Bioware have had a lot on their plate over the last few years, with Mass Effect: Andromeda disappointing gamers to the point where they’ve been left wondering if the team even had it in them to put out a top quality title that lives up to their reputation again. They’ve been known for producing fantastic story-driven games that have had engrossing gameplay mechanics after all, with a wealth of titles released over the years that have always proven to be of the highest standard.
Anthem, their multiplayer-focused third-person shooter, was meant to be return to form for the team, with it taking a page out of Destiny’s book and offering an experience that players will want to constantly return back to for more co-operative escapades with friends and to hunt for more loot. There’s no doubting the hype for the game had been growing ever since its reveal and with EA going all-out promoting it, it’s felt like a lot was riding on its success.
Well, I’ve ploughed tens of hours into Anthem now and genuinely believe it is a return to form for Bioware, with it providing some of the most enjoyable gunplay I’ve had for some time in a third-person shooter. However, there are quite a few areas of the game that’ll need improving before it can strive towards the heights that I genuinely believe it is capable of.
Anthem takes place in a technologically-advanced world that was created by a mysterious race known as the Shapers by using relics powered by an energy known as the ‘Anthem of Creation’. It’s a beautiful world but one that’s unstable, with some relics causing disastrous events known as Cataclysms – it’s during one of these events where the story begins, with the hero ‘Freelancer’ (you’re not given a name, deal with it) forming part of a group that’s looking to stop a storm known as the ‘Heart of Rage’. Things go wrong, of course, but you manage to survive, but not without the previously revered Freelancers getting a drop in reputation. Two years pass though and whilst based in the passive locale of Fort Tarsis, you end up finding yourself working towards a goal to not only protect those around you but even the fate of the world. It’s all typical sci-fi stuff that doesn’t do anything you wouldn’t have seen before (twists and turns, big elaborate bad guys, showdowns with nasty creatures… you get the picture), but it’s a fun tale that I enjoyed seeing through to its conclusion.
That’s putting it in a nutshell a bit – I mean, this is a Bioware game after all, so there’s a bit too much going on to summarise in one paragraph. It does mean that there’s a lot of lore and depth to the world though, which is evidenced in all of the documents you find that detail just about every aspect of the game world. It’s clear that a lot of effort has been made to establish a massive universe in Anthem, and whilst I’ll admit that I didn’t read everything I found, it’s hard not to appreciate the effort made.
Anthem’s core gameplay experience sees you completing missions across an open-world in your Javelin. You’re given the choice of four different Javelins to use, each of which has their own different strengths: the Ranger is a jack of all trades, the Colossus focuses on dealing heavy damage, the Interceptor is incredibly agile, whilst the Storm has elemental capabilities. Of course, they have their own weaknesses too, such as the Storm which has minimal defensive capabilities or the Colossus which is a lot slower than the rest.
I stuck with the Ranger because I like a good balance of capabilities across the board, though once you hit level eight you’re able to unlock another class of Javelin anyway if you want to experiment a bit. Each Javelin comes with two interchangeable special abilities that both offer something different, with new ones unlocked as you progress through the game. As the Ranger I primarily used a health-regenerating dome-like shield and a laser-blast from my arm (so cool), but I also found myself using the shield that could improve everyone’s firepower as well a powerful kinetic blast instead – you can change up your abilities in the Forge in-between missions, so you can use whatever you fancy (or is most powerful) at the time.
You’ll also come equipped with a special ability which charges as you kill enemies in battle. This powerful attack can get you out of some sticky situations and can be the difference between life and death in some encounters – there were a few times where I was on the brink of death but using my Ranger’s ultimate barrage of homing missiles saved the day. Besides your abilities, you also come equipped with a grenade (which can vary with both the elements and the grenade properties) as well as two different weapons. The weapons are the kind you’d expect to see from a third-person shooter, with things like handguns, shotguns, machine guns, assault rifles and sniper rifles on offer throughout.
Between each of the Javelin’s abilities and the tight gunplay, Anthem really makes for a thrilling experience. Each of the guns feel mighty satisfying to use in general combat, whilst blasting out your abilities as well will just make you feel like some kind of superhero. The Javelin feels so satisfying to use in-game and there’s genuine sense of power on offer when taking down foes with it. It has a lot of manoeuvrability too, with the Javelin able to blast around battlefields with ease, dodge out of the way of enemy attacks, and even fly around and shoot at enemies at the same time. Believe me, there’s nothing more satisfying than gliding down into an enemy encampment, throwing a grenade into their midst, and then taking everyone out with your abilities all whilst in mid-air. It all comes together to feel like an exciting cross of Mass Effect and a Marvel movie, and it’s so satisfying to play in-game – it’s just brilliant.
One thing I’ll definitely say about Anthem is that it’s really at its finest when played with a group of friends. Co-ordinating in battles to unleash attack combos, utilising your roles and powers strategically, timing your ultimate attacks and, of course, having each other’s backs didn’t only feel incredibly satisfying but also vital during some of the game’s trickier missions. I lost count of the amount of times where I was saved by one of my allies smashing down on a foe when it was on the cusp of killing me or where I’d put a shield around my team to protect them from a sudden influx of deadly enemies, but it was these moments that stand out now as some of my fondest memories of the game so far.
