You’d think a 10 hour trial would be enough to give someone a definitive impression of what a game is like, but after exhausting 10 hours of my life playing BioWare’s Anthem, I’m still not sure what to make of it. Despite the decent gunplay and the thrill you get from flying around Bastion, there’s more than a few issues with the game design that hamper the overall experience.
Announced during E3 2017, Anthem is BioWare and EA’s next big franchise, their stab at the whole live service loot shooter genre, in a similar mold to the likes of Destiny or The Division. Though these games tend to come into their own once you hit the endgame content, the first 10 hour don’t do a great job enticing you to get there.
The gameplay itself is solid enough. You pilot one of four Javelin types, which you can equip with different weapons and abilities to suit your needs. The Ranger is a good all-round soldier type class, while the Colossus is your tank and aggro draw and the Interceptor is a close ranged assassin. The most interesting class would be Storm, who can deal elemental damage and set up “combos”, where different abilities come together to do massive damage.
Crucially, players can have javelins of each type, once they’ve reached a high enough level to unlock them anyway. It’s important because it means that your choice of class isn’t locked in from the get go, which reduces the hassle of grinding multiple classes like in Destiny. For endgame content, this seems like a brilliant quality of life feature.
The weapons themselves are good, with assault rifles and marksman rifles feeling the most satisfying to use. Shotguns feel punchy too, making them superlative at close range, as you would expect. There are a few oddities in the arsenal though. The Autocannon rate of fire only increases the long the trigger is held down, which can be annoying when you need damage immediately. Sniper rifles do massive damage too, but they require charging and have limited ammo, making ranged combat somewhat of a specialty, which is a shame.
The elemental effects that can be used on you can make the combat feel like a bit of a chore. Sometimes, it’s possible to be frozen locked, leaving you to mash the A button to break free for about 10-15 seconds, while getting hit with electricity removes your ability to fly, which led to a really annoying World Event where I had to collect items floating in mid air while being zapped on a regular basis. Frustrating isn’t the word.
Perhaps the biggest high point in Anthem is the ability to fly around in your Javelin, as it can feel quite exhilarating. it gives you freedom of movement you don’t often get in a third-person shooter, and it helps that the world of Bastion is beautiful to look at. Seeing it from a bird’s eye perspective just amplifies that. Having to use water to prevent overheats does get in the way, though.
Being able to customise your Javelin is a nice touch too, and there’s plenty of options available to you if you want to create something unique, or if you just want to emulate famous robot suits from other media. It’s hard to really dig into those systems when you’re under time constraints, but it’s nice to have them nonetheless.
The core game sees you wandering around your hub area, Fort Tarsis, and speaking to its denizens, taking on expeditions and the like to ensure the world of Bastion can live on relative peace- nah, screw all that noble stuff. It’s all about getting that extra loot, and you’re a fool if you think otherwise. Loot rules everything around you, after all.
Walking around Fort Tarsis has its own unique charm, which is something you’d expect from a Bioware game. Pretty much all of the characters are likeable and have their own personalities, so it’s hard not to enjoy seeing what they have to say, even if sometimes you’d wish they’d hurry up. 10 hour trial, after all.
That said, it’s hard to not feel like the former adventurers enjoy regaling you with tales that happen to be more interesting than anything you’re currently doing, especially during one particularly annoying roadblock. Characters speak about losing their javelin suits in a bet with a gang, or taking on entire hordes single handedly, while you’re out in the overworld looking for treasure chests to appease some long dead hero.
The main story itself isn’t much better, though it appears to actually have one so it gets a win over the original Destiny in that case. You’re a freelancer who got their ass kicked in “The Heart Of Rage”, which is basically a giant hellmouth, and now you’re gearing up to go back to stop a generic villain from attaining ultimate power. It’s fine, if a little uninspired.
During the story, Anthem reaches a certain point called the Tomb of the Legionnaires quest where progression takes a nosedive. Instead of taking on expeditions and missions, you have to find tombs in the game’s Freeplay mode and complete their challenges in order to proceed. Sounds simple enough, but the reality is more annoying and tedious than that.
The challenges range from simple things like missions completed and enemies killed, which is fine, but the more annoying ones range from opening treasure chests, beating world events and finding collectibles. Oh, and these challenges only start tracking from the moment you take the quest, and you have to visit these tombs in the overworld to find out what those challenges are in the first place.
In fairness, the majority of these challenges can be completed by heading back to Fort Tarsis and progressing with other side missions as you would naturally, but there are some like completing World Events and finding treasure chests that require you going out of your way in order to finish them off.
The World Events challenge is a particular pain as you’re at the mercy of RNG. You could roam around Bastion for half an hour and not find a single world event, or, in my case, the only one you can find involves a massive boss that requires other players to take down and said players have scattered to the four winds.
More annoyingly, the treasure chest challenge only counts if you’re the one who opens the chest, so if someone beat you to it, you’re out of luck, pal. EA and Bioware have confirmed this should be fixed in the Day One patch, but considering people are already playing the game now and getting screwed by this bug, I don’t see why the patch isn’t pushed out for release sooner.
There’s this feeling I can’t shake that the Tomb of the Legionnaires quest was designed to be an intentional roadblock for players; an act of deliberate obfuscation targeting players who would be sampling the EA Access Trial for 10 hours. With all the time you need to spend taking on the menial busywork, how will you manage to reach the final level in time?
With multiple difficulty levels, the chances of rare loot, three Strongholds and a new story arc beginning next month, there’s plenty here to keep players coming back to Anthem for more if they want it, but after playing the first 10 hours, I’m left confused. There’s potential here, but right now Anthem is an incredibly hard sell.
That’s live services for you though. Give it a year and everyone will be singing Anthem’s praises.