Time played: 15 hours (full game) 4 hours (demo) for initial review
'Games as a service' is a strange phrase and an even stranger genre. It used to be that only MMORPGs occupied this space, yet in the last few years we have had games like Destiny and The Division pop up, games that are aiming to occupy your mind for as long as possible.
It seems odd then to find a brand new game trying to fit snuggly into this well-occupied area of gaming. Nevertheless, this is exactly what BioWare – primarily a creator of fantastic single-player games - is hoped to do with Anthem.
Anthem is set on a world that has been left unfinished by the gods who have abandoned it. The only proof that they existed at all is the terrifying Shaper technology which is terraforming wildly and creating huge monsters.
With humanity on the brink of being wiped from the face of the planet completely, your role is to fight back the shadowy figures that wish for your end.
We'll be continuing to update this review intermittently to assess how Anthem's patches and DLC affect the game.
Anthem update: one month on
Anthem has been with us for over a month and, due to its status as a ‘game as a service’, we think it’s important to update our thoughts on it.
A month feels like a long time in games and there have certainly been a lot of patches since the original release of the game. Despite all of the work that has no doubt go into improving Anthem, at present, it just isn’t good enough. In fact, several aspects of the game have slid backwards into the abyss and leave the experience more irksome as a result.
Not every change has been bad, and it is important to draw attention to the positive changes. As it stands, you can launch into a mission from anywhere in Fort Tarsus. Previously, you had to slowly meander over to your Javelin in order to do this. This genuinely speeds the game up and makes having to go back to the Fort in-between missions more bearable.
That being said, you still have to return to Fort Tarsus before starting a new task, there is no option to jump from mission to mission. It just boggles the mind as to why this is the case. It’s a simple quality-of-life improvement that would prevent players from being presented with so many frustrating barriers before play.
In fact, most aspects of Anthem seem to have deteriorated. We ran through the Heart of Rage stronghold mission in the run up to this re-review in order to truly put the recent changes through their paces. We made sure to undertake lots of other activities too, but this mission exemplified everything wrong with the current iteration of Anthem.
Finding a match was already a time consuming experience, but it’s somehow gotten worse. This is not the fault of Anthem directly - well, it might not be - but whether due to a lack of players or shaky servers, getting a mission going took longer than it did this time last month. Upon loading in, we were joined by one other player to begin with. Fighting our way through to the Titan mini-boss the cracks began to open up.
Part way through this fight the Titan fell through the earth. It walked through a wall and then fell into oblivion before reappearing where it was mere moments ago. The Titans are bullet-sponge bosses who take a considerable amount of time to take out, the best way to harm them is to shoot the glowing spots that appear as they attack you. This Titan, having seen the depths of hell, had shed all weakness and no longer had these weak points. This made an already chore-like battle feel even more like trying to hoover up cat litter.
Next up is a corridor with some enemies to clear out. Having cleared the way, it took two minutes for the game to notice and remove the barrier ahead. Strongholds are not short missions, they are meant to take time, but not because of things like this. The final boss took all of two minutes to take down, because by that point other players had spawned in and everyone knows how to clear these bosses out in record time now because nothing new has been added.
When you add in enemies mysteriously regenerating health because the servers can’t keep up, the sound cutting out randomly, and the occasionally critical crash of the game itself, Anthem just isn’t up to scratch. It honestly feels worse to play now than it did upon release. We still have months of content to come from this game, so there is still hope, but damn if Anthem isn’t making itself hard to like.
[Below is our original review of Anthem at launch.]
Only by jumping into exoskeletons called Javelins do you have any hope of saving yourself and the entire race. A lot rests on the shoulders of you and the other Freelancers who protect as best they can. Unfortunately, after a horrific failure two years ago, you find yourself scrounging about for work, no longer the heroes that you once were.
Anthem’s gameplay consists of you jetpacking around and unleashing hell on anything foolish enough to stand in your way. The game forces you into the vanilla (Ranger) suit to begin with before unlocking the strawberry (Interceptor), chocolate (Storm), and chunky monkey (Colossus). Honestly, the gameplay as the Ranger Javelin is just kind of fine. Flying feels good but the weapons are kind of dull, it’s just a bit too run of the mill.
