Anthem sounds like a dream game on paper. You’ve got a massive world to dig into, chunky exoskeletons to keep your safari from turning into a bloodbath and a story that happens to be crafted by one of the most influential studios in the industry today, Bioware. Sounds like a recipe for success, doesn’t it? What should be and what is, are quite often two very different things.
Anthem is many things to many people, but what it is right now is not the mechanised messiah that it made itself out to be. It’s a hot mess of good ideas and some staggeringly poor design choices, a collection of decisions which squanders its potential and devolves it into a soul-crushingly boring grind for greater numbers and diminished emotional investment in the world around you.
Anthem’s tale even sounds remarkably similar to a certain other game that has been rocking around since 2014. In a far-off future, humanity seeks to establish itself amongst the stars and reclaim a golden era of enlightenment and exploration, only to find itself under siege from various alien forces and local wildlife that exists to protect the secrets of the almighty MacGuffin known as the Anthem.
Beyond life, beyond death itself, the Anthem is everything to everyone, the key to ultimate power and understanding that has resulted in numerous factions launching crusades that would deliver that power to them. At least, that’s what I think Anthem is about, as Bioware’s fumble of the narrative ball here is stunning in its failure.
Here is a story, rich with Arthurian legends and medieval undertones, that just doesn’t make sense in the slightest. While Anthem sidesteps the vague nature of its nearest contemporary game, having entire books of lore to read through while the game does little to establish its world, characters and motivations makes for a disjointed mess of narrative missteps and fragile connections with the people who share this world with you.
Make no mistake, Anthem has some of the most stunning facial capture, acting and voice talent on offer. Talent that is unfortunately saddled with some of the cheesiest one-liners, overly-dramatic nonsensical story and inconsequential dialogue choices heaped on top of it. Fort Tarsis feels less like a digital home space and more like a punishment, a bastion of NPCs who deliver cringe conversations that takes forever to cycle through and offer close to zero emotional investment no matter just how unnervingly well the Frostbite engine manages to capture their subtle facial ticks.
Anthem doesn’t help sell its story when you’re out in the wild either, as constant radio chatter while you’re thrown into the thick of a mission is easy to tune out, oftentimes resulting in players missing out on valuable exposition that sets up the plot. With around 15 hours of story to blast through, I kind of feel like I’ve stepped into a parallel universe as I try to make sense of just how Bioware managed to turn in a game where the story is barely present, dangerous to anyone who happens to be lactose intolerant and already looking at setting itself up for a sequel by the time you reach the end credits.
Narrative missteps aside, Anthem’s other core appeal is still its power fantasy. Here, the game has an unbelievably solid foundation that it builds its experience on. Strapping into your Javelin, taking that first step off of a cliffside and plummeting to your doom just before you ignite your booster rockets and triumphantly soar above the landscape of Bastion will go down as one of the finest first impressions that a video game could ever make.
Anthem’s key appeal lies within that idea, spread across four unique Javelin suits which offer a lot of character and ideas within their construction: The Ranger is a Jack of all trades, the Colossus is a mob-clearing heavy hitter, the Storm is high-tech mage and the Interceptor is a lethal barrage of melee fury when used on the frontlines.
There’s so much that works here, especially when it comes to flight and the tools that Anthem gives you to wage a new kind of war where mobility and variety is the key to victory, even if the game never takes the time to actually explain its wonderfully deep combo system to you.
Anthem plays well with this concept, making certain that Javelin players can make the most of their quick-recharge abilities and ultimate finishers when facing anything from out of control insectoid scorpions to even other rogue Freelancer pilots while out in the wild. Every Javelin has that little something extra, whether it be the Colossus that can charge into the fray with a shield and smash minor enemies out of the way or the Storm’s ability to teleport out of danger and call down a storm of revenge in response to any army before it.
There is nothing about Anthem’s combat that I don’t like, but it’s the world of Anthem itself that completely squanders how this combat is applied, that is utterly disappointing The chief complaint amongst anyone that has played a few stages within the game is that every Anthem level feels exactly the same. It all comes down to a rote formula of jetting off to a location, collecting some items and holding a position while you’re swarmed by enemies.
