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Anthem – Review

February 22nd, 2019 by

eateasetanthem_trailer_2479433bGame publishers increasingly desire to tie you into their games for the long term. The long, slow, powergrind of games like The Division and Destiny keep players coming back day after day, week after week, gladfully sinking unspeakable hours into their games and, as a no doubt pleasing result for publishers, are quite happy to buy the game at launch, purchase DLC and expansion packs, plus the occasional delve into game marketplace and part with real world money for a pretty cosmetic. One repeated problem with these games though has been weak storytelling, using the excuse that the plot is merely there to carry the game along and the “real story” is what the player does. To redress that EA enlisted Bioware, creators of the beloved Mass Effect, to craft a living world that not only keeps players coming back, but also delivers the sort of story they are renowned for. One of the most respected developers jumping into a hot genre; what could possibly go wrong?

Well, plenty, as it turns out.

The world Anthem inhabits is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Luscious trees and vegetation sway in the breeze, waterfalls flow down cliff faces, particle effects flood the screen seemingly at all times, and draw distances give an impressive illusion of a vast scale. Your first visit into the open world is a genuine breath taker, and one of those moments that reinforces how far gaming has come in terms of visuals. As an opening statement, it’s impressive.

This goes up a notch the first time you take to the skies, because Anthem really nails traversing the world. A simple button press is all that’s needed to engage your boosters and then you’re doing your best Iron Man impression, cutting through the air and taking in everything below you. Flying too long overheats your Javelin, which leaves you in freefall to the ground (thankfully there’s no drop damage), however you can reset the heat gauge by flying through a waterfall or diving into a lake. Flying close to shallow water, such as a stream or pond, adds a “Cooling” buff which slows down the gauge. Initially I found the overheating a frustration, but later came to appreciate the constant need for water adding a more interesting mechanic to movement instead of it simply being a case of moving from A to B. As a whole it works really well, and seeing the world from a high vantage is a joy.

In fact, movement in general is one thing that Anthem does well. Something as simple as sprinting feels weighty and purposeful, with a brief moment of delay and a judder reinforcing the graphical cue of boosters engaging on the back of your Javelin. Similarly, dodging during combat feels excellent, and escaping from a tough spot with a swift dodge and fly maneuver feels excellent.

While the movement in combat feels superb, the combat itself is less successful. Guns feel weak, taking multiple clips of crits to take down simple, low tier enemies. Using weapons feels like a strange juxtaposition to movement; the swift and enjoyable darts across playspaces being tempered by plodding gunplay. The Division was criticised for bullet sponge enemies, but they have nothing on what you see here.

Straight up ordinance isn’t the only tool at your disposal though, and realistically the focus during enemy encounters is on using your Javelins two chooseable skill items instead. These generally take shape in a grenade of some form, and a more devastating attack on the other. Pair these up correctly, by yourself or with a teammate, and you can land a combo attack that deals significant damage. In my case, I pair an ice grenade, a primer (to use the game’s parlance) that freezes enemies to the spot, with a pulse blast detonator. While it’s undoubtedly satisfying to land a combo, seeing the letters flash up and a huge chunk vanish of an enemy’s health bar, it does start to feel slightly monotonous when every encounter turns into you waiting for the skills to recharge. This could be an easily fixed though, I’d like to see guns get a buff to damage across the board so your doing more DPS in the downtime between skill charges.

Damage output isn’t the only issue with weapons though, the other being the general lack of them. In fact, for a looter shooter, there’s a lack of loot in general, and this is one of the serious flaws in the game. In the early game, which should take you around 20-ish hours, your stuck with a 2 or 3 variations of 9 weapons archetypes, none of which feel distinctive enough from each other. As you progress through the Common, Uncommon, Rare, and Epic tiers of guns, it’s the same guns all the way through, which really kills the excitement of seeing a drop on the floor.

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In addition to the lack of weaponry, there’s also a lack of armour drops. I say “lack”, there’s actually none at all. For some reason, and I can’t fathom this in the slightest, armour variations do not exist in the loot pool. There’s two ways to change how your character looks; either changing the shader and material type, or buy buying an armour set from the store. You can purchase these either with currency you earn in-game or with microtransactions. I’m sure some of you are audibly groaning at that, however I can say that digging your credit card out doesn’t feel necessary. While the in-game currency doesn’t exactly fly up, there’s enough sources for you to be able to afford the cosmetics without too much stress.

There’s a paucity of mission structure too, essentially distilling down to three identikit mechanics; fly to area and either a) stand in a spot shooting everything while a bar goes up, b) collect fragments and return them to a specific position while being shot, or c) fly around collecting orbs and return them to a specific position while being shot. I understand that essentially every game can be boiled down to a basic level, but this just adds a further level of monotony to a game that already feels tedious. It’s dull missions placed on top of dull gameplay, with added dull weapons.

