Developer Bioware has had a pretty interesting reputation during this console generation. With Mass Effect: Andromeda releasing to lukewarm reception, fans chalked it up to the specific team involved. Seeing that the original Mass Effect trilogy team had another project up their sleeves, fans were hopeful. That project turned out to be Anthem, an ambitious online multiplayer experience that seemed to good to be true. Unfortunately, it looks like it really was.
Anthem tells the story of a Freelancer, an elite class soldier capable of piloting Javelins. After a visit to a dangerous location known as the Heart of Rage, the Freelancers works to deactivate a relic known as the Cenotaph. Unfortunately, the team of Freelancers are overwhelmed and the player must make a hasty retreat. This failed mission loses faith from the people of the city Bastion, making Freelancers lose respect. Fast forward roughly two years later, the Freelancer now does various missions for work at a place called Fort Tarsis.
The story of Anthem is comparable to the game Destiny. While there is an end goal, the missions and story getting there are often unrelated. While players work to get stronger to one day go back to the Heart of Rage, they must perform several tasks for the citizens of Fort Tarsis. These missions range from recovering artifacts, to saving ally Freelancers, to repelling enemy invasions.
The general mission structure isn’t too bad, offering plenty of challenges for the player, though they may eventually grow repetitive. Luckily, the gameplay of Anthem is rather solid, offering fun and creative combat. It really is a treat to fly around the world, exploring the jungles, ruins and more. Combat varies based on multiple factors, but it mainly stems from the players choice of Javelin.
There are four Javelins in Anthem, each one with their own specific class. Rangers are the balanced class, giving an all-around experience that uses a mix of missiles and grenades. The Interceptor is the speedy class, offering more agility in combat with an extra jump, fast melee attacks and a variety of abilities. Storms are essentially a wizard class, having the elements of fire, ice and lightning at their disposal, though lacking in vitality. Finally, the Colossus is the tank class, with a large shield, this class can take a beating and also deliver one with powerful explosives and cannons.
As players start, they can only select from one of the four classes. Through progress, they can unlock more classes and eventually have their choice of their favorites. I found most of my time was spent playing as the Interceptor, my first Javelin of choice. The speedy class suited my play style and the skills offered were fun to utilize. I particularly enjoyed spraying venom at close range and throwing glaives at enemies. Unleashing my ultimate ability for the invincible melee rush was also valuable in tougher battles.
When players saw Anthem in pre-release coverage, it was mostly focused on the Javelins and the world. Seeing what seemed like the limitless flight of Iron Man mixed with cool abilities in third-person was great at building hype. In reality, the flight has a meter that causes players to overheat unless they can cool off near a source of water. The abilities are cool, but obtaining them takes a bit of work.
Combat difficulty can range from overly easy to randomly hard. Some enemies can go down from one attack while others can take minutes to whittle down their health. This is especially notable in Strongholds, which acts as little mini raids. At one point, a Stronghold quest pops up and players will likely get their butt handed to them. The difficulty spikes tremendously, causing players to need help with revives pretty often. I’ve luckily never failed a mission entirely, but it’s still something players will likely notice.
Unlike Destiny, Anthem doesn’t have quite the same RPG progression. While there is a level up system, players don’t unlock skills this way, but rather more capabilities. Unlocking slots to equip components is one aspect, as the other is the rarity of drops out in the field. Abilities are actually dropped by enemies, as are weapons and components. While they can be crafted, unlocking the blueprints for a worthwhile one seems very rare. Due to this system, it can take some time to find a good loadout for your Javelin.
While the combat of Anthem is actually pretty good, it’s bogged down by almost everything in Fort Tarsis. Citizens in the fort will often offer conversations that can lead to new lore or even missions from time to time. It wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t so many of them continually showing up. What’s even stranger is that many of them actually have random famous actors from various televisions shows. Want a merchant voiced by Louise from Bob’s Burgers (Kristin Schaal)? How about an amateur actor turned bartender voiced by Fix-It-Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer)? While it’s interesting, their characters are so minor, it makes one wonder why they were even brought in at all.
Despite having so many characters to talk to, granted, some of them are actually pretty well done. Marelda’s story, while bringing basically nothing to the actual plot, is done so well, it can actually bring some emotion to the game. Unfortunately, a handful of good stories isn’t enough to make up for what is mostly a boring series of conversations. It’s unfortunate because dialogue in the Mass Effect always seemed so interesting, but Anthem somehow takes a ton of detailed lore and makes it lack that same spark. It doesn’t help that it tries to add dialogue choices to try and add variety, as it doesn’t really seem to benefit the player in the grand scheme of things.
There are a few interesting characters in the game, and that is partially due to their voice. The male and female Freelancers, voiced by Ray Chase and Sarah Elmaleh respectively, offer a solid performance for their roles. Despite this, it’s unfortunate that their voices tend to not match a good amount of the character appearance options. It’s a bit unusual to play through the game as a person of color, only to hear them speak with a very Caucasian sounding voice. It’s honestly weird that Bioware even gave players a choice in appearance, as 95% of the game is spent either with a helmet on or in first-person. It doesn’t even offer a fraction of as many options as Mass Effect does for character creation.
Vocal performances are just one strength of Anthem’s sound design. Music that plays throughout the game is also pretty solid, offering a good sense of adventure. The sound design in general is a big feature Anthem does pretty well. Despite this, there were moments where certain dialogue felt a bit off, as voices gave off a distinct echo effect, making it sound like it wasn’t mixed well. These moments were minimal, but they were definitely noticed.
Now, to one of Anthem’s biggest issues: its performance. Throughout my experience, I ran into tons of problems. The most consistent issue was getting kicked from the server, which luckily happened mostly at the end of missions (still giving me credit for completing them). Despite this, there was one mission where I found a cortex entry (information scattered throughout the world), and upon reading it, I was stuck in the information box, unable to return to combat. The mission continued with my teammates fighting off enemies as I was forced to stand there, unable to help in the battle. Luckily, the completion of the mission forced me out of it, but it was disappointing that I was stuck there in the first place.
Other issues would be the load times. PC seems to get the worst of this, as consoles don’t seem to suffer quite as much. Even with long load times, there’s also too many moments that require them. The forge, where players can change Javelins, abilities, weapons and more requires a loading screen every time you go to and from it. It’s really disappointing when compared to the seamless equipment screens in Destiny. It’s especially problematic if you’re trying to complete specific challenges based on a weapon or ability, and you have to go back and forth to check what’s needed. Ideally, the forge should have just been for choosing a Javelin and customizing its appearance. Everything else should’ve been kept to its own equipment screen.
Overall, Anthem seems to be a solid foundation buried under a mixture of problems. While some bugs are minor, some of them are game-breaking enough to even cause a system crash. It’s really unfortunate, because I actually like playing Anthem. I really wanted it to succeed, and I know with time, Bioware can make it something amazing. Sadly, it’s very possible that it might not even be worth the time at this point. Anthem may be in a position where it can no longer be salvaged, and Bioware may have to cut their losses. If they decide to keep working on it, then Anthem can become something great. As it is, it’s an unfortunate disappointment.