Anthem's combat and flying feel great, but can BioWare deliver on everything else?

Anthem is, for so many reasons, a perplexing game. BioWare's attempt at making what is basically a blatant stab at Bungie's Destiny 2 is not the kind of game players have come to expect from the legendary studio. While we love BioWare games for their fleshed out characters and vivid storytelling, Anthem feels antithetical in its focus on shooting and looting, keeping the story quarantined back at the player's homebase of Tarsus. It's hard to get a sense for what Anthem is, and much harder trying to understand what it hopes to achieve.

But, after playing a 30-minute hands on demo, it might not necessarily matter. Despite all the concerns we have with Anthem, its narrative, post-launch support, and loot-based grind, it is a lot of fun. Turns out, slapping a jetpack onto an exosuit is kind of a brilliant idea. Here's what we think.

Chris: Although the demo left us with a lot of questions and didn't show off any of the narrative elements we're so curious about, I'll definitely say this: the flying feels great. Leaping off the ground an engaging your Javelin's jets, giving yourself a burst of speed, and especially being able to hover while engaging the enemy really does make you feel like Iron Man. Everything about it feels good. You also have to manage the heat of your jets, which was a bit of a bringdown (literally) because if you overheat you'll plummet to the ground until you cool off. I wasn't so jazzed by that—if you're gonna give me jets, let me use them for more than fifteen seconds at a time, though I assume we'll be able to upgrade them. On the plus side, you can use the environment to cool off. If you spot a waterfall, fly through it or hover under it and the water will cool off your rockets, letting you stay in the air longer.

Phil: Yeah, the flying was what made me think Anthem could be a thing I regularly play. I'm a sucker for a good traversal system, and I actually like that overheating is a factor. A space is more interesting when there's a reason to pay attention to its construction, and having to find water sources for longer flights fits the bill. My bigger concern is the combat, which I'd describe as functional. Being able to combo abilities is a neat twist. During fights, you can layer different types of attacks to deal bonus damage, like throwing an ice grenade and then hitting enemies with my wrist-mounted rocket. But the moment-to-moment gunplay didn't feel all that special. Admittedly I say this as a longtime Destiny player. For all Destiny 2's problems, its gunplay is spot on. Anthem isn't there yet, which means it'll need to rely on its layouts and teamplay mechanics to pick up the slack.

Tim: I’m happy to eat some crow on this one. Well, not happy. Crow probably tastes awful. My secret mantra going into E3 was that Anthem would likely be bad because BioWare has no experience doing the kind of dynamic, intricate, high mobility combat that games in the looter-shooter genre need to stay interesting. But it really does feel good. The weapons pack actual punch. Trash mobs die with pleasing ease, and even the inevitable bullet sponge boss reacts enough to incoming fire that it doesn’t feel like whaling on enormous sack of potatoes. Something that really jumped out to me was being able to combo abilities between your Javelin robosuits. So one of us would freeze an enemy and then another would shatter it. That kind of interplay hasn’t really been done too much by Destiny or The Division and could be a real point of difference for Anthem.

Chris: I thought some weapons felt good. The ranger's ult ability, in which you can target a mob of enemies and then launch clusters of missiles, felt really great to me: exciting and dramatic and powerful. The rifle I was carrying, though, didn't really register as a particularly fun or powerful-feeling weapon. It was fine, it just didn't have the kind of super-powered visual feedback some of the other elements like the jetpack and cluster bombs did.

Steven: This might sound wild, but I actually enjoy that Anthem's tech doesn't have a whole lot of mysticism to it. Destiny's supers and abilities basically feel like magic with no logic informing them, but Anthem's arsenal feels strictly science fiction.

Tim: When I did the ranger super on a bunch of adds, it felt great. When I tried it on a boss I wasn't sure it was even working. I really want to have a go using a colossus Javelin, as its super seemed to be a tactical nuke. What did y’all make of the UI and the damage numbers popping out of the enemies? I’ve seen a few complaints that they’re too big and obscured the crit spots you’re supposed to shooting. I felt they were fine, honestly.

Chris: The damage numbers are satisfying in that way that numbers are, but I did find them a bit overbearing and huge and I'd honestly prefer to know I'm hitting my marks by audio cues or visuals that don't include a bunch of numbers flying into my face. I prefer a good exciting crit sound to a big number popping out of someone's head. I'm hoping there's an option to toggle the numbers off.

Steven: Yeah, that kind of thing is worrying but it also feels easy to toggle off and adjust on BioWare's end. I'm sure somewhere in that studio is a UI designer cringing at how distractingly large those numbers were and wishing he could have had another day before E3 to adjust them.

I’m absolutely delighted by the lack of PvP.

Phil: I do worry about the scope. I get wanting to avoid PvP—honestly, Bungie has had no end of problems trying to balance Crucible without making PvE players feel underpowered. My bigger concern is how limited freeplay sounds. It's four people to an instance, with it primarily being billed as a solo resource gathering experience. But there are also world events and big, tough monsters to bring down. As a long term Guild Wars 2 player, I've experienced plenty of maps with tens of players too busy doing there own thing to join in on a group quest. With four players? Good luck forming an ad-hoc group to take down that beastie when two of the people on the server just want to gather crafting materials.

Tim: I’m absolutely delighted by the lack of PvP. Wes openly laughed at me for suggesting Bungie should give up (or at the very least completely separate it from PvE) to fix its endless balance issues, so I think this is a wise call by Bioware—certainly while its bedding in the vanilla version of Anthem. What would be interesting is to see some higher player count activities down the line. Running nine-person Escalation Protocol groups in Destiny 2 has been revelatory in terms of fun. As for Anthem, all we’ve really seen is a very cordoned off slice of gameplay. Essentially the equivalent of one of Destiny’s ‘strike’ missions. So I’m still curious to see how open the world exploration actually is. My slight concern remains that trying to design for both flying and walking may lead to slightly canyon-shaped levels, but we shall see, and frankly I’m just relieved that the actual combat feels meaty.

What are you guys hoping for from the loot system? It seemed a little weird to me that you had to get back to the base to install the components you were picking up while out in the wild, but I suppose Bioware has rationalised that that's better than having people faffing around in their menus endlessly mid-mission. What I will say is this game is really going to need a tier of weapons that's as evocative as Destiny 2's Exotics. The equivalent weapons in The Division never quite felt as special to me, partly because they had to remain rooted in real world tech, but Anthem shouldn't have that issue. And again, the lack of PvP means that the designers ought to be able to go hog wild creatively. 

It's still a bit disconcerting how hard it is to wrap our heads around what the game will be.

Steven: I'm also all aboard the no PvP train. It's not that I don't like it—I love Crucible in Destiny 2. But I think Anthem is right to avoid the balancing nightmare. In our interview with Mark Darrah, the executive producer (which we will be publishing soon), he told us how the lack of PvP meant they could really do interesting things with the loot system since they didn't have to worry about balance. The two impressions I got from that was that Anthem will feature a much longer level climb than Destiny 2, and that there's plenty of room for batshit equipment that could never exist in a PvP-focused game.

Considering Anthem is coming in less than a year, it's still a bit disconcerting how hard it is to wrap our heads around what the game will be. How involved is the story? What kind of endgame will be grinding in? Honestly, I remember playing the Destiny 1 PlayStation 3 beta years ago and wondering the same thing, and Destiny ended up being pretty alright for the most part. Hopefully the same can be said of Anthem.

I think it's safe to say that, after playing it, we're all a lot more optimistic than we were. Anthem handles really well and the shooting is pretty satisfying. But these games live and die on their content—for lack of a better word—and, right now, it's impossible to know just how much content Anthem is going to have.