As 2019 rolls to a close, it’s time to look back at the major releases this year, which includes BioWare’s Anthem. The game was hugely anticipated by fans of the studio alongside casual players looking for something new in the MMO loot-shooters space. Unfortunately for the everyone involve, Anthem’s launch did not live up to expectations, and in the ensuing months it has been a real roller-coaster for the developers to try and fix the game’s many issues and release content and the same time. While Anthem will undoubtedly show up on many player’s flop list this year, it’s definitely not on the top of the list, and here’s 5 reasons why thanks to its gameplay systems.
The Gameplay Is Kind Of Decent
In Anthem, players are Freelancers – who are pilots of Javelin suits – which are these incredible technical wonders that you use to explore the world and engage in combat with. There are 4 Javelins at launch, the Ranger, Storm, Colossus and Interceptor and each has their strengths, weaknesses, unique weapons and gear and they are all viable for solo or group play. After the tutorial you start by unlocking your first javelin of choice, and as you level up your pilot you’ll get to unlock all of them eventually on your way to the level cap of 30. These suits are the main attraction of the game, and it’s easy to see a ton of work went into ensuring they each individually feel good and unique for players. While taking part in missions, strongholds or free play world exploration, you’re javelins are key to master, and movement involves flying which is awesome, and it has a heat meter so be sure to keep your eyes on that as you’ll occasionally need to land or pass through a water fall to cool off to stay airborne longer. Javelins can also hover and the Storm is able to maintain this the longest as part of its mechanics that amplifies its shield for damage mitigation, so minor management needed here as it’s a master of elemental AOE damage, but it can’t have all the fun all the time. And that’s just one example of Javelin diversity. The colossus is the heaviest and slowest, but can pull out a shield to soak more damage than the rest. The interceptor is the speediest and most agile, suited to close quarters combat, while the ranger is excellent for an all rounded player, able to be offensive or defensive in a jack of all trades role, with single target DPS in mind. But I’m getting ahead of myself here – we’ll talk about combat shortly, so to wrap up the movement part of the gameplay, I’ll say Anthem nailed that department, because it feels fluid and fun once you get the hang of it, and you just want to keep on doing it, whatever the game mode, as long as there’s movement and combat. Underwater can be a challenge but give it a few tries and it will be alright.
So let’s talk about combat and how that works here. To start with, the basics are straightforward. Your javelins have shields and a health bar under, so watch out for your shield depleting as that will expose your soft underbelly – but you can dodge to avoid attacks and kite a little for shield regeneration. If you or one of your squad mates die, you can revive them by hitting F up close, unless it’s in a no-revive zone most missions will have one. Killing enemies also drops health restore pickups, alongside ammo pickups so lookout for those. For combat abilities, you can equip your javelin’s loadout in the Forge –with two weapons ranging from snipers, to assault rifles, LMGs, shotguns, pistols and marksmen rifles, each plays different obviously so play what’s fun for you. Javelin’s also has three abilities or gear as it’s called here, and you can equip different choices of gear depending on your javelins – in some cases, you can pick from fire or ice skills for your Storm, while Rangers can pick grenades and missiles – there’ some good variety to build your javelins with and they’re super fun to use in combat so I recommend experimenting with all the skills to know what’s good and what feels right for you. Rounding that up are Javelin Components and inscriptions that offers passive boosts that are your quintessential RPG stats – you’ll have armor increase, damage increase, or specific javelin upgrades for their individual skills which by the way, has some bugs that may not trigger for high level folks. And finally, you can also equip one-time consumables that can increase much of what we’ve talked about in the Components section for one expedition on the launch panel.
During combat itself, Anthem has a key mechanic that it does a shitty job of explaining to new players, and that is the Primers and Detonators system, which I’ll be calling primes and DETS for short. Some Javelin abilities are called primers, and they’ll put status effects on enemies which primes them up for a combo. Primers have this icon next to primer abilities. Detonators is the fun bit, and DETS are all about exploiting enemies that have already been primed to execute a combo, which results in massive DPS. DETS have this X icon next to DETS abilities. For example, I’ll throw an Frost Grenade on enemy to either put a frost effect and freeze it in place, and then I’ll use either of my DET abilities which are the rocket launcher, or melee attack, to blow it up for the combo. So why is this important, and should I even care. The answer is yes – executing combos isn’t only satisfying, it also gives you more XP through feats, and on harder difficulties, a well-organized group of players calling out Primes and DETS on targets can make easy work of even the toughest challenges, and that’s why Javelin synergies via combos are both important, and a lot of fun to experiment with.
