First impressions of BioWare’s Anthem, a flawed piece of work with good bones

Another lootbox shooty game? Yes, but we're OK with that.

    
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We never claimed to be saints.

I’m not quite sure whether Anthem is a mediocre game that I want to be better than it is, a bad game that I enjoy, or a good game that just forgot to include anything to do with it. It’s parts of all of the above all jockeying for the same space, and while I think it averages out on the upper side of that spectrum, there’s no denying that Anthem is a seriously messy piece of work that occasionally traffics solely on “this is another lootbox shooty game, but this time you’re stomping around in robot suits, and that’s all we need to get your interest.”

Fortunately for BioWare, that is indeed what is needed to get my interest.

In some ways I feel out of my element taking a look at this particular title because the general trend that extends to similar not-really-MMO titles like Destiny and The Division passed me by altogether. I don’t really like first-person games, have no interest in shooting things out in the ruins of New York, and so forth. So Anthem’s confluence of mecha robot suits being welded into the genre was, in fact, what I needed in terms of incentive, but it also means that I can’t rightly compare the game on its merits to similar titles. Good thing there’s enough here that’s messy even without direct comparisons, then.

As a case in point, let’s start in the obvious place with the setting. The game is immediately gorgeous and home to a very unique aesthetic, a combination of solarpunk and grimy diesel, that same sort of progressive rock just-shy-of-psychedelic setup by way of Heavy Metal (the magazine, not the musical genre). And you quickly get a sense that this is a big, ancient world operating with its own logic and culture. This is fine; as in any sort of fantasy world, you can use gentle exposition and carefully unfolding elements to make the world comprehensible.

But the story doesn’t do that. You’re immediately thrown into talk of Arcanists, Cyphers, Scars, Sentinels, and spies without being given any foundational information. Finding out what all of this stuff means means stopping to dig through codex entries just to get a footing in the very concepts that the game world is based upon; I’m still not clear on what the deal is with Scars and how they’re different from regular garden-variety outlaws. Heck, I’m still not sure what the state of the world is aside from knowing that there’s a hostile foreign power in the north.

Who is this guy, man?

Yes, all of the answers are there, but they’re not introduced to you organically so that you can follow along naturally. It’s a minor quibble, but it’s one that I think speaks to the game’s biggest and most persistent issue: It wants to be a story-heavy BioWare game at the same time that it wants to just get you into the shooty mecha bits as fast as possible.

This extends to the character interactions, yes. I like the conversations with the various NPCs, for example, and there are very few clunkers in the lot of your regular companions. Owen in particular is such a Good Boy that it’s a pity there’s no romance options in the game. But that lack of romance options is partly because the interactions are, well… lightweight. There are choices, but they just slightly change the flavor of talk. They don’t unveil new pieces of information or anything.

Is this a way of avoiding the feel that you need to play through multiple times to see everything? Almost certainly. Is it also a nod to getting you out and shooting as fast as you can? Also pretty much certain. Does it deprive BioWare of one of its major strengths as a developer by avoiding the memorable textures of companions, thus making the game feel more shallow by extension? Get in the fucking robot, Shinji.

To be sure, yes, this is one of the game’s main goals. Moreso than any other BioWare title, this is a game that wants you to focus on getting out in the world and doing things, and the simple nature of it means that it was always going to live or die on the strength of its combat. And any long-time fan of BioWare could probably tell you were this is going.

They would, however, be wrong. Shooting things with the robot is really fun. Not in the “this is the most fun part of the game” sense; this is just fun to play.

DIVE

The game offers four Javelins at this point, and the Javelins very much act as the individual classes of the game. While they can all equip the same guns (for the most part), each one also has two separate pieces of equipment that only that Javelin can equip. Rangers use an Assault Launcher and a Grenade, for example, while Interceptors sport an Assault System and a Strike System. Combine that with universal enhancement parts and there’s a lot of fine-tuning available to support particular builds, meaning that a Ranger with a Marksmanship Rifle and a Sniper Rifle can play very differently from an Interceptor with the same weaponry.

