It's fair to say that Anthem's playable public debut didn't go smoothly. The VIP demo was scheduled to run from Friday morning through the weekend, but due to widespread connection issues and infinite loading screens, the greater conversation around BioWare's shared-world looter shooter was mostly limited to whether it was busted or not. As it turns out there's a game in there, and we managed to play a good amount of it over the weekend.
After a few days zipping around in our pretty javelins, we've come away from Anthem's demo with more questions and concerns than before. If it's meant to be representative of the final game—and EA has said this was an old build, and there will be substantial differences—then we're in for an interesting opening month. Read on for our complete thoughts.
Tim: I'm wary of being 'the Destiny 2 guy' who's inherently suspicious of other looter shooters, but there's no hiding that the Anthem VIP demo weekend was hugely buggy and disappointing as a result. Not the core content itself. When I was able to actually get in, I was intrigued by the world, impressed by the customisation, and surprised by how good the gunplay felt. Despite having had a brief but decent time with it at E3, my nagging worry has been that BioWare is not really a combat specialist by trade, and this genre of game absolutely requires a satisfying combat loop if players are going to grind it indefinitely.
Over the course of three days, I was only able to play one full mission and dabble in a smattering of open world stuff. The action felt fun in a B+ sort of way. I liked that ability cooldowns were short, and the chance to chain explosive combos has a ton of potential. I did not like that your basic guns felt bland, and the game is really insistent on you playing with other people. The big problem, though, was that any time I got going I immediately found myself trapped in the phantom zone of a loading screen stalled at 95%. Rebooting didn't work of me, and it soured the experience of what was clearly intended as primarily a marketing event.
Samuel: I tried twice to get into the VIP demo on Sunday, both attempts an hour apart, and got trapped in the infinite loading screen. Even the hub area was chugging on my 1080 Ti-equipped PC. I definitely have sympathy for the developers trying to get the game working over the weekend, but also, EA did sell access as a preorder incentive or benefit of joining Origin Access. The fact it didn't work for everyone is disappointing, whichever way you tear it.
Steven: I played about six hours total over the weekend and, like everyone else, was really disappointed in how broken the VIP demo felt. The infinite loading screen was a definite frustration, but even when I was able to jump into games and reliably play (thanks to Anthem being able to reconnect you to your last session if you leave unexpectedly, like when stuck in a loading screen), there were still bouts of unplayable lag, audio issues, and good old fashioned crashes to desktop. It's a shame, because I do think Anthem has potential and can be enjoyable. But coupled with some of the glaring oversights in how the game works (which we'll get to), this demo did the opposite of making me hyped for Anthem.
Chris: I've never played Destiny and looter shooters typically aren't my thing, so it's ironic that I seem to have had an easier time getting into the servers than most, though I still had plenty of infinite loading screens and rubber-banding. I can say this: Anthem definitely nailed flying. I feel pretty much like Iron Man zooming around in Anthem, if Iron Man's jets were constantly overheating. The effects and sounds and animations are great, and each of the javelins feel significantly different to pilot. I do wish mouse controls were a bit more responsive for flying, and even after tweaking the sensitivity settings mouse controls in the air felt a bit sluggish when turning. I got better at flying during the demo, though, and I'm getting pretty good at skimming over the water to cool my jets and I slam face-first into cliffs a lot less often then I did on Friday.
Fraser: There were a couple of moments, when the connection issues and infinite loading screens weren’t getting in the way of my misadventures, where I managed to have some fun. The Javelins feel incredible to control, with the default being a simultaneously nimble and hefty walking weapon. Like Chris said, it’s like being Iron Man. Every step feels heavy and deliberate, but then seconds later you could be shooting up the side of the cliff faster than a rocket. I love it. If Anthem was all about flying around some weird ruins and not much else, I’d be pretty content.