To wrap up combat, all Javelins have a resource bar that builds up its ultimate ability, and oooh boy you definitely want to use those as all of them are epic goodness that can turn a fight around in the most stylish way possible. Overall, gameplay and combat, have been the best parts of Anthem for me so far, and it’s hard to get sick of it after all the hours I’ve put into it so far and if I do, I’ll just swap to my next Javelin and have fun with that. The problem is, getting to the fun parts is a challenge as there’s so much downtime in Anthem, between loading screens and back and forth-ing to Fort Tarsis before you get to play your Javs again.
Is Anthem’s story any good? Players take on the role as a rookie freelancer at the beginning of the game, who joins the mother all of missions to shut down the heart of rage, which is a cataclysm that emerged out of the wreckage of Freehold, a former kingdom that was ravaged by the Dominion faction, who were after a shaper relic that could manipulate the Anthem of Creation, which is a life source for creation in this world. Lost yet? Don’t worry, I’ll explain more in the world building section. Long story short, shit hits the fan and you barely make it out, and your story starts in Fort Tarsis, in Bastion, one of the last enclaves for humanity. It’s been two years since the event, and freelancers, your faction of militaristic heroes are no longer respected or trusted due to your group’s failures, and the main narrative in Anthem is how you the player, builds up the freelancer faction again, alongside main characters and side characters in-game, via series of main story missions and contracts. Of course, there must be conflict, so the dominion are back again and are seeking a way to return to the heart of rage to harness the power there for whatever reason, so you work towards heading back there yourself, and this time for redemption. That’s the jist of the story.
Now for highlights in the main narrative, I thought the writing was decent in the beginning, and kudos to BioWare for getting the character animations, voice acting and dialogue right. I really liked the dialogue and speech patterns for your interactions with a lot of these characters, as they feel like real world interactions that one would have in such situations, and it doesn’t insult your intelligence. I found that refreshing.
In typical BioWare fashion, you have plenty of unique characters, with a stand out being that of your Cypher, Owen, who gave me flashbacks of a mixture of Alistair, Anders and Sera from the Dragon Age franchise, and he’s story arc and development was probably my favorite part of the main story, which results in a cliff hanger for future updates. As for the main plot’s ending, that’s probably the worst part – because it ended with a whimper rather than a bang, and I know they’re setting up future DLC but that’s no excuse – It again, really reminded me of Dragon Age Inquisition, and that vanilla game ending with Corypheus, and Solas goes missing until two DLCs later, so it’s BioWare being BioWare, and I don’t know if that’s a good a thing, but there are some solid moments in Anthem for sure. As for story length, it took me roughly 15-20 hours tops to complete the game playing casually, and yes that includes spending a few hours in free play mode for the tomb challenge, which is a mandatory road block that needs you to do a bunch of tasks like complete world events and collect chests in free play before you can progress to the next part of the story. I’ve seen a lot of backlash for this and I understand it, I myself would feel the same had I not already gotten most of it done by simply eagerly jumping into free play extensively to explore everything as I would usually do for my reviews. I guess it’s a good thing that main story missions are not gated behind level locks, because that would come off as way worse I think, so yeah pick your poison. In summary, short story, decent build up, weak ending, good execution via characters, visuals and dialogue, and it all points to future content, which is the trend these days, at least we’re getting for free.
Looks and Optimization
Anthem is a gorgeous game, let’s be clear about that. The design and aesthetic of the world’s environments, maps, javelins and yes even the character models and soundtracks are all plus points. Parts of this game is a visually immersive experience that transports you into this world BioWare’s created, but parts of it just come crashing down hard as its early access optimization just isn’t good enough which often leads to frustration after some time. Where the game shines in this department is hands down, the Javelin customization options and rightly so because Javelins are the main attraction of Anthem, and that equates to the fun parts of the game, which are the gameplay and combat.