Once you squeeze into one of the other Javelins things change dramatically. The Interceptor is a lightning fast melee machine that plays more like a hack-and-slash. The Colossus is a hulking beast of a suit that allows you to wade into and through enemies, it’s a tank class designed to soak up damage and give out even more.
Finally, we have the Storm, which is the mage class. It can disappear and summon lightning bolts. While it makes sense to acclimatise players to the systems first, the game only really begins once you’ve found which one you like.
The standout point of the game is the traversal. Your jetpack allows you to fly through the air or hover, how long for is dictated by two things. First, the temperature: a cooler jetpack lasts longer. Second, which suit you are in: the Colossus really struggles to keep itself up, whereas a Storm can stay up all day. These are the kinds of things you’ll want to play around with to find out which Javelin is for you. This then allows you to find out what kind of team you want to be with.
The gunplay in Anthem is a lot better than you might expect, the guns pack a bit more wallop than they did in the demo. Though where things become really interesting is the unique abilities. These are the things you can chain together in order to unleash combos which cause massive damage.
For example, if you freeze an enemy with an ice ability then shock them with a lightning one, then you’ll deal a huge amount of damage. Exactly how this is dealt is once again dictated by your Javelin. One may be customized for dealing damage to one single target, while another might be better for crowd control. It makes for an exhilarating combat system that has a lot more depth than you may initially think.
However, the element that worries most people about Anthem is the story - but it's actually woven in expertly. The opening mission alone is BioWare at its best: a stunning combination of good writing, stunning music, and beautiful visuals.
The characters are intriguing and watching them muster themselves against impossible odds is sure to move you.
Listen, can you hear it?
However, as we progress, Anthem begins to become a bit lacklustre. Working through the main campaign took around 12 hours and left us feeling a little bit hollow. Despite the relatively short story, there were a few moments that felt a lot like padding - having to tick off a long checklist of objectives to move onto the next part of the story just felt lazy.
There were two times that the never ending shopping list of chores popped up: the first was around one-third into the game and the second was around two-thirds in. It disrupted the pace of the story in a way that was irksome and irritating, leaving you scrabbling slowly instead of pushing forwards.
Unfortunately, the story has other issues too. While the characters themselves are fairly well-written and entertaining, they are also fairly predictable. This in turn makes the story beats predictable, which is quite frankly disappointing from BioWare.
While games like Anthem often truly start after the campaign finishes, the story still needs to be strong enough to satisfy narrative-driven players. Once you’ve crawled through the campaign story, you gain access to the end-game content. This unlocks a few of the Strongholds – long dungeons culminating in a boss fight – of which there are three.
It also gives you one of the most obscenely time-consuming checklists in a game we’ve seen. End game content can be lengthy without being repetitive, but not here.
They're coming out of the walls
On top of this, the further you get into the game the more chances there are to see the cracks. It may sound as thought that is figurative - but it’s not. There were a few instances where scenery didn’t load and we could see through the world, or worst, nearly fall through it.
In a few cutscenes instead of looking through your character’s eyes as you would expect, you end up looking through the back of their skull. Their head appearing and disappearing as it bobs and weaves unnaturally. In fact, in the final moving moment of the story our character model simply wasn’t there. It felt like watching a behind the scenes on a CGI heavy movie. The two characters who were there interacted with thin air, and the air talked back.
You then have horrific loading times, abhorrent boundaries on missions, and the occasional objective just not registering as complete. However, despite all of this, the gameplay is immensely fun when you’re playing with other people. The flying mechanics are smooth, intuitive, and just so damn satisfying.
There are a few genuinely brilliant weapons too. There’s a shotgun that becomes more accurate if you hold down the fire button. The standout was a sniper rifle that fired highly explosive bullets but didn’t have much ammo to compensate. Then you have the abilities and the different classes, each of which leads to a completely different feel. It’s just a huge shame that this is all tucked away in a lacklustre story and a buggy game.
Anthem is a game of oxymorons and inconsistencies. The story is designed to be single-player but the game is clearly not. The gameplay is an absolute joy but is stifled by the repetitive nature of the end-game. The character animations are truly sublime, but most of the characters themselves are cliché and predictable.
It is a fun game, and a stunningly pretty one, but with flaws in nearly every other aspect of its design. It will improve with patches, updates, and a strong community, but it isn’t a particularly strong foundation. This is less an anthem, and more an annoying earworm....
(Image credits: BioWare)