You can’t quite swap between Javelins freely; you unlock one at the start of the game, then you unlock the other three over the course of play as you level up. Once you have them unlocked, of course, you can use whatever you wish, and the interplay between the different suits is part of the fun. You go out, get items and crafting materials, go back to base to build or equip better items, then you go out and do it again. It’s a good, fun core gameplay loop.

Well, aside from the fact that the game’s map is tiny.

Anthem is not overburdened with areas for you to explore. In part, this works out all right; the individual missions and contracts you head out on each have individually generated objectives, so you’re not necessarily going the same places every time, and the map has enough individual areas to keep things interesting. But you can definitely see where people would get a sense of sameness from everything. You’ve got a limited number of places to explore, and when you’ve explored them all… sorry, you’ve still got to shoot your way through these same spots.

It is, however, helped by the fact that the actual shooting is fun and responsive. Flying is fun and strikes a nice balance between being useful without being endless; meanwhile, the shooting proper feels like a further refinement of the mechanics that were on display in Mass Effect: Andromeda. (This is a good thing, I’ll note.) It’s fun to play, but you’ll probably run into a sense of “shoot X in sub-location Y” pretty quickly, akin to the Mass Effect multiplayer modes but with less variation on that location.

Here we are again, and still, and always.

Other unfortunate limitations include things like no way (that I’ve yet found) to track world events in freeplay (much less move to them quickly), sharply limited player communication, an awkward first-person navigation through the fort hub, loading screens to beat the band…

I mean, you can’t ignore the loading screens. You especially can’t ignore them because the game does not run well. My computer is longer in the tooth than I’d like but still respectable in its specs, and yet I’m routinely running into 10-second loading screens and heavy system demands from the game. It does all look gorgeous, but you’re going to need a beefy machine to run it properly.

And yet… I’m still playing it. And enjoying it a lot. Because all of the game’s problems are, if I’m being honest, things that can be solved with time and effort.

Not enough map space or diversity in areas can be fixed by, well, adding more areas. Weird issues with looting can be retuned. A certain paucity to the story can be enriched over time. Performance can be improved. None of these things feel to me like the gravest of all sins wherein a developer has put out a game made for no one, something where the actual gameplay itself is boring or non-functional.

That’s not an issue Anthem has. So in a way, based on its lack of content, it’s not a very good game, but it’s very on-brand for me in its mecha-suited antics. It’s also a very good game that forgot to bring a full array of content. That, however, strikes me as a less-than-overwhelming problem in how it can be fixed.

If you’re looking for a new main game as an MMORPG or you generally dislike the lootbox shooty style of gameplay, this won’t be the title to change your mind. If you like the style but want a more mature game with a wider variety of activities to explore, Destiny 2 is already out, The Division 2 is not far away, so you have those. But if you want to be stomping around in a pretty dang fun mecha game that needs some work but has loads of potential?

Well then, I’ll see you in the wild, Freelancer.

Massively Overpowered skips scored reviews; they’re outdated in a genre whose games evolve daily. Instead, our veteran reporters immerse themselves in MMOs to present their experiences as hands-on articles, impressions pieces, and previews of games yet to come. First impressions matter, but MMOs change, so why shouldn’t our opinions?

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smuggler-in-a-yt

Time to add yet another game to the wish list…

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Tizmah

This gold mine that game developers found is amazing. Release a game with only about 40%-50% it was intended to have. Get grumpy people upset about the release of the game, get more articles and videos published about your game. Tell everyone you’re listening and taking in the feed back, then trickle in patches and add more content over a year. All the while stringing microtransations along.

By this time next year, the whole industry will be chiming in saying why now is the best time to get into Anthem and everyone saying the game is great now.

