"...Anthem transforms BioWare's strengths into weaknesses, and only some decent character moments, impressive visuals, and fun combat salvage the experience."
BioWare surprised a lot of us when they announced Anthem at E3 2017. At first, it looked like an ambitious new IP, set in a dense open world with co-op and looter shooter mechanics. As time went on and details trickled out, it became clear that Anthem was going to be BioWare's attempt to capture the success of Bungie's Destiny. This worried longtime fans of the developer, who feared that the heart and soul of BioWare's games — a strong story and memorable characters — would be lost amidst an endless grind for more loot.
Sadly, I must report that those fears have been realized. At almost every turn, Anthem transforms BioWare's strengths into weaknesses, and only some decent character moments, impressive visuals, and fun combat salvage the experience.
The world of Anthem is one of mystery. It was constructed long ago by a group of godlike beings called Shapers, who harnessed a force known as the Anthem of Creation before vanishing completely, leaving their ruins and relics behind with no explanation as to their purpose. Said relics are a source of both fascination and consternation in this world because they often react violently to the Anthem of Creation, dramatically changing the land and its denizens. The worst of these reactions are called cataclysms, and one of the largest of these cataclysms is known as the Heart of Rage.
To deal with the dangers of the world, humanity uses mechanized suits called javelins, which allow brave pilots known as Freelancers to zip around the world like Iron Man, silencing relics and dealing with any dangerous creatures they might unleash. You start the game as a nameless rookie who joins a group of Freelancers in an attempt to silence the Heart of Rage. Things do not go well. Two years later, the Heart of Rage still...well, rages, the Freelancers have been disgraced, and you've had a rather nasty falling out with your old team. Circumstances soon place you on a path back to the Heart of Rage, only this time there's a generic bad guy on your tail who wants the Shaper relic at the center of the cataclysm for typical bad guy reasons.
The lore and potential of the world is great, but the main story is uninspired and dull. Part of the problem is that the game doesn't set up key plot points, and it uses lore dumps or talking heads to tell you things it should be showing you. As a result, I felt absolutely no motivation or urgency to silence the Heart of Rage, despite my character having been present for the failed first attempt. The primary antagonist, called the Monitor, is incredibly one-note, and the game gives him no time to develop as a character or compelling foe. Even your own character, whose moniker is simply Freelancer, feels very blank and uninteresting, despite being voiced and having rudimentary dialogue choices when talking to people at your base of operations, Fort Tarsis.
Speaking of talking to people at the fort, there are a bunch of characters you can meet there, and almost all of them have their own little mini-arcs you can weigh in on, with varying degrees of effect. Along with the main cast, there are a lot of good character moments throughout the game, and these moments feel stronger than the barely there main story. Having said that, most characters do not rise to the level of excellence seen in BioWare's previous RPGs.
When you're not chatting people up at Fort Tarsis, you're out doing quests and exploring the region of Bastion. It's a beautiful world, with lush greenery, roaring waterfalls, and lots of verticality for you to take advantage of in your javelin. Unfortunately, mission objectives are incredibly repetitive. Every mission in the game tasks you with some combination of the following three basic activities: holding a specific point for a set period of time, collecting items to silence relics, and following a truly horrid onscreen radar to find something. While doing these things, you usually have to deal with waves of enemies, none of whom are particularly interesting or challenging to fight — indeed, the AI on enemy units often breaks, causing them to stand still and do nothing while you wail on them. Needless to say, this gets old fairly fast.
On top of this lack of variety in mission activities, the gameplay loop itself is also highly repetitive and compartmentalized. You launch missions from Fort Tarsis, sit through a long and stale load screen, then find yourself in an instanced version of the world map. You can't explore or go off the beaten path on the way to your objective. If you stray too far from either the mission area or your teammates, you get an "out of bounds" message and have roughly 25 seconds to get closer, after which you will be forcibly transported (with another load screen) to where you're supposed to be. This tethering is incredibly aggressive and disincentivizes you from taking any detour, no matter how small. It's especially frustrating when you load into a mission that's already in progress (which you have no control over, by the way) and your squad is far away from you; you're practically guaranteed to get another loading screen after the long one you just sat through while the game transports you to your team. When you finish the mission, you get a results screen, where you can check out the loot you picked up, and then you're returned to Fort Tarsis to select your next mission. The whole process quickly begins to feel like a chore, in part because of the numerous long load screens, but also because you are forced to return to the fort after every mission, even if you have multiple missions available.
