Anthem: What It Is And What It Ain’t
Bioware has a reputation for creating some of the industry’s greatest role playing games. Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and Jade Empire are each well written and engaging stories with rich lore and fun gameplay. Anthem stands on the heels of each of them yet begins under the huge shadow of the disappointment that is Mass Effect: Andromeda. Toss in the continued transgressions of Electronics Arts tendency to cancel game development (leading to studio closures) and directives that ruin gameplay (see Star Wars Battlefront 2’s loot box debacle) and you have a worried fanbase.
Let’s face it, some gamers blame Anthem for Mass Effect: Andromeda’s poor showing since EA deemed it was ‘all hands on deck’ to make Anthem their competitor with Destiny. As a result, this online multiplayer action rpg got a lot of buzz and even more skepticism. Now that the game is released, the result seemingly is less than what the masses expected and the reviews are showing just that. With roughly a 60 Metacritic score, Anthem currently is being rated even lower than Mass Effect: Andromeda. This is surely to drop as well given the early PS4 ‘bricking’ issues.
Personally, knowing that this game is supposed to be a ‘service’, I am walking in with lower expectations than when I first jumped into the Destiny universe. We all know that it took almost a cool 6-9 months before Destiny was, well, as good as the buzz was for it. So let’s take a look at what’s good, what’s not, and what it needs to be better.
When most people got their hands on the beta, the common descriptor of the gameplay was that it is a pretty good ‘Iron Man’ simulator. The flight and combat felt good all shiny suited up in an environment that looked gorgeous. The use of elemental combos with certain weapons as well as the nice weapon variety really gave off a Mass Effect 3 multiplayer feel (which was actually pretty fun). As you unleash a flurry of rockets or other parts of your javelin armory, you genuinely feel powerful and relatively agile in how many ways you can do serious damage to your foes. That makes for a pretty good core to build upon.
As I mentioned before, graphically, this game has the look and visual personality to be something special. Seeing the customization of the mech suits (called javelins) is always fun when you first enter a mission as other players use different colors, decals, and mech parts for some pretty impressive looking getups. As the game progresses, it will be fun to see what additional parts and decals are added to allow for some pretty wicked looking javelins.
Lastly, the personality of the NPCs and non-combat cutscenes are pretty good. I enjoy the performances of Faye and her alluring hand gestures as she talks to you. Also, I even found myself chuckle at some of the discussions that the generic ‘Freelancer’ has as he/or she responds to the NPCs. Heck, I swear the Fallow character sounds just like Minsc from Baldur’s Gate fame.
Call me crazy but I feel like there either isn’t enough loot or the loot itself isn’t that alluring. Anthem gives you guns, secondary weapon systems, and components that act as defensive enhancements coupled with modest capacity or damage bonuses. While that sounds like a lot, it doesn’t really feel that way as you play. From the jump, somehow Destiny managed to make you feel like there were LOTS of different types of loot you could find all dispersed through the different rarities. Destiny also allowed for their armor based loot to change the look of your character as well as boost some stat or aspect of the gameplay. Anthem separates that out so that the visual customization is something that is tied to the microtransaction system. You can still earn the visual enhancements but getting that EPIC juggernaut suit will take some significant in-game grinding to achieve.
Anthem has you fighting other javelins, people outside of javelins, massive insects, indigenous creatures, outlaws, and massive mythical things called titans. That is all well and good, but there is something about them that feels a bit hollow. Maybe it is in how the killing blow oftentimes looks as if your foe is fainting rather than being being tossed about by a high powered railgun. Also, the Scars all seem to have these massive backpacks on that look WAY too big.
Both of those nitpicky criticisms aside, the enemies in this game just do not have any sense of intelligence to how they attack you. For the most part, unless your foes are the bosses or the Colossus sized sub-bosses, there is little to no challenge at all. Almost none of these enemies dodge or choose to take cover. In numbers, they all seem to run straight at you in a strangely slow speed until they get to some odd range that they feel is the best to stand around at and shoot you from. The javelins that you face don’t seem to work together to do damage ‘combos’ on you as you and your squad are allowed to do so even facing them is little more than a bullet sponge moment. Half the time I don’t even recognize that I’m fighting a javelin instead of a person until I’m either trying a melee attack on them or until the enemy ID pops up.
