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‘Anthem’ Review: Flighty Fun, but a Mech-Filled Mess

Dive bombing an unsuspecting sniper with the melee-focused Interceptor Javelin (the name Anthem gives its exosuits), eliminating an entire wave of enemies with a succession of the Storm’s tempestuous energy abilities, tearing through the sky, the jungle sun gleaming off of the Javelin’s exterior, there are many moments when Anthem literally shines. These moments provide glimmers of hope, brief glimpses into a potentially bright future for developer BioWare’s cooperative, mech-fueled, looter shooter. Unfortunately, any brilliance Anthem displays is too frequently eclipsed by a poor game state at launch rife with repetition, dismal design decisions, a grating grind, punishing pacing, and a lackluster narrative, the antithesis to the game’s gorgeous graphics and generally great gameplay.

Relics of the Past

Narratively, Anthem is a fairly familiar sci-fi affair involving a mysteriously absent forerunner species capable of shaping the planet, powerful relics they left behind, and the different factions attempting to control or contain said relics. That could be a description of Halo. Where Anthem manages some distinction is the “cataclysms” resulting from these unchecked relics, which take the shape of monster spawning portals and, perhaps in an environmentalist turn, devastating storms. To combat these cataclysms and contain these relics, humanity devised the Javelins. Now humanity’s last hope is in a small faction of Javelin pilots, the Freelancers.

The rest of the narrative could be read as a metaphor for the game itself. Previously revered as heroes, the Freelancers (BioWare) have fallen out of favor with the public (gamers) after failing to live up to their reputation and some costly mistakes (Mass Effect Andromeda). Unable to prevent a hostile faction known as the Dominion (EA) from activating a relic hidden beneath the heart of Javelin operations has resulted in the worst cataclysm humanity has ever seen, the Heart of Rage (gamer rage). Failing to stop the Heart of Rage once (Anthem‘s launch), could the key lie in the past (a lot of updates and patches)? Pepper in some nonsense sci-fi jargon giving purpose to the player for doing the same thing over and over and over again and, bam, you’ve got your AAA, live game, sci-fi shooter recipe!

“Slow Alone. Stronger Together.”

The world of Anthem is littered with quite a few intriguing characters for the player to interact with back at Fort Tarsis, the game’s central hub, that help push the narrative along. Well acted and captured, these characters provide a spark of life to the game’s first-person sections and give the otherworldly plot some heart and history. In these sequences, players are given fully voice acted dialogue options, that, while having no perceivable impact on the narrative, keep these sections interactive instead of just one-sided conversations. That’s not to say that some of these dialogues aren’t vexing NPCs dumping nonsense sci-fi exposition onto unwilling players’ heads in the name of plot development, but in the best instances I was eager to make a good impression with the more relatable characters I had taken to.  What I didn’t take to was having to slowly jog through the poorly mapped Tarsis to get from one monologue to the next, especially if it ended in more generic sci-fi babble over meaningful character interaction. That slow jog can’t be understated, resulting in tedious strolls through a notably single player space in cooperative game. It does explain the game’s slogan: Strong Slow Alone. Stronger Together.

Moments like these accentuate issues with Anthem‘s pacing. Tearing through the campaign as the most agile Javelin, the Interceptor, most campaign missions take no more than fifteen minutes. This is immediately followed by a mandatory trip to Tarsis to adjust my Javelin and the tedious task of walking to dialogue sequences to progress the story and or collect new quests, not to mention the loading periods loading in and out of the hub, resulting in five to ten minute periods away from the game’s main draw, the cooperative action. If played simultaneously with friends, these waits between missions can be even longer as each player modifies their loadout and pushes through the dialogue delivered context for the next mission. I’ve critiqued Destiny in the past for its over-reliance on exposition dumps when flying in to the next story mission, but I’d take that over a required trip to Tarsis any day, especially since players can multitask and mess with their loadout while loading in Destiny. Anthem, on the other hand, requires players to have access to the Forge back at the Fort or in the mission pre-launch menu to swap weapons and gear. That’s sure to spell out frustration in any loot oriented game, especially when early gameplay trailers boasted gear swapping on the go.