James: Same. Flying will be the thing that carries me through the rest of Anthem. It’s doing the same work Destiny’s gunplay is, making every repetitive objective, every trip to and fro at least feel nice. I’m bummed very little combat actually happens in the air and that it’s used more often as a means of crossing an arena, but I could fly around as an Interceptor forever. A shame the short cooldown makes that impossible. Gotta take a pit stop every 20 seconds or fly two feet above the water to keep the engines cool.
Tim: Lest anyone think I'm down on the demo purely because of the loading screen glitch, here are a couple of other issues I ran into that I think are substantial and may be trickier to fix for a game that has already gone gold. I experienced some major rubber banding while flying. Presumably this is caused by server lag, but it resulted in my Javelin essentially warping back in time by a couple of seconds. It's disorientating to the point of causing nausea, and has to be eliminated entirely from the final game. I'm no network engineer, so can't say how big a fix that is—but the fact it can happen at all worries me.
Chris: I tended to enjoy the demo missions right up until the big fight at the end. Getting there was great: flying through the world from point to point, getting into small and medium sized battles along the way, especially when there was a mix of different javelins in my group of silent random players. The big boss fights with mobs of lesser enemies just went on too long for my tastes. It's hard to tell who is doing what and with all the effects and explosions (which are typically quite good when they're not all happening at once and in the same small area), I'd just find myself sort of shooting into the mess and hoping to hit something.
Steven: Amen, Chris, Amen. During the one Stronghold (read: dungeon) available in the demo, I was paired with only a single other player in what was supposed to be a group of four. Now, most games would elegantly scale boss health to account for how many players are in a fight, but that didn't seem to be the case. We fought that spider boss for what must have been at least 25 minutes, slowly chipping away at its health while it repeated the same few attacks again and again and again and again. When it finally died, I was just relieved it was over.
Above: Not what using your ultimate ability should feel like.
James: After spending the weekend with it, I’m pretty convinced the combat isn’t good, or at least not the kind of good a game designed to be played over and over again should aspire to. There’s no sense to it, no rhythm or language that guides in-the-moment decision-making in an interesting way. The bulk of fights are against hordes of enemies that spawn in all over the arena and the only intuitive direction you have is to thin those numbers. Occasionally you’ll get a bigger shielded guy to draw your eye and attention away for a minute. Maybe you’ll coordinate a few abilities with a buddy for a quick combo, but then it’s back to zipping around, thinning the hordes with your peashooters and ability spam until the noise stops. I love the feeling of piloting a javelin, but the combat doesn’t even get close to matching it.
Fraser: Yeah, James, I felt the same way. I was just filling random dudes with bullets—they weren’t interesting or memorable battles, or even particularly coherent, even in the story missions. I’m just a bit tired of fighting bullet sponges, too, and that, so far, appears to be what a challenging encounter looks like. Stripping down a big guy’s health.
Tim: My other big concern is around player behaviour, and how BioWare may have failed to cater for it. I ran into one puzzle section that involved switching coloured locks to open three portals. Because Chris had told me the solution, I knew what to do, but my rando teammate did not. So as fast I was ordering the lights he was breaking them. Without using a mic—and I can tell you from Destiny, a huge number of players simply will not speak to strangers—it was an incredibly annoying process, exacerbated by the baffling exclusion of text chat. I really hope BioWare isn't assuming match-made players will cooperate efficiently, because I can say with absolute certainty that there's a shit show in store. Similarly, in no-respawn areas my rando teammate sometimes just wouldn't res me, leaving me stuck until the next checkpoint triggered. I might have been missing something there, but relying on the kindness of strangers is not good design in 2019.
Fraser: Oh no, that puzzle was awful. In my trio, one of us just gave up and stayed at the entrance, while my remaining companion and I just impotently changed some shapes and colours. None of us were using our mics, so there was no way to communicate what we were doing. I have a keyboard, so let me use it, BioWare. It doesn’t have the air of a multiplayer game. The other players might as well have been NPC companions, quiet ones, for all the difference they made. Not because they were rubbish, but because we couldn’t work as a team. We couldn’t even tell when one of us had been knocked down.
