Anthem leads us to a new multi and singleplayer gameplay with a dense and roleplay character. BioWare now takes us to a new cooperative multiplayer game promising a game world that will entertain players for hours and years. BioWare also teached us that the thing that does good — storytelling — isn’t abandoned yet.
This automatically makes Anthem better and better. From one side it is a speedy, multiplayer action game, and on the other it’s a slow-paced storytelling quasi-interactive drama. Occasionally they meld into something new, evocative, and complementary. But too often, they’re in conflict, with one genre’s pacing and philosophy undermining the other.
The Action Side
Anthem is a sci-fi multiplayer action game filled with heroes called freelancers. These soldiers for hire pilot Javelins, 9-foot suits of armor with rocket boosters, lasers, and other implements of destruction. As a Freelancer, I shred through dozens of alien scorpions or marauding bandits in seconds. I can leap off a building, fall 50 feet, and zoom away with a jetpack, never touching the ground.
Anthem feels like I’m in control of a Marvel movie. I am death and destruction, tossing freezing grenades at mechanized infantry, calling down lighting on spidery hordes, or slicing hijacked turrets at close range. I am an unstoppable force. I am off-brand Iron Man. And I’m not alone.
A constant internet connection is required for Anthem, and I’m able to complete the entire campaign with friends or strangers, thanks to matchmaking for every activity. That sense of power when cruising the world alone is only amplified when paired with three other like-minded Javelins. Cooperation yields an enormous combat advantage, as specific attacks will combine together, dealing bonus damage and eliciting a satisfying (if world-breaking) visual pop up of “COMBO.” Shattering a frozen enemy mech with a bolt of lighting yields a crackle and crash, like hurling a handful of party poppers into playground concrete.
Anthem nails this power fantasy. But this sensation comes early, and dozens of hours of play never best that initial thrill. If anything, Anthem gets in the way of its fun. The need for a BioWare-esque story, presented in a controlled environment, prevents the player from experiencing the game’s action for any extended period of time.
Anthem is a game about being powerful and finding powerful loot. In loot-based games, there’s nothing more exciting than seeing a new piece of gear drop, equipping it, and then trying it out on the enemies you were fighting moments ago.
Here are the steps to equip new gear in Anthem:
I kill an enemy, and a purple diamond pops out of it. I fly over and touch the purple diamond. A pop-up on the screen confirms that I have found an Epic piece of gear. I complete the mission that I’m on.
And I get a load screen.
Upon completing the mission, I’m given a list of all of the loot I’ve found. Turns out there was a purple assault rifle in there. In order to equip that loot, I must travel into the Forge, where all gear is equipped.
Another load screen.
I equip my Epic assault rifle. I equip the other loot I’ve found. I am satisfied with my current loadout. I leave the Forge.
Load screen, again.
I start another mission to try out my new assault rifle.
I shoot a bandit. The assault rifle feels bad, and I want to switch back to what I was using. This will require four more load screens.
Changing gear in Anthem is painful. For a game that’s all about changing loadouts, this is, to say the least, irritating.
Load times persist throughout Anthem. Depending on your platform and hardware specifications, they may be as short as 10-20 seconds or as long as several minutes. Either way, they are numerous and momentum-breaking. A day-one patch will seek to address their length, but their frequency will remain an issue.
The load times become especially problematic when I play with other people, something Anthem heavily encourages. Playing with friends on PC, I find myself loading in faster than everyone else, then waiting for them to catch up. They report missing the dialogue and mission objectives that I’d listened to while they were still loading in. When my buddies do appear in the world, they are so far behind me that they automatically teleport to my location.
Even when my squad syncs up, Anthem’s campaign struggles to remain fresh and varied after its first few hours. A handful of basic objectives (e.g., “stand at this spot for a while,” “collect six of these floating things and bring them back,” “kill anything around here”) repeat over and over again throughout the 15-hour campaign. That repetition is bad, but it’s nothing compared to a heinous mid-campaign mission that focuses on opening tombs. What sounds like a fun, Indiana Jones-esque romp ends up being a massive checklist of mindless objectives to complete (e.g., “find 10 collectibles”) before you can continue the story.
