Games Review: Anthem would be a great game if it didn’t keep getting in its own way

I have started and deleted this review three times in the week and a bit since our review codes arrived. It’s been a long time since I’ve found myself so conflicted about a game I’m reviewing, but Anthem has had me doubling back a lot, second guessing myself. The nutshell version is that I like it, but with what feels like a hundred qualifiers. For every aspect of the game that is truly best-in-class, there are two more that are so dissonant or not fully fleshed out that they start to feel like an act of self-sabotage.

This dissonance begins at the conceptual level and reverberates throughout the entire product. What Anthem wants is to walk a line between an MMO shooter like Destiny and the character-driven role-playing experiences Bioware are known for. They try their hardest to reconcile the two and meet with varying degrees of success. Bioware is trying so hard to make Anthem work, but after a week of early access and several days on the Day One patch, it’s an experience that is uneven at best.

Let’s start with the things Bioware get right. Anthem does more clearly-stated worldbuilding in its first 20 minutes than Bungie was able to do in two Destiny games. While the story itself may not make a huge amount of sense (ancient people, powerful and mythological as gods, passing down sick-ass Iron Man suits to those left behind and an all-powerful, mysterious artifact/sound called the Anthem of Creation that gives rise to all sorts of mysical insanity), it gives Bioware the room they need to make the rest of the world tick. The game’s central hub, Fort Tarsis, is an artfully constructed cultural melting pot suffused with Middle Eastern aesthetics. It’s a dusty place full of winding alleys and dark corners that seems to open up a little more with each additional level you gain. Being in Fort Tarsis switches the game to a first-person perspective, putting you at eye-level with the people your character, a Freelancer, is helping to protect. You can shop, craft, pick up new quests, turn completed ones in and customise your Javelin. Mostly, Fort Tarsis is where Bioware keeps the stuff they’re known for — solid character work and strong dialogue.

You’ll get to know the NPC’s of Fort Tarsis quite well as you’ll be speaking to them often. As is tradition around here, Bioware’s writers make every conversation count in ways large or small. A character with whom you’ve had a falling out slowly warms to you again over the course of the campaign, your actions and conversation choices proving your merit. Another looks for ways to bask in the reflected glory of your actions and shutting him down is just as much fun as lying to indulge him. It deals in the same kind of character work that Mass Effect and Dragon Age were so good at — it feels like they’ve all got something going on when you’re not around. Those expecting the kind of deep conversational options presented in those games, however, will be disappointed. Most of Anthem‘s conversations are on rails and when a dialogue option appears, its typically one of two forks — naughty or nice.

This is, of course, perfectly fine; Anthem isn’t a typical Bioware RPG and shouldn’t be held to the same standard. (Here come those qualifiers I was talking about earlier).

Anthem‘s other primary mode of play is the polar opposite of Fort Tarsis. Jumping into your Javelin swtiches the camera to a third-person view. The slow and deliberate footsteps of your feeble human character in Fort Tarsis become precise and nimble once housed within your shiny robot armour. Everything about piloting your Javelin is fast paced, even when you’re in the giant Hulkbuster-esque tank armour. Flying the Javelin is cool, kitting it out to maximise both its own damage output and its output when combo’d with other player attacks is cool, and using its various combat abilities to mess up whole armies of bad guys is cool. It’s a 4-player PvE loot shooter with style to spare.

And here, the dissonance comes creeping in. Fort Tarsis is an area built very much for solo play. It has been designed as somewhere for you to take a break from the rigours of 4-player combat and do a bit of RP. The rub is that most people will squad up with friends to play Anthem, four players in a Discord channel jabbering away. This is fine while you’re in the field, but the moment you’re back in Fort Tarsis you have three people chattering amongst themselves over your comms while you’re trying to engage in deep and meaningful discussions with earnest NPC’s the way you would in another Bioware title. The problem isn’t that these two phases don’t overlap, it’s that they’ve been propped up against one another at right angles. It also gave me an appreciation for why Destiny might have taken the approach to character and story that it did.

The world building and art design on display in both phases is extremely high quality. Anyone still upset about Mass Effect Andromeda‘s weak character facial expressions will be very pleased with the work Bioware have put into animating the characters of Anthem. It’s rare to get this kind of expressiveness in a game without dipping into the uncanny valley (and your mileage may vary, but it never happened for me). Flying around the game’s beautiful world in my Javelin is yet to get old. Wandering about on my own in Freeplay, I keep discovering new nooks and crannies hiding treasure chests and locations for missions I haven’t found my way into yet. It’s lush and leafy and will put even the most high-end of gaming PC’s through its paces in the way that only EA’s Frostbite engine can.

