Anthem, the next big looter shooter from Mass Effect creators Bioware , is finally here after months of anticipation. Set in an unfinished world where humanity is fighting to survive, you play as a Freelancer equipped with a robotic flying suit called a Javelin that harnesses the power of Anthem, a volatile energy source.
Much like The Division or Destiny, you explore open environments and undertake missions solo or with friends in order to earn increasingly powerful equipment and abilities.
The game begins with you as a rookie flying into a giant cataclysm called the Heart of Rage to fight swathes of enemies. However, an encounter a colossal Titan forces you to retreat. This leaves you needing to rebuild your Freelancer’s reputation and to help people of Fort Tarsis, the settlement which acts as your base.
As the campaign progresses, Fort Tarsis evolves and feels a bit more lively but this is where Anthem’s issues begin, as the place feels empty even when you have completed everything.
The story isn’t to the standard of Bioware’s narrative heavy Mass Effect games, but for a looter shooter it holds up well enough, with a typical plot about a bad guy who wants to rule the world while a underdog rises up to save mankind.
Character engagements are enjoyable and have some entertaining backstory to fill in gaps from the main missions. The main story itself is relatively short, clocking in at 12-15 hours to complete. This is including all character interactions and re-playing some missions due to some bugs. There are side missions aplenty and you can do these when you like, but completing them after the story does make them feel a little out of place as you have already experienced the events they talk about.
These activities would have been more engaging as part of the main story, and would have fleshed out character backstories before the end of the campaign. This also would have levelled you closer to level 30 – the current cap – making the endgame more reachable and enjoyable rather than a long grind from around level 20 just to start the post-story content.
Even for a looter shooter, Anthem’s side missions feel very repetitive. While some incorporate puzzle mechanics, they never really build on that, consisting mostly of matching hidden lights to symbols on walls or using icons as keys to unlock items.
A lot of in-game lore is covered by the Cortex, a historical archive that shows you information about the world and events mentioned by NPCs. This is a nice touch but it’s tucked away in another menu and not directly in the game when these world building details could have been covered with some NPC interaction or a few extra cutscenes in the side missions. All in all, it feels lazy and lacklustre.
Anthem’s cast of characters have some great personalities even as they confusingly ramble on about health and safety in the Fort when you are a Freelancer fighting dangerous enemies out in the wild. Alongside some outstanding voice acting there’s some great facial animation at work too, especially compared to some of the questionable facial expressions seen in the Mass Effect series.
However, while there are some optional dialogue choices you can make during some conversations, these feel hollow and pointless as they always end up at the same result regardless of what you pick. With no difference to your endgame experience and a story that doesn’t warrant multiple playthroughs this comes across as a wasted opportunity.
It was also a struggle to find a connection to my own character, largely due to a lack of customisation and not seeing yourself out of your Javelin in any of the cutscenes. There are plenty of options for customising the Javelin itself, allowing you to pick material types, custom skins and even the level of wear and tear.
Controls on PC have been vastly improved from the beta and this is a welcome change. Flight and swimming have smoother behaviour whilst giving you a snappier response to your movements. The day one patch has also improved this even further and it feels wonderful on PC.
On the other hand, the user interface feels bit clunky and over-engineered. There are way too many clicks to do some simple actions like invite friends and equip items. Also having a layered menu when selecting settings then needing to click on the tab again to actually be in the menu could be made more user-friendly. There is an option to turn some of the UI off during combat but hopefully, they give more options.
The end mission screen also frustrates as you are awarded some amazing looking medals and achievements but you have no idea what they are. These can be found out mid-mission, but having to break up gameplay from the already disjointed experience is not favourable.
This is compounded by number of loading screens you go through just to get to a mission or change out gear, easily spending a few minutes waiting before getting to jump into the action. A day one patch has since helped cut down the waiting time, but there’s still few too many load screens to sit through.
When you finally enter combat, the game is fluid and you can have incredibly fun moments when in a team. Using a primer skill followed by a detonator skill for intense damage is accompanied by a very satisfying ‘ding’ sound while the word ‘Combo’ flashes on the screen in a bright yellow font.
Solo play can be very punishing as you can struggle against some of the bigger enemies. It all seems geared towards team play and punishes you for playing solo, like giving you less experience for not playing with friends.
If you are downed and are waiting to be revived there is nothing you can do other then stare at a big red warning telling you that you are downed. This is one of the most infuriating parts in the game as you cannot coordinate with your team due to the warning taking over your screen, and no ability to ping or warn people about dangers it can be extremely hard for them to revive you safely.
When it comes to graphics, Anthem is stunning looking game whose natural feeling open world has some incredible details. Old ruins stretch across the lush landscape among beautiful waterfalls, making for a captivating but dangerous environment outside the walls of Fort Tarsis.
Ambient weather ties into gameplay as well. Rain cools the suit allowing you to fly longer, while getting hit by lightning does the opposite. Skills like firing bolts of electricity or giant fireballs from the tips of your fingers create nifty visual effects that make you feel truly powerful.
Looter shooters are all about the loot though, and Anthem certainly showers you with the stuff. Still, an an array of issues hampers things. Most aggravating is that the gear you pick has such loose descriptions that it’s hard to understand what’s good and what’s not.
There’s also little early game incentive to chase loot and get better items as they are all irrelevant when you hit level 30 and start getting top tier Masterwork equipment.
There is no preview of what’s to come with low-level Masterwork gear so early to mid-game has no excitement. Making builds for endgame content is infuriating without a stats screen. So, unless you are writing it all down then it’s hard to remember what you have equipped.
Masterwork items are a small saving grace. They look stunning in design and colour pallet. The incredible bonuses attached to them help you break into the harder level content and endgame.
Anthem’s endgame content is currently very light with only three strongholds and legendary contracts to complete. This was known before the game’s release and there is more to come, but the hardcore players will be hankering for more to do very quickly.
Overall the game is enjoyable but it is littered with some major issues on release. If these are not fixed soon then I see this being another painful release for Bioware after Mass Effect Andromeda’s rocky start , something that could put some major pressure on a once great storytelling studio. Despite a day one patch to address some issues, many of the major problems are embedded in the core of the game.
Sluggish loading screens and a dearth of endgame activities don’t help matters. Live service games like this need to start with the content fully finished before release and then provide extra content, rather than release a half baked game and then patch it to the full game it should have been.
Anthem might have released at the wrong time as genre is already crowded and consumers are getting annoyed with unfinished experiences on release. As it stands, Anthem needs some work done to it if we want to see its full glory.
Platform: Xbox One, PS4, PC (version reviewed)
Price: £44.99 – £49.99
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