So what can heighten that experience? It’s being able to customize the look and feel of your Javelin suits thoroughly, and I love the amount of colors, textures and fabrics, materials and other good stuff that’s available for you to play with. One could spend a lot of time creating the perfect look in-game. Having said that, other aspects of Javelin customization is woefully bland, like in the weapons department. All weapon categories look bland, indifferent and uninspiring, even when you unlock the epic, masterwork and legendary version, as they’re still the same skins for the most part, just with shinier colors and better stats, which doesn’t really feel all that rewarding.
This can be improved with custom skins from the store that can be bought with coins in the future perhaps, but right out of the gates the best weapons should look and feel way better than default lowbie ones considering the time you put in to get them, and this stage, it just doesn’t look or feel great. Other areas that could use severe improvements is definitely the UI as menus are still a pain to navigate, and hiding key information behind several menus makes it a pain to bring up every now and then, and some notifications in-game actually pop up and block the flight heat meter which can get annoying.
Anthem’s World and Lore Has Potential
It’s always an exciting time when BioWare announces a new IP, because that means there’s a new world and lore and stories to immerse ourselves in, so does Anthem deliver? For the most part, yes. The backstory is one of mystery, and it’s contemporary fantasy, with human factions in the world, futuristic technology blending in with mythology and elemental stuff, mixed in with creatures like the Scar and others and they are interesting enough for me to want to find out more, and Anthem lets you do so through its collectibles and cortex system, that lets you pour into history, events, people of interest, and that’s satisfying for me, being probably in the minority of players that likes to hunt lore. It may not have the scope and depth we’ve come to expect in comparison to say, the world of Thedas and its rich history and races, but let’s not forget this game is a week old and is laying the foundation for more lore and stories to be told, and with the characters I’ve seen so far I’m OK with that. If you’ve played through the story missions or interacted with the NPCs in Fort Tarsis, there’s so much going on in far off places, with name drops like Antium, Heliost and Stralheim, which could be maps, or future HUBs and regions that we could visit in the future, paving the way for new biomes, or different javelins, vanity and even factions to encounter. That’s a tease for the future for sure.
Elsewhere, the NPC interactions in this game are pretty cool too, as you’ll get a chance to decide certain outcomes or influence someone’s life, and that could reflect in your surroundings in Fort Tarsis. Encouraging a merchant to start a business venture for example, sees more market place activity in the enclave, giving it life, and watching the Fort change over time is a nice touch, loading screens be damned. In other areas, Merchant vendors don’t just stand there and sell stuff, they talk to you, share their stories, and each time you come back, their stories grows, just as yours does. It’s an interesting take on a living narrative world, that I praise, but also criticize because there’s just not enough of it, or enough choices and consequences that actually matters in the long run, which I expect of a BioWare game, shooter or not.
Tame Cash Store
Players earn Coin in-game mostly from completing Challenges – and Coin serves as the game’s in-game currency that can be spent to purchase crafting materials AND, cash store vanity items which is a big deal, because it’s a way to get the flashy stuff without spending any money. Should you run out of challenges and have no way to earn coin, fret not, as those daily, weekly and monthly trials also rewards you with coin, and then there’s the alliance system too. Your alliance consists of players on your Origin Friends list, and anyone you’ve played with recently.
Every week, the XP they earn by playing anthem can generate coin for you, which is a pretty interesting way to generate in-game income. As your alliance plays during the week, the XP they’ve earned counts towards your alliance tier, and at the end of the week you receive your payout. Only your top 5 contributors count towards your tier, and friends get bonuses for their contributions, extra even, if you play missions with them. The premium currency is called Shards and these can only be purchased for real money, and you’ll use it to unlock those vanity items like javelin customization pieces, animations or decals if you don’t want to use your coins. Now the store itself is pretty barren and new items are added every week, so not much to say here – there’s not Lootboxes which is great for EA’s standards, but one will no doubt question the existence of microtransactions in a 60$ game, I certainly do. While letting players buy vanity with in-game coin certainly reduces concern, it’s still a valid point of contention.