It’s been a little over a month now since players got their hands on Anthem, and to say that BioWare’s new looter shooter has had a rocky start would be an understatement. The game has been plagued by an endless stream of bugs and scathing criticism from fans and critics alike.
Anthem is an action-adventure video game where you take on the role of a Freelancer, a mercenary who pilots a mech suit known as a Javelin. The story of Anthem revolves around The Anthem of Creation, which is the “music” that shapes the world and everything in it. (Much like in JRR Tolkien’s The Silmarillion)
Your goal as our hero is to quell a natural disaster known as the Heart of Rage – a cataclysm caused by a disturbance within the Anthem – and to foil the plans of a totalitarian regime called The Dominion, who seek the secret of controlling the Anthem for their own ends.
When it launched back in February, Anthem’s load times were nothing short of atrocious. And the application would crash on the loading screen from time to time, booting the player from the game. At one point Sony were offering full refunds to consumers who had purchased the game via the PlayStation Store – no questions asked. A bug was found within the PS4 version of the game that effectively bricked the user’s console.
Since then BioWare have been rolling out patches and hot fixes in an attempt to set things right. Sadly some of BioWare’s efforts have eliminated one bug and caused another, as has been the case with some of the changes made to the loot system. But on the whole, some of the game’s worst issues at launch have now been resolved, others have been improved but will require further attention in future updates.
Anthem was originally marketed as a “Destiny Killer” and impressed audiences when BioWare unveiled it at E3 2017. The concept of marrying BioWare’s storytelling prowess with the popular format of Bungie’s shared-world shooter got the gaming world excited. After the disappointment voiced about Destiny 2’s vanilla campaign, fans were hopeful that BioWare could make the game that Destiny should have been.
As time went by though, Destiny managed to right itself after its shaky start – regaining the faith of the Destiny community. Bungie went from strength to strength with Destiny 2, culminating in the release of the Forsaken expansion. At a time when Destiny was stronger than it had ever been, BioWare released a lacklustre Anthem and ended up having a harder time of it than even Destiny 1 did back in 2014.
I don’t dislike Anthem, far from it. Even as a big Destiny fan I’m genuinely upset that the game has received such negative press. Anthem has issues, sure, but there’s so much that’s good about it too. Anthem bears all the hallmarks of a great BioWare RPG, but that model just isn’t compatible with a live-service game.
Wandering around Fort Tarsis there’s a real sense of authenticity. It feels lived in. You thread your way through throngs of people at bustling market stalls, stop to observe teams of mechanics and engineers running maintenance on your Javelin, you catch stray fragments of a conversation between two gossips as you pass through the gates, children at play run about the fountain in the courtyard and almost barrel into you.
Some of Anthem‘s finest narrative moments happen within the walls of Fort Tarsis. Between expeditions you can stop and talk to the fort’s everyday citizens, and offer to help them with their everyday struggles. These interactions often involve the player offering advice to the NPC, or sharing their thoughts on the issue at hand. These little stories take shape throughout the main game depending on your responses, for better or worse.
There’s something very wholesome and human about these conversation quests that appeals to our better natures. We care about these people and their wonderful little stories, no matter how small a role they play in Anthem‘s greater narrative. One day you might be helping a grieving mother in denial come face to face with the harsh truth, the next you’re giving advice to a fellow Freelancer who’s in a bind, or making friends with a lonely outcast who’s struggling to overcome his past for the woman he loves.
These tales are heart-breaking and heart-warming in equal measure, they’re quirky, relatable, and magnificent.
But as authentic and beautiful as Fort Tarsis and is, it fails as a social space. Upon your arrival there are no additional players in sight and the entire time you are in Fort Tarsis the game ceases to acknowledge any of Anthem’s multiplayer elements. If this were a hub in a traditional BioWare RPG it would be perfect, however Anthem is looking to replicate The Tower, not Skyhold.
There is an area called the Launch Bay which contains everything that Fort Tarsis should in order to serve as a decent social space, and yet instead of merging these two areas or making the Launch Bay the focal point of Fort Tarsis it has been condemned to obscurity. Reduced to nothing more than a poorly advertised optional area between Fort Tarsis and the wider world that is easily bypassed.
Another couple of other nagging issues are the first-person perspective and the lack of character customisation. When you arrive in Fort Tarsis you are thrust into a first-person perspective – an unusual move for BioWare. And as much as it can be argued that this draws the player’s eye away from their avatar and towards their surroundings, I found it to be an unnecessary addition for a game that is essentially a third-person shooter.
