When it comes to online RPGs, Anthem’s barebones launch is, sadly, the same old song and dance.
I’ve played far too many games like Anthem, an online RPG that only makes good on its promise of meaningful multiplayer gameplay and progression after you’ve labored through its long-winded and repetitive story quests. These pitfalls don’t have to be synonymous with shared-world shooters, MMOs, or online ARPGs, but here we are again. Anthem’s endgame is surprisingly fun since its already excellent combat is reinvigorated by interesting loot and challenging gameplay later on. Unfortunately, there simply isn’t enough of this kind of content to make it worth the wait, and what’s here is inconsistent in terms of polish, clarity, and balance. Anthem, as it stands now, is an adventure best saved for a later date.
Anthem takes place on the wild frontier of Bastion, a sprawling and colorful sci-fi expanse littered with aggressive wildlife, encroaching enemy factions, and mysterious shaper relics that end up being little more than glorified enemy spawners. You play as a Freelancer, an altruistic mercenary who pilots a mech called a Javelin and subsists on the dangerous contracts divvied out by the denizens of Fort Tarsis. This cast of bohemian future folk are generally charming and well acted, at times stealing the show to deliver a touching monologue. I found myself emotionally invested in a few characters like Haluk, the prideful old warrior who refuses to hang up his armor despite it being in the best interest of himself and those around him.
With that said, my desire to engage with the cast waned after it became clear that optional conversations were tonally out of sync with the events of the main storylines. Some characters forgot that they were supposed to be mad at me after major events, while others were still bitter even though I had smoothed things over in the previous expedition. It seems odd that BioWare didn’t disable these conversations during different points in the main storyline, because it made interacting with them feel like a peek behind the curtain that broke the illusion and exposed these lifelike characters for the unthinking automatons they are.
Most of Anthem’s dialogue, though, seems to exist to justify the maddening reuse of dull activities during quests like standing on a capture point or fetching items to unlock a door. This repetitive structure makes up the vast majority of gameplay in the main story, called the “critical path.” Both agent quest and contract mission types are hilariously formulaic, to the point where my friends and I even made a game out of guessing the next objective that would be thrown our way as we flew toward it, and getting it right depressingly often.
Anthem misses a lot of opportunities to spice up its gameplay.
Anthem misses a lot of opportunities to spice up the gameplay of its critical path missions with elements that already exist but are held back for the endgame. Being pushed into the dungeon-like Strongholds earlier on, or receiving fun masterwork weapons at a level lower than the cap of 30 may have provided a much-needed change of pace. Likewise, the campaign only sent me into the open-world Freeplay mode twice, and one of these occasions was for a comically long section of busywork to open a series of tombs that didn’t exactly encourage me to come back. Other than that, there’s no incentive to explore Freeplay or Strongholds until max level as they offer significantly less experience per time invested when compared to agent quests and contracts.
The bulk of the plot is delivered in lengthy, barely interactive chunks every time you return to Fort Tarsis between expeditions. You’ll exit your nimble Javelin, mute voice chat, and meander around the small and eerily silent walled city at a snail’s pace. Only during two major plot developments during the approximately 15-hour storyline do the things being discussed here appear to have actual consequence beyond the gates of Fort Tarsis, pairing unique mission gameplay with story elements in a meaningful way – even though there are no meaningful decisions to be made that affect outside gameplay. But these glimpses of the BioWare of old dissipate back into your regularly scheduled tedium as quickly as they arise.
Overall, Anthem’s primarily single-player story combines with its persistent multiplayer world like water mixes with oil. For one thing, as someone who plays online video games primarily as a platform to interact with friends, I found the near-constant expository dialogue delivered by NPCs during expeditions meant that I couldn’t get a word in edgewise to chat with my team. And since advancing to the next mission meant a mandatory trip back to Fort Tarsis, I often myself waiting around for friends to finish optional conversations or manage their inventory before we could get back to business. There is a multiplayer area where you can manage your gear called the Launch Bay which requires an extra matchmaking step to enter, but it’s no good if you’re trying to pick up the next story mission. Only contracts are available here.
We Are Iron Men
Anthem’s combat is initially strong, engaging, and unique, thanks in part to responsive flight controls that feel good on both controller and mouse and keyboard. You can take off and fly at will, staying aloft longer if you make use of waterfalls, skim across rivers or nosedive to cool your jets. The deft ariel maneuvering transitions seamlessly into punchy third-person shooting on the ground, accented by a suite of mostly fun-to-use abilities spread across its four classes which can combine into impactful combos that promote coordinated teamwork. And the fantasy behind each of the four Javelin archetypes is conveyed well with the help of phenomenal animation work. Piloting a shield-wielding Colossus into a lowly enemy scout, for example, felt like sandwiching a balloon between a charging V8 Mustang and a brick wall. There are a lot of spectacular moments, particularly when fighting larger foes, and I often found myself in awe of my ability to effortlessly execute exactly what I had in mind.
