Anthem's launch feels messy. Read Steven's review in progress for detailed thoughts on the game so far—there's an enjoyable core of exploration and combat, here, but the game's issues feel so big that it's hard to envision them all being quickly fixed. Loading screens are clearly the biggest problem, but there's more besides. Below, we decided to talk through them one-by-one. For context: Samuel's played ten hours and Tom's played 15 hours, so assume the items discussed here reflect that.
It’s worth remembering that persistent shared world games like Destiny and The Division tend to endure painful changes in the opening year or two when they make contact with a large audience. Anthem is strange because it hasn’t launched in a vacuum, and yet it makes mistakes that both Destiny and the Division have corrected during their lifetimes.
It's worth saying that a few issues mentioned below are being addressed on the game's official 'Day One'—the 'full' release this Friday. Check out lead producer Michael Gamble's Twitter thread for a sample of that.
The damned loading screens
Samuel: The loading screens in Anthem are so, so bad. I've moved the game to my SSD (the day one patch should have some optimisations for HDDs), but jeez, whatever way you slice it, they are far behind what I would expect from a game in 2019. I'm sure there are loads of challenges in making a game that looks this nice stream a big, open world—but they're too disruptive. I'm also getting a weird error where I seem to load into a mission about 30 seconds after everyone else, meaning I've started expeditions getting the rubber banding warning below, leading to another loading screen after already sitting through one.
Tom: I’m surprised at how disjointed the co-op experience is. It should be easy to keep a group together and flow between expeditions and Free Play, but the game breaks parties up with long loading screens, cut scenes, and mandatory returns to Fort Tarsis. More on that later.
We don’t know about the technical limitations that the devs are working with, and I’m sure they wouldn’t choose to put a loading screens between exploration, dungeons, the forge, mid-mission cutscenes, Tarsis, and the Launch Bay. They’re there, though. I caught up with quite a lot of reading on my ipad over the weekend waiting for those screens to pass. There are points where you have to go from the open world into a small room to press F on an object, and then travel through another loading screen to get out of the small room and back into the open world.
These stingy rubber banding warnings
Samuel: Hope you don't spend more than five seconds admiring the scenery or looking for resources during an expedition, because you'll probably be confronted with this obnoxious warning. To be honest, you'll probably get this even if you're not dawdling in Anthem. Worst of all, it replaces the heat meter on the HUD, so if you're trying to catch up with your party, you have no indicator that your Javelin is about to overheat in doing so. I appreciate that you don't want party members flying off away from the objective, but this screen could be more generous.
Tom: If you haven't played the game this might sound like a small thing, but it's in your face constantly and it punishes you for stopping to pick up a resource or flying just a little less efficiently than the foremost member of your party. You do need a system to pick up players that have fallen behind, but it's far too aggressive at the moment.
Samuel: The loading screens between missions, free play and Fort Tarsis all contribute to an overall slugging pace between missions. And then there's the inane conversations back at Fort Tarsis, which are usually mandatory to open up more story missions.
The long breaks between activities just suck: loading screens, Fort Tarsis, and occasionally, mandatory mid-mission cutscenes. In one mission, you're off to the headquarters of someone called Princess Zhim, and there's a long, totally unnecessary cutscene in the middle, that presumably all four players have to watch simultaneously. The game crashed for me twice after this cutscene. If it had crashed a third time, I wouldn't still be playing Anthem.
Tom: BioWare has added a run command to Tarsis since the 'VIP' trial but it's still painfully slow to get around and if you're playing with a group you don't really have time to soak up side stories about the trader who has run out of grain.
You can't view or change loadout in Free Play
Samuel: It's not really 'Free' Play if you can't customise your inventory mid-game, is it? I'd love to have the option to swap or at least customise my Javelin in Free Play, out of combat. Instead, it's trapped in the Forge behind another loading screen, forcing me to leave Free Play to make even minor changes. Experimenting with loadouts is basically no fun if it's hard to access all your stuff.
Tom: I can see why you might want to keep loadout management confined to the Forge. Perhaps you want players in the field moving and fighting without pause. Maybe you want to preserve the fiction of carefully gearing up a Javelin before a run. In reality though I want to check on my equipment all the time, and I’m discouraged from experimenting with gear combinations when I have to hop from Free Play to the Launch Bay, to the Forge, back to the Launch Bay and back into Free Play to make a change.
Samuel: This is definitely a smaller complaint, but there are a few problems with the UI. In-mission, when you're asked to locate items around the environment, an indicator on your HUD points you towards your objective—some intel, echoes, whatever—and it can only point in four directions, not diagonally, or in three dimensions. That would probably help in a game where you can fly, and where your objectives might be on elevated surfaces.
