Roaring down from high in the sky, my exo-suit clad protagonist lands in a classic hero pose, his rapidly descending fist dealing heavy damage a the crowd of insect attackers. I turn to see a horde of creatures swarming toward me and spin up my mini-gun, unleashing a hail of ammo upon the larger, exploding variants of these nasty looking bugs before they can get to me an perform their suicidal role. Other players are already in the fray, silently making quick work of elite enemies with combinations of attacks. Those standing in our way fall in quick measure, spewing their guts on the ground and leaving ammo and health pick ups in their wake. The voices of the mission giver and my character's handler compete for attention throughout all this, bickering over the reasons we do what we do. In the space of minutes I've torn through a pack of enemies alongside three strangers and at no point did I feel a moment of tension or that there was any tactical reaction from the enemies beyond swarming like every other generic insect enemy in video games. In short, this has been my experience with Bioware's latest release - Anthem.
It's been hard to know exactly where to begin when it comes to breaking down what's caused me to bounce off of Anthem's seemingly appealing ideas and execution. Described in isolation and imagined in their ideal states, the various elements described above could easily come together to make a satisfying game, but at every turn it seems like a lack of effort to go further than others already have or even learn from past mistakes results in dissatisfaction. Where loot based shooters have already been, Anthem happily retreads with less flair and fun. While sci-fi is currently undergoing something of a renaissance in recent times, pushing fresh perspective upon it's audience and asking new and interesting moral questions of those who engage with it, Anthem leans hard into established tropes and worn out archetypes rather than trying to establish anything uniquely Anthem-esque.
Read more: Anthem Day One patch notes released - many reported issues may be resolved on launch
Anthem is at once an occasionally stunning testament to the current generation of computer graphics and a consistent technical mess at the same time. On PC, at the time of writing, the game struggles to keep pace with player movement at times, even in the slow paced, first person view restricted hub area, resulting in entire structures and textures popping into a scene right before your eyes. Tricks used to great effect in other games to hide such things, such as a scaling level of detail as the player approaches a location or using layers of scenery to hide distant objects and reduce demand on the computer or console, are poorly implemented here. It's a problem that's most glaring and least forgivable when in the hub, watching shadows fading in and out of view as a player approaches or moves away from a secluded area, but it's not limited to that area at all.
Out in the lush, green wilderness and in the dank depths of the caves running under it, the same issues with fluctuating shadows and scenery that pops into view become distractions from the action. Details flash into one's peripheral view, pulling attention, while lighting inexplicably changes based on your character's proximity. In combination with the high detail textures, complex scenery, numerous particle effects and motion blur, these shortcomings create a visually noisy experience full of flash and flair, but one that's inconsistent and frustrating to follow when the pace picks up. Too often in the mire of a battle, I found myself having to look to the radar instead of the action, enemies lost in dark caverns as numerous sources of light competed for screen space and caused any number of distracting lighting glitches.
Anthem's combat itself is a thoroughly typical affair by current standards. Pick your class from the usual selection of The Big One, The Quick One, The All-Rounder and The One with Magic Powers and you're off. There's nothing about the class designs or abilities that's likely to surprise or impress all but the most inexperienced gamers, with weapons being a dull selection of guns with minor stat buffs attached to them and the special equipment that compliments your loadout being little more than rocket launchers, flame throwers and other entirely standard, real world weapons. In a future full of advanced technology and a setting that invites the potential for alien technology to have inspired some interesting concepts, Anthem instead gives the most typical, average offering of weapons and combat options possible.
Compounding the sheer lack of imagination when it comes to weapons is a rogues gallery of enemies that fall very obviously into established archetypes. You've got the aforementioned swarms of insects that descend upon you in a mix of melee attackers and exploding drones with it's apex version being a queen that spawns waves of the aforementioned enemy types. There are fellow humans, replete with the guns you might expect, that are backed by larger shield baring heavies wielding stronger weapons. There are hulking titans, more than twice the size of a human and prone to hammering them into the ground with their fists. That's about it for at least the first eight hours, if not more, and I think it's safe to say that anyone who has played a first or third person shooter in the last decade has seen it all before, many times.
Thinking back to the likes of Borderlands 2, ageing gracefully after setting some high standards for loot shooters, Anthem's lack of enemy variation, interesting equipment or abilities and it's utterly standard visual style is glaring in how unforgivably dull and uninspired it all is. Even Destiny, a franchise comparable in many respects and one that's rightfully been lambasted for doing nothing to evolve or refine it's formula, at least does a better job of presenting it's narrative and balancing it's gameplay.
In the eight hours of Anthem I battled through, combat revolved around taking out a gang of enemies that either swarmed or stood around shooting at me with seemingly little care for terrain or tactics, before picking up a few collectible things while a character or two chirped in my ear about how important this particular McGuffin was, followed by another bout of the same action before the mission suddenly came to an end. Each weapon I tried on Normal difficulty tore through the mindless enemies in short order, with more than enough health and ammo dropped as they met their doom to negate any difficulty.
