Anthem, EA and Bioware's first foray into the emerging "lifestyle games" genre, is a collection of oppositions. It's a game that pushes parts of the genre forward, and pulls others back. It's frustrating and amazing, confounding and fun. It breaks from BioWare's traditions at almost every step of the way, starting first with story.
Scattered around the world of Anthem are countless "relics," left behind by a long-lost ancient civilization of technologically advanced "Shapers." These relics tap into a vague, poorly explained source of energy called The Anthem of Creation.
One of the most powerful relics the Shapers left behind is called The Cenotaph, which was at least partially responsible for shaping Anthem's world. The relic was secretly stashed away under the city of Freemark so that it wouldn't fall into nefarious hands, but you can probably guess how well that goes.
With hardly any explanation, you come to learn that a militaristic society from the north, The Dominion, think they can use The Cenotaph to tap into The Anthem of Creation to control its power. That hubris is rewarded with a giant explosion, numerous deaths, and the creation of a cataclysm called The Heart of Rage.
You play the role of a Freelancer, an elite group of people who pilot Javelins (Iron-Man-type exoskeletons), to complete contracts and protect the masses. Before long, you and your Javelin are dispatched to The Heart of Rage to stop the churning cataclysm before it spreads, or wipes out humanity...or something.
Once again, things go terribly wrong and your team of clichéd misfits is wiped out in incredibly stupid ways, like being slowly stepped on or knocked out of the air by giant, troll-like Titans. Aren't Freelancers supposed to be fast, intelligent fighters? I guess not.
Then, through a disappointing and exceptionally lazy piece of exposition, you come to learn that Freelancers, once deeply admired by the people, have become outcasts because of their failure at The Heart of Rage, and subsequently scattered across the world.
To put that leap of logic into perspective, it's important to note that Freelancers have been risking their lives for the sake of the people for hundreds of years. Plus, they have a long, long track record of success. But they suffer a lone, heartbreaking defeat (through no fault of their own) and they're abandoned and shamed? Years of admiration wiped out in an instant?
Furthermore, why would the unprotected public turn their backs on their only line of defense against an increasingly harsh world? The cataclysm at The Heart of Rage is actively spawning Titans and other baddies, Outlaws and Scars (other enemy factions) are wandering around outside the gates of Fort Tarsis, and packs of "Skorpions" are creeping and crawling everywhere. But sure, let's banish the people with the guns and super hero exoskeletons. That's about as logical as disbanding the entire military after a single defeat.
After that nonsense, which left me staring at my television in disbelief, the story plods along through in- mission dialogue, "Codex" entries, the occasional cut scene, and tons of character interaction through inconsequential dialogue trees that serve precisely ZERO purpose.
The problem is that the vast majority of the story is told, rather than shown. I don't want to listen to three pages of dialogue about tense, exhilarating missions. I want to experience them, watch them, or take part in some small way. But tough luck-- this character is just going to talk at you for three minutes.
The enemy factions, The Dominion, Scar, and Outlaws, remain severely underdeveloped throughout. Motivations, when they exist at all, are thin. The Dominion conquer because they're conquerors. The Outlaws steal because they're outlaws. So forth and so on. There's no context, depth, or reason behind their actions. They do things because they do things, so don't ask any questions, damnnit!
The story is clunky at best, nonsensical at worst, and I couldn't shake the feeling that something important was cut out along the way. There are far too many leaps in logic, story beats that materialize out of thin air, and undeveloped characters to suggest otherwise. It's head-scratching because these narrative failings are out of character for BioWare, a company known for deep and effective storytelling. Hopefully future expansions will fill the cracks in Anthem's weak narrative foundation and bring Anthem's story to the forefront.
Bioware also breaks character when it comes to gameplay. Let's be honest, Bioware is hardly known for fluid combat and streamlined mechanics, but Anthem stands out as an exception. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that what Anthem lacks in story, it nearly makes up for in fun, blistering combat.
The true variety in Anthem (and there's very little of it to go around), comes in the form of four Javelins. There's the well-rounded Ranger, the heavy but slow Colossus, the fast but fragile Interceptor, and the ranged attacker, Storm. Each Javelin forces the player to approach combat scenarios differently, and the inherent variations in each class can lead to some nice teamwork.
For example, having a teammate in the Storm Javelin hovering over the battlefield, freezing enemies while the Colossus tears through them on the ground makes combat much easier. There's a formal combo system in Anthem, which rewards teams that use complimentary attacks, though the mechanic feels like a vague afterthought that's never fully explained. It was always a nice bonus to trigger the increased combo damage, but coordinating attacks to that level of specificity just isn't reasonable in the heat of battle.