Also, the frequency of enemies when out in freeplay seems a bit sparse. Creatures always seem to be out and about in groups of threes (except for the alien scorpions) and there aren’t any wandering groups of enemy Dominion troops or javelins. There are only Scar outposts, small camps where Dominion troops ‘beam in’, and outlaws here and there. Even the hidden dungeons seem a bit anticlimactic as clearing them out isn’t done by having a boss fight of some sort.
OUT OF SUIT
Another common baffling choice for this game is to have the out of suit marketplace where you walk/slightly walk faster around a city talking to various people in order to get new missions, contracts, and otherwise show off the graphics and impressive NPC conversation animations. Honestly, this part of the game wouldn’t be so bad if I felt like I was interested in the story or if there was actually some kind of intrigue in the city to discover. Instead, I often find myself wanting to skip through the convos just the get that little bit of ‘reputation bonus’ as well as the next story mission or contract to pop up. Honestly having to maneuver from convo to convo is annoying.
Bioware is legendary for having great stories that pull you and the action along. The main story in past games are also even enhanced by delving into the interesting back stories of the NPCs that help you throughout the game. In Anthem, since the game is structured as an online multiplayer game, you don’t really get that feeling of ‘going through the danger’ with NPCs that you choose to come on the mission with you as was done in past Bioware games. As a result, hearing a random city javelin pilot’s struggles or deciding to ‘help’ a store owner find something beyond the wall feels more like a fetch quest than something I’m interested in learning or hearing more about.
Stories of past ‘freelancer glory’ and the Heart of Rage and relics all feel like things I should know of already as if Anthem is a sequel. Even the NPCs speak of how the team ‘used to be’ like I’m missing season one of a show. In a way, this is apparently explained and acted out in the initial mission of the game but that came as a tutorial more than it did some grand plot you were acting out. Honestly, the ‘build up’ has little to no ‘danger’ in it.
The characters keep saying that so many died during that first mission but you don’t get that immense sense of dread when you play through it. Then there is the different mysteries of the cyphers and their relationship with the Freelancers. Anthem doesn’t do a real good job of explaining why cyphers are special and why javelin pilots need them. As the NPCs spoke of it, I initially thought of how Jaeger pilots in the movie Pacific Rim were ‘linked’ and how difficult it was to train them to get to the point where they could use a Jaeger. In a way, I felt as if that was the angle Bioware wanted between cyphers and freelancers but in the end it just felt like cyphers are recon. They basically just put stuff on the map for you and chat with you over the radio. Why cyphers are ‘special’ just doesn’t come across too well. Maybe it is imbedded in the cutscenes I basically skip through but is that my fault or the fault of how the story reveals it?
Also, the ‘villain’ isn’t presented well. The Dominion leader has a few cutscenes here and there that speak of his power and evil but you don’t really ‘face’ him to witness his power or genius in game enough. A cutscene displays his tactical genius in the past against Freelancers (which is a bit too generic of a name for javelin pilots in my opinion) but that’s about it. I’m currently at about the +30-40 hour mark of gameplay and I haven’t really fought The Monitor enough to truly know his power or what his motivation is aside from something about hearing the Anthem of the Gods and wanting to control it. In fact, I still don’t even understand what that is or why I should care.
Look, Anthem as released is what Destiny was in my opinion… unfinished. Patches are going to come fast and furious as bugs, glitches, and improvements to gameplay are released but that is standard fare for these ‘game services’. While one would think this is EA’s attempt to make Destiny, it came off more as a competitor to The Division. I stay that and yet the multiplayer portion of the game doesn’t really feel ‘necessary’. It could have been a single player game with NPCs as your co-pilots (with the option of friends playing coop) and it would be much more fun.
Stay tuned for my next article as I delve into the changes I feel Bioware should make!