James: At the very least a full suite of communicative emotes would’ve been nice. Maybe a UI flourish to accompany someone tossing a flare or pointing, too.
Chris: When it comes to the guns and abilities they either feel great or awful. Bombing enemies with the Colossus' mortars feels explosive and weighty, but swapping it for an electric shock power felt wimpy, and hard to tell if it was even working. I like the assault cannons and machine pistols, but he shotguns and light machine guns feel weak. If not for the numbers flying off enemies I would have no idea if the shotguns had even fired anything. You've gotta have a good shotgun.
James: The guns feel awful, and I think a lot of that is because enemies don’t react to bullet impact, at least in a natural way. Animation is stiff and sterile, most apparent when you stand next to an enemy and, with your hulking Colossus’ rare new shotgun, empty a slug into its face. It’s all numbers and no animation, like you’re blasting math into a marble statue. Same goes for every other weapon at most distances. Sniper rifles only triggered enemy animations on death in my experience. Explosions and concussive gunfire should knock these jerks around, easily. A thing Anthem expects players to do repeatedly for months and months should feel better.
Tim: One thing I do want to note is that a lot of the Destiny 2 folk I follow (mainly streamers) came away from Anthem impressed. That might be because they need another content horse to ride, but it's made me consider whether I'm being too hard on it. I don't think so. There are niggles here that, stretched over a dozens of hours, will surely become super frustrating. Like not being able to sprint in Fort Tarsis (that slow trudge to your javelin is going to get old really fast), and not being able to change your load-out mid-mission—why wouldn't I want to be able to adjust strategy when facing something new?
Also the menu system is so nested that it'd give Russian dolls conniptions. Having to go into and then out of the map just to launch the most simple activity is deranged. These are all issues I think it's unrealistic to expect to see meaningfully addressed with under a month to go until the full release. And they're the kind of problems which will grate significantly the longer you play.
James: I am desperate to hear the post-launch plans. Back in September, I talked to Mike Gamble and Mark Darrah about the high concept vision for what Anthem will be over time, and they told me there’s potential to go a layer deeper than Fortnite’s infamous cube in how they tell a story via a live service. If they can pull it off, how Anthem changes week to week might be what keeps me truly hooked, assuming the story isn’t awful and in-game events bring about meaningful changes. If the quick turnaround of the new social hub is indicative of the response time we can expect from BioWare post launch, I’m feeling hopeful. Anthem likely won’t be the same game in a year’s time. That’s what I’m really here to see through.
That, and for the javelin fashion. I loved customizing my lil' robot suits.
Steven: Can we please take a second to talk about how ridiculous it is that the only way to manage your loadout and equipment is to go to a very specific spot in Fort Tarsis and then wait through a loading screen? I don't want to sound like I'm just dunking on Anthem or saying that Destiny 2 is an infinitely better game—but Anthem's UI and menus are a complete mess. It's made me realize how brilliant Destiny 2's menus are, especially because you can use them during loading screens. And even if you don't, you're not just staring at static images watching a meter slowly crawl across the screen. It's those little touches that make Destiny 2 enjoyable and make Anthem feel like such a slog.
At the end of a mission, I have to skip through a summary screen, then sit through a load screen, then go to the Forge, sit through another load screen, equip my new gear that I got, walk back over to my Javelin, skip through a cutscene, select my next mission, and then watch another loading screen before I'm back in action. That's outrageously long down time that is mostly spent watching loading screens or skipping through pointless scenes.
Tim: Oh my god, so much this. We didn't even talk about the motion blur. Why doesn't switching if off actually turn it all the way off? I have the nagging sense that Anthem is going to be a really good game, but not until a year from now, when BioWare has buffed a lot of these very rough edges off. I imagine there's going to be some pretty unvarnished community feedback post-launch, but I hope the game gets there in the end. It turns out making shared world looter shooters is really hard, particularly first time around. Who knew!