There is a freeplay mode where you can explore the entire map, hunt for materials, and complete world events, but you can't launch missions, even though every quest in the game ultimately takes place within this same environment. This leads to a fragmented and claustrophobic experience, since most of your time with the game will be spent fenced into small chunks of a much larger world — a world that BioWare clearly wants you to explore, but paradoxically doesn't give you the freedom to do so. The game is full of baffling design choices like this, such as the aforementioned tethering, the inability to place custom waymarks on the map or change equipment outside of Fort Tarsis, and if you can believe it, the utter lack of a stats screen. That's right, this is an RPG where you can't look at your character's stats.
The best part of Anthem is without a doubt the javelins themselves and combat. Each javelin feels distinct, with strengths and weaknesses that encourage different playstyles. My personal favorites are the elemental Storm and the lightning-quick Interceptor. The former can hover above the battlefield for ages, pelting foes with ice blasts, lightning bolts, and fireballs. The latter is a melee powerhouse, capable of quickly getting in an enemy's face and absolutely shredding it with fast, deadly strikes. Every javelin has a suite of powerful abilities that can be used to set up and detonate combos, which you can take advantage of on your own or work strategically with your team to maximize damage on your enemies. Conventional guns feel quite boring next to these powers, and weapon variety (both in terms of appearance and the number of unique models for each type of gun) is considerably lacking.
The ability to fly and hover adds a whole new level of mobility to the experience, creating new avenues for you to engage enemies or beat a hasty retreat when called for. When it comes to traversal, however, the experience is a bit of a mixed bag. The flying itself is great, and zipping around the gorgeous environments is a lot of fun. But your jets overheat fairly quickly, and while you can cool them off by flying near waterfalls or diving at a steep angle, you're often forced to cut them entirely and run on the ground until they cool down. This makes flying feel more like really intense hopping at times.
Endgame is, of course, a consideration when it comes to looter shooters, and it's unfortunately another area where Anthem falters. When you reach the level 30 cap (which requires some grinding, as beating the main story only gets you to about level 20), you'll gain access to three harder difficulty settings called Grandmaster 1-3. Each of these difficulties gives you a progressively higher chance of snagging some of the rarest gear in the game, in exchange for increasing enemy health and damage. In practice, this means you'll be running old missions and Strongholds (think dungeons or Destiny's Strikes) over and over again, with nothing changed but the difficulty of the enemies you face. Strongholds are probably the best way of getting the best gear, as they drop more items per run than other content, but there are only three of them at present, two of which you will have already done by the time you finish the main story. Of course, grinding to get gear is part of the looter shooter experience, but there's nothing really interesting about the grind in Anthem (unlike say, Destiny, which throws in modifiers to spice things up), and at the time of this review, there is no real reason to gear up except to take on the same repetitive missions on higher difficulties. This may very well change when Anthem's first Cataclysm (AKA raid) drops in a few months, but that may be too long of a wait for some players.
At least the game looks pretty, right? Environments are truly impressive to look at and fly through, though since you can only explore one region, there is a lack of variety. Explosions and other particle effects are also quite lovely. Characters look nice, and facial animations in some of the main story cutscenes are fantastic; the vast majority of cutscenes and NPC conversations, however, are far more stiff and awkward, but they are ultimately serviceable enough. On the audio side of things, voice acting is strong, and while the music didn't stand out much to me, it is appropriate for the setting and gameplay.
Anthem is certainly an ambitious project for BioWare, and despite everything I've said about it in this review, there is some potential for it to realize that ambition. However, the game needs a lot of work on both a content and basic design level — not to mention the numerous bugs I encountered — and I hope BioWare is able to give it the attention it needs. So unless you only care about the javelin combat and can stomach the other issues Anthem has, I would recommend waiting a while to see what BioWare can do to improve their fledgling IP.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.