The endgame, the reward for powering through the campaign, similarly suffers from drudgery. Strongholds are considered to be the pinnacle activity in Anthem. Only three Stronghold missions are available at launch, and the third one culminates with shooting a large dude for 35 minutes. There’s no strategy; my squad just shoots at the same large dude for 35 minutes straight.
The combat of Anthem is marvelous. Unfortunately, the missions don’t flatter that combat. They don’t subvert it, expand upon it, or ask me to use combat in creative ways. What should feel like a surprising world mostly feels like target practice and Easter egg hunts.
THE STORY SIDE
That I’ve made it this far without touching on the story of Anthem may be surprising given that it’s made by BioWare, a developer that has historically championed the power and potential of story in games. BioWare certainly cares as much about the universe and story of Anthem as it does about the gameplay. The game spends an enormous amount of time fleshing out this world.
Anthem’s overarching adventure, which has unseen magical forces and nefarious tyrants looking to command ancient powers, is reminiscent of Star Wars (or BioWare’s own Mass Effect). The game peppers me with imaginary proper nouns like “The Cenotaph,” “Freemark,” and “The Heart of Rage,” suggesting an operatic struggle on a galactic scale.
But the bulk of Anthem’s story is not about these grand designs. It’s about the people in this world, particularly the inhabitants of Fort Tarsis.
Ditching the third-person perspective of missions, Fort Tarsis is experienced in the first person, with my Freelancer walking around out of her mech suit. The fort is populated with folks to speak to. Some are crucial to the storyline, giving me quests. Others will talk about their dreams, secrets, or obsessions. One particularly verbose inhabitant talks my ear off about safety regulations and proper walkway management. Another reveals they’re a hidden member of the royal family, dreading their place in the line of succession.
The acting and writing for these conversations is, for the most part, strong. Fully captured performances bring life to Fort Tarsis, fleshing out Anthem’s world without forcing me to read gobs of text.
But like the game’s combat sequences, Fort Tarsis is hamstrung by design choices that make what’s supposed to be a respite feel more like a punishment.
Exploring Fort Tarsis is slow. Gobsmackingly slow. Walking around feels like I’m wading through an invisible tar. I can run, but the increase in speed is negligible and seems to merely add a head bob to my plodding pace. This makes every trip to Fort Tarsis a chore.
Worse still, even with the solid acting and writing, the conversations in the fort are almost entirely one-sided. Occasionally I’m given a prompt to respond either positively or negatively, but usually I’m left staring at this person as they spill their guts for no good reason.
These conversations don’t mesh with the rest of the game. Consider that Anthem is designed for multiplayer. When playing games with friends, I talk with them; I catch up on what’s going on in their lives. In Anthem, whenever I play with friends, I have no choice but to tell them to quiet down so I can listen to mission dialogue. Or, if they’re in a rush, I skip through what I deem to be less-than-crucial dialogue to get back into the fight. Either way seems counter to the spirit of the game and the time BioWare spent crafting these stories.
I have no qualms with returning to a town to flesh out a universe and create some calmer moments between the chaos. But the hub that BioWare has made for Anthem feels less like a vacation to a foreign land and more like a trip to the DMV.
Anthem’s campaign is a collision of competing ideas. Where it succeeds, in its combat and characters, it’s sabotaged by load screens, clunky menus, and the glacial pace of Fort Tarsis. It’s frustrating seeing the game’s various designs mash against each other, like a soggy jigsaw puzzle where the pieces no longer quite fit.
BioWare has already done a lot of the hard work. A satisfying core gameplay loop is difficult to create, but the studio has managed it. Playing makes me feel like a true sci-fi superhero, 10 seconds at a time. But in order for Anthem to survive, BioWare will need to clarify its identity and prioritize the right elements of it. I’d love for the story, the interface, the experience of playing Anthem to service that loop, rather than fight it. I’d love for unique quests and activities to not just keep me occupied, but give me something to strive for. Playing Anthem, I can sense where this game is going. I just worry about how long it will take to get there.
(This is a review made from Polygon. I haven’t had time to update this review, so I’ve added some things from Polygon, so big thanks to them)
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