There are downsides, however. Beautiful as the world is, if you’re experiencing it through missions then you may be left a little cold. Anthem‘s missions are the kind of well-worn, sequential affairs that make critics on Twitter use phrases like “design-by-spreadsheet.” It’s a fair assessment though. Anthem‘s missions all follow the same structure: Head to Waypoint 1, kill all the enemies there. Head to Waypoint 2, complete a minor objective about gathering glowy bafmodads and kill all the enemies there. Head to Waypoint 3, take out a relatively easy boss character and kill the waves of enemies that spawn in. Mission complete, please enjoy your loot and XP. Few of them seem to take longer than fifteen-to-twenty minutes to complete and then you’re back to Fort Tarsis to pick up another one.

I don’t mind that the missions are short — it’s actually a bit of a welcome reprieve from some of Destiny 2‘s more meandering questlines — it’s that the load times between these short missions feel a touch excessive. Prior to the Day One patch, I was experiencing load times of up to forty seconds on a reasonably powerful gaming PC running the game off an otherwise empty solid state drive. Console owners, with their much slower, traditional HDD’s, reported load times that clocked in at over two minutes. To be thrown into these long load screens at such regular intervals is painful and causes any momentum to sputter and die.

When the game does try to make missions last a little longer, it only makes the situation worse. The Tombs of the Legionnaires quest began drawing heat from players on Twitter very quickly. The quest involves visiting four Freelancer tombs in Freeplay mode. Each tomb is locked behind a series of four objectives. These objectives range from the trivial (kill 50 enemeies) to outright grind (open 30 treasure chests). It took me around five hours to complete all sixteen objectives and open the four tombs. It was disappointing to dick around for so long only to get into each tomb and find the only thing I had to do was grab an item from a grave. No battle, no climactic showdown, no cool moment for all that work. To say it felt a bit deflating doesn’t quite cover it. Again, your tolerance for grind may vary. Mine is very low and so completing Tombs of the Legionnaires was like pulling teeth. It’s that it’s such a transparent attempt to pad out the main quest that bugs me the most. It’s exactly the same nonsense WOW used to pull — collect forty wolf pelts and you can proceed. It wouldn’t annoy me as much if it wasn’t so obvious. As stated, I don’t mind swooping about in Freeplay, but when you load me down with pointless busy work then it loses some of its charm.

The actual shooting is quite strong, Bioware quick to identify Mass Effect Andromeda‘s strongest suit and bring it over, but it still lacks the punch of Destiny 2‘s seasoned gunplay. The reason for this is hard to pin down. Maybe its a UI thing, the way the damage numbers spring out of enemies a little too soft to communicate hard bullet strikes. I do like the design of the targeting reticle however, which tells you everything from when you’ve successfully killed an enemy to how long a shot will be on cooldown. Where Anthem struggles in its limited range of enemies. You have two factions — The Dominion and The Scar, who are humans and humanoid insects respectively — and wildlife like the Ursix, a large, lumbering troll-like creature that will require a lot of focused fire to put down. There are nimble dog-like units and massive, large HP pool enemies like the Titans and … actually, that’s about it. Beyond the Swarm Tyrant boss from the game’s first Stronghold dungeon, there just arent that many enemies to battle it out with. Compare this to Destiny 2‘s seven enemy factions, each with their own sub-classes and troops, and Anthem feels a bit bereft of conflict. This may not be a totally fair criticism — Destiny has had five years to put its expansive enemy roster together, but it also launched with a greater number of enemy factions in tow and that’s worth remembering.

I hope by now that you’re getting a picture of what I was saying in the intro. For everything Anthem gets right, it gets two more wrong and the things its gets wrong are things that are often fundamental to the MMO shooter experience. I can’t check the loot I pick up until the end of the mission and I can’t equip it until I return to Fort Tarsis. Even though I’m in the overworld and can view the main map, I also can’t start a new quest without going back to Fort Tarsis. It never fully explains how things like combos work, leaving players to figure them out for themselves. I could go on and on. There are little design quirks like this all the way down.

The parts of Anthem that I like, I absolutely love. The parts of it that I don’t love, drive me mad. It has everything it needs to succeed, to be a world-class entry in a genre full of world-class content and the only thing stopping it from being so is itself.

THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Highlights: Gorgeous visuals; Javelins are so cool; Fort Tarsis is vintage Bioware
Lowlights: Riddled with contradictory design choices; Long loads; Many bugs
Developer: Bioware
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC
Available: Now

Review conducted on Windows PC with an EA Access code provided by the publisher.

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David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously worked as a freelance games journalist and critic, appearing on PC World Australia. He tweets at @RhunWords and plays the odd game at twitch.tv/RhunWords when the internet works.