NEED TO KNOW
Anthem is a deceptive game. From the first moment I stepped into its world and started meeting its characters, I was stunned by how gorgeous everything and everyone is. The jungles of Bastion are jaw-dropping, an alien landscape full of fantastic vistas and wondrous ruins. Likewise, Anthem's characters are alluring at first glance. When I first met them, I was fascinated by how lifelike their expressions were, and the voice acting for most of the main characters is charming and expressive. They're a likeable group of people that I was excited to get to know.
That's the problem with Anthem: It coasts entirely on the momentum of its stunning first impression. Once that new game smell began to fade, I started to see Anthem as a derivative, buggy, and at times exasperatingly soulless world that fails to weave BioWare's unique storytelling with a co-op RPG shooter.
This house is not a home
On a hostile, alien planet, the human race has etched out a meager survival thanks to the noble efforts of a loose guild of exosuit-wearing warriors called Freelancers. A long time ago, a mysterious alien race shaped the planet by harnessing the Anthem of Creation, a mystical energy that permeates everything. Then those "Shapers" disappeared and left all their Anthem-infused power tools still running, which causes all sorts of apocalyptic accidents that Freelancers are tasked with preventing—or trying to, at least.
It all sounds exciting, but Anthem's story feels half-finished and disjointed to the point that even its charming cast of characters can't save it. Fort Tarsis, my home base that I return to after missions, is a narrative prison where the story and characters are locked away from everything else, our conversations having all the intimacy of phone calls through glass. Most of these characters never physically accompany me on missions and are always standing in the same spot. They feel like charismatic quest givers in an MMO—all that's missing is the golden exclamation mark above their heads.
I never really get the sense that we're spending quality time or enduring hardships together, which makes these regular insights into their lives predictable and too easily won. When I should have felt a resolve to protect them, I was mostly indifferent—which is more than I can say about Anthem's villains, who are given so little screen time that I barely understand their mission, let alone their motivations.
As mission after mission blends together, I rarely have a clear understanding of what's happening or why it matters. The story provides a never-ending supply of MacGuffins to chase—Shaper relics, ancient suits of armor, mysterious rituals. Anthem is so full of mysticism and ambiguity that it feels like an excuse to not adhere to the logic of its own world.
Fort Tarsis is also filled with secondary characters who have isolated stories I uncover bit by bit each time I visit. These residents feel superfluous and our exchanges are often awkward and hamfisted, like the time I pretended to be a delusional mother's dead son to help her reconcile his death. Yeah, I was confused too. Talking to these Fort Tarsis locals doesn't open up interesting avenues in the main story or change how I interact with the settlement in any meaningful way. It makes me long for BioWare games of old when choices I made had consequences.
I'd ignore all this to focus on combat, but after every mission I'm dumped back into Fort Tarsis even if the first thing I'm going to do is turn around and start another mission. Quest givers are cruelly scattered to each of its corners, forcing me to slowly walk its unchanging streets hundreds of times just to pick up quests, turn around, and immediately walk back. The entire settlement feels like a waste of time, and that's exacerbated by Anthem's incredibly long load times.
Even on an SSD, loading screens can take upwards of 50 seconds, and I often have to wait through several back to back loads just to get where I'm going. It's common for missions to be interrupted by loading screens between zones and when I respawn, and there's even a short loading screen just to access The Forge where I can change my gear.
The Heart of Rage
With an RTX 2070, i7-8700, 16GB RAM, and 512GB SSD, I was able to enjoy Anthem on high settings at 1440p with okay performance that ranged between 50fps and 70fps depending on the complexity of the scene. Those dips were disappointing, but the combat is so explosive I never really noticed them too much.
The biggest issue is that Anthem has incredibly long load times. A day one patch has reportedly fixed load times on "older drives," but on my Crucial MX200 SSD loading into the open world can still take 50 seconds. What's worse, Anthem is structured so that you often go through several loading screens in succession, like at the end of missions.
Things are only marginally better once I hop in my javelin and head into the open world. The jungles of Bastion are ridiculously pretty and soaring through them with my squad before each mission is sublime, but the missions themselves are boring and repetitive.
Whether I'm doing a story mission, a randomized contract, or one of Anthem's Strongholds (20-minute dungeons that work like Strikes in Destiny 2), there are maybe half a dozen mission objectives that Anthem cycles between again and again and again. It doesn't matter if I'm silencing a Shaper relic that could destroy the world or looking for a lost scientist, I know that at some point I'm going to have to defend a specific point for 30 seconds or use the radar on my HUD to find hidden objects and then bring them somewhere. Nearly every mission follows the exact same structure: fly a few minutes to a location, complete the objective, and repeat that process two more times until the mission is over. Though Anthem's world feels large at first, by the end of the campaign I had fought in the same handful of arenas and caves plenty of times.
And that's when Anthem's missions aren't glitching out or breaking entirely. Though BioWare's day one patch promises to fix some of these issues, I'll believe it when I see it. I've had roughly a dozen missions fail to work correctly, forcing my party to abandon ship and start over from the beginning because an objective wouldn't update or an enemy wouldn't spawn.