Each Javelin feels like it has weight and presence. These are deadly machines that clank and thud on the ground, explode into the air with tremendous force, and make you feel like a true badass. No matter how long I played, piloting the Javelin never got old.
Anthem differentiates itself from Destiny with its movement. Each Javelin comes equipped with jet thrusters, which allow players to fly through the air like mechanical Supermen. These thrusters can be used in combat as well, giving you the option to hover over the battlefield, zip away when shields are low, and flank enemies to expose their glowing, yellow weak points.
These movement abilities dovetail nicely with Anthem's equally fun combat. The shooting mechanics in Anthem are on par with those in Destiny, which is a small miracle considering Bungie's pedigree. Each Javelin comes equipped with
I wish Anthem's weapons weren't so run-of-the-mill generic. There are shotguns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, pistols, and other standard issue fare, but nothing has the personality to stand out. Upgrading a piece in your arsenal doesn't change anything significantly either, and a level 10 combat shotgun feels and looks the same as a level 30. The only difference is the damage numbers flying out of enemies. I found myself less and less interested in the loot dropping during battle and only picked it up because I could scrap it for parts. That's a fairly significant problem in a "loot shooter."
Normally, it's story that pushes me forward, but with Anthem, it was the second-to-second gameplay. I found myself itching to play, not because I wanted to see what happed with The Monitor and The Dominion or because I wanted to raise the damage my gun does by two points, but because I actually enjoyed the exhilarating movement and feel of combat.
Mission variety is lacking across the board. Almost every mission involves clearing out a section of enemies, searching the area for points of interest, and battling more enemies while you wait for some arbitrary task to complete. Though the enemies, locations, and mission parameters change, the underlying tasks of the missions do not. The lack of variety soon becomes grating.
Between missions, I dreaded going back to Fort Tarsis. The layout of Anthem's hub world is confusing and poorly designed, with easy-to-miss entryways and multiple levels. Worse still, your character moves at a snail's pace. Pressing L3 makes your Freelancer move a little faster, but the speed increase is so minuscule it's hard to tell when it's enabled. Moving from the fast-paced combat to the 90-year-old-with- a-walker speed in Fort Tarsis is jarring.
Performance in Anthem is hit or miss. While the game can look absolutely stunning at times, especially in native 4K on the Xbox One X, things tend to bog down during intense action sequences. In my measurements, I struggled to hit a 30fps during outdoor battles, dipping down as low as 23 fps at times. The fluctuating frame rate gives the game a herky-jerky feel at times and negatively impacts the flow of combat. It's not deal-breaking, just annoying.
On PC, Anthem takes a beastly rig to run well. Even with a 1080 Ti and 10-core processor I never came close to running the game in 4K at max settings. Like the Xbox One X version, it slowed down significantly during combat and I experienced noticeable slowdown when transitioning from the air to the water, and vice versa. Eventually, I tweaked the graphics settings enough provide a fluid frame rate, but I would have preferred to see some additional optimization.
Loading times, which have been one of the biggest complaints lodged against Anthem since its open beta period, have been improved with the Day One patch, but not entirely. On the Xbox One X, loading times are more or less on par with Destiny 2-- lengthy but not overly so. On PC, using a traditional hard drive can push pre-mission loading times up between 60-90 seconds. Installing the game on an SSD cuts those times significantly, but they're still far too long.
Anthem does a poor job of dealing with the discrepancy between HDD and SSD. Those using hard drives will often load into a mission long after those on SSD, and when they do, they'll be greeted by a "return to mission area" warning, which will immediately trigger another loading screen as the game moves you to the mission area. It's extremely annoying to wait for the mission to start, only to wait through another loading screen immediately after.
The core of the game is rock solid. It's shooting and flying mechanics are perfectly tuned, combat is highly rewarding, and it's just plain fun to live out your Iron Man fantasies against a gorgeous backdrop. Unfortunately, everything surrounding that core is mushy, and shapeless. Had Anthem featured more mission variety, satisfying and differentiated weapons, more diverse environments, and most importantly, a story that makes even a modicum of sense, it would have instantly become my go-to lifestyle game. As it stands, Anthem is a fun distraction that I simply can't recommend at the moment. I'm sure it'll be fixed, tuned, and improved over the months and years to come, but until then, you're better off cooling your jets and taking the wait-and-see approach.
In 2013, Brian combined his love of video games and passion for writing to create Games Under Pressure, a gaming website, based in Milwaukee, that focuses on both console and ultra-high-end PC gaming.