Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genre: Third-Person Shooter
When I first saw footage of Anthem, I knew deep down it was going to be something special. To have the freedom to take off in a futuristic suit, fly through lush, green worlds full of wildlife, dipping through waterfalls and swimming through lakes would be a level of unprecedented freedom. Even more, to know it came from the same studio that delivered the Mass Effect franchise gave me hope for a true, narrative return to form with jaw-dropping gameplay. For my birthday, I treated myself to a pre-order of the $80 edition of the game on Xbox. Now, though, I’ve played nearly 25 hours of the PC version and, sadly, that pre-order money is lost to the abyss. It would take something monumental to stir me into ever playing it again.
Spiritual Content: There is some reverence given to a device known as the “Cenotaph,” which can utilize the power of the “Anthem of Creation” to both create and destroy. An evil army led by a powerful cipher known as the “Monitor” is seeking to harness that power for evil. You’ll have to dig up ghosts of the past for special technology to stand against him.
Violence: People die from gunshots and javelin powers, but there’s nothing graphic. No gore, no viscera, no blood. They cry out in pain, collapse, and vanish.
Language/Crude Humor: There is some crude language. Expect to hear the majority of vulgar language you would on primetime television.
Sexual Themes: There is no sexual content, either explicit or suggestive, shown in the game.
Positive Themes: Mending relationships, standing up for what’s right, and working together to overcome adversity are all present themes in Anthem.
First, let’s discuss the gameplay, which has had folks chattering since it was teased at E3 in 2014. The most jaw-dropping aspect, the portion that has caught everyone’s attention, is the open-world flight. Reminiscent of controlling a certain ferrous superhero, players are able to cover large swathes of the landscape by jetpacking around. You can also rain down destruction while hovering over the battlefield. The transition from terra firma to domed expanse is quick, seamless, and smooth. The act of actually flying around may take some getting used to (or in my case, tweaking some control sensitivities), but it’s definitely fun.
Unfortunately, it also feels somewhat restrictive. Once you take off, you have a heat meter you’ll have to contend with to stay aloft. You can literally cool your jets by zipping through a waterfall to reset it mid-flight. You can dissipate heat by entering a nosedive. Otherwise, it only takes 20-30 seconds before reaching your limit and crashing down. You don’t take fall damage, but let’s get real. Who wants to fly a minute or less, only to be grounded while your heat dissipates? Even more obnoxious is the fact that most missions while have you doing that multiple times.
Speaking of mission design, Anthem‘s missions feel like they were designed by someone caught in a rut. Fly to location X, kill a group of enemies, repeat a couple more times. Sometimes you have to stand around in a circle to fill a bar while you do it. Sometimes, you have to fight a big critter while smaller ones pepper it. Otherwise, there is little deviation in quest structure for the 20-25 hours you’ll be in this world.
Anthem has long been looked at as the next big “looter shooter.” Anthem is in stark contrast to other loot-driven games. Where titles like Diablo III feel like an effervescent dopamine fountain, Anthem reminds you of the feeling you get when the great aunt you hear from once a year gives you a pair of knitted knee socks for Christmas. Yeah, they’re technically useful, but they’re rare and lack anything to make them exciting.
To that end, there are only a handful of weapons and skills you get in the game. Weapons have a handful of archetypes and there are maybe 8-10 character skills you can unlock per javelin. There are rarities on the drops (common, uncommon, rare, etc.) but in Anthem, it seems to be more driven by your character’s level range than any actual sort of rarity odds. In ~30 hours with the game across two platforms, I never saw anything beyond a blue (rare) drop, but near the end of the game, every fight was yielding a couple of blue items. On top of that, the only real effects of higher tier loot are larger numbers, which makes the excitement of finding new gear feel neutered.
In terms of the narrative, I actually enjoyed the story. It uses a lot of world-building terminologies (cyphers, the Monitor, the Cenotaph, shaper relics), but the idea of the story itself is cool. There’s an item called the Cenotaph that uses the Anthem of Creation to create, destroy, and shape the world. The Dominion and their leader, the Monitor, are after the device so they can reshape the world. You’re hired to ensure they can’t do that. With some help of a friend and a couple of long-lost comrades, you’ll take the fight to the Dominion. Much of the tale is a straightforward sci-fi story and, quite frankly, the tale’s end is pretty weak, but the beats along the way are enjoyable.
I enjoyed Anthem‘s characters. Maybe it’s the great voice acting or excellent facial expressions, but I found the cast to be endearing in a way few games’ characters are. You can get an actual sense of emotion and motive speaking with each of them. Main characters, like your friend Owen, have goals and aspirations beyond their day-to-day lives. While many characters are just throwaway side characters, there are a few outstanding performances and some solid dialog.
My primary problem with Anthem‘s campaign, though, is how they’ve artificially padded it. About halfway through the story, they put up open-world blocker quests that require you perform arbitrary open-world tasks (like completing a certain number of events, raising a certain number of fallen teammates, or opening a certain number of loot boxes) to access some tombs. When you’ve flown around the world and been “deemed worthy” to enter each of the tombs, you can proceed with the story. Some folks say it isn’t a big issue and they’re easy to complete, but they present this poorly and when I was playing it, the tracking seemed spotty. I’ve discussed this blocker mission with a handful of other players and I know I’m not the only one who’s been bitten by it. I was enjoying getting through the story and the decision to block progress in such a way was both jarring and, frankly, a big turn-off to me. Let me enjoy the story. Don’t force me to do the stuff I want to avoid.
The game looks fantastic. Character models are lifelike and fluid, the environments are lush and expansive, particle effects look great, and the javelin customization is a fun degree of added personalization. The use of color really helps bring the game to life in a fun way, too. Player movement is particularly fluid when transitioning sprint to flight. Anthem is a beautiful game.
Unfortunately, the game is a technical mess even after the Day 1 patch. I saw everything from minutes-long load times for missions to excessively-long environmental pop-in (causing me to fall through the world). The servers have been more stable since the Day 1 patch released, but I’ve still seen instances where mission progress wasn’t saved due to server problems and I’d have to replay whole missions. Playing Anthem on the Xbox One X, I even saw noticeable framerate drops in the middle of heavier combat scenarios. It was nothing PUBG-like (few games run at ~15 frames per second or worse) but it was certainly noticeable.
All-in-all, Anthem feels like playing in a mud puddle. It’s a mess, but it’s a fun mess. It’s plagued by both poor design decisions and technical hiccups. The good news is that both of these can be fixed with time and some TLC. Despite all of that, when you’re flying around in the world, calling down lightning on a group of enemies, it’s fun. The game is beautiful, too. For folks dying for something to play, Anthem will get you through the lean times. Just know you may suffer death by a thousand papercuts. Those looking for a serious looter-shooter to play with friends may want to wait to see if The Division 2 is a better option, though.
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The Bottom Line
Anthem is like playing in a mud puddle. It's a mess, but it's fun. It features fun third-person shooter combat with likable characters. Unfortunately, the rest of the experience is marred by technical bugs, bad design decisions, and poor pacing. You'll have a good time when all the gears are turning, but the downtime may cause death by a thousand papercuts.