We're going to keep this relatively short in lieu of a more fulsome review, which will land later in the week alongside the proper release of the game, but for now, we wanted to share our initial impressions of Bioware's latest game after having spent several hours with it over the weekend.
Anthem is slick. In many ways, within the confines of Bioware's DNA, it's at the very opposite of the spectrum to Mass Effect: Andromeda. While the studio's last game was a buggy, sprawling (but, in our opinion at least, rather enjoyable) mess, Anthem is extremely polished and much more focussed than its RPG predecessor ever was. We didn't spot a single silly walk or odd facial expression during our hours with the game, nor do we expect to. In terms of smoothing out the rough edges, the studio has to be commended for learning from its mistakes.
However, just because Anthem is silky smooth and blemish-free, it doesn't mean that it's necessarily better. In fact, we'd go as far as saying that from what we've seen so far, the slick facade that impresses early on is actually the byproduct of a streamlining process that has seen the Bioware formula that we all know and love turned into something that's aiming to satisfy as many people as possible, perhaps even at the expense of the RPG community that has stood behind the studio all these years.
An example of this comes from the dialogue options. Gone is the range of choices that can allow you to pursue your own avenue through a conversation with an NPC, and in its place is a two-choice dialogue system that seems to do very little to differentiate events - rather it appears to be there just to keep the scenes in your home base at Fort Tarsis at least vaguely interactive. While we're still relatively near the start of our adventure, this may of course change, but right now it very much feels like the Mass Effect-studio is keeping us on a very tight leash.
Whether that's going to work out in the long run remains to be seen. What we can say is that we're a little confused about what's going on in Fort Tarsis and the quality storytelling that we're used to seeing from the studio is lost somewhat with tidbits of story often limited to codex entries dotted around the place and the odd cutscene.
We're also not entirely convinced by the underlying premise that has the freelancers despised by the wider population for failing during a particularly deadly mission during the prologue. The stricter limitations placed on the narrative by the more streamlined structure doesn't give the story or the characters enough room to grow, let alone blossom into something that we really care about. That said, we're super intrigued about the setting and we're very much looking forward to finding out more, and there are moments of quintessential Bioware in there for sure.
While we've still got questions about where the story is heading, the combat in Anthem is assuredly good. The studio has absolutely nailed traversal and aerial combat, and zipping around in javelin-suit is great fun. We love the sense of freedom you get when you take to the skies and the added tactical layer that it brings to the table. Even when you're on the ground the movement is satisfying, with the mech suit that each player wears fealing suitably clunky and substantial. The gunplay is pretty sharp too, although we would argue that the range of weapons is pretty boring and needlessly contemporary considering the sci-fi angle of the story.
We've been playing the game solo, and doing so does have some implications. This has clearly been designed as a social shooter, and so you'll be matchmade with randoms if you don't bring your own friends to the party. In free play you can work together or go about your business independently, it's very much up to you, and for the most part, the standard instances are doable on your own, even if some of the later content is strictly designed for cooperating parties. In missions, you need to stick together because if you miss some of the action because you were busy making a cup of tea, your digital friends probably won't wait for you. Getting into a party is very straightforward, however, and while there is some waiting involved (and the loading times are pretty substantial too) it all felt very effortless.
We're still relatively near the start of our journey through this alien world, but at least the overarching story has us hooked. The missions themselves don't seem particularly nuanced or subtle - mostly it's a case of moving from point to point while killing any resistance you meet along the way - and the emphasis is very much on combat over diplomacy. This isn't all that surprising and it seems to be the way the studio has been heading for years, but we'll have to wait and see how we feel about it once we've seen more of what the game has to offer and sampled the core loop a few more times.
In the meantime, we'll head out on missions at the behest of NPCs, explore the wider world in free play, tackle the strongholds with strangers online, and tinker with our mech suit back at base in between all the monster slaying (speaking of which, cosmetic microtransactions have been positioned very prominently and the customisation options seem to be skin deep for the most part). There's still lots to do in this strange and alien world with its angry inhabitants and its interesting backstory, and we're looking forward to seeing and playing more. At the same time, this doesn't feel like vintage Bioware nor the game many of us were hoping for in the wake of Andromeda. In trying to create something for everyone, has Bioware inadvertently made a game that leaves its core audience behind? We'll be back later in the week with our thoughts on that and more.