It is no secret that I am a giant Bioware fan. I’ve played every Dragon Age and Mass Effect game, even Dragon Age: The Last Court which is a free text based browser game done by Fail Better Games, who make Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies. Go play it, it’s fun. As I’m writing this, I’m wearing my N7 hoodie and there are three stuffed nugs on my desk. My commitment is documented. So when Anthem was announced, even though it really isn’t the type of game I usually enjoy, everyone knew I was going to pick it up. Josh also picked it up, because the game isn’t meant to be played alone, and I have speeches prepared about how much I hate PUGs. More on that in a different article.
For those of you who don’t obsessively track everything that Bioware puts out, Anthem is a looter shooter that combines the third person shooter experience with the action role playing experience, to varying degrees of success. Taking place in Bastion, a country lacking in details on an unnamed planet, the name Anthem refers to the Anthem of Creation, a supernatural force of unknown power and origin that feeds dangerous relics and creates strange beasts. You play a Freelancer, a sort of mercenary that pilots a Javelin, a suit of power armor that allows you to fly and battle the dangers of Bastion, and the factions that would try to harness the Anthem for themselves. Freelancer is a bit of a play on words, because everyone who pilots a Javelin is a lancer, but you’re up for hire and don’t actually work for anyone, so…yeah.
So, let’s start with what’s good. Despite being very nervous about the flight mechanics after playing the alpha and the “demo” (that was really a beta, but EA can’t market their own games because they’re the worst), I am happy to report that controls are good. Keeping in mind that this type of game is really not my jam, in the demo I found the flight mechanics to be problematic. Almost to the point where I didn’t think I’d be able to play the game. They’ve cleaned it up, though I still recommend dropping your flight sensitivity. Game play is pretty satisfying. There are four types of Javelins, and my two favorite are the Storm and the Interceptor. The Storm has elemental abilities that you use in combat, and can hover longer than the other Javelins, which allows you to float over the battlefield and rain down fire, ice, and lighting on the doomed heads of your doomed enemies. These abilities can be straight damage, or primers and detonators. My favorite combo is to prime with ice and detonate with lightning. All Javelins have the capability to equip primer and detonator abilities, but the Storm’s are the most fun. The Interceptor is small and fast, supposedly with stealth capabilities (haven’t figured that bit out yet), and is all about slashy melee fun. I play the Interceptor much like I play the Valkyr in Warframe – repeatedly smashing the attack button and cackling. Until I’m about to die, at which point I run away, shoot for a little while, and then go back to slashing and cackling.
The graphics are stunning. Full stop. It’s a beautiful game, as my various screen shots here can attest. Whether you’re back at Fort Tarsis or out in the world, everything is exceptionally rendered. The NPCs are brilliantly written, with a surprising amount of depth for people who are mostly there to give you quests. For an example, Sentinel Brin – the sentinels are like the town guards/police force and in the beginning of the game they don’t like Freelancers much. Sentinel Brin starts trying to work with you. When you first meet her, she seems terse and rude, but it becomes clear that she’s awkward and just bad with people. Her candor is adorable and refreshing. She’s very by-the-book, but she also has vision, which is why she’s working with you behind her superior’s back. She writes fan fiction. Seriously, she is real and delightful as a character. This shouldn’t be surprising, though, because that’s where Bioware shines.
So, the problems. The game has been criticized for being “repetitive, shallow, and purposeless” and I can’t really disagree with that assessment. You do missions for one of three factions – Sentinels, Freelancers, or Arcanists – and they have scripted missions to a point, after which it’s just repetitive contracts that seem to be randomly generated. Each contract seems to contain three mission objectives, but because they’re randomly generated some of these contracts are a difficult slog and some of them are just popping out and killing off the wildlife three times. There is no way to know ahead of time which it will be. Certain factions seem to have a “favored” enemy – it feels like Sentinels are usually up against Scars, Freelancers against Outlaws, and Arcanists against Dominion, though that doesn’t seem to be set in stone. After you get past the initial stories it’s just wash, rinse, repeat.
It might not be fair to compare Anthem to Destiny 2 – because the Destiny franchise has had two games and several years to develop and expand on their model – but you’re going to anyway. It’s almost impossible to avoid. Because of that, though, I feel like Anthem should have come out the gate with more to offer. Much like Destiny 2, Anthem has cosmetics which can be purchased using a premium currency or regular in-game currency (though obviously at a much higher cost for the latter). Unlike D2, Anthem’s offerings in the cosmetics department are very slim. I literally have no idea why you would bother purchasing the premium currency. You have more than enough money after finishing the main story to buy the whole five things they’re offering in the store right now.
Also, the Destiny franchise is good at establishing why you want to keep doing what you’re doing. As a Guardian, you are the last defense for humanity and what is good in the universe. In Anthem, after you get past the main story, you’re just…there to make money? The greater cause is fuzzy. Sure, you’re around to protect the people of Fort Tarsis, but…why? Why do they need you, specifically? They have a police force that also uses Javelins. There isn’t enough time spent establishing what makes you uniquely suited to the task, other than Because You’re The Hero. And while they do a decent enough job making you invested in the NPCs of Fort Tarsis, there really isn’t anything that gets you invested in the greater world. Which you know barely anything about, by the way. Sure, you pick up codex entries, and at some point I’ll get around to reading them, but they really explain so little in the course of the game. The world is also apparently much larger than your little area, and there’s a capitol with an Emperor that you know nothing about as the monarchy only becomes important for a short series of missions based around an NPC that ceases to matter as soon as those missions are over. Don’t get me wrong, I liked those missions, but they weren’t enough.
Also, it is clear that the writers for Anthem worked to establish a unique world, but they don’t spend enough time delving into those things that make it unique. The concept behind the Anthem of Creation and the Shapers (a forgotten population that could control the Anthem) is fascinating, but they give you almost nothing, and you’re really not given any opportunity to find out more. The somewhat dystopian science fantasy setting that the game inhabits has so much promise, but given the rough start I am concerned that most of that promise will never see realization.
According to Origin, I have logged 28 hours in the game. Now, given that I am frequently interrupted, let’s assume that’s 24 hours of actual play time. As of this moment, I don’t really care about playing more until they release more content. I’m sure Josh will convince me to hop on and at least get to max level, probably run two of the three Strongholds a few more times, but after that I imagine it’s back to Destiny 2 until the first major content update. Which pains me, because I really wanted this game to be amazing, but it is what it is. It can be fun to play (unless you’re fighting an Ash Titan, which someone else already did a proficient job of explaining why that sucks), I enjoyed most of the story (though there are totally bits that feel rushed and you’re not sure why), and I would recommend picking it up if you can get it for $30 or less.