Anthem Review – Flying High Until the Javelin Overheats
AnthemFebruary 22nd, 2019
Anthem can doubtlessly be considered one of the most anticipated games due this year. It is the first new IP developed by BioWare since the release of Dragon Age: Origins in 2009.
It's also the first time the studio known for its roleplaying games steps out of its comfort zone. While not BioWare's first online-only game (that was Star Wars: The Old Republic, the MMORPG launched in December 2011), Anthem marks their attempt to enter the highly competitive 'looter-shooter' subgenre.
Historically BioWare developers have been lauded for the stories and characters, not to mention RPG systems, available in their games. The action itself, on the other hand, often felt a bit lackluster, though admittedly this historical shortcoming was improved upon with the latest Dragon Age and Mass Effect releases.
Anthem turns this notion upside down. By far the best part of the game is the action, which feels fresh and addictive, while the content is definitely worth criticizing in several ways.
Since its gameplay debut at E3 2017, Anthem sold its prospective players on the fantasy of flying freely throughout the game world in a stylish, sleek mech suit called Javelin. It was often referred to as 'Iron-Man: The Game' in the gaming community, which is understandable given that Marvel still inexplicably doesn't feel like providing us with a proper game featuring Tony Stark, despite the major rise in popularity enjoyed by the character due to Robert Downey JR's performances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
On this count, Anthem delivers in spades. After well over forty hours of playing the release version (and at least a dozen more during the pre-launch demo weekend events), it is still exhilarating to step into the virtual suit of a Javelin to soar into the skies, admire the lush environments below, just before diving steeply to graze a waterfall and prevent the engines from overheating.
That's right, flight isn't without limitations in the game. This is a net positive in my book because it turns the handling of your Javelin into a skill that can be mastered instead of something to be taken for granted. There are a series of maneuvers that an expert pilot can use to extend flight time. Diving sharply to the ground is a quick way to fully dissipate heat, but you can also fly extremely close to water surfaces to gain the 'cooled' buff which delays overheating. If you actually get into the water or pass through a waterfall, the overheating meter resets entirely.
Of course, players can also equip items with increased thruster life and/or speed to further tweak their flying experience. But it's not all, as all Javelin classes except the Colossus (which comes with a shield instead) have their own dodge that can be used both on the ground as well as in the air with something similar to an aileron roll. This move saved my Javelin countless times as I flew into the fray after defeating an enemy to get a repair orb (used to), a risky move to do at low health if the roll isn't timed correctly.
Beyond movement, though, combat as a whole feels great as well. The gunplay is solid and satisfying, though not quite as good as Destiny's (unsurprising, given Bungie's pedigree with shooters). BioWare's trump card is that unlike Bungie's Destiny and Ubisoft Massive's Tom Clancy's The Division, this isn't a shooter first. Shooting with your guns should be done whenever your gear abilities, which are the most important tools in a Javelin's arsenal, are on cooldown.
While traditional roles don't quite apply to Anthem, the four Javelin classes can be loosely described as tank/ranged multi-target DPS character (Colossus), ranged multi-target DPS/crowd-control character (Storm), melee single-target DPS/debuff character (Interceptor), ranged single-target DPS (Ranger).
The Storm feels truly awesome to play. Between the flying and the ability to conjure incredibly cool looking elemental spells, be it fire, ice or lightning based. The bulky Colossus plays like an unstoppable train and the Interceptor is basically a Ninja zipping between enemies at blazing fast speed. The Ranger isn't quite as great as the others and could use some improvements in my opinion, though your mileage might vary here depending on your preferred playstyle.
Even the excellent action, while of critical importance for a game that's mostly about combat, needs meaningful content to go with it. Unfortunately, that's where Anthem begins to seriously stumble.
The only region available right now, Bastion, is comprised of a rather small map that can be crossed in just a few minutes even with the existing overheating limitations. The level designers did a great job to make it feel vertical and natural, but there's simply no escaping the repetitiveness of the environment. There should have been at least two additional regions with different biomes at launch, not only for the sake of visual variety but also for the sheer quantity of content needed for a game like this. Instead, Anthem only features a handful of monsters and factions that are repeated throughout all the modes and missions. The quests themselves also suffer from a very limited amount of objectives, usually involving the gathering of scattered fragments or 'echoes' to silence a Shaper relic that's about to go haywire and create a Cataclysm (but it never does, as there's only one type of event in Freeplay that can be truly failed, one where you have to rescue a number of downed Sentinel NPCs before they die).
Even the Strongholds, the game's equivalent of dungeons, are underwhelming in almost every way. There are only three of them, to begin with, and one (the Heart of Rage) is a repeat of the main quest's final mission. They're short, too, as there is only one real boss fight in each Stronghold and none of them truly require any coordinated teamwork as customary in these games. Sure, you can ramp up the difficulty all the way to Grand Master 3, but this merely boosts the health points and damage of your foes, it doesn't add any extra mechanics as a challenge to the group of players. In addition to that, playing at Grand Master 2 and difficulties currently isn't convenient at all as there isn't a big enough increase in Masterwork drop chance when factoring in the much harder challenge involved.