Missions that task me with shutting down the highly volatile Shaper relics are especially disappointing. Characters back in Fort Tarsis regaled me with crazy tales about Shaper relics inverting gravity or teleporting people into alternate dimensions—all cool stuff that I'd love to experience. I never do. The first Shaper relic I silenced summoned ice dogs. Ice dogs. I've silenced dozens more since then and it's always just an excuse to summon some mundane enemies to kill—as if I haven't done enough of that already.
It's a good thing that Anthem's combat is mostly enjoyable, at least at lower difficulties. Each javelin is like a typical RPG class, with three types of abilities you can augment as you loot more gear. I'm particularly fond of the Storm, who channels the elements into explosive area-of-effect spells that can obliterate entire packs of enemies. Every javelin is fun to play, though, and their abilities erupt with all the flash and force of a nuclear bomb, making for some spectacular moments of pure carnage.
The heart of Anthem's combat is the combo system, which requires that teams work together to first afflict enemies with a status effect from one ability, called a 'primer', before hitting them with a 'detonator' ability that triggers a combo and deals massive damage. It's a lot of fun to pull off—not least because the ka-ching! sound effect that indicates a successful combo is so goddamn satisfying.
Layering these abilities is necessary to efficiently deal with enemies on higher difficulties, so it's baffling that Anthem leaves the combo system almost entirely unexplained except for an entry in the tutorial section of the in-game encyclopedia. If I went into Anthem without knowing anything about it, I might not even realize it exists.
That lack of clarity extends to Anthem's entire loot system. Gear has boring, aimless stats that are often incomprehensible. A day one patch has made stats slightly more readable, but I'm often left guessing at their meaning. None of them can be adjusted, however—if you find a gun you like, but the stats are no good, your only option is to go looking for another version of the same gun. There's not even a screen that shows the cumulative total of my javelin's various stats. Designing a build is so cumbersome, it makes me wonder why gear even has stat modifiers in the first place.
Honestly, it doesn't matter anyway. I was 34 hours into Anthem before I found a piece of loot that actually excited me. It's a Masterwork-tier light machine gun that makes me detonate a combo on nearby primed enemies when I reload. Until that point, even the "Epic" gear I had received was just a linear power increase with more boring modifiers like "+1% Heavy Pistol Damage." Anthem's loot is so shallow it could've just been a skill tree.
Now that I'm deep into Anthem's endgame, the gear is getting more exciting at the cost of combat being more aggravating. Calling it an endgame might be giving Anthem too much credit, since the only thing that changes is that I have more challenging missions (that are still repetitive) and two new Strongholds—one of which is actually just the last story mission. The biggest difference is the addition of Grandmaster difficulties, three extra tiers of difficulty that scale up enemy health and damage to absurd degrees but offer a greater chance to earn exceptionally powerful gear like my Masterwork-tier machine gun.
Playing on these difficulties really begins to expose the deep cracks in Anthem's combat and approach to endgame. On lower difficulties, fighting is enjoyable because I can be hyper-aggressive and fly around diving at enemies like a robo-hawk. But on Grandmaster, enemies are so fatal that even a single hit can knock me into a downed state where my team has to revive me.
That kind of challenge requires a level of precision that Anthem just doesn't have, and it's made me acutely aware of how janky combat is. Enemies will pop in and out of existence constantly or be locked into animations long after I killed them—I've even had mini-bosses vanish into thin air midway through a fight. Sometimes my ultimate ability meter appears fully charged but actually isn't, causing me to charge headlong into a group of enemies foolishly jamming a key that isn't doing anything. Leeroy Jenkins would be proud. And while the shooting sounds punchy, there's often this minute sense of delay between shooting an enemy and damaging them that's off putting. It feels mushy.
Enemies rarely telegraph their deadlier attacks, which means I'm constantly being one-shotted by hits I didn't even see—or worse, attacks I did see and dodged but that killed me anyway. This all but spoils the fantasy of being in a killer, sexy exosuit (a sexosuit, if you will). Instead of flying around like Iron Man laying waste to my enemies, I'm hiding behind rocks scared to stick my head out in case some untelegraphed, unseen attack is going to flatten me instantly. Grandmaster difficulty just doesn't play to Anthem's strengths, making the whole endgame feel sluggish and dull.
Working against its own strengths is a theme in Anthem. There are so many loose threads that I'm constantly asking myself "why?" Why is there an overly-detailed mission summary screen that tallies experience points after I've reached level 30 and no longer need those points? Why do I have hundreds of crafting materials that can only be used to create weak gear I'll never need again? Why are major details of Anthem's combat never explained? Why does a loot system even exist if almost everything below Masterwork is practically the same but with slightly higher numbers?
BioWare has already detailed some of what will be coming in the next few months. As a live service game, it's reasonable to expect that Anthem will change a great deal the same way that Destiny 2, The Division, and Warframe have. BioWare certainly seems keen on responding quickly to feedback, which is promising. But I'm not going to hold my breath.