And as for character customisation, all we get is a selection of pre-made heads to choose from for our pilot. No editing allowed. Every single game in the Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises had extensive character customisation options that really helped to put the player in the role of Shepard, or the Warden, or the Inquisitor. Way to kill that immersion and make me care less about the protagonist in one fell swoop.
By contrast the customisation options for your Javelin are far more detailed, allowing you to choose the materials used in the construction of your Javelin, as well as the colour and the finish used for each portion of the exo-suit. There is a modest selection of armour pieces available as well (only three sets per Javelin at present) but these are purely cosmetic and do not affect your stats.
Weapon loadouts are well provided for too, with primary and secondary weapons forming the backbone of your arsenal, and a variety of class-specific armaments adding some strategic options. Depending on what class you like to play there are powerful precision and blast damage weapons available, allowing you to tailor your Javelin to fit your unique play style.
The wider world of Anthem is set in the region of Bastion, a verdant and perilous wilderness that draws you in with its visual beauty. Bastion is a tropical region that masterfully blends intricate rock formations with deep jungle and stunning waterfalls. The undergrowth teems with Grabbits and Tesilars, whilst great Korox roam the wetlands. Only once before in any video game have I found a world that feels so alive.
Now I hasten to add that in terms of narrative content Bastion has little to offer, what I mean is that Bastion has a realness to it that I haven’t felt since The Witcher 3. BioWare’s vision of Bastion is so well conveyed that you can almost smell the rain and the mud, almost feel the spray rising up from the waterfalls and the dappled sunlight filtering through the jungle canopy.
The landscape of Bastion is also littered with decaying Shaper Relics, vestiges of ancient technology that were once used to direct the Anthem of Creation. These relics lend an air of awe to the world of Bastion, awe for the power of the Shapers themselves but even more so for the power of nature that has since reclaimed all that they wrought.
However, excursions into this beautifully crafted world are marred by the game’s persistent efforts to push the player into a multiplayer party. Playing in a party with friends or as part of a matchmade team is fine, but it should be optional. Much of Anthem’s core fan base are die hard BioWare fans who love the Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises. Forcing everyone to explore the game and its narrative in the company of three randoms alienates that audience. And it’s a real immersion killer.
Anthem’s combat system is well-refined and reminiscent of the combat in Mass Effect 2 and 3. Weapon types are distinct and enable the player to tailor their approach to any firefight. The Colossus’s explosive weapons and the Storm’s elemental attacks are very satisfying to use in particular and can melt tanky enemies. The Interceptor is all about speed and agility, and its melee prowess is unmatched for those who prefer blades to bullets. Anthem even includes a jack-of-all-trades class for novice players or those who want to experiment with different play-styles called the Ranger.
The loot system has been repeatedly slammed, prompting several tweaks from BioWare, but in my experience it isn’t all that bad. Progression is relatively steady and whilst the loot pool is completely RNG, it isn’t too big at the moment, so obtaining your desired weapons isn’t impossible.
As a lover of storytelling and of the kind of stories BioWare has told in the past, the thing that hurts me the most about Anthem is the pacing of the narrative. The world and the characters are so detailed and original that the story should really shine, but it’s not allowed to. The narrative structure is plagued by the need to withhold content for future expansions and DLC.
This approach can be done right, but in Anthem it is as though the story script was written as a grand sweeping narrative for a traditional BioWare RPG and then cannibalised and ripped apart to fit someone else’s agenda. It doesn’t appear to have been written for purpose from the start. This causes the pacing of the story to jump around a lot, side story arcs and character development arcs are unceremoniously dropped mid-game, even the dialogue (which is very well acted) is damaged by the need to shoehorn everything into an open-ended story. It pains me deeply to see all the potential in such a powerful story squandered for financial gain and replayability.
Anthem is a game suffering from a crisis of identity. It’s as though it was two completely different games made by two completely different teams, and they were just thrown together – like some sort of EAstein’s monster. Fort Tarsis feels like a traditional BioWare single player RPG, whereas the wider game world is actively hostile towards any attempts at single play, aggressively coercing players into public expeditions where the narrative elements of the game are sidelined.
Anthem is a square peg in a round hole. Everything about the game’s setting and narrative echoes BioWare’s greatest achievements, but those echoes are drowned out by the overbearing need for Anthem to be in direct competition with the likes of Destiny 2 and Tom Clancy’s The Division 2. This departure from tradition was either an ambitious BioWare decision, or an EA decision that the studio has been forced to comply with. Either way, it is sadly a decision that hasn’t paid off for either party, or the fans, thus far.