Anthem: EA’s Swan Song or BioWare’s Dirge?

Anthem is NOT the game you think it is.

There has been plenty of hub-bub and mixed first reactions concerning Anthem, the newest title and IP from Developer BioWare. A dogpile of criticism has been heaped on BioWare from those who have yet to even experience the game. Much of this seems to be simply due to the property being handled by EA. People have taken to calling it a “Destiny clone” and writing it off simply as that, even though the two games play nearly nothing alike.

Author’s Note: This review is based solely off of impressions from the February 1-3 open demo of Anthem. It is not meant as a critique of the entire game, only what I have experienced thusfar.


If a  science -fiction first-person shooter is all it takes to be a Destiny clone, one could easily claim that Warframe, a game made by developer Digital Extremes is also a Destiny clone. Halo, made by the same developer as Destiny, would then also have to be considered a Destiny clone, or likely vice-versa. It’s a lazy argument and one that I’m frankly sick of hearing, akin to hard games of any genre being the “Dark Souls of X”.

So discounting this simple assumption, what exactly makes Anthem unique?

Visuals

I spent over 15 hours in the weekend demo trying out the game. I’ll admit, 15 hours isn’t the most time a person could spend testing a demo, but it was an interesting experience. Unlike many others, I had no issues connecting to the servers when I finished downloading Anthem. I did, however, face a couple of mid-game crashes with a 1050ti and my FX-8320, at least until I adjusted my video settings from their default high to low. After that, I didn’t have any other visual or game-play issues, and the game still looked pretty fantastic for running on a budget machine.

 

Interceptor overlooking Anthem's open world
My Interceptor readies for a dive into the vast chasm below. Everywhere you see, you can go.

 

The environments were gorgeous. Lush green foliage, misty blue waterfalls, sheer white cliff-faces, blood-red and gunmetal grey structures cutting through the haze of brown dust. Anthem is eye-candy that anyone can appreciate. There is rich and vibrant color to be enjoyed throughout, without being over-saturated.

Destiny, I find, is a much more dreary greyish game, with spots of washed out colors to drive home the weariness of the story more often than not. Warframe tends to be much of the same, or else is hyper-saturated at the other extreme. It rarely draws the right amount of visual richness without pushing into territory that could be considered blinding due to overuse of bloom effect.

Likewise, both other games limit your color pallets when it comes to customization. Warframe makes you buy new color pallets to customize your frames. Destiny uses ‘shaders’, a unique item that has to be consumed to color the item in a specific way which you get no say in. Anthem had no such limits in the demo, allowing you to color every single unique segment of your armor whatever color you wanted to. You were free to choose from a variety of materials to use for textures as well, with various cloth, polymer plastic, and metal varieties all free to enjoy. This may not remain free in the main game,  though worth noting is that monetization seemed aimed at unique armor pieces rather than color or material schemes. I hope that these basic customization elements remain a purchase-free part of the game.

Beyond just this, I have to speak about how much I love the sheer verticality of Anthem. I was floored looking around and realizing just how much of the world there was to explore; how many caves, waterfalls, cliff-side nooks and crannies, chasms, bridges, pools and lakes there were to see. This despite the fact that most of the overworld was still locked away due to it being a demo! The variety of environments and the sheer visual experience of Anthem is unique to it of any game I’ve played, and makes for a compelling visual experience, all else aside.

Classes

After playing the default Ranger Javelin through the story of the Demo, I chose to unlock the Interceptor Javelin, the fastest and second most fragile jav in the game. I can immediately say that not only was the change in play-style of the two noticeable, it was necessary. The Ranger is a versatile Jav that hits single targets hard and can soak a hit or two. The Interceptor, alternatively, was a speed-demon whose only goals were: Go as fast as humanly possible to keep up your shield and mow down anything dumb enough to get close to you, before they did the same to you.

I’m not ashamed to admit that the first time I took out my Interceptor on Hard difficulty, I died a couple of times. It took a while to get used to handling the unique mobility of the suit. I had to learn to chain my dodges, my flying, my hovering, and my triple-jump (a unique feature to the Interceptor) but when I did, I felt like an untouchable ninja, vaulting and flipping through hordes of enemies. Dropping clouds of acid in the middle of skittering hordes of Skorpions and waves of Scars was supremely satisfying. Hurling glaives that froze enemies solid and picking them off on the second pass with machine pistol fire, then popping my ultimate and cutting through hordes with visceral melee attacks left me giddy with glee.