Given the choices made by the developers, who elected to eschew traditional activities like player trading and PvP, the lack of PvE content is all the more pressing. You don't have even to repeat everything to 're-roll' a new Javelin and play as another class as they can all be used interchangeably, which is great in itself but once again highlights that there is nothing else to do once you've completed the story and reached the level cap (30).
It's more than just a matter of breadth and variety of content, though. It is the whole world design of Anthem that's disappointing, particularly in 2019. There's no real open world to speak of, for one thing, and the playable region I mentioned earlier, Bastion, is segregated by a loading screen from Fort Tarsis. The official explanation is that BioWare wanted a place that each player could affect separately from the persistent world through choices made during the story dialogues. But there are ways to implement player specific, story-derived changes to a persistent game without breaking the seamlessness. It's been done before in MMORPGs through phasing technology, from World of Warcraft to Elder Scrolls Online and more.
Besides, the choices available are very limited and not nearly important enough to justify separating Fort Tarsis from the rest of the game world, not to mention making it single player only. That's right, outside of Freeplay, Missions and Strongholds you will only be able to see other players in the Launch Bay, a section of Fort Tarsis that was hurriedly added to the game as result of community feedback from the demo. Not only there's no reason to go there (at least for now), the Launch Bay is gated behind a loading screen, too.
Loading times are variable by platform and hardware, meaning they are much quicker when using a cutting edge SSD on PC, but that's beside the point. In a time when games are striving to deliver the best possible immersion by keeping players in their virtual worlds as much as possible, Anthem seems to do everything it can to put barriers between the player and the action, which ironically is the best part of the game.
For instance, once you've finished any 'expedition' with your group, there's no way to get back into the action immediately. You first need to go through a loading screen to get back to Fort Tarsis, then pull up the mission select screen again and load back into whatever content type you chose.
But perhaps even more infuriating is that while Missions and Contracts take you into certain areas of Bastion and you can even stop to gather a few resources here and there on the way to your objective, the entire party is booted out of the game world a few seconds after the task is done.
Turning to speculation for a minute, this may be due to the double-edged sword called Frostbite. While the engine delivers fantastic graphics in Anthem (partly thanks to BioWare's great artwork), it seems to have significant limitations when it comes to rendering large and seamless open worlds, which is likely why the world of Anthem was structured this way. Moreover, Frostbite also comes with other issues such as audio bugs that have been already seen in other titles powered by the same engine. At this point, one has to wonder if it really is in EA's best interest to keep pushing it as mandatory for any and all of its internal games regardless of genre.
The performance on PC isn't that great, either. For some reason, Anthem seemed to run better at launch than it does after the first update, though it isn't entirely unusual that one patch inadvertently lowers performance. Overall, my overclocked i7 6700K and RTX 2080Ti combination of CPU and GPU isn't enough to keep the game above sixty frames per second at 4K resolution while using Ultra settings.
However, Anthem is scheduled to get NVIDIA's Deep Learning Super-Sampling technology (DLSS), which should allow owners of GeForce RTX graphics cards to run the game at higher frame rates when using 4K resolution. We'll have to check the quality of the DLSS implementation once it's out, though, given that it's too blurry on Battlefield V (another Frostbite powered game) while it looks great on Metro Exodus after the latest patch.
As mentioned at the beginning of this review, BioWare has made a name for itself over the years largely because of the narrative and characters featured in its games. However, the developers warned fans that Anthem would be a bit different compared to previous releases because of its genre.
To begin with, there are fewer (two) dialogue options when talking to NPCs, and there are no romance options either (though that's not to say there will never be). Even so, Anthem essentially has a streamlined version of a BioWare story. The plot and characters (particularly the villain of the main quest) are often tropey, but the overall narrative package is still likable enough to easily surpass other 'looter-shooter' games. The voice performances are great for the most part and even the facial animations, one of Mass Effect Andromeda's most maligned flaws, hold up quite well this time. There's also a lot of lore on the world of Anthem that can be found throughout Fort Tarsis and Bastion and then reviewed through the Cortex log.
Lastly, the remarkable soundtrack by composer Sarah Schachner (Assassin's Creed Unity, Assassin's Creed Origins, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare) does a fantastic job at evoking the atmosphere of a primeval, untamed world of adventure and mystery. You can sample it and purchase it separately on Amazon.
Reviewed on PC (code provided by the publisher).
It is frustrating to rate Anthem. The game looks great, plays even better and has an intriguing setting to boot. However, the fragmented world design, overabundance of loading screens and severe lack of content considerably drag down the experience, at least for the time being. Still, this is a live service game after all and the folks at BioWare have the chance to right this ship by adding enough content in the upcoming months, though it won't be easy.
- Amazing graphics, voice acting and soundtrack
- Excellent action through the marriage of flying and combat (powered by diverse Javelin classes)
- Intriguing setting/lore that's ripe to be explored
- Fragmented world design breaks immersion and frustrates with its many loadings
- The amount of content available at launch is disappointingly low for a game in this genre, particularly at endgame
- Lack of variety when it comes to environments, in-game factions, enemies and quest objectives