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Review: Anthem (PC)

6

Fair

After many patches, betas, an early access launch and more, Anthem is finally out. Ever since the game was announced fans have been angry with someone about something, from EA meddling in BioWare’s game design and much more. Now the game is out with a few patches to fix long load times and some crashes and we are ready with a verdict.

A world full of powerful relics

In Anthem the coolest things in the world are things you only get told about. The world is full of Shaper relics, artifacts left behind by a powerful proto-civilisation that can flip gravity, boil entire lakes, create or destroy mountains… but every single one you see just spawns monsters. As amazing as the creation of life from thin air is as a thing to think about, in game it has absolutely no difference from the fact that every enemy faction you fight has some technology that allows them to pop into the battlefield, meaning you are quite used to creatures popping out of thin air. Even if there was some spectacle or differentiation between existing enemies arriving versus brand-spanking new baddies being created out of thin air, it gets really old that Shaper relics are nothing more than visible enemy spawn markers. Show us some of the wonder and marvel, demonstrate why these relics are feared by all. Instead, they seem incongruent with the way people talk about them, because so far it appears any Shaper relic can be deactivated by collecting its bits and rebuilding it, or collecting little energy balls and putting them in a Shaper-equivalent basketball hoop.

Storywise, the game puts you and the Freelancers on a backfoot in a really unbelievable way that breaks immersion. Freelancers take the fall for not defending a city, but the Sentinels, whose literal job is protecting cities and settlements and were also right there, are seen as the dependable group. It creates this arc where you are trying to redeem the Freelancers, but it falls flat because the setup for the fall is pretty ludicrous. It also doesn’t help that you are forever coming to the aid of Sentinels, who pilot javelins so weak they can’t escape out of skorpion cocoons or carry out anything more mundane than a small patrol outside the walls. It feels ham-fisted and it isn’t the only piece of writing that falls flat.

Shaper relics can flip gravity, boil entire lakes, create or destroy mountains… but every single one you see just spawns monsters.

Hey Freelancer, ho Freelancer

Several characters feel flat due to some woefully mediocre writing, poor voice direction or writing not following scripting around quests. Characters will mutter about things as you pass them, and often these are completely out of tone with previous conversations you had with them or current happenings in the fort. Some characters even talk about events that haven’t happened yet, effectively spoiling what comes up next. Fairly early on there is a betrayal that feels so heavily foreshadowed and clumsy that I couldn’t believe this was happening in a BioWare game. Even the delivery of lines can feel automated or mechanical in places, with no emotion or cadence from characters. This is particularly obvious when you are flying around and the protagonist repeats the same few phrases again and again in a bored-sounding manner. The male protagonist, voiced by Ray Chase, goes from enthusiastic and caring to robotic and near monotone and flips between the two at random.

Faye and Dax are expressive and have stories you want to follow.

On the other hand, characters like Haluk, Faye and Matthias Erryl Sumner are amazing, brought to life by the talents of Nick Tarabay, Rochelle Neil and Vik Sahay. There are several highly likeable and believable characters in Anthem that you want to talk to and help them achieve their goals. Sadly most of those goals will involve you doing chains of fetch quests, exploring ruins, silencing relics and killing a few enemies. Sometimes the over the top cheesy radio shows sound more exciting than the quests you go on, and that is just terrible.

Loading. Loading. Loading…

Anthem’s biggest problem is how it is always getting in the way of you just playing the game and having fun. Long load times plague every facet of the game, making even the simplest of tasks, like equipping a new piece of gear, laborious and slow. It breaks any momentum the game had, as you load from system to system, all which feel like independent pieces stitched together, rather than a cohesive whole. Finishing a mission and heading into a new one takes far too long, especially if you wanted to check your gear before heading out. The game has to be installed on an SSD if you want to not tear your hair out and even then, you will find yourself staring at boring load screens far too often.

Anthem’s biggest problem is how it is always getting in the way of you just playing the game and having fun.

