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Anthem review

A clean take off, but a rough landing

It can be hard to form an opinion when everyone is constantly inundating you with theirs. As I expressed in my First Impression of Anthem, I did my best to shut out the internet hate, but the further into the experience I got, the more the doubt began to creep into my wonderment. Anthem serves as an interesting reflection on gaming as a whole, asking how much good in a game can outweigh the bad. There are a number of difficult fights over the course of Anthem, but none are more taxing than the fight to maintain a positive attitude about its numerous qualities while its equally numerous flaws attempt to beat the smile off your face.

The journey starts out innocent enough. Anthem gets its namesake from the Anthem of Creation, a mystical energy that courses through its world, periodically erupting to create cataclysms. One of these cataclysms, called the Heart Of Rage, kickstarts Anthem’s story. An evil human faction called the Dominion is on a quest to harness the Anthem’s power, a quest that causes the Heart Of Rage and sets events into motion that could end everything. This only scratches the surface of the narrative web that Anthem weaves.

Given its complexity, players may find the story’s runtime a little on the short side, but so much of its context is delivered through text-based collectibles and mid-mission dialogue. While this generally isn’t the best way to get a story across, looter-shooter games are so reliant on repetition and grind that their storytelling has to be inconsequential enough to not bog down player progress. Anthem rightly risked the path that lets players choose their own level of engagement, and the game’s deep lore is genuinely worth the attention for anyone that finds the time to dive in.

A good portion of this lore and dialogue is experienced within the walls of Fort Tarsis. This deceptively small hub world is free for players to explore as their nameless Freelancer—essentially a mercenary with a fancy suit of armor. Despite not having a name, our (male or female) Freelancers do have voices and faces, which come up more than you’d expect in the game’s various cutscenes. These voices are also used within Tarsis to discuss missions with allies, as well as learn more about the people of the city and the larger world beyond.

Many conversations have binary dialogue options scattered within them, letting the player parse out information, establish a particular persona for their character, and even build reputation experience with the various factions of the Fort, which can result in crucial rewards like crafting blueprints. Whether or not these conversations are wells of emotion, silent protagonists almost always hurt the immersion of a game, so even though the male voice–which was what I chose– comes off as a pompous tool, a vocal main character is still preferable.

Often, these conversations lead to some type of mission beyond Fort Tarsis in the wilderness of Bastion. This breathtaking environment, comprised of jungles, caverns, and ruins, is loaded with tons of corners to explore. Bastion is ultimately smaller than it seems at first glance, but it makes up for this with a high degree of verticality. To survive this world that is equal parts stunning and lethal, players need a method of getting around, as well as means to defend themselves against the dangerous wildlife, outlaws, and other threats that roam the land. Fortunately, Anthem has just the thing: Javelins.

Javelins are exosuits that come in four different varieties: the reliable and balanced Ranger, the durable and brawny Colossus, the highly-advanced Storm, and the swift and agile Interceptor. Each of these suits are equipped with different offensive and defensive abilities, all of which supplement their distinct combat roles. This includes their exclusive Ultimate abilities, which are as integrally useful as they are visually gratifying. Their individuality is further facilitated by their variety of passive traits, such as the Colossus’ deployable shield, the Storm’s ability to hover almost indefinitely, and the Interceptor’s freedom to dole out melee attacks without a cooldown. The Ranger isn’t quite as special as the rest, but it makes up for it with possibly the coolest looking Ultimate out of the four.

There are impactful differences between these four Javelins, but their most invaluable function is something they all share. Every Javelin can fly, some more nimbly than others, but no matter which suit is equipped, this flight is one of the best traversal systems in all of gaming. With a simple jump, any Javelin can take to the sky with controls as smooth as butter. Hovering is the other side to this aerial coin, and flipping between the two at a moment’s notice is completely seamless.

It can’t be stressed enough how well this movement style fits into the combat, usable as both an escape and an instant vantage point. And if there isn’t a fight going on, there’s an undeniable tranquility to cruising over the landscape. A Javelin’s jets do overheat aggressively fast, but the occasional waterfall, river, or even rain can cool them down, adding a sprinkle of strategy to the navigation. When there are hostiles around to kill, however, it’s important to ensure your javelin is up to the task.

Ranking up in Anthem is done through the character, not each individual Javelin. This means that, no matter which Javelin a player is using, loot will drop around the same level, making progressing all four Javelins in tandem fairly easy. After just a few missions with a neglected Javelin, the suit will be on par with the others, helped by the game’s sharing of applicable weapons and components (stat-boosting perks) across inventories. This design allows for a great deal of freedom in how one enjoys the game, mitigating the stress that would come from an alternative system demanding each Javelin be used equally, regardless of one’s preferences.

Once new gear is on hand, players must travel to the Forge. This is the customization environment in which players can tweak the abilities, weapons, and cosmetics of their Javelin, making it truly their own. Weapons lack some serious inspiration in both visual design and class diversification, at least for such an imaginative sci-fi setting, but those that are present are functionally different enough to warrant thoughtful consideration.

