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.
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.
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.
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.