Just Go Watch Iron Man
When you hear "BioWare game" you tend to think of long story-focused RPGs such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age. Anthem is a very different beast. Closer in design to games like Destiny and The Division, Anthem has you in an always-online world teaming up with other players to shoot bad guys and collect loot. It's quite the long shot from the usual for BioWare, and yet they have a lot riding on it. So is this a tune worth marching to, or is it BioWare's swan song?
You'll play as a character known as the Freelancer. Early in the game, you can decide what gender and ethnicity they are, but there's no real customization option outside of that. They'll always have the same "cocky hero" personality no matter what you choose. Freelancer is part of an organization called... the Freelancers. If you expect that to be an annoying confusion throughout the game's story, you'd be correct. Two years ago, the Freelancers mounted an assault on an evil wormhole called the Heart of Rage, but the majority were horribly killed and the assault failed. Now, with their reputation in tatters and not many left alive, you discover that an evil army plans to go into the Heart of Rage and harness its power to rule the world. It's up to Freelancer the Freelancer to gather together with other Freelancers and put a stop to this plot.
Those expecting another deep and dramatic BioWare story are going to be disappointed by Anthem. The plot is okay action movie fare, but there's really not much to say about it. It'll get you through the ten hours the campaign lasts, and little more. This universe could be interesting, but Anthem suffers from the same problem that Final Fantasy XIII did many years ago. This is an extremely thick universe with its own terms, culture, and lore. Every cutscene sees several characters drop terms and jargon without context. Before long, I was diving into glossaries after every scene just to learn the basics.
If there's one story element Anthem gets right, that would be the characters. I found myself attached to nearly every character in Anthem, and it was about the only part of the plot that could keep me hooked. From wounded Freelancers trying to relive glory day, to brash researchers who want to mess with every potential new discovery, there's a great cast here. A princess going into hiding among the army, and who continues to try and explain who's in line for various thrones, is easily a favorite of the bunch. I just only wish they were in a better story.
The side stories manage to be slightly more interesting than the main quest. They can involve hunting down lost manuscripts, finding a missing caravan, or going around respecting many of the men and women who died in the line of duty. Since they focus on the interesting characters, it's easier to actually care about these subplots. Maybe that's also what makes the disappointments stand out so much. Several of these side plots suffer from pacing problems. One, involving an outlaw named Diggs posing as a Freelancer, is suddenly dropped mid-game and isn't picked up again until after the final mission. Another, featuring a woman who seems to have an extreme hatred for a race of bug people known as Scars, feels like it's building up for something that never happens.
Thankfully, the gameplay fares much better at delivering consistent joy. Early on, you'll select one javelin suit from a selection of four. Ultimately I went with the mage-like Storm, but there's something for everyone here. Each suit has a unique ultimate ability, a pair of active abilities that can be swapped around, and a support ability. For example, the Storm can drop bolts of lightning, toss fireballs, and put up shields made of air. Had I taken the Ranger suit, I would be able to toss grenades or shoot rockets. These abilities are where the real fun is, and the fast-paced combat is really entertaining.
I really can not stress this enough: Anthem's combat is loads of fun. There's a thrill in jumping into firefights, quickly dashing around the battlefield and smashing enemies will all sorts of abilities. In one particularly great fight, I managed to turn myself into what could best be described as living artillery, hovering over the battlefield and tossing explosive fireballs at clumps of enemies before landing in their ranks and gunning them down with a light machine gun. Even when Anthem starts to get repetitive, I still enjoyed every fight I got into. It's really a testament to just how good the combat is. It's a bit strange seeing BioWare, a company known for prioritizing story, manage to absolutely nail this one aspect. Thankfully, it means Anthem has a really strong base to build on, something it's going to need.
Things begin to get iffy when you stray away from combat. As mentioned before, Anthem starts to get repetitive before long. Most missions have the same basic structure. You go to location A, shoot things, go to location B, shoot things, then finally go to location C where you'll shoot more things. The fact that each mission, main quest or side, brakes down into three locations is a bit weird. You'll sometimes have to stand in specific spots while fighting or collect items while gunning people down, but this is almost all you do. The only real break in the combat is some very light puzzle solving. Even then, every puzzle is some form of "match the symbols with the other symbols." It's forgettable and feels like it's mostly there for padding.
Things get better in Anthem's few available strongholds. These dungeons, meant to be tackled by teams of four, are a real highlight. You'll be moving through increasingly more challenging fights before finally getting to a unique boss at the end. It was during these strongholds that Anthem clicked in a really good way, and I realized it was the kind of game I'd love to sink more time into. Sadly, there's also a major crutch with the strongholds. There's only three of them, and one is just repeating the final mission of the game. It's certainly a huge letdown that there aren't more.