There’s not much to do in general. After the short campaign you have three things to do; Contracts, Strongholds, and Freeplay. Contracts are little more than shorter missions, with nothing interesting added aside from occasional Legendary versions that seem a bit harder. Strongholds are Anthem’s version of something that sits between Destiny’s Strikes and Raids. They’re longer, multi-section missions. There’s three Strongholds in Anthem currently, two being new and one being simply a repeat of the campaign’s last mission. I enjoyed these at first, but there’s so few they start to grate, especially with one of the Weekly Challenges being to do them ten times, and a Quest line that requires you to complete a whopping twentyfive, a task that I currently have absolutely no desire to complete.

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Freeplay has it own set of issues. Essentially a freeroam mode, you can explore the map at your heart’s content. The problem is, there’s not a lot to do, and what you can do isn’t particularly easy to do. The map itself is confusing to navigate, with large walls often stopping your planned route, and absolutely no waypointing or guidance system to help you get to a destination. The world, despite being beautiful, is indistinct, with little variation between regions. In Freeplay you have activities called Events (ie Destiny’s Public Events), but they don’t appear on your map. You just have to fly around this space and the hope that the game deems it time to kick one off. The aforementioned Quest requires me to complete a solid one hundred of these Events to progress. To clarify, Anthem expects me to do one hundred of something that I don’t know where it happens and can’t tell if one is happening.

It’s a repeated criticism levelled at “games as service” titles that, at launch, there’s a limited amount of activities, but Anthem short changes you to an incomparable degree.

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Exacerbating all this is one of the poorest cast of enemies I can remember in some time. None of the enemy factions are particularly interesting, and the variations in those factions are incredibly few. Not only that, the majority are beyond stupid, merely standing in one place while you’re forced to pump endless bullets into them.

Even the boss-type enemies are utterly dull. At the end of most missions you’re asked to take down a targeted enemy, which are essentially exactly the same thing that you’ve just been shooting for the last however long, but they’ve got a different name and a frankly obscene amount of health shield points. Even the Titans, the behemoths that were seen often prerelease, are exceedingly dull to fight, doing nothing but spam some incredibly cheesy distance attacks, including balls of fire that give you a split second to avoid and leave you immediately with no shield and a sliver with health, while waiting for the brief moments where their crit spots are open so you can whittle down at a health bar that overstays its welcome. It’s all so dull, so unimaginative, and so under what I expected from Bioware.

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End game fairs no better than any of the rest. It’s simply doing the same stuff you’ve done, at three increasing difficulties, and there’s less structure to it. Nothing new, no variations, just even longer health bars.

There’s other curious decisions throughout. For example, you’re unable to change anything mid-mission, your loadout is set before you head out, and this can have negative consequences. For example, I jumped into a Quickplay Grandmaster 2 (the tier below the hardest difficulty) mission, which my plucky team romped through until the final battle. The boss was impervious to our primers, so we were unable to do any significant damage via combos. Instead, we needed to spend a painful 30 minutes chipping away at a health bar, all the while being victim to one shot kills with zero telegraphing. It didn’t feel like an edge of the seat victory, it was a slow, painful battle of attrition. I simply can’t understand the logic of not allowing us to switch up to a loadout that would have worked.

Bioware has always been lauded for its storytelling, packing plots, sub-plots, and minor threads throughout their worlds. It pains me to say that none of this exists in Anthem. The main storyline is so immediately forgettable that writing this, merely 72 hours after starting and a day after finishing it, needed to look up the what happened. I thought I must have missed something, or maybe a cutscene glitched and was skipped, but no. The minor, optional conversations that take place in Fort Tarsis are no more than distraction, and have a distinct whiff of just being there to give the hub a reason to exist. You’re often presented with dialogue options, something that in Mass Effect games could have strong implications in how the rest of the game played out, but here they add nothing.

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The main story arc, aside from being forgettable, is also so generic and by the book it’s almost unimaginable that this came from the studio that created Mass Effect. Big, faceless villain with generic name seeks item to get unimaginable power and destroy stuff. If you’re thinking you’ve heard that one before, you’re right. There’s absolutely nothing added to a tale you’ve played before, aside from one cutscene that stands out like a beacon in 15 hours of utter banality.

There’s a theme that keeps coming back to the forefront in this review, and it’s “lack”. There’s lack of things to do. There’s a lack of story. There’s a lack of loot. There’s a lack of mission mechanics. It adds up to me entirely lacking the motivation to continue playing it.

I also find it inexcusable that both EA and Bioware haven’t looked at every single misstep made by games like Destiny and The Division and, instead of learning and rectifying, somehow delivered less than the total sum of those games. Despite both being much-flawed and being rightly called out as such, were immeasurably better games at launch than Anthem.

Anthem is probably the most disappointed I’ve ever been with a game. On paper it ticks all the boxes, but then goes on to deliver so little; a jaw-dropping environment can’t save a looter shooter with dull, unimaginative loot and lackluster shooting, monotonous combat mechanics, and a weak and unmemorable plot that whimpers along to an unsatisfactory conclusion. For a studio once held in such high regard but needing a hit after a weakly received previous game, it’s a spectacular miss.

Disclosure: Matt paid for his own copy of Anthem via EA Access. The review was started after finishing the campaign and completed having played for 40 hours . For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.

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