop after the first few hours, but the opening has definitely caught our interest.
The same goes for the gameplay. You've heard it before, but this needs to be reiterated; Anthem feels absolutely amazing. Insomniac's Spider-Man received a lot of praise for how swinging around Manhattan feels and likewise Anthem has raised the bar in terms of flying. Jumping up into the air or throwing yourself off a cliff before activating your boosters is both a breeze and a thrill. This is very important, as both the environments and combat have been made with flying and hovering in mind. Whether it be swooping through waterfalls, under an overarching cliff, or doing barrel-rolls from side to side as you rain fire down on the enemies below, everything feels intuitive and responsive. We really mean it when we say "everything" by the way, as it's very clear why humanity has put its hope in these Javelins.
Bioware has without a doubt upped its game in terms of the combat. Each weapon feels impactful when used in the right situations, mostly due to the snappy controls and the general feedback you get from pulling the trigger. That's nothing compared to your abilities and ultimates, however. Obliterating a large group of enemies with the Ranger's cluster rockets, seeing one of the larger baddies disappear in the Storm's lightning strike, or cutting through anything in sight with the Interceptor's razor-sharp blades is near euphoric. Combining them with the other players' abilities for even stronger combo attacks makes things even more satisfying, especially when the end result is a group of enemies being turned into magnificent loot with an almost infinite number of different attributes and perks. Certain perks on different components and infusions might complement each other, while others might have just one percent better chance of lighting the enemies on fire than the one you're using. This makes it even more enticing to just play for a few minutes and go in search of better versions of your favourite gear with little to no chance of getting duplicates. Who doesn't love that?
Then there's the presentation, and those of you who feared the return of Mass Effect: Andromeda-like animations can put those fears to rest. Bioware might say that the sequences in Fort Tarsis are first-person because it increases the immersion, but you can be absolutely sure it's also because they know exactly how good the game looks. The facial animations are easily some of the best we've seen from the impressive Frostbite engine, and venturing out into the world in third-person is no different. You really feel cool when the Interceptor does a somersault as it jumps off a cliff, and there's a mix of fear and awe when one of the bigger Titan enemies appear. That makes exploring lush environments and alien complexes roamed by hostile enemies as small as wolves and as tall as buildings just the icing on the cake. The sense of scale both in terms of quantity and size can be very impressive at times, but we were also left with a lingering feeling of doubt.
There's just one simple thing that is making us a bit concerned right now and that's what appears to be a lack of variety. Both the few enemy types we fought and the environments we explored were the same ones the developers have shown off in both streams and trailers. This wouldn't bother us as much if they'd just shown the start of the game, but having the same enemies repeated in the endgame content isn't exactly promising. Sure, it's a lot of fun fighting them, but few of us like eating the same meal every day of the week. We'd like to stay positive though and hope they're just saving the other enemies and environments for the full game.
If that's the case, Anthem could possibly blow what seems to be the mid-to-low expectations right out of the sky. Our thoughts went straight back to the first Mass Effect because when we put the controller down we were left with the same sense of wonder and curiosity. Exploring a fascinating new universe with new characters and creatures while enjoying some much-improved controls and incredible powers that can be customised in a whole load of ways left us wanting more. Now we just want to know if the endgame content can ease our concerns. If it does, this might end up being another great franchise from the beloved studio.