The new action RPG franchise stumbles out of the jumpgate
BioWare have established a good reputation for themselves when it comes to creating original sci-fi worlds, filling them with interesting characters and memorable stories, and delivering satisfying action and RPG gameplay. Sure, there were minor stumbles along the way, but for the most part the studio has enjoyed the support of a passionate fanbase and a certain expectation of quality with their releases. Enter Anthem, an action RPG that’s trying to follow in the footsteps of Destiny and The Division, letting players explore a hostile mysterious planet as they fight against local humans and creatures, and grind for better gear along the way. In theory, it feels like a great match for the studio. In practice, Anthem fails to live up to expectations set by BioWare’s own standards, nor can it favorably compare to other franchises in this genre.
Anthem takes players to a dystopian sci-fi world, and sets up a fairly complex web of lore. We learn that the planet has an energy source known as The Anthem of Creation, which can cause major events that change the landscape and spawn mysterious wildlife. In essence, it is a pseudo "life force" that the planet's inhabitants fight over. Humanity never got a foothold in this battle, so centuries ago they were enslaved by a race called the Urgoth. In a desperate fight for survival, a human General, Helena Tarsis, managed to take control of the force and created powerful sci-fi suits, called Javelins, and used them to overthrow the Urgoth, who have been gone since.
Much time passed, and most of humanity was living in cities, walled-off from the dangerous world and protected by Sentinels, peacekeeping Javelin pilots. Some of these Sentinels are called Freelancers, mercenaries that not only defend but also aren't afraid to venture out into the world and complete contacts. The group operated out of the city of Freemark, which sat atop a hidden Anthem relic. An enemy faction called The Dominion wanted the relic, so they attacked the city - but interacting with the relic caused a cataclysm, leaving an area now called The Heart of Rage.
Players assume the role of a new Freelancer whose first mission just happens to be following a group of others into this Heart of Rage. The cataclysm is always active, so the group encounters plenty of resistance from creatures and hostile factions, including Titans. The mission goes south, and the entire squad apart from you and another ally is lost. The game then really begins two years after that. As a more experienced Freelancer, you have established yourself in Fort Tarsis, an outpost between The Heart of Rage cataclysm and the rest of the cities on the planet.
If that seems like a big information dump, you're not wrong. Anthem is extremely heavy on lore, but none of it is well presented. The game opts completely for the "tell, don't show" approach, so most of the background information you'll have to pick up from a myriad of texts, as there are just a few cutscenes that actually introduce the world. There are so many names for locations, places, artifacts, and "powers" that it gets obnoxious. Some fans gave the first Destiny game a hard time with its lore and story, but that was nothing compared to Anthem, which easily wears the label of "space magic" on its sleeve. For those not too interested into delving through tons of text, you can focus on the more immediate tasks - completing contracts, and trying to stop a new threat from The Dominion faction. Led by a mysterious The Monitor, the faction is attempting to re-enter The Heart of Rage and harvest its energy, and of course the Freelancers must try and stop them.
But the truth of the matter is, Anthem's story is just boring no matter how you slice it. You'll notice this review is missing character names and specific events, and that's because it all feels like a bunch of nothing. There's a big disconnect between missions and the feats you perform, and what effect that supposedly has on the game world. The storytelling is just very amateur and there's no better example than the conclusion, which doesn’t even let you finish off the final boss, and everything gets wrapped up neatly in mere moments, after hours upon hours of going through story missions that lead nowhere and produce little connection to one another. Of course, it's not a complete nonsensical disaster and there are some basic plot threads like "these are the bad guys" and "we're saving the planet", but it's executed at a B-level of production, not something you'd expect in a triple-A full-priced title from BioWare and EA.
The game world is likewise bland. Its design is structured similar to Destiny, in that you will visit the same world map over and over, and it can be either explored in free play or in specific standalone missions. The world is not that large in size and is fairly dull, with environmental design (mountains) that prevents a truly open-world experience. Enemies and creatures will spawn here and there, the weather conditions might change along with time of day, but the planet never really feels alive. There's little reason to spend time in freeplay; sure there are the typical dynamic events and occasional mobs that spawn, but sessions are limited to a puny 4 player limit. With such a low player count, you won't be running into others, and will have to tackle world events on your own. It's doable, but a far cry from the fun and spontaneous events that Destiny offers. You can also undertake Strongholds - dungeons that offer a linear and action-focused experience, as sort of extended versions of story mission levels. Lastly, you could spend some time finding collectibles or treasure chests, or vising a few hidden locations.
Using your Javelin suit to fly is a highlight – the world offers a good sense of verticality, though the map is still broken up into sections that you can only traverse between in certain spots; elsewhere you'll hit mountains that you cannot fly over. The controls are easy and intuitive, and you can do neat things like flying through waterfalls or diving into lakes, though such opportunities are too few. Interacting with water cools off your suit, which heats up during normal flight and limits how far players can travel before having to land.
