This is the Anthem throw all your hands up.
Okay, maybe just one and a half.
Anthem (PC [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One)
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: February 22, 2019
The last time I checked in with my little Anthem review journal, I was having a fun time working my way through its systems. I’ve hit snags since then but my outlook remains mostly the same — with caveats.
BioWare, at its absolute best, knows how to make worlds better than most studios: even their lesser efforts hover above the pack. While the main hub (Fort Tarsis) is cramped like a catacomb, the performative NPCs are full of life. If you’re the type of person that skips through dialogue you’re not going to get anything here, but I actually enjoyed my little run-ins with the various vendors and ne’er-do-wells that inhabit the walled city, especially when they keep popping up over the course of the campaign (and beyond). Having a faux rapport with these goofballs has been amusing, to say the least.
I also dig the straightforward narrative. While saving some small overarching mysteries for the future, it’s all easy to follow and has a tasteful tease at the end of it. For the most part the main arc is concluded and you aren’t left wondering what happened (again, in-game lore diary entries help shed light on a few of the enigmas, but there’s nothing major). You can rent Anthem, finish it, and feel like you’ve worked through a complete story; a far cry from most scatter-focused looter shooters.
For some this will be spice for the main filling: flashy and impactful gameplay with power suits. There’s the rogue (Interceptor), mage (Storm), warrior (Colossus) and jack-of-all-trades (Ranger), all of which can be altered to your liking. The non-convoluted (and surprisingly open from the get-go) customization options are a godsend. Nearly every Javelin I’ve seen out in the wild sports a different color scheme, even if the cosmetic gear could stand to have more variety at launch.
Having mostly played with the Storm and the Colossus (but dabbled in the others), I can safely say that having four classes at launch allows for quite a lot of experimentation. Anthem also isn’t shoehorned into the trinity (tank/healer/damage) archetype, even if the Colossus is kind of tanky. The main highlight is that they all play so differently. With the Colossus, I find myself picking close-ranged weapons and flying headfirst into battle with my shield up. As the Storm I’m more of a mid-ranged threat, hovering to boost my shield and darting around to avoid incoming focused fire. Allowing players to simply swap suit classes without having to make a new character (Final Fantasy XIV style) is a nice touch.
In a “check this out” base-level fashion, being able to fly on a whim and boost to another vantage point is thrilling and still fun hours later. On a macro level, there’s big potential for theorycrafting in Anthem, more so than a lot of other action-centric looter shooters. Combos (heralded by primer and detonator abilities) add a lot of complexity to what seem like rote encounters, and you can see the potential as plain as day when it comes to challenging boss battles that require strategy and forethought.
Missions mostly involve killing things, doing light puzzles, or gathering up items (motes). While the objectives do get familiar, they shine on higher difficulty settings: enemies pile up and you really need to split up and defend choke points to avoid getting overrun. On more than one occasion my group had a plan of attack, like using the Colossus to pop up a shield then sending the swift Interceptor in to grab objectives and high-tail it back.
In an interesting turn, BioWare is restricting loadout changes to the hub (the same goes for opening up newly acquired gear in the field), and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Whether it’s a technical limitation or a design choice, clearly not being able to swap gear mid-mission is preposterous and just not done. But…I kind of got used to it? What I found is that on every mission, all of my squadmates were always in the moment; always blasting things or boosting around. I’m not certain it’ll last (or if it should really), but within the context of Anthem, I’m at peace with it.
It’s gotten to the point where I mostly just love jumping into the quickmatch roulette that plops me in random groups in random missions. Having full matchmaking for every single activity is a welcome design choice, but you can also opt for full solo play with a “private” menu toggle if you so choose. Oh, and the entire campaign can be played on hard or a more casual difficulty setting if you want. That’s not typically an option on your first playthrough of a game like this, but it should be.
Now onto the aforementioned snags: bumps in the road if you will, and things get bumpy. Hiccups include lengthy load times and various bugs that involve crashing or delays when objectives are met. While my boot-sessions weren’t as rampant as some have experienced, there were a few occasions where I had to do a mission over again because a certain trigger wasn’t working. That in turn leads to more load times and the impression that Anthem, like many games of its ilk, is cobbled together.
It’s rage-inducing that so much of Anthem is shaved to focus in on combat when load times are this much of a problem. Given that I was able to power my way through Grandmaster 1 in less than a week, I was obviously able to play the game, but not without annoyances. It’s all a pain and something that needs to be addressed immediately. According to BioWare, fixes are allegedly coming in a “day one” patch on February 22. “Day one” already started for Origin Access players, so there’s that (jumping into an online game week one is bad for your health, folks).
Wait, “Grandmaster 1?” Yeah, that’s one of the endgame goals. After you finish the campaign your job is to get level 30 (the current maximum), dabble in existing missions, and play on “Grandmaster” (1, then GM2/3) difficulty while you wait for Cataclysms (the closest analog to raids). That usually involves completing myriad missions that you’ve seen before with more mechanics in the mix, like promises of more rewarding loot like Masterwork items that function as “uniques” or “exotics” in other dungeon crawlers/looter shooters.
Is it grindy? Sure, that comes with the territory. The main map of Anthem is huge and I still haven’t explored all of it, but the chief goal is to try to best existing content on higher difficulty settings and bag more impressive loot. Once I’m tired of it I’ll stop, but I’ve been trying out all four Javelins sporadically and have been having a blast just…playing it. There’s a lot more to say about Anthem‘s endgame in the coming weeks (and months, perhaps years), but right now I’m having fun.
I wish some things were different but I find myself wanting to play Anthem beyond the scope of this review. It isn’t changing the way the genre operates, not by a long shot, and if you’ve struggled with a few of them before and tossed them in the gutter, you’ll probably do the same here. BioWare will need to build quickly on top of its shimmering jet-fueled foundation to hold people’s interest, but folks looking for a new neighborhood to move into might want to give Anthem a try — either now or after fixes and updates.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher, with Grandmaster 1 endgame experience.]