All four of Anthem's Javelins on Display
Anthem’s four Javelin Suits left to right: Interceptor, Colossus, Storm, and Ranger

One thing I love about Anthem is that class diversity; the feeling that each class has a unique role to play that they do better than any of the others. It’s something sorely missing from the likes of Destiny and Warframe. The former makes their classes far too “samey” and the latter has so many frames at this point that any hope for uniqueness is a lost cause.

In Destiny, the only functional difference you get between a Titan and a Warlock is what ultimate and class ability you cast. Titan’s aren’t strictly tanks despite having a shield ability, Hunters aren’t strictly the best DPS despite having the most busted ultimates for PVP. In Destiny, your weapons determine your effectiveness far more than anything else does. Sharing that pool of weapons means you really don’t see much difference class by class.

You still share weapons in Anthem, but you have so much more freedom to change how your Javelin functions. You still retain the unique hallmarks of your class that inform your game-play style. After all, one does not simply sprint into combat with a shotgun as a Storm, unless you fancy blowing over with a stiff breeze.  Running is a bit of a chore for a Colossus, but you have the bulk and damage output around you to not worry about a hail of glancing blows. The classes each excel where they ought to, and are punished fairly where they should be. This keeps the game exciting and engaging in a way that Anthem’s competitors simply haven’t matched with their offerings.

Combat

Combat is an experience that I can’t help but rave about in Anthem. I’ve heard the whine of “Bullet Sponge” from the peanut gallery, to which I can only say “suck it up.” Yes, some of the enemies are hard to kill. I like that. Who is asking for another game that lets them ‘fire and forget’ at anything and everything that moves?

Anthem expects you to make use of everything in your arsenal to excel at the game, and you will sink if you don’t learn to swim. Your unique abilities do plenty enough damage to kill almost anything that isn’t a boss, but abilities aside, the unique combo system of priming and detonating is one of the most satisfying mechanics in modern-day loot and shoots.

The system originated in the likes of BioWare’s Mass Effect 2. Anthem integrated it fully, with each Javelin taking advantage of the two-part system in a unique way, which only heightens the depth of specialization of each Jav. Abilities can apply an elemental debuff to prime targets, either a single target or in an AoE. Detonating that Primed target with each Javelin has a different effect.

Storm Javelins spread the debuff to all enemies in the direct area when detonating. Colossi deal massive AoE damage centered around them when they detonate. Rangers deal massive single-target damage that increases for each unique debuff that they trigger, while Interceptors gain auras when they detonate, allowing them to transfer ailments to enemies around them while they zip around.

Of the unique enemies in Anthem, I had a great deal of fun pounding on a world boss called the Ancient Ash Titan. He fired seeking orbs of fire, used AoE rings that one had to quickly jump over and then duck under, and finally blasted what a friend coined “A giant ‘fuck off’ laser” from the middle of his chest. The fight was fun, challenging, and as it wore on got more and more frantic. The Titan eventually entered an enrage phase that led it to try to kill everyone around it with the laser, spinning faster than normal. The fight felt panicked on both sides, as using the laser makes the Titan vulnerable. I thought it a shining moment of what a boss fight should feel like; a desperate struggle where both sides feel death growing imminent until one finally breaks.

A fight with the Swarm Tyrant in BioWare's Anthem
The Swarm Tyrant in question getting pummeled

The first stronghold available to demo players provided a much more traditional video game boss fight. The beast in question is a giant Skorpion called the Swarm Tyrant that chases around the players. It will kill almost anyone in one blow if they get near enough, and retreats upon taking damage, before spawning waves of enemies. The Tyrant returns to the fight slightly later to continue terrorizing the players some more, repeating this pattern for a time. Finally,  it starts spawning enemies non-stop after hitting 20% health until it dies. The fight wasn’t exactly the most compelling of challenges, admittedly, but it wasn’t awful either. It was a decent example of a challenge built upon MMO style foundations, but nothing to write home about.