While there are some slight deviations to the formula, that’s the gist of it. Go there, grab this, stay there. Rinse and repeat for 15 hours and you’re done with the main campaign. While you could argue that every game is a series of repetitive actions, Anthem’s formula is blatantly obvious. Even then such a structure wouldn’t be too bad if Anthem at least managed to run decently.
But after dozens of hours of play, I can’t say that I’ve ever had a single mission where something hasn’t gone wrong. There’s a laundry list of problems within Anthem, that range from loading screens that double as piss-breaks to game-crashing glitches, server issues and even several occasions when my Javelin had its health mysteriously vacuumed out of it by what I can only assume was some sort of next-gen invisible vampire.
Almost ten gigs of patching later (I’m on version 1.0.2.01 on Xbox One X for the sake of reference), and I’m still running into problems regularly. Anthem doesn’t help sell its loot-rich gameplay either when it comes to collecting guns and power-ups that offer little incentive beyond a single increase in the digits. Weapons simply lack character and substance. Masterwork guns are meant to be the endgame bonuses worth pursuing, mighty exotic death-dealers that have the potential to
With an aggravating path to those famed guns however, I’m just not interested in simply increasing my damage-dealing numbers for the sake of it. That’s a road that is beset with irritation, as Anthem’s higher difficulty levels may offer higher chances at obtaining legendary guns but the chance that you’ll also need to hop to go buy a new game controller are also amplified.
Here, the faults begin to show more clearly as Anthem’s foes shrug off bullets as if you were trying to take down Godzilla by pelting it with kittens. They can easily wipe your team in a single attack and even mobs of regular enemies have the potential to one-shot your armour into oblivion. It’s a challenge that highlights just how broken Anthem’s enemy spawn rate is, and does nothing to offer players a chance to hone their skills to a razor’s edge.
At least Anthem looks pretty…right! Well, kind of. While the Frostbite engine offers some gorgeous vistas to explore, the tightest of particle effects and nary a jagged edge to be seen, it’s also used in a manner that feels like it’s trying too hard to sell its fancy technology. Battles routinely devolve into all-out explosions of various effects, bogging down the frame-rate and creating a confusing mess that most people will struggle to understand.
While there’s a beauty to be beheld in Anthem, there’s also pure chaos that could easily be scaled back. On the bright side, at least the game’s audio is crisp, carries an impact of note every time you squeeze the trigger and is backed up by one of the best original soundtracks in recent memory.
The list goes on, but honestly…I’m tired. I don’t like that out of the mere three Strongholds that Anthem offers, one of them happens to be a repeat of the final level. I don’t like that I had to look up on YouTube how to change my armour colour. I don’t like that in a game that has an A-list cast of talent giving life to characters, that I want to punch Brooklyn 99’S Joe Lo Truglio whenever I pass him in the corridor and hear yet again that he might have picked up an infection.
Hell, I haven’t even gotten into how Anthem’s power grind results in you only receiving earned experience points and weapons after you return to your homebase of Fort Tarsis instead of giving you a constant grind for power that you can see unfold in front of you, but at this point I feel like the proverbial stick that’s hitting a dead horse.
You really want to know what kind of game Anthem is? Picture that one moment in your life, where you’ve been busted for doing something that you weren’t supposed to, and your parents didn’t express anger at you…just disappointment. That stinging feeling of shame and apathy, that’s Anthem. It’s a game which feels like it was designed by a committee of grey-haired men in suits, seated around a table and harumphing over a glass of bourbon, remarking how “all the kids are into that Tom Clancy’s Destiny game right now” and that they should get in on that action.
Anthem isn’t the game that I was expecting, and that’s about the nicest thing that I can say about it. Its ideas are half-baked, its broken on a fundamental level and its quest to become the next big game as a service results in the grindiest of RPG experiences on the market today. Anthem has a long road ahead of it, if it wants to establish itself as a contender amongst the biggest games and names in the live service genre of co-op action RPG games that are already out there and established.
I’m not exactly certain if that’s a ride that I want to be a part of.
Last Updated: February 25, 2019