Whilst the gunplay and co-operative elements of Anthem are brilliant, the mission design itself is a bit of a mixed bag. There are plenty of different missions to take on that’ll take you all across the game world, but you’ll find they grow repetitive quickly – they all typically consist of heading to a location, killing enemies, finding some items, heading somewhere else, killing enemies, finding items, and… you get the picture. The context behind the mission and the objective itself might change up a bit, but the actually process of completing them never really felt all that different.
There just weren’t too many missions where I felt like I was doing something unique that I hadn’t done before, whilst set pieces rarely felt substantial given that you’ll never really feel pinned down somewhere or like you can’t get out of the way of trouble. There are a few different things to attempt outside of missions such as the Strongholds, whilst exploring around in free-play could open up all kinds of different scenarios thanks to the World Events – unfortunately, the actual missions themselves really needed with some different tasks for players to complete just to help vary them up a bit.
One big aspect of Anthem is the loot collecting, but I found this a little underwhelming too. You never really know what you’re actually going to get until the end of a mission, which eliminated the excitement of actually FINDING some special item and meant you had to hope the end results would yield something useful. The weapons themselves don’t feel all that exciting either, with minimal variations in their appearance and more of a focus on an increase of stats. Sure, it was great to get new grenades or special abilities, but a lot of the standard weapons just felt a bit too ordinary. It’s a shame, especially since the loot aspect of the game is one the things that would typically keep players engaged when they’re done with the main campaign.
I remember being blown away by Anthem’s visuals when it was initially revealed, and thankfully playing through the main game has kept me in awe at just how stunning everything is. Flying through the vibrant world, seeing the astounding visuals effects (the weather in particular is amazing), smashing down into the underwater sections from mid-air, and encountering all the strange wildlife that inhabit the world never stopped impressing me, whilst the gunfire and explosions involved in a showdown with enemies always felt impactful too. Bioware have proven in the past that they’re capable of crafting impressive worlds and they’ve done it again here – it really is a visual marvel.
Like other aspects of the game though it comes with a catch: a lack of variety. There’s only one main environment in Anthem and it’s one that can become incredibly familiar the more you play the game. Sure, there are some old temples and caves to wander through and even a few small instances of variation of terrain, but for the most part the entirety of your adventure takes place over the same old (but luscious) greenery and water-filled landscape. You’ll probably see all that the world has to offer within your first ten-hours or so playing the game, which can make those later hours of the experience feel a little bit lacking – this is a game that’s designed to keep you coming back for more time and time again after all, so tiring of the world before you’ve even completed it probably isn’t the best.
At least it never stops being satisfying to fly across though, with your Javelin’s airborne capabilities so fun to use from start to end. Simply bursting into the air and scaling across the heights of the world is awesome, and whilst I didn’t want to make the clichéd reference it’ll definitely make you feel like Iron Man (I know, I know… it’s been said). You can’t constantly fly freely without overheating though, but this just encourages you to fly down and blitz across the waters, through a waterfall, or even into the depths of the many lakes. It’s just so fun to fly around and it’s something I could just spend hours doing in the world.
Oh, and it’s INCREDIBLY satisfying to fly with friends and see them accidentally crash into a wall, even if they’ll try their best to deny it or say that they meant to do it. We all know the truth, and it’s hilarious.
When you’re not in a mission or exploring the world you’ll spend most of your time in the home hub of Fort Tarsis. Interestingly, the game shifts to a first-person view when you’re back home, which I think might just be an effort by Bioware to show off how good the NPC’s facial movements are – after the intense lifeless stares of Mass Effect: Andromeda’s characters anything would be an improvement, but it’s hard not to be impressed by the uncanny valley-like effort made here. They show each and every emotion across the face whether it’s a sullen look in the eyes or the curling of their cheeks as they smile, and it just makes it all the more easier to grow attached to the colourful cast.
With characters to interact with, missions to take on, items to buy and stats to track, it’s easy to spend a lot of time in Fort Tarsis simply preparing for what comes next. It feels lively and lived in too, with no vacant spots in-place and every locale full of little details that show the effort that Bioware has put into world-building. Sure, things can be a little stereotypical in places (especially with some of the character’s personalities), but it certainly managed to offer an impressive hub that felt homely during the adventure.
One thing I’d be remiss not to mention is the game’s long loading times, with the transition between selecting and starting a mission often giving you a long wait. The same applies to when you head back to Fort Tarsis too, with the player better off having their phone handy to check social media whilst they’re left waiting. Fortunately, you won’t be hit with any long waits during missions so gameplay isn’t completely broken up mid-battle or anything, but the moments where you are left twiddling your thumbs are definitely noticeable.
Anthem has done so much to wow me during my time playing it, with the gorgeous visuals and the super fun gunplay making for some truly epic moments. It’s been brilliant playing with friends too, with the emphasis on strategic play and teamwork feeling more important than ever when taking on some of the game’s trickier missions.
However, the game also has a few problems right now, with a lack of variety in the missions and environment proving to be one of the worst offenders. There’s also a lack of satisfying loot to collect, with everything seemingly just working off numbers instead of making you feel like you’ve found some awesome new gear.
There’s definitely the potential there for Anthem to be something REALLY special, but right now I can see it being divisive amongst gamers. For me, the satisfying co-op elements and incredibly fun combat has been enough to keep me hooked in, but I could easily see some players being put off by the lack of variety. Bioware are in this for the long-haul though and with countless improvements being made already, there’s still time for them to fix the problems that prevent Anthem from striving towards gaming greatness.
Platform(s): Xbox One (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, PC