Between levels, you can explore the open world in Freeplay mode. As you do so there will be random events for you to participate in, most fitting the description of "bad people are here, shoot them." There's a bunch of collectibles and crafting items to find and secret nooks and crannies to explore. To aid with this exploration Anthem features the ability to hop into the air and fly around using a jetpack that quickly overheats. You manage said heat by either flying through waterfalls or landing to let it cool down. Overheat, and you'll comically crash into the ground and make a solid "THUNK" sound like you're in a Goofy cartoon. It's totally worth doing at least once for the comedic value. Thankfully, flying around is easy and fun, and it sure did quite a bit to help make me want to explore Anthem's world just a little bit more.
You can also spend your time in Fort Tarsis. While you're in the fort, you play in first-person, walking around and talking to the various citizens. You can have conversations with various side characters and get occasional choices on what you want to say. You only have two options, and neither affects the main story, but I still appreciated it. The characters continue to shine here, and I found many I really enjoyed. In particular, a shop owner who had an obsession with finding and petting baby versions of every one of Anthem's complicated animal species. I was guaranteed at least one laugh every time the option to talk to her opened up.
A couple of times during the main story, forward moment suddenly grinds to a halt and Anthem introduces weird conditions to move on. Early on, it asks you to go into the open world and collect three uncommon materials, but that only takes about 15 minutes. Halfway through the campaign, there's a horrid segment where you need to find four tombs. Each of these tombs presents a list of random tasks you need to check off.
It is simply not fun making you stop playing story missions to go score headshots, collect treasure chests, use specific abilities, and participate in random events seems to accomplish little more than adding an extra couple of frustrating hours of padding to Anthem's story. There's also one strange late game "mission" had a condition of doing nothing more than entering and leaving the open world. So yes, a mission had a condition of experiencing some load times. It's nothing that a simple fade to black could have accomplished just as easily.
This also brings up how bad the load times are. It's not just that they're long, though the average load times were usually in the 20 to 40-second range. It's also how many there are. I realized part of this is just Anthem's design. Every time you finish a mission, you get a choice. You can either return to Fort Tarsis, enter the character customization screen (which, upon exiting, dumps you in Fort Tarsis anyway), or go to a multiplayer lobby called the Launch Bay. No matter your choice, you'll be loading into this new environment, walking back to the mission select area, and then selecting a new mission to load into. This could all be averted so easily if you were able to launch into another mission from the end of the last one. It's baffling that you can't.
Many online looter shooters put a lot of effort into ensuring you stick around after the campaign wraps up. At the current time, Anthem doesn't do a great job of this. Going through the campaign, almost all the side quests, the three strongholds, and all the conversation chains lasted me around 25 to 30 hours. After I finished the campaign I didn't have much else to do outside of the grind. There are some harder difficulties, but the only real difference is in enemies with more health that deal more damage. If you want to grind out for materials, crafting, and suit customization, you'll find that. However, you may be waiting for more to do. At the very least, there's a good foundation here and that puts Anthem in a much better place than, say, Fallout 76 with this issue.
At least I get to enjoy the stunning graphics of Anthem while I'm waiting. The look of the world and its characters consistently impressed me. I can toss spells around and gun down enemies in one fluid motion, and it all looks great. Each thunder strike feels powerful, and watching enemies go flying from my fireballs is always a treat. Inside the fort, the character models are equally impressive. In particular, the facial animations are some of the best that I've seen in a while. The great voice acting stands alongside all this, helping me get into the mood even when the weird terms or lackluster plot bring me down. The soundtrack generally works for each situation, but it isn't really notable outside of that.
So no, Anthem is not quite the next revolution that people hoped for. It is, however, a solid third-person shooter. The fact that the combat is just so insanely fun helps push the game through its rather mediocre spots. The story isn't great, but at least the characters are worthwhile. The loads are long, but what it's loading is beautiful. Maybe a year down the line, there will be a better and more focused game here. One that has much more content for people who are looking for more to do outside the campaign. However, if you're just looking to play through a fast-paced shooter campaign, this may scratch that itch.
TechRaptor reviewed Anthem on PC via Origin using a Legion of Dawn Edition provided by the publisher. The game is also available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
- Great Characters
- Amazingly Fun Combat
- Entertaining Flight Mechanics
- Strongholds are the Best Part
- Lovely Graphics
- Boring Story
- Super Repetitive Missions
- Bad Filler
- Many Long Load Times
- Not Enough Content