Mission structure leaves much to be desired. In most cases, you'll just be going from one place to another, eliminating enemies or collecting something in the area, or following a radar ping to an interactive item. These mechanics are repeated throughout the whole campaign, and grow tiresome because they are hardly original or engaging. Then there's also the defending an objective mechanic that often crops up, and it exemplifies just how much the different elements of Anthem are working against each other. In a game where taking flight is a highlight, these mission objectives force the team to stand around and defend a small circle from a few enemy waves. You also occasionally lose your flight power, but these moments are mere annoyances and you're still fairly mobile thanks to a high-jump ability. It's very stop-and-go as well, as the you'll often just stand around and wait for objective markers to appear, while some piece of dialogue is being delivered.
One of the interesting factors about Anthem is that it's not very challenging. Playing on Normal difficulty, the game feels like a breeze even if you play the whole campaign with strangers and zero coordination. The level of your character seems to have little effect, as you can be matchmade with those much higher or lower than yourself but missions still play out the same. Special enemies that spawn at the climax of missions get totally obliterated in seconds, as if you're playing end-game content with perfect gear and team. You can bump the difficulty level artificially to Hard, to give at least a sense of danger to the action. This again makes the game feel more like a generic shooter than an RPG. After beating the story and grinding your way to better gear, you also unlock higher difficulties to, again, start getting better gear and do it all over again. As such, Anthem's end-game problem isn't content, but rather the fact that it feels unrewarding and the core gameplay too repetitive to want to keep playing.
The above may not sound too different from other games in the genre, when you break everything down to the basic level, but Anthem rarely rises above that. There are no memorable missions or set pieces to speak of. So, the gameplay has to carry the experience. While the third person shootouts provide moments of explosive action, where your screen is filled with visual effects and flames, a lot of the time you're just using fairly standard weapons to deal out damage. There's not much recoil or a sense of weight to the weapons, and they are of standard variety – LMGs, Sniper Rifles, Assault Rifles, Shotguns, and so on. Worst of all, they all look pretty much the same, so a high-end rifle is barely any different from the starting rifle of the same type. Compare that to Destiny which features tons of weapon appearances, and given that Anthem is not bound to a realistic setting like The Division, it's quite disappointing to see such a lack of variety.
There's an unnecessary "combo" system where you can use different elements and attacks to setup some powerful damage spikes, but most people just spam their attacks as soon as they are off cooldown. As for your enemies, they are mostly human or at least human-like for the purposes of combat. Whether fighting the Dominion, the Outlaws or the Scars (insect like creatures), they all behave similarly and have the same types of attacks and weapons. You might occasionally fight creatures like scorpions or dog-like beasts, but they are even simpler, just rushing you or flinging attacks from distance. The AI is very basic and does not try to do anything to turn the tide in their favor – and cannot really react appropriately to Javelins being so mobile and able to flank the tougher shielded enemies. There's variety to the enemy combat, but it’s pretty basic and something you've seen many times before in most shooters where weak points are the design of choice.
Over the course of the game you gain access to four suits, and these Javelins act as the game's classes and feature unique weapon / ability slots. For example, the Ranger has slots for grenades and assault launcher (with varying types like homing Missile or energy beam). The Colossus has an Ordinance launcher (with types of mortar and shock), and a heavy assault launcher (where you can equip flame thrower or railgun). Storm is magic focused, so it has Blast seals (like lightning strike and ice storm), Focus Seals (to cast fireball or arc burst) and so on. Lastly, the Interceptor has Assault Systems slot (to equip a mine or acid bomb), and Strike Systems slot (for plasma star shuriken or star strike charge). The attack capabilities between the Javelin suits are indeed varied and provide a different experience depending on which one you choose. Ranger is most versatile, Colossus is the heavy assault, Interceptor is fast and close-ranged, and the Storm is the ranged-type. They also have different movement options, with their own versions of a double jump and sprint.
In a unique gameplay decision, Anthem doesn't feature an inventory system while in the game world. The only time you can customize your Javelin loadout (or swap to another) is in the Forge menu, which requires a loading screen and is only accessible at the Hub. While this may seem rather rigid, as you're unable to check out any of the loot you get from missions until you complete them, it doesn't turn out to be as annoying in practice as it may seem in theory. Stopping mid-combat to equip slightly more powerful gear is really not necessary in Anthem, as it doesn't make a world of difference. When you do swap Javelins, you can use existing items in your inventory if they are compatible (i.e. basic weapons) so you're not starting entirely from scratch with a new suit.
This leads us into the RPG elements of the game, which are about as underwhelming as the combat and mission design. Like Destiny, your suits have a Power level that is calculated based on whatever you have equipped in your attack slots. There is no armor to worry about, just what weapons and special abilities you carry and how powerful they are, which is a bit shallow. Further to that, the game tries to introduce unnecessary complexity by having weapons/abilities with four types of elemental damage (fire, ice, electric, acid). This means that only a few guns can actually be compared directly, despite featuring similar stats like rate of fire and magazine capacity, but with entirely different damage meters. As such, all you can do is just trust the game that higher Power level items are better than what you currently have. This removes much of the satisfaction you'd usually get from typical RPG progress. Instead, it's just trying to get your arbitrary Power rating to grow. There's not even a DPS rating.
