First Thoughts: Anthem

These first thoughts on Anthem are based on the state of the game from 26 February. I’ve been playing on Xbox One.

Creating new intellectual property is hard. A balance has to be found between creating hype and managing expectations. With Anthem, veteran studio BioWare is attempting its first new IP in some time, leaving behind its popular Mass Effect and Dragon Age series for a new sci-fi universe about soldiers in flying mech suits fighting against a mysterious alien race trying to dominate the world.

I played quite a few hours of Anthem last weekend, and I’m conflicted. While the gameplay is fun and the story is interesting so far, frustrating design choices and technical limitations do their best to prevent me from reaching the fun.

The highlight of Anthem is flying around in a mech suit, called a Javelin. You’ll spend about a third of Anthem flying your mech suit to different objectives, and it’s a lot of fun. Dropping off a cliff and deploying my Javelin’s thrusters to explore the world of Bastion is exhilarating, and getting the hang of flying is easy. It has not taken me long to master nose diving to the ground, flying along the surface of water, or diving right in to cool off the suit and manage its heating meter, which grounds you for a few seconds if it fills up. The controls are very responsive and, coming from someone who generally isn’t a fan of flying controls in games, I love jetting into the sky.

BioWare have made flying around in a mech suit feel impactful, with sound design and graphics helping out. Hearing the strong bass as my Javelin’s thrusters kick in is a joy to my ears. I also love the visual details such as water spraying in the air as you flying along the surface of water. Anthem is one of the best looking games I’ve seen, and I’m a big fan of the Javelin designs. With that said, it’s environments have a somewhat generic sci-fi feel.

Once you fly to the next objective, you’ll have to shoot some enemies. Combat in Anthem takes place from a third-person perspective, and involves using your two weapons, three abilities and an ultimate ability to decimate your enemies. Each of Anthem’s four unique Javelins, Storm, Ranger, Colossus and Strider, all have different abilities and movement systems that can take some getting used to, but add variety to gameplay once understood.

I’ve been enjoying playing as the Ranger, dodging around the battlefield and throwing various explosives like grenades and rockets at enemies. The Ranger’s ultimate sends a barrage of rockets towards multiple enemies and fills the screen with juicy explosions. The Storm, on the other hand, uses elemental abilities such as calling down a bolt of lightning and shooting frost darts at enemies. The Storm can hover for longer than the other Javelins so plays better above the battlefield, taking out enemies from further away. I quickly realised I could shoot frost darts at enemies, freezing them in place before blowing them up with an explosive sniper rifle.

Throughout my time, Anthem has kept a stable frame rate even when lots of explosions and bullets are flying on the screen.

Loot found during missions is claimed at the mission summary screen, and also includes new abilities for the Javelins. I’m not sure how many varieties of abilities there are, but it’s fun having a new ability to equip following the conclusion of a mission.

As I mentioned earlier, the tough part about seasoned developers making new IP is that it comes with a certain level of expectation. Almost like when your favourite band releases new music. BioWare has traditionally been known for its great storytelling and interesting characters (and the ability to romance them).

While romancing fellow freelancers doesn’t appear to be possible, I have enjoyed the interesting cast of characters. The eager Cypher and wannabe pilot, Owen (read: the person talking in your ear during missions), curious arcanist Matthias Erryl Sumner, and the strained relationship of past teammates Haluk and Faye, have so far made the story beats engaging as I slowly uncover the mysteries of this world.

The story itself is an interesting mix of sci-fi and fantasy elements. You play a freelancer, basically I guy or girl in a robotic suit of armour called a Javelin. The freelancers were once idolised, but when you were a rookie, your team attempted to stop some kind of world altering event called the Heart of Rage, but failed. As a result, all the freelancers disbanded and you ended up at a refuge called Fort Tarsis. In true fantasy tradition, the bad guys are a race of not quite human creatures called the Dominion who want to capture and use this powerful, but mysterious force for no good.

The story is usually delivered in first-person cutscenes as you explore the single-player hub Fort Tarsis, but the few cutscenes of exposition have been beautifully put together and entertaining when BioWare has felt the need to provide context for its world outside of written codexes.

I’m not sure it’s going to be a highly memorable story, but I’m entertained enough to want to know what happens next.

Anthem is not without its issues, and they largely relate to design aspects linked to exploring the world and accepting missions. Anthem feels like a game that’s not sure whether it wants to be a single player adventure, or a cooperative experience. The term shared-world is used, but its story doesn’t capture that.

Comparisons must be made to Destiny, the original shared-world shooter. While Destiny’s story premises the idea that it’s up to you and your fellow Guardians to save the world, adding context to playing missions cooperatively, Anthem sets its story up like you’re the only Freelancer in Fort Tarsis, taking on these missions to save the world. Yet, it tells you Anthem is meant to be played cooperatively. This messaging heavily contrasts to the story being told.

Further, the aspect of a shared-world is limited to you and three other players, and a tacked on social hub that was added after fan outcry. You take missions from the inhabitants of the single-player hub Fort Tarsis, and then enter your Javelin to go to the mission start screen. Selecting a mission allows you to match-make, or begin it alone. You can also enter Freeplay and explore the world outside of Fort Tarsis. Whereas Destiny throws you into a server with up to 16 other players, Anthem appears to restrict your session to a squad of four players. It makes the map feel empty, like you might as well be the only player there because, unless you’re playing with friends, you’ll mostly be flying somewhere else to the other three players in the server.

My biggest issue with the game, however, is the long load times that occur too often and interrupt the flow of the game. Rather than a traditional open world game where you run around an open world without being interrupted, Anthem plays more like the first Destiny, where you select a mission, load in, complete it and then return to a mission select screen. However, Anthem takes this one step further by requiring you to load back into Fort Tarsis to talk to characters and take on new missions.

A usual session of Anthem goes like this for me: load into Fort Tarsis; talk to someone to get a mission; walk to the forge to customise my javelin; a screen pops up to load the customisation screen; I customise my Javelin; a load screen appears when I want to get out; I open the mission selector; there’s a load screen to start a mission; the mission starts; sometimes there’s a load screen to get to parts of the mission inside ‘dungeon-like areas’; the mission ends; there’s a load screen to get to the mission summary; there’s a load screen to go back to the forge to equip the new gear I just got; another load screen to get back to Fort Tarsis. Repeat.

In each 20 minute interval, there’s a significant amount of loading. It disrupts the gameplay flow and makes it easy to put the controller down. It’s currently not a total deal breaker because the gameplay is fun enough to keep me jumping in, but it has the potential to become infuriating.

Loading between missions and maps are necessary, but I shouldn’t have to load in and out of what is essentially the inventory screen. Moreover, your Javelin can’t be customised once you leave Fort Tarsis, so if you equip a weapon or ability to try out and you’re not enjoying it, you’re stuck with it until you load back into the Fort to switch it.

Despite these issues, I’m mostly enjoying my time with Anthem. The moment to moment gameplay is fun enough that the surrounding design issues are minor inconveniences that I’m willing to overlook, despite them being constant roadblocks to the fun aspects of the game. Anthem feels like a game that’s not sure what it wants to be, and it’s likely it will be stuck that way until a sequel learns from its shortcomings.

When I eventually reach the end game, I’ll share updated thoughts on Anthem, but if I had to give it a rating now…

Have you been playing Anthem? Let me know your thoughts by commenting below, or reaching out to me on Twitter @NateThinks, or follow Think First Entertainment on Facebook.

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