Movement

Movement is also a big part of Anthem and the place where I draw my first major gripe. I can’t praise Anthem enough for how fluid and free that the flight mechanics feel. The seamless ability to chain jumping and flight, to cut my thrusters, slow my fall, then re-engage at just the right height to skim a waterfall and cool my overheating engines. I can appreciate that flying is an art that takes skill, and isn’t just a set-and-forget part of the game to make travel easier. Yes, it can be frustrating to overheat when you’d rather not, but it makes you value the time you have in the air so much more and teaches you the best ways to use your limited mobility.

In contrast, swimming in Anthem is nothing short of a total mess. While flight has the benefit of being able to re-orient yourself by abusing your mobility mechanics midair, swimming has no such failsafe. The sensitivity of mouse movements at default is much too high. I had to scale back to 15% mouse sensitivity to have a modicum of control, and even then my movements still felt too responsive.  Progressing without bumping into or getting stuck on walls seemed nigh impossible.

Sound Design

Nearly everything sounds right in Anthem. From the screeches of Wyverns, to the skittering of Skorpions, the rush of gas igniting in your thrusters, the splash of landing in water, the crack and sizzle of damaged, shorting out armor. Couple this with a score subtle enough to know when less is more, but sweeping enough to make your heart pound when you need to be on the edge of your seat. If there is one thing I can say out of everything about this game, the world outside of Fort Tarsis is certainly an audio and visual masterpiece.

The Streets of Fort Tarsis in BioWare's Anthem
With so many people around, why is this city so quiet?

Fort Tarsis, unfortunately, leaves something to be desired.  Little, if anything, in the way of hustle and bustle can be found in the demo. An eerie quiet hangs over the town, despite it being shown to be full of NPCs, most of whom you can’t interact with. This frustrated me and made me feel strangely alone despite being more often than not surrounded by people. A lively outpost ought to feel lively, not stagnant and cold.

THE STORY

However… perhaps the area I felt was most lacking, especially from a BioWare game… was the story.

I have played BioWare titles as far back as Jade Empire and the original Knights of the Old Republic. Needless to say, when I found myself injected into a story with no idea who I was speaking to and no reason to care, I didn’t. Even now, I can’t remember the name of a single NPC aside from Matthias, and even he wasn’t exactly compelling.

Chatting with Matthias in Fort Tarsis in BioWare's Anthem
A binary choice is not what I play BioWare games for.

I am irked most by the decision to cut all dialogue options down to a binary that amounts to choosing between “This city and everyone in it is my family” or “I’m a lone wolf, leave me alone.” I have to hope this is just a limit of the dialogue to preserve the story for the paid version.  Frankly, I’m disappointed if this is what passes for choice in a BioWare game these days.

BioWare’s narrative development team once had some of the most talented writers in the industry among their ranks. I don’t know how they can now turn around and offer something so milquetoast and unappealing as a sample platter. Maybe more will make itself available outside of the demo, when Fort Tarsis isn’t full of people telling me their content isn’t available.

THE VERDICT

I have mixed feelings about Anthem. On the one hand, I find myself itching to dive back in. I wish that I could dive-bomb off a cliff, only to catch myself at the last second with a double jump. To back-flip into skimming the surface of a river on the way to a new adventure. On the other hand, I worry that the adventure I’ll be going on might not be one I’m invested in. I fear that my choices won’t matter and that the only good part of the game is the game-play loop.

If that is the case? Well, I can’t say I haven’t played worse games for less satisfying experiences before. (Here’s looking at you, PUBG) It would, however, mark the end of an era for BioWare. Many might say that era ended with Mass Effect 3, and they might be right. Personally though, if the story of this game really is so bland, I would consider that the final nail in the coffin for BioWare.

A funeral march plays for developers that cared about telling a compelling story through their media; a story where your choices mattered, where you were an important and integral part of the world. Anthem may be successful, I might even enjoy it for hours. I can’t help worrying though, that this will be the end of the BioWare I once loved so dearly.

Published by

Shane Armstrong

Shane has been gaming since he was old enough to nosedive into the Aircraft Carrier in Top Gun for the NES. His zest for a new experience is often equaled only by his own acerbic sarcasm.

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