Like a Dream

Luckily, combat and general gameplay is the antithesis of Fort Tar-slow. Flight controls in Anthem are tight and responsive, and each Javelin “handles like a dream.”  Players can leap into flight at will, dive enemy troops on the ground, roll out of harm’s way, and hover above the field for an aerial advantage, all while an overheating mechanic ensures players are conscious while in flight and can’t over-utilize these techniques in a fight. Paired with the equally fast and fluid combat makes for some furiously frantic fun. Leveraging maneuverability to skate around an incoming attack or to deftly flank an enemy tank before letting loose with slur of shotgun shells or machine pistol munitions is extremely gratifying. Different guns pair better with different Javelins, courtesy of each Javlins unique strengths, adding depth and distinction when playing with a diverse team setup. The lightning-quick Interceptor, for example, can make excellent use of close range arms that pair with its range of melee attacks, while the Colossus benefits from hunkering down and shooting at a greater range. Even more distinct and satisfying to use are the series of abilities unique to each Javelin that punctuate Anthem‘s gameplay.

Each Javelin provides a great deal variety and perfectly encapsulates a core concept with its inherent and unlockable abilities. The Storm has a wide range of elemental and area-of-effect attacks ideal for slaying slews of enemies and hovers above the battlefield with a personal shield. The Colossus is a heavy hitting tank type with a range of multi-target attacks. The Ranger is an all range Javelin with a levy of grenade and rocket type attacks. The Interceptor is an agility based, melee monster with an assortment of throwing glaives and dashes to accentuate this style of play. So satisfying are these abilities, in fact, that I frequently go through missions without firing a single shot, opting to instead dice my enemies to death with the Interceptor itself. Not all abilities are created equal, however, and it is disappointing to be stuck with a weak or slow one for an entire mission or to have your best ability by a wide margin be one you don’t like. At least in the first scenario, you know for certain that a trip to Tarsis is only around the corner. Gameplay can also get a little stale once all of the abilities have been experienced since Anthem reserves most of its engaging gear and activities until after the twenty-or-so-hour campaign.

Combat tends to be engaging to the point that I generally don’t mind how repetitive the mission structure tends to be, however, it doesn’t take long to recognize how similarly every level is set up. Fly here, clear some ads, follow the radar to a specific point, hold to investigate, fly there, clear ads, protect a circle, done. Thankfully, again, flight and combat are really fun, but it’s a shame that most variety comes late in the game, similar to loot.

Shoot. Loot. Repeat.

Speaking of, perhaps the largest concerns with Anthem center on the loot drops. While most flags raised have been regarding the endgame loot grind where this is more critical, from the outset Anthem‘s loot seems antagonistically. Early on it just doesn’t matter since early gear drops so much more commonly. All the same, in most looter shooters I’ve experienced, almost all gear dropped through the campaign is at or above the players Gear Score, or Light Level, or whatever you want to call it, to help them climb through the early ranks. It’s typically not until the endgame grind that more powerful gear drops exclusively from endgame activities. In Anthem, however, it seemed like roughly half of all gear gained was worse than my current gear making the climb early on, again when it doesn’t matter, much slower and RNG based than necessary. This issue is only compounded when operating at higher levels.

For an investment cycle to work in a live game, players need to feel they’re earning tangible rewards for the time and effort invested. Anthem‘s constant struggle has been striking the proper balance, and in its current state, the rewards simply do not match the difficulty and time investment. There’s also a severe lack of endgame content to keep players invested longterm, limited primarily to three Strongholds, dungeon-like missions culminating in a large, unique boss fight. While Strongholds do propose an engaging challenge, that’s still pretty on content, though, as a live game, there is, of course, a roadmap charting the course for more content to come.

Finally, it’s also worth mentioning that all cosmetics are exclusive to Anthem‘s in-game store thus far, so while players are free to extensively color their Javelins, players won’t be grinding for cool armor which denotes their in-game achievements to other players any time soon. In a third person game filled with rad exosuits, this was a horrible decision as it means one less incentive to chase.

For all of its issues, I still find Anthem incredibly fun and am inclined to return again and again. Viewed as the game as a service that it’s been billed as, its difficult not to notice issues with the engame, the loot grind, and some of the missing investment opportunities on top of Anthem‘s struggle with pacing and repetition. Viewed as a momentary diversion and Anthem looks far more inviting. Exceptional in-game maneuverability, enthralling arena combat, thrilling Javelin abilities, with plenty of diversity in the form of new weapons and especially different Javelins each with their own unique abilities make Anthem distinct and worth experiencing. Viewed in that light, it is exciting that even if not fully invested, Anthem can be returned to later and it will hopefully be improved and have more to experience. In the end, Anthem might not be quite ready yet, but it has potential, like an inert Javelin waiting to take flight.

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