Another small thing: I wish you could set waypoints on the map in Free Play. Playing with the PC Gamer team yesterday, exploring together in Free Play had to be communicated via voice chat, which isn't ideal when you all just want to fly off to the same location.
excited to do 1% more heavy pistol damage with my first piece of rare loot pic.twitter.com/Wtbf3PGp7iFebruary 17, 2019
Samuel: Where I am in the story, I'm just earning the same guns with different numbers over and over again. Maybe this changes deeper into the game, but James, who finished the game over the weekend, didn't seem thrilled by his first piece of Epic loot (see above). To be fair, the early game in The Division just handed you lots of anonymous rifles and machine guns, too—so I'll reserve judgment on this for when I've put a bunch more hours into it.
Tom: Almost every piece of loot you find in Anthem is just a collection of numbers. At level 19 I’m sure I’ve seen every gun model in the game. I’m not unlocking new cosmetic options, or stuff I can bolt on to my Javelin. I’ve had some fun lining up numbers to boost my close-combat acid-focused Interceptor, but for the most part the treasure you’re picking up is a rectangular bit of UI with some +x% values on it that you slot into another UI screen in the Forge.
Perhaps the endgame will introduce new types of loot that will change the way my character looks or behaves. Maybe there will eventually be a point to the crafting system too. There’s no sign of that yet though.
Samuel: Both me and Tom had to restart the game this weekend because all the audio cut out, which is a known issue that's apparently being addressed for the 'full' launch on Friday. I also had a glitch where dialogue switched off for part of a mission. Then I had another one (twice) where me and another player seemed to be trapped behind a metal door in the first Stronghold, unable to progress. But the problems seem to run deeper than that. James captured people disappearing mid-cutscene at the weekend (see above), among other oddities. Then there's smaller stuff, like enemy models standing still for a few moments after death, before popping out of existence suddenly.
Tom: There are loads of small problems, the sort that we expect to be fixed with patches over the course of the first few months, and some that may improve as new GPU drivers come out. If you’re playing with a mouse and keyboard, expect the mouse cursor to constantly appear over your reticule outside of menus. I have to restart Anthem every couple of hours because of increasingly ferocious stuttering. It all contributes to a feeling that the game’s not quite ready for launch. Yesterday the game hung and then restarted itself, twice.
Plain bad design decisions
Samuel: Yesterday, the PC Gamer team each took it in turns to die on purpose in Anthem's Free Play so we could revive each other, in order to fulfil a mandatory 'Trials' objective that'll eventually open up new story missions. Whose idea was that?
And now, we each have to open 15 chests. Rather than one person in a party opening a chest and it counting for every member of that party—everyone gets loot from the chest, after all—you have to individually open 15 chests (Gamble says this'll be addressed by the Day One patch, thankfully, giving everyone in a certain radius the point for opening it). Currently, it means it's much more efficient to play by yourself in this game built around co-op.
Tom: For the revive teammates objective we spent quite some time cruising around the map trying to find mobs that were capable of taking one of us down. We stood still in front of fire from armies of Outlaws and Scar enemies and they couldn’t do it. Then we tried to die at the hands of a huge boss with a big shield and a flamethrower. His melee attacks repeatedly missed and he uselessly flamed the ground behind us, and then he got stuck on a rock.
It was the most farcical hour I’ve had with a game in years. It’s so frustrating because Anthem does have really good moments—the Javelins are awesome and big combat encounters are a lot of fun—but there’s so much getting in the way of that at the moment. Some of the limitations seem to be technical, but the ‘Trials’ chokepoint in the main story is just bad.
It's a disjointed game
Samuel: I definitely think there's a fun game at the centre of Anthem: the essence of greatness comes in Free Play, flying around with pals and teaming up to take down big enemies. I definitely think this could crystallise into a better game eventually, but it could take months.
Tom: I’ve unlocked three of the four Javelins now, and they all fun in different ways. The combo system is satisfying, especially when you start setting up your own solo combos (acid grenade + melee strikes for the Interceptor, flamethrower + bolt attacks with the Colossus). The world is gorgeous, and I love the freedom of flying around. I’m even starting to warm to some of the characters. The stronghold I’ve played so far also gives me hope for deeper, more challenging activities further down the line, and I’m very curious to see what Anthem’s equivalent of a raid looks like.
However in its current state Anthem is a disjointed experience, especially if you’re trying to play through with friends. I certainly wouldn’t write the game off, but a lot of the pacing problems are down to deep structural flaws with the way Anthem’s activities are hived off into different parts of Tarsis, the Forge, and the open world.
Bugs can be fixed, loading times can be improved, but reorganising the game to better support group play seems like a mammoth task, and good loot systems are very hard to get right—just look at the journeys Diablo 3 and Destiny have taken to reach their current state. I’m going to push through to the end game, but as Steven says in our Anthem review in progress, it’s a difficult game to recommend at the moment.
Note: in discussing the 15 chest challenge for the Trials, for context we've added a note and link to a tweet from Michael Gamble explaining that this'll be addressed by a Day One patch.