They did it with The Division. Sea of Thieves. Destiny 1. Destiny 2. etc. It’s…so genius. It’s the live service way. It’s a great way to show “growth” to investors as well.

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Luxxicon

Playing this with my regular gaming group and we are all having fun. Is it perfect?
Nope, but we are enjoying it very much. Coordinating power sets with each other to do harder content is quite interesting and the last couple of fights we had were very satisfying. Game is beautiful, combat is fun, and the loot feels rewarding.

oldandgrumpy
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oldandgrumpy

Waiting for it to get to my price point and I may give it a go

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Greaterdivinity

Yeah, this is definitely looking like one I’ll pick up on sale. It’ll just be a matter of how much they improve it, because the faster/better they whip it into shape the more like I am to spring for a smaller discount versus holding off for a super deep sale ($5-10) like I did with ME:A.

PurpleCopper
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PurpleCopper

Judging from the gameplay, it seems like if you’re not doing combos the gameplay can get really repetitive.

Flying is pretty cool though. EA should really double down on the flying feature and incorporate that more into the level design and combat.

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Anton Mochalin

MOP is all about nostalgically remembering “those old days when the grass was greener” so no surprise Anthem is reviewed here with wording like “I’m still playing it. And enjoying it a lot. Because all of the game’s problems are, if I’m being honest, things that can be solved with time and effort.” So basically MOP reviewer is playing the game because “it can be fixed” i.e. out of hope those old days will return. But they won’t because gamers have moved on.

shadanwolf
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shadanwolf

Well said. Why is the OP giving this game a “pass” ?

Andy McAdams
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Andy McAdams

This makes absolutely zero sense.

God forbid someone acknowledge a game has flaws, a lot of flaws even, and still find joy and value in the game.

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Greaterdivinity

Except this isn’t a review, MOP doesn’t review games. This is an impressions piece (which is similar, but different than a review).

And what’s your issue? That they acknowledge that plenty of issues exist but that these issues are fixable (they are) and that the game can still be enjoyed despite them (it can)? That’s a pretty silly position to take because that’s a super fair opinion to have at this point.

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Anton Mochalin

My issue is what he writes: “And enjoying it a lot. Because all of the game’s problems are, if I’m being honest, things that can be solved with time and effort.” – he enjoys it because he wants this game to succeed so much he project possible future improvement into present. Why does he want this particular game to succeed? Because it’s Bioware. Long long time ago in a galaxy far away a company with the same name has created Neverwinter Nights and Baldur’s Gate and KOTOR. Now another company publishes Neverwinter MMO which also has action combat and its production value is very comparable to Anthem except it already has much more content. And we can easily find quite the same amount of potential in Neverwinter or Worlds Adrift or Defiance 2050 or even Fallout 76. Is it so hard to add some NPCs to Fallout 76 and do some bug fixing? Not at all except gamers won’t care. So my issue is that I want to point out the post’s author just projects his nostalgia of old days’ Bioware to a very average game entering a very unforgiving games-as-a-service market. So I resolved my issue by posting a comment.

We’re actually in the golden age of gaming which is so diverse now and even for free we can get so much value like in Guild Wars 2 or Path of Exile or Warframe so why build our hopes for some future improvement of a very average game when we can have fun right now in other games? Anthem is just cool mecha flying to nowhere, an interactive trailer for a future game that can come but it’s not very likely.

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Greaterdivinity

Why does he want this particular game to succeed?

Because some people don’t want to spitefully see things fail? I mean, I have no love for BW but I want the game to succeed. What’s wrong with that? We’ve seen games like Destiny (1) and The Division (1) similarly launch with tons of issues but manage to turn things around, plus MMO’s like FFXIV and ESO. Or, maybe he think’s there’s a lot worth cheering for at the core of the game that’s worthy praising and hoping it succeeds once the peripheral issues are addressed.

Now another company publishes Neverwinter MMO which also has action combat and its production value is very comparable to Anthem except it already has much more content.