More important are the abilities, through which Anthem’s combat excels the most. Some abilities—like the Ranger’s grenade and Colossus’ ordnance launcher—behave more similarly than they maybe should, but every option has something that sets it apart and makes it worth experimentation. Combining the game’s tight gunplay with this array of stylized equipment puts Anthem’s combat well above its contemporaries, and that’s before you throw combos into the mix.

Every ability features some kind of status effect, either one of the four different elemental traits—fire that damages over time, acid that lowers defenses, etc.—or something more straightforward like impact or explosive damage. From there, most abilities act as either primers or detonators, and when an enemy is hit with a primer first and a detonator second, a whole new world of punishment unravels. Each Javelin features a unique combo effect, like the Ranger dealing massive single-target damage, or the Storm exploding whatever elemental effect was detonated. Knowing which Javelin does what combo is a layer of strategy essential for Anthem’s more difficult fights, providing even greater depth for a combat system that already has plenty to offer.

Mastering the setup and effect of these combos is ideal when facing down bosses. Boss monsters tend to be the game’s most rewarding fights, demanding a mastery of flight, combat, and the synergy between them, but their meager variety limits how captivating they are. There are only a handful of different bosses in the game that are repeated ad nauseum, and even the broad spectrum of basic and miniboss enemies can only be wheeled out so many times before they become routine.

Mission objectives, whether in a contained expedition or discovered in freeplay as “world events,” could have diversified these encounters, but they don’t. Nearly every expedition involves flying to a place, clearing it of enemies or collecting pickups (or both), occasionally fighting a boss or completing a simplistic matching puzzle, and then running it back. The only thing saving the process from its own monotony is the sheer magnificence of the core gameplay, but now we start to see the cracks in Anthem’s armor.

Up until moments ago, Anthem has no doubt sounded like an exemplary experience, which is exactly how my time with the game started out. Tragically, unexceptional mission pacing is far from Anthem’s only speed bump. After a welcoming reception, concerns began surfacing over how uninformative the game is. From a lack of custom waypoint markers in freeplay to a general absence or obscurity of crucial information on systems like combos and faction progress, Anthem makes appreciating its qualities much harder than it has to (which I say at the risk of being savaged by Xbox executives). Speaking of the game’s more topical issues, the length and pervasiveness of Anthem’s loading screens have been beaten to death by the community at this point, so I won’t dwell on them except to throw some affirmational gas onto the fire.

The game’s clustered and redundant UI doesn’t help with the unintelligibility. Far worse, however, are the excessive and crippling glitches I (and seemingly everyone) experienced throughout the game, which were curiously exponential in their regularity. With the exception of lost saves and frozen consoles, Anthemhas some of the worst bugs I’ve ever encountered in a game. A notably recurring hitch involved locking me out of mission areas, thus forcing a restart, but there were plenty more to speak of.

What I found most curious about these glitches wasn’t their number or severity, but how they ramped up the closer I got to the end, which is the worst possible scenario in a genre so dependent on the endgame experience. When not getting virtual barriers slammed in my face, Anthem’s endgame has a moderate amount to offer, including legendary contracts, Masterwork loot drops, and two more raid-like Stronghold missions for a total of three—although, to be fair, there isn’t really a fundamental difference between Strongholds and other missions outside of their difficulty. Three new grandmaster difficulties are also unlocked at max rank, giving some life to challenges that may have otherwise worn out their welcome. Is all this keeping my attention? Sure, but for how long? That remains to be seen.

Admittedly, it’s not solely the endgame content that has me willing to fight back against the bug-laden grind. Rather, it’s the potential of the game’s post-launch support I’ve latched onto, imagining what exciting possibilities are coming down the line (for free, I might add, at least in terms of new story and gameplay content). It may seem improper to praise Anthem for something that isn’t there, or to expect too much of it given its current problems, but this game has the components necessary to be something truly great, even in the face of all that it lacks.

Anthem may be the single most polarizing game I’ve ever played, but despite all its efforts to scare me away, the spark I hold for it has yet to be extinguished. There were moments—many, in fact—when I was in awe of how impressive this game could be, and those are what I will hold onto while its problems get sorted out in the weeks and months ahead. Judging from what I’ve heard about the early access version, Anthem’s day-one update did wonders for it, relatively speaking, which suggests such improvements can continue.

★★★☆☆

Anthem is a beautiful car that is an absolute joy to drive, but so far, it only has enough gas to get you a couple miles. Also, the wheels will periodically fall off. Sold as a live-service game, fans of Anthem’s exhilarating gameplay have to hold out hope that things will improve, but there’s no denying the initial expedition was rough.

Developer
BioWare
Publisher
EA
ESRB
T - Teen
Release Date
2.22.2019
Anthem is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC. Primary version reviewed was for PlayStation 4. Review code was provided by EA for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.

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