21 Feb 2019

Anthem Review

Whether it's an adaptation of a popular film franchise or the debut of an original fantasy adventure, BioWare has proved relentlessly that it can deliver phenomenal singleplayer RPGs. With a new IP under its belt, the Canada-based developer's latest outing has brought back the strong casts of characters and expansive worlds it is known for building, while also mingling both solo and multiplayer systems together into a persistent experience.

Anthem is described as a "contiguous open world", meaning the line between what you're doing alone and with other players is blurred. Set in an alternative universe where mankind has created advanced exosuits called Javelins, the game chronicles the expeditions of Freelancers, a group of pilots that seek to explore and protect the surrounding land. Many of the missions occur in this space that you share with other players, whereas the "hub" area - a place to cool off between sessions, upgrade equipment and receive new tasks - is experienced from a solo perspective.
One major downside from having a connected world is that EA requires for you to be linked to its servers at all times. It is possible to be alone in a private session, but you can never play offline. This even includes the segments you do on your own such as the prologue tutorial and the hub. If you have a poor internet connection, you're going to be out of luck as you have to contend with whatever mood the servers are in. 

I would say I have a fairly decent network. Nothing substantial, but strong enough that I should be able to maintain a stable session. Even then, I lost connection more times than I can count over the course of my playthrough. I would even get booted back to the menu during a cutscene, completely ruining the flow and emotion of the scene. To speak frankly, the technical presentation of this alone is an outright disaster.
Unfortunately, the game doesn't get much better when you factor out the technical problems. Missions - typically known as expeditions - have you fly somewhere in the world to fight some bad guys, because plot reasons. Many of these sequences might feel repetitive, and that's because they are. When designing such levels, it's generally a good practice to mix it up so players aren't always performing the same monotonous task over and over again for the course of the entire game. With Anthem, there are so many moments that require you to just sit around in one area shooting enemies, that its 15-hour campaign ends up feeling a lot longer due to how flat these sequences fall. Adding some new variety to the objectives would have improved the flow.

Despite this, the combat in Anthem is really empowering. Flying around in a Javelin exosuit brings back stark Iron Man flashbacks, to the point that I was genuinely questioning why BioWare hasn't made a Marvel game yet. There are four Javelins to pick from, each one coming with their own strengths and weaknesses. For example, the Colossus is a brute, using its incredible size and physical shields to absorb all incoming damage, whereas the Interceptor is weaker but nimble enough to quickly zip you in and out of harm's way. Alongside the abilities of each suit, there are also many weapons available at your disposal, including a lock-on missile launcher and a grenade slot. These all feel responsive and powerful; they just click well. Enemies don't put up much resistance when you use your weapons to their full advantage, and it's generally a good call to make sure your abilities meld well with your teammates'.
When you're not exploring the world, you're tucked away safely inside Fort Tarsis, the solitary safe haven for mankind and the game's central hub. There's a problem here that those moments inside the fort are boring, even if you're only there for a few minutes each time. It does not feel like the busy metropolis it's built up to be. The explorable area is extremely small, featuring only a few streets and buildings. NPCs are present but they never quite feel like a living part of the world, simply existing to deliver small pieces of dialogue to the player. It's a very static place, serving to function only as a means of progressing the story and upgrading your equipment. It probably wouldn't be so bad if there was more to do, but as it stands Fort Tarsis is just an uneven break in the pace.

Despite a wonderfully diverse cast and an ambitious script, Anthem's story is delivered rather haphazardly, largely due to the uneven pacing and repetitiveness of its missions. A lot of the lore given in dialogue often jumps from point-to-point, whereas the voice acting performances don't feel as memorable as they did in Mass Effect or Dragon Age. Players can occasionally choose between two dialogue options during a conversation, though this usually has very little effect on the outcome.

One of the most outrageous design decisions in the game comes about three hours in. Outside of missions, there's also a freeplay mode for you to explore and partake in smaller quests (called World Events) with other players. This is introduced to you in a mission that requires some excruciating grinding. Without spoiling much, there are a few sets of challenges that need to be completed in order to proceed with the story. These can be as simple as attaining several dozen melee kills or as dull as opening a large amount of rare chest rewards. Even for a loot game, this comes across as appallingly tedious, putting up a giant wall for players invested in the story and forcing them to complete this task first. It massively disrupts the momentum of the campaign.
I want to believe that somewhere beneath the array of technical difficulties, poor design decisions and immeasurably long loading times, Anthem could become a decent game. There is currently so much about it that will be off-putting to the players who aren't 100 percent invested, which can be a huge problem for a game about gathering loot and completing missions with other players. Can BioWare fix this? Absolutely. I have faith in the team that it could become a fun product in the long run. But as it stands at the moment, it's just not very good.



Reviewed on: PC

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