It’s been a long road for Bioware. Ever since their acquisition by Electronic Arts, they haven’t really gotten a true hit out the door without somehow coming up short. While I wouldn’t call their latest release Anthem a disappointment per se, it’s enough of a departure from the studios’ style and sports flaws that keep it from being a no-brainer pick up for longtime Bioware fans.
Anthem takes a heavy shift from the story driven RPG mold where they made their fame, with classics such as Neverwinter Nights and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, in favor of serving up an action game with an emphasis on multiplayer and attempting to build an online playground, something that Bioware had yet to attempt in full — with Star Wars: The Old Republic, their MMORPG, they managed to build a pretty cool story and world, but the core experience ultimately failed due to the same problem that plagues Anthem: repetition.
But before getting into that, the good: similarly to Bioware’s previous attempt at making an online co-op shooter in Mass Effect 3’s excellent and criminally overlooked multiplayer component, Anthem’s combat is quite fun. It makes use of some of the best mechanics from that game, such as having special powers that recharge over time alongside an assortment of firearms, with up to two you can carry at one time. There are handguns, sniper rifles, machine guns, assault rifles, carbines, shotguns, as well as specialized weapons for each of the four classes you get to play.
These Javelin — mech suits the protagonist climbs into in order to carry out missions in — are split into types that work much like in an online FPS, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as traits that play off of each other when playing in a group with a composition. There’s a heavy type, aptly called the Colossus, and as expected, it’s a brutish tank that can take tons of damage, while the Interceptor is anything but a tank, but thanks to its high agility, it can get in and out of close range and deal a world of hurt. Storm and Ranger come in the middle of the pack, with Storm being a caster type of sorts that makes use of elemental attacks and can help protect the team from incoming attacks with shields and other buffs. The Ranger is your all-around class with decent stats in all areas, and can pack a decent punch during a brawl.
When starting the game, you’re required to pick a Javelin to start with, but the catch is that you eventually unlock all of the others as you level up, so you can fit into whatever team setup you want, as long as you manage to gear each of them up. Or you can just focus on a single one and play through the entirety of the game that way. I started out with the Storm and up to now I haven’t really felt the urge to change things up, but it feels good to have the choice. That’s especially so considering that the game’s progression ultimately pushes you to grind for currency and crafting parts that favor sticking with a single class in order to avoid being more overbearing that it already is to get to content further into Anthem.
The progress is made in a few different ways. The main thrust of Anthem is partaking contracts that can be played with three other people (randoms, friends, or both, your pick) that are given to you by many figures you run into while exploring Fort Tarsis, one of the last strongholds in the wild lands of Bastion, an ancient land that’s been overtaken by nature and is in danger of being destroyed by the evil forces of the Dominion — no, no, not THAT Dominion from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the OTHER one — who are hell bent in acquiring an ancient weapon long thought lost. Yeah, the story isn’t inspired at all, and is delivered as you tear through these quests. The real meat of the writing is not in the action itself, but in the downtime between missions, so you won’t have to worry much about paying attention to dialog during them. But back to progression. A few hours into Anthem you’ll be able jump into Strongholds, which work like mini-raids from an MMO and provide better rewards than your usual contract, even though they aren’t as numerous as contracts. You can also free roam and do public activities out in the world, similarly to the raids, there aren’t a whole lot of these.
In fact, even the actual contracts aren’t that varied. Your group gets to fly around — all Javelins are equipped with Iron Man-like thrusters which sound awesome on paper, but have the annoying habit of overheating really quickly unless you fly into water or dive down — from point A to B to C and fight enemies. Or sometimes you have machinery along the way, or rescue a target, or what’s probably the weakest mechanic, collect power orbs in order to deactivate a beacon, which happens comically all too often during these contracts, regardless of the story excuse for doing it.
It’s a good thing that the actual combat is fun, thanks to the mix between powers, melee and guns, as well as being able to throw down an ultimate when its meter is filled — the Storm’s is one of the coolest looking and positively destructive, I love it. I found the enemies themselves a little bullet-spongey, a possible carry over from Mass Effect 3, who also sometimes carry shields and barriers that have to be taken down before they can be damaged. That’s where the balanced team composition I mentioned earlier comes into play, since a good formation and smart use of powers in tandem can prove to be the most effective and fun way to engage combat scenarios.
That said, in order to eventually become a useful team member, you have to get some good gear, and Anthem is somewhat stingy when it comes to having you feel increasingly more powerful. The contracts give you plenty of rewards when you finish them, sure, but they don’t feel particularly significant when you’re only able to switch guns every so often, or install an upgrade here and there. There’s no actual upgrade path with a significant impact in gameplay. As you level up, more slots are opened in your inventory, allowing you to equip more mods, eventually increasing your Javelin score, a sort of level that helps gauge how powerful you are — it’s something MMOs have had for years that Destiny also makes use of in order to keep you from coming into higher level content with too weak of a character, even though you might be at the high level to play — and it’s where the eventual grind comes into play.
Performance-wise, Bioware needs to look into fixing the many bugs that currently plague all versions of the game. I reviewed this on PC, and boy, this is one of the most broken ports I’ve ever played. I’ve lost count of the times of the lock-ups, disconnects and other issues while playing, losing progress and acquired items in the process. Things are so bad that 9 out of 10 times just trying to exit to the main menu or even out entirely to Windows 10 blocks my computer completely, forcing me to restart it or hard reboot it.
That’s a shame because the game looks fantastic, thanks to the talent art team from Bioware who’s known for excellent world and creature designs, as well as the Javelins themselves, which can be customized with a variety of parts you can acquire with in-game credits or real money. Anthem is no exception when it comes to visual variety, and you’ll be surprised to see just how much they’ve gotten better at constructing believable humans who animate incredibly well for the most part, a far cry from the old days of the first Mass Effect. On the other hand, I could do without having to very slowly navigate the quest hub of Fort Tarsis in first-person, but it helps show just how good those character models look and are voiced, for as little as you get to interact with them, outside of choosing dialog prompts every now and then with no real consequence, only measly reputation gains.
If Anthem’s anything like Bungie’s epic, the main thrust of future content moving on will hinge on your constant work on getting that number ticking higher and higher. The hope is that Bioware will look into making that race more fun than actual work, a problem that many online games eventually run into. Thanks to the strong built-in matchmaking, I don’t find myself struggling to find a group to play with like I do in say, Destiny, and that’s a big plus in my book. As it stands, I can see myself continuing on with Anthem as long as the mission design is improved and I have a clear (and possible) goal I can set for myself even while playing it casually. That and the bugs, the technical kind that need to be fixed. The ones you can shoot are fine!