Turning to Hard mode within the first three missions, I found enemies boosted with inflated health and ended up running out of ammo over and over as the balance revealed itself to be focused on inflating health bars to elongate fights and effectively force the use of higher grade weapons, as opposed to giving enemies access to better tactics or new abilities. The resulting choice was between charging through normal difficulty needing little more than the melee attack and the nerve to stand in the middle of the action while health and ammo spilled from defeated enemies or slogging through long battles of attrition, this time having to rely on those physical attacks because my weapons ran out before I could drop even one enemy. I chose the former, not wanting to drag out the simple engagements at all.
Compounding the lack of tactical sense and enemy variation's effect on the fun potential of Anthem is some spectacularly mishandled multiplayer. In my experience, playing alone with strangers and trying to use voice chat to organize, each level would begin with a long loading screen followed by my late arrival on the scene. "You're too far away from the action" a warning on the screen says, giving thirty seconds to catch up. Bad luck for me, I'm in the slowest of the four exo-suits and, in almost every mission, end up in another loading screen for at least thirty seconds. Loading back in, a fight is in full swing and half of the context for the situation has already been spoken while I had no way to hear it. Worse still, someone in the lobby has done this mission before or simply doesn't care for context and is charging through it, picking up items even before the voice overs can tell me how important it is that we pick up these things. Then suddenly, I've got another "You're too far away from the action" message because Mr or Mrs Speedrun is already rushing to the next area. Cue a rush to find the blue marker that tells me where to go and a quiet hope that I wont have to suffer another arbitrary break in the action simply because I'm not rushing or have not played that mission before.
Beyond those frustrating aspects of the multiplayer design, there's no text chat, so good luck actually communicating with tight lipped strangers. Worse still, there's only one social hub area you can access between missions and it has no voice OR text chat. There's already been negative reaction to this choice, with those who struggle with speech openly asking for text chat and being shot down by the makers of Anthem, which seems a little unbelievable given how completely standard these features are. If it's an attempt to limit the game's potential to breed toxicity within it's community then it's a heavy handed one at best, something bound to limit more people's general accessibility and fun than it saves from mean words.
With so little potential for communication in Anthem, it's cast and setting have more weight to carry. And damn do they try. Hard. Falling into a selection of the most obvious character tropes going, Anthem's cast is so utterly disparate in their accents and attitudes in comparison to the setting that nothing about it or them feels organic or real. Things characters say are at odds with the world itself at times, allusions to squalor and hardship ringing false when wandering the relatively clean, peaceful hub. Everyone seems to be rather alright with living like this and takes pains to make quips about how they once ran with street gangs or how sexy it is to face danger, quips that your voiced protagonist is all too ready to return in spades. There's no weight or sufficient context given to what we're told is serious and no space for real levity as a result, the characters coming off as disingenuous sociopaths as they joke about their troubles. Perhaps it's supposed to be gallows humour inspired by living a tough life for so long, but there's nothing to inform that intent in the writing or acting.
The plot itself is broad and shallow, much like it's characters, featuring a whole lot of McGuffin collection and occasional bouts of exposition with the figureheads of the various factions. After eight hours, I honestly couldn't tell you what was going on aside from the fact that there's something called The Anthem of Creation that seems to be akin to The Force, that alien technology messes with the eco system and that humanity is struggling to survive in the face of that threat. Reading various bits of lore scattered around the free roam combat areas, I was met by one of two things each time - a dry piece of text regarding the Anthem of Creation and how seriously it must be taken by those who seek to learn of it or a silly bit of fluff text, such as someone's shopping list or a vaguely amusing rant from a janitor who wants people to clear out of narrow corridors. Neither added to the setting and tone nor my urge to know more, with the latter only further compounding any negative thoughts I'd already been having about the inhumanly chipper residents of this struggling settlement.
All of this said, and mostly negative as my experience has been when I compare it to other, similar games, Anthem can and likely will be changed in an attempt to fix some of these issues. Already, notes for a major update on release day mention quicker load times, reducing the need to rush before the "You're too far away" warning pops up and reducing the grind on late game missions that, right now, have you collecting a whole lot of McGuffins in order to progress. I'm doubtful that it can add the flavourful context for the setting or challenging combat I look for in these kinds of games, but I'll certainly be giving it a look when it arrives and might hopefully play just one fun mission from start to finish without feeling like I need psychic powers to keep up.
What's most irking about Anthem to me is that the game is so middle of the road, even with so much time and money spent by Bioware and EA. There's nothing unique about the gameplay short of the occasional use of your character's jetpack and even that isn't used for much beyond racing between areas of the map. Those desperate for a squad based, loot-em-up are likely to have already pre-ordered Anthem and will perhaps find more fun with organized groups of friends, but I thoroughly doubt that those playing alone will avoid the frustrations I felt and should save their money for something more unique.
Post Patch Impressions -
Returning to Anthem this week in the wake of it's day one patch, a few things I noted above have improved. Load times are better in some instances, such as loading back into the hub area after a mission, but didn't seem to have improved all that much when initially starting the game or loading into one of the open world areas, taking over a minute in each instance.
It seems players no longer load into missions at their own pace and are kept together so that everyone is there and ready to go when the mission starts, removing the problem of loading a mission only to find everyone else is soaring into the distance. The distance between players before getting the "You're too far away" warning has increased too, though having just one person rushing on your team will provoke the warning and force you to match their pace regardless.
It's a rough start for what's intended as a continuing service, but given enough free, interesting content, enemies and weaponry, Anthem can and likely will satisfy those looking for a team based, loot focused shooter.