Of course, there's the usual gear quality system, from Common to Masterwork, which designates its Power level range. Weapons also come with randomized bonus stats, so if you actually get into the game's cycle, you can spend time farming for loot and hoping for the best rolls. There's also a basic crafting system, requiring a few different material types and embers that dictate the gear's quality. But it can be safely ignored until after you beat the campaign, when you start to grind for the end-game items. Disassembling everything you've picked up through the story missions will net you plenty of resources, and after that you just need to find (or purchase) the rarer ember types. There's a further twist, too – the way you get new blueprints for items is by completing challenges and raising your standing with the game's factions. What this boils down to is filling out soulless objective lists, like doing certain number of missions, killing certain enemies, and so on. The game even puts this example of end-game design into the latter half of the campaign, grinding the story to a halt as you must go fulfill some random objectives. With the RPG mechanics being so lackluster, there's no sense of "loot farming" and continuously improving your character, like other games manage to deliver.
Between missions in the game world and spending time in the Forge menu, you'll be walking around the game's hub called Fort Tarsis. In this small area you will find all of the story NPCs that you must chat with and pick up missions from, as well as optional NPC conversations. The Fort has a day and night cycle, and some of the NPCs move between missions, but otherwise it’s a small and fairly dull level where you cannot jump or sprint, and are locked into a first person perspective. You'll also find a few vendors here, who sell you either crafting materials or visual customization items. Once you beat the story though, there's little reason to return to Fort Tarsis, and you should instead spend your valuable loading screen time heading into the Launch Bay.
The Launch Bay is essentially a room with some random players, where you can look to find some likeminded Freelancers. All of Anthem can be played with up to four players cooperatively, and even if you don't have friends who own the game, there is a straightforward matchmaking system for all of the content. The bay is a very simple and barren room, clearly meant to only host the essentials (such as vendors and the Forge), so it cuts down on the loading time – but at the same time, you need to be matchmade into an instance of it, causing an initial delay. It's too bad Anthem cannot offer the seamless matchmaking that The Division provides. On the whole, Anthem's multiplayer is stock standard, and connectivity seems to be fine when it comes to interacting with others. There is no competitive multiplayer.
Anthem unfortunately has plenty of technical hiccups. First off, the game's design calls for many loading screens, and they are pretty lengthy, so an SSD is absolutely recommended if you want to keep your patience. There are loading screens for every location – the game world, Fort Tarsis, The Launch Bay, the Forge – as well as mid-mission loading screens for cutscenes or to enter in and out of dungeons. If someone in your group gets to the next checkpoint, the game begins a very brief 10 second countdown and if you're not there in time, you get teleported – which is another loading screen. There seems to be little rhyme or reason for this, as if the game is afraid you might miss more of the same shootouts you've seen before. Not to mention, this allows AFK players to easily farm missions as they always get automatically regrouped with the team and can just stand around to collect the rewards later, with no option to kick.
In addition to the already boring mission design, problems arise when it comes to wrapping up a firefight. Sometimes, enemies will literally decide to start running and vanish before your eyes, as the game cheerily congratulates you on being victorious. Other times, a single enemy gets stuck somewhere, and the team has to scour the area to find them; assuming they spawned at all and it's not just a bug. If the game deems you have engaged in combat too quickly, enemy health bars do not appear, reducing the visual feedback from dealing damage and thus reducing the satisfaction of the fight.
The hostile planet of Anthem is at least well presented. The varying time of day and weather produce some nice-looking vistas as you soar fairly high above ground; textures, lighting, and combat effects look good. The original soundtrack also offers a few good tracks, alongside solid audio effects. In the Forge, you can customize the colors of your Javelin in a myriad of ways, and can certainly make yourself look quite imposing or colorful. Voice acting is hit or miss though, and facial and character animations leave something to be desired. Perhaps more troubling is the game’s technical performance, which is not great at 1080p and slowing down to incredibly low framerates within Fort Tarsis. Another irritation is the user interface. It's been a while since there's been such a bloated and poorly organized menu system. It's a chore to navigate and often tough to find what you need. Heck, you even have an inbox where you get letters that expand the lore, something we didn't discover until long after beating the campaign. Navigating the map interface when selecting a mission is also very cumbersome.
Had Anthem released before or at the same time as Destiny, its missteps would have been more understandable. But as a 2019 title, there are just too many nagging flaws, as if the game was designed in isolation from the competition. Both the RPG and shooter elements are functional, but they are a far cry from the best in the business. The story is convoluted and mission design goes against the best aspects of the gameplay – big explosions and the ability to fly in Javelin suits. With decent presentation, you might at least enjoy flying through the game world and tackling Strongholds with a group of friends. But Anthem is underwhelming in most of its key aspects, leaving you with a bland experience that’s unlikely to engage those already enamored with the likes of Destiny or The Division.