Yeah, that’s how licenses work. Also, Neverwinter didn’t launch perfect and has had YEARS of work improving and expanding the content of the game, Anthem literally just launched. As for production values…ho boy, even with the jank in Anthem its production values are far, far beyond Neverwinter.

And we can easily find quite the same amount of potential in Neverwinter or Worlds Adrift or Defiance 2050 or even Fallout 76.

And I’ve never seen anyone at MOP argue that those games can’t or shouldn’t be able to succeed, even with their troubles. Though with Defiance…yeah, there’s not much potential there. It is what it is and as much as some of us may have hoped it would turn around one day the 2050 relaunch pretty clearly cemented that the game has no real future.

Not at all except gamers won’t care.

We’re not talking about gamers, we’re talking about Eliot’s opinion here.

So my issue is that I want to point out the post’s author just projects his nostalgia of old days’ Bioware to a very average game entering a very unforgiving games-as-a-service market.

You should ask Eliot if that was his motivation, because that’s not what I got from the article in the slightest.

We’re actually in the golden age of gaming which is so diverse now and even for free we can get so much value like in Guild Wars 2 or Path of Exile or Warframe so why build our hopes for some future improvement of a very average game when we can have fun right now in other games?

Because gaming isn’t a zero-sum affair. MOP covers GW2, POE, Warframe and plenty of other great games all the time and they praise the hell outta them. But there’s room to cover and praise those games while covering other games and cheering them on in the hopes they too succeed and become great.

Anthem is just cool mecha flying to nowhere, an interactive trailer for a future game that can come but it’s not very likely.

Literally all your posts essentially read like an Anthem hater who is upset at the fact that someone else likes the game. I’m not sure if that’s your actual opinion, but that’s how your posts read and it doesn’t do your arguments any favors.

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Nathan Aldana

^ this

shit, I dont care for anthem and think its emblematic of everything wrong with triple A game publishers but its not a terrible game, its an unfini9shed game shoved out the door too early by Executives.

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Anton Mochalin

There’s nothing wrong in wishing any game to succeed but my thesis is the post’s author wants Anthem to succeed not because it has some very interesting or innovative mechanics or super artistic visual style or soundtrack or lore or super fun gameplay. Not even because he fell in love with an NPC or subjectively associates the landscape of the open world with photos of cool vacation places from a travel agency booklet. He wants it to succeed becaus the developer is Bioware. I can be wrong in this attribution by my thesis is exactly that: he likes the game not because of its merits but because this is Bioware. If he was an action games fan he would know there’s nothing special about Anthem’s combat. This is all about “we did not expect that Bioware can make a combat system which doesn’t suck but they did it”. All his impressions are about “see, this game doesn’t suck” and most of “positive” comments about the game here are too about “well we can’t say this game sucks”. The game the only merit of which is it doesn’t suck. But this is not enough these days.

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John Bagnoli

My biggest problem with the game is not Anthem specific. Like most of these multiplayer looter-shooters (or whatever), grouping with random people is the worst gaming experience. Everyone is racing through at breakneck pace that I often wonder why even bother with story at all. I can’t fault BioWare for a sub-par story experience compared to past games because in this genre no one gives a hoot.

Random MMO fan
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Random MMO fan

I can’t fault BioWare for a sub-par story experience compared to past games because in this genre no one gives a hoot.

That’s not true. I care. And many others, who enjoyed games like Borderlands and Borderlands 2. They had a pretty good, slow story, with very likable and memorable characters like Claptrap, Marcus, Tiny Tina, Butt Stallion and others ;-) And gameplay was same exact thing – you’re shooting stuff in hopes that you get a fancy gun with crazy stats, either solo or in group of 4 players. Only difference is that you didn’t have “raids” in Borderlands (I believe some BL2 DLC might have added something like that later but I don’t remember playing that, I only remember how AWESOME was “Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep”) so there was not much replayability, but it sold very well and got a Metacritic score of 89, something that Bioware has never able to reach since ME3 ;-) And I still remember how me and my friends enjoyed the whole playthrough, including all those funny references to RPG games and Game of Thrones in Tiny Tina’s DLC.

