With games like Anthem which are very clearly going to evolve over time, this review is merely a review of the experience at launch. We will revisit these games in six months time to discuss their progression.
Anthem, can we talk? Listen I’ve really enjoyed my time with you. We’ve laughed, we’ve cried. We’ve spilled the blood of our enemies together from the Emerald Abyss to The Fortress of Dawn. You’ve rewarded me with all kinds of loot, some useful, some not so much. Flying around with you through your gorgeous landscapes in my powerful javelin has been one of the most exhilarating times of my life. Yet, part of me still feels betrayed and crushed by your wasted potential. Anthem, I think maybe we should see other people.
I want to preface this review with a couple of things. First, aside from Diablo and the Borderlands series, I’m not a huge looter shooter guy. I’ve played a bit of Destiny but it never really appealed to me. Second, this was one of my, if not THE, most anticipated title of this year. I’ve been a huge fan of BioWare dating back to the Baldur’s Gate series but more recently KOTOR, Dragon Age and Mass Effect. Their ability to tell stories while providing an addictive game play loop is second to none in my opinion. They hit on one of these with Anthem, but missed the mark on the other by a country mile.
Let’s talk about what this game does well. First of all, graphically, the game is beautiful. I played it on the Xbox One X and it doesn’t disappoint. The landscape is detailed and stunning. BioWare did an excellent job creating a living, breathing asthetic. The character models that plagued Mass Effect: Andromeda are long gone and have been improved. Overall, it’s a feast for the eyes.
The gameplay loop is solid as well. Controls are tight and intuitive. Flying through the world, you get the feeling that you are always in control (even when running into the giant mountain that somebody snuck in front of you). Combat is incredibly fun too. You really feel like a badass as you unleash your various powers on the many different enemies the game throws at you. Using an expanded combo system from BioWare’s previous titles, you can take control of the battlefield in a symphony of destruction and vibrant explosions. It’s at these moments that Anthem is at its best. Playing off your fellow javelins really enhances the experience. Make no mistake, this game is built for co-op and the developers did an excellent job implementing the system as it’s a blast with friends.
But it’s not all shotguns and shock coils. I’m writing this review having played the most recent 1.03 patch which addressed several of the biggest problems the game shipped with, but some still persist. Home screen crashes, complete loss of audio and on the PS4, the game was reported to nearly brick your console. Now that may have been slightly exaggerated, but it did require several (reports of nearly 2000) people to rebuild their console’s data base. In 2019, it’s inexcusable. Gamers have come to expect bugs in newly released games, for better or worse. This is BioWare’s first foray into the shlooter (saw this on Twitter and I’m borrowing the term) genre and it’s an ambitious title for sure. But clearly, mistakes were made. However, not to excuse the bugs, but at this point, these really pale in comparison to Anthem’s real problems.
First, let’s look at the endgame content, or in the case of Anthem, the lack thereof. Once you complete the main storyline and the side missions, you will be treated to an endless loop of what seems like the same events over and over. There are three Stronghold missions, several different contracts and freeplay. They all feel pretty similar. I’ve put in around 70 hours now and aside from the time I spend with my friends, everything else is pretty bland. While BioWare has a roadmap for future content (which is free for everyone which is definitely a plus), I feel like a little more could have gone a long way.
As far as the story goes, well, it’s there. It takes a backseat to the gameplay, which would be acceptable if it weren’t from a developer that excelled at storytelling in the past. Is it fair to hold them to a higher standard than other developers though? I do. The Mass Effect series really set the bar high for many people, including myself, in a masterclass on how to tell a compelling story in a video game. Did I expect a huge branding narrative with choices that affected how the story was told? Maybe a little. I’m OK with the trade off if you make a fun game that nails all of the other sections. Unfortunately, Anthem falls short in those areas too. It was serviceable, that’s the best I can say.
Where these shlooters need to shine is in their loot mechanic. It’s imperative. Now, as the game is played, the developers will have to make adjustments on the loot drop rate, difficulty settings and several other aspects to make the game balanced. It’s an ongoing process. Out of the gate, Anthem was a hot mess. Your beginning gun was found to be more powerful than some Legendary weapons due to broken damage scaling. The loot drop rate, right now, is confusing at best. Some things have been fixed, but it still isn’t clear on how it all works. When you do get lucky enough to snag a Masterwork item, the rolls on them are still odd. Several times now, I have received items that had two of the same damage modifiers for the exact same weapon. It seems cheap and a waste of a perk. Combined with the other problems, there’s little reason to continue playing until these issues are fixed.
And yet, I can’t stop playing this dang game. It’s full of potential with a solid foundation to build on. I really can’t explain it. Six months from now, I plan to revisit this review and write an updated version as we noted above. The biggest issue I have is that there were numerous examples (Diablo 3, The Division, Destiny) of how to NOT launch a looter shooter. With broken mechanics, lack of endgame content and a loot system that if not broken, is not entirely clear in its execution, it seems BioWare didn’t heed the lessons of its predecessors. Maybe it was a publisher problem, rushing the game to appease its shareholders. Maybe their ignorance of the genre, regardless of the myriad of examples of other games, is showing. I have no idea. All I know is that despite its issues, despite feeling like I’m running in circles, I can’t wait to finish this article so I can jump on Anthem. I may have a problem.