Of course, that adept feeling vanished in the frequent presence of bugs and imbalances like invisible sources of damage, imprecise telegraphs, lengthy stun effects, and inexplicably missing combo triggers or Legendary bonuses. The combat also plays its whole hand within the span of the first few hours and then proceeds to temporarily lose its appeal as you spend the bulk of the campaign simply grinding to increase the numbers on your already acquired gear variants and weapons. You won’t see much in the way of new and interesting loot or enemies until you approach the endgame. That’s a very long drought. Though not quite as bad, it reminded me of Diablo 3 at launch due to the lack of Legendaries dropping throughout the campaign.
During that boring stretch, Anthem’s RPG mechanics are a bit of a disaster.
Still, during that boring stretch, Anthem’s RPG mechanics are a bit of a disaster. Rarity means nothing early on because the extra stats are far too random and insignificant to be useful, and use annoyingly vague terminology. My favorite example of this was a Ranger-class component that dropped with “Overheat +-13% Delay.”
Weapon and ability balance is a total crapshoot, too. The Interceptor’s Cluster Mine, for example, is inexplicably ineffective, failing to damage enemies it lands mere inches away from. Discovering a problem like this creates a moment in which you face a no-win decision: either attempt to finish the expedition with an apparently useless ability, which can be a serious handicap, or abandon the quest and suffer through yet another of Anthem’s many agonizingly long load screens (which has been only marginally improved by the February 20 patch) to return to Fort Tarsis or the multiplayer Launch Bay (which requires an additional matchmaking queue wait) and change equipment. The inability to change loadouts on the fly is thoroughly felt here, and makes experimentation more of a dangerous deterrent rather than a fun process of trial and error. Similarly, it’s frustrating that you need to end your expedition to see what loot you specifically found, because when you pick it up in the open world it’s just a glowing box where only the rarity is displayed.
Later on, Legendary and Masterwork items liven things up considerably. The Wyvern Sting sniper rifle, for example, has a hand-crafted bonus that significantly increases weak point damage while hovering. It’s baffling that gear like this, which prompts you to change your playstyle to take advantage of an interesting bonus and thereby adds meaningful variety to a game that desperately needs it, is reserved only for those with the patience to suffer through a long grind.
You’ll see the vast majority of unique enemies only a handful of hours in.
Most of what variety there is in early fights is due to the fact that the mechanical quality of Anthem’s enemies is actually quite good. The Ash Titan is akin to a short raid encounter, and getting behind an Enforcer’s shields to rupture their fuel tanks is always fun. But, like most things in this content-anemic world, their variety in terms of pure quantity leaves a lot to be desired. You’ll see the vast majority of unique enemies only a handful of hours in, with only Stronghold bosses and one or two Dominion baddies saved for later.
Having reached the endgame, the three repeatable Strongholds are my favorite content in Anthem due to their teamwork-inducing difficulty and mechanically respectable boss fights, but they also have their fair share of issues. The boss of the Tyrant Mine can be bested in under a minute on hard difficulty, while the final encounter in another spoiler-ridden Stronghold took my party (which included a BioWare developer) upwards of 30 minutes to whittle down on normal. I’m all for marathon boss encounters, but here the rewards didn’t match the task: the payoff from all three Strongholds is roughly the same. And while I love large, bombastic attack telegraphs like the Ash Titan’s flame wave, the hit detection on such abilities is frustratingly imprecise. Whether that’s the result of unusually bad latency or some other factor, the “How did that hit me?!” effect only gets more punishing as you venture into the Grandmaster difficulties. Considering that’s where the actually interesting rewards are on the line, that’s especially aggravating.
|Microtransactions and Customization|
While the designs of the Javelins are by default intricate and highly customizable, it’s disappointing to see so little of that visual real estate taken up by elements that represent my progression. I understand and appreciate the decision to decouple style from stats, but as someone who takes pride in my gaming accomplishments I wish Anthem did a better job of distributing eye-catching decals and alterations via gameplay and achievements to those of us who earn them with specific in-game feats instead of buying them with either paid or earned currencies. The depth of customization is thoroughly appreciated, and I had a lot of fun running back a forth between an idle Sentinel and the Forge in an attempt to emulate his style.
All the aesthetics I’ve unlocked have been from the in-game store, which accepts both a purchasable currency called shards and free-to-earn coins. To be fair, Anthem distributes coins at a generous enough pace, and I’ve accrued about 100k in my 40 hours of play. That’s more than enough to cover a full aesthetic armor set, which costs 60k coins or 850 shards – an amount that would set you back $9.00 to buy (with some extra shards left over). You can earn coins from almost any activity, and even passively get some from having friends who are also playing. While it does suck that these armor sets are the only ones available and there don’t appear to be any that are tied to anything gameplay related, it’s a relief that this store isn’t malicious or predatory in any other way and doesn’t bombard you with advertisements.
To its credit, Anthem does provide ample incentive to crank up the difficulty when you reach the endgame. A small pool of masterwork weapons will drop on hard or even normal as you approach level 30, but in order to see the bulk of them you’ll need to delve into Grandmaster which, aside from the enemies being bullet-spongy at times, is quite fun with a communicative team.
Finally, there are an absolute enormity of major bugs that still need to be squashed including the numerous crashes and disconnects that I experienced during my 40 hours in Anthem, many of which have not been addressed by the first patch. Notably, a bug where game audio cuts out entirely until you relaunch, and the inability to rejoin a stronghold in progress after disconnecting because your spot is immediately filled are especially annoying.