Just because game developers got very, very lazy and don’t bother putting an interesting characters and story into looter shooters doesn’t mean that players don’t care about it ;-)

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John Bagnoli

There aren’t enough of you.

Random MMO fan
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Random MMO fan

Maybe, or maybe not. Only one way to find out – create a similar game with an interesting and amusing story and very memorable characters then look at sales numbers ;-)

Of course EA would never allow this to happen for any devs that still belong to them but maybe some other developer might try doing this…

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John Bagnoli

One can hope. But I’m not holding my breath.

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Matt Comstock

Story is good, but a little cliche. I saw one big turn of events, regarding Tarsis’ Legion of Dawn Javelin, a mile away. Haven’t finished the story line yet. The binary dialogue choices do feel stale, and appear to have little impact– other than just adding some flavor to the loot-shooter. Overall, still enjoyable.

They certainly do drop you into the middle of a foreign culture and history without much initial background information. It takes time to figure out all the factions, the scars, special terms, etc., etc. However, I don’t think I was any more confused at the beginning of this story than I typically am with any new IP. You have to experience it to figure it out. The codex entries and emails feel very Bioware, and provide a lot of supplemental information. Part of the fun, IMO, is figuring out this new world.

As to lack of content, it may be a bit light at the moment, but I think you failed to mention that additional content is planned and forthcoming in three acts. We’re only just starting act one. Hopefully those updates/acts really do add sufficient content to make up for the current shortcoming.

As to free play map mode, yeah, it can feel a bit small. I too am hoping they add in some new zones. I wonder, though, if the shaper relics / cataclysms in the upcoming acts will simply change the face of Bastion… if so, that would be interesting. But I don’t see how they could do that and keep the story line intact for future players.

Load screens, ugh… at 10 seconds you’re lucky. On the PS4, I’ve had up to 1-2 minute load screens (mostly 15-30 second), and when you have at least four load screens per mission, that adds up (From Tarsis– (1) load to mission, (1a) occasionally load to dungeon, (2) load to loot screen, (3) load to forge, (4) load to Tarsis). This is my biggest beef. If there were LESS load screens, I’d be fine with that.

World events only seem to pop up when you fly over/near them. Which I kind of like, as it feels like you’re on patrol and jumping into a spur of the moment emergency… but on the other hand, it would be nice if at least some world events showed up on the map with start timers so you can get there in time.

Combat is visceral and an absolute blast (often quite literally).

I am getting much better at flying, but still occasionally steer my colossus into a cliff face, or arch. I think Bioware did flight very well. You get to enjoy learning how to pilot the Javelin efficiently (almost a mini-game). Once you master flight, you can zoom through Bastion for a decent amount of time without landing.

My bad, this got long winded.

TL:DR — Yes, tuning needed, but quite enjoyable with high potential for becoming a very solid title.

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Life_Isnt_Just_Dank_Memes

Execs at EA may be so enamored with the success and hoopla surrounding Apex that they forget that Anthem isn’t meeting their lofty and untenable expectations.

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Armsbend

The game has been on a fairly consistent slow bleed since release – a lot of the big guys are not obsessed with it – they are playing other things. I personally do not think Apex’s success is written in stone.

Andy McAdams
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Andy McAdams

Almost like a battle royale game is a shallow, not overly sticky experience?

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A Dad Supreme

Level 27 now. PS4.

Haven’t had serious problems in performance, less than 5 times I guess.

I still give the game a solid 7/10, basically based on gameplay. It’s definitely something I can keep pulling out every once in awhile once I exhaust all the content they have now and wait until they make new stuff.