Even getting a new piece of gear means leaving whatever you are currently doing just to see what item it is and if you want to equip it. It is so tedious, made worse by the fact that most gearing choices get really boring early on, and remain so until you get masterwork items. Guns and gear look the same from common up to rare, with a slight change for masterwork and a possible change to your gunplay and skill use as you get a buff from doing certain things. Even then, getting a single masterwork item is such a change in power level that all other loots drops quickly become nothing but clutter. Sure you can break them down into crafting materials, but by the time you can craft epic items, you probably don’t want epic items anymore.

The game employs a rarity and power-level system for loot, but there is very little in-game indication of how a rare and an epic of the same power level are different. I have no idea how much health my javelin has, just an ever-changing number of pips in my healthbar, which have become too small to count. Some stats to see my overall state, rather than a nebulous power level, would be highly appreciated.

Same old same old

Variation is something that can be asked for in almost every aspect of the game. Each enemy faction feels very much the same, from the way they teleport in, to the tactics they use. Everyone, bar the basic wildlife “faction”, has a sniper, a flying attacker, someone who gets in close and a heavy. Weakpoints on many enemies don’t matter thanks to shields being these hit anywhere bullet sponges and you can use the same tactics to take out any enemy group. The quests lack in variety too, with everything devolving into fly here; collect orbs/relic parts/supplies; defend relic/supplies/ancient cache of knowledge and kill all skorpions/outlaws/Dominion/Scars.

Even the bosses you face have the same tactics: shoot at weak points until it dies, and try hide behind cover/dodge big attacks or get stun-locked to death. Things only get worse as you increase the difficulty for chances of better loot, as difficulty only means more health and more damage dealt by the enemies. If you were hoping for better tactics, new attacks or squad composition from the enemy, you will be disappointed as suddenly your nice javelin becomes as sturdy as wet tissue paper and obliterated by a hard to dodge attack. On harder difficulties, the whole fantasy falls apart as you are forced to turn the game into a cover-based shooter as you chip away at massive health pools, hoping that not everyone dies in the next big attack.

If you were hoping for better tactics, new attacks or squad composition from the enemy, you will be disappointed as suddenly your nice javelin becomes as sturdy as wet tissue paper.

It is worth taking the time to talk about how beautiful Anthem is. Character models are gorgeous and there are so many places where a photomode was sorely missed because some vistas are breathtaking. In Freeplay, where none of the awful tethering exists, I often caught myself of my friends just sitting on a vista, marvelling at the view or their javelin. The sounds of the game are also absolutely amazing, with jet thrusters roaring, servos straining under the weight of the colossus and the stomp of large mechanical feet. It looks and sounds great and sometimes, just sometimes the game has nothing going wrong or no enemies being cheap and it is a magical moment of fun. Then you disconnect from the live service or hit another load screen and the magic evaporates before you get back to playing some more.

Ooh, 3% more fire damage! So glad I got this item.

In a world where so many shared world shooters exist, it is unacceptable that Anthem has somehow not learnt from all of their mistakes and tried to incorporate their strengths to create a game with a cohesive loop that keeps players coming back for more. Asking players to hang around until the loot gets interesting at masterwork isn’t good enough and making some bosses completely immune to certain gear items makes those items feel useless, or at least make the boss feel very cheap. While flying around is great and dropping a combo on a large group never gets old as things explode and a loud “ka-ching!” sounds erupts from the area, too often you aren’t flying around or doing combos. Instead, you are hiding behind cover, or waiting on yet another load screen, followed by more load screens again and again. For a looter-shooter, boring loot and not enough time having fun shooting are both terminal negative factors to have. Anthem feels like a constant struggle between being a single-player game and a multiplayer game, with every system somehow being completely independent and requiring another load. Oh BioWare, what happened to you?

Good

  • Beautiful graphics
  • Amazing soundscape

Bad

  • Lacklustre writing at times
  • No quest variation
  • Long, frequent load times
  • Higher difficulty is just +damage, +HP
  • Every relic is just an enemy spawn

Summary

Anthem has moments that shine out and feel amazing, but you have to push through too much drudgery to reach those moments.
6

Fair

If it has the letters RPG in it, I am there. Still battling with balancing trying to play every single game that grabs my interest, getting 100% in a JRPG, and devoting time to my second home in Azeroth.

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