Anthem Review – One month of Freelancing
Anthem, like most ‘games as service’ is a difficult one to review. Like No Man’s Sky before it, it’s been roundly derided for being unfinished and rushed. Anthem has received almost unanimous middling scores, earning it one of the lowest Metacritic scores for a AAA game, let alone one from BioWare.
The challenge in reviewing these games and Anthem especially, it that it’s not the same game it was on release. Anthem’s been patched and had myriad server-side fixes in the name of changing the game in the hopes of silencing a lot of the initial complaints.
And there were many.
Anthem launched in a state that earned the labels ‘unfinished’ and ‘rushed.’ Despite being in development at BioWare for six years, Anthem shipped with a number of bugs and general lack of content.
Some bugs were minor with audio cutting out which ruined cutscenes. Others, were more severe causing hard crashes and even bricking of some PS4 consoles. There was the infamous and terribly long, multiple loading screens, rubber banding, connectivity issues and ludicrous issues that saw loot often dropped with useless and nonsensical inscriptions like 0% damage.
All this led to swift and increasingly toxic outrage against the game and developers with so many YouTube videos screaming the end of BioWare and calls for boycotts.
But in spite of all that, Anthem gets a key fundamental right.
IT IS FUN.
Most detractors can agree that climbing into one Anthem’s Javelins and flying around the gorgeous world, shooting and comboing enemies can be a deeply fun and satisfying experience.
Like Spider-man’s web swinging or Kratos Axe throw, flying in Anthem’s Javelins is something truly special. Every time you double jump and ignite your boosters you get that hit of Iron-Man power fantasy. There’s a sublime feel that’s very well rendered by the haptics in your controller as well as the sound.
Playing Anthem is so good in fact, that I, the self-proclaimed Destiny 2 addict, have not logged on in over a month. I’m hooked.
Sure it’s got some things BioWare really, really needs to fix but at its heart Anthem has a solid foundation for what could be a phenomenal game.
Loot Shooting Boogie
In case you didn’t already know, Anthem is the latest in the genre of shared world, online looter-shooters. Think Destiny and The Division. Set in a lush, gorgeous sci-fantasy world of Bastion, you play as a disgraced Freelancer; elite human soldiers for hire.
Freelancers were once highly regarded, going about Bastion silencing Shaper relics. These ancient artefacts were left by a mysterious and powerful race called the Shapers. Shaper relics have the ability to tap into the titular Anthem of Creation to create and shape the world.
Which is why they are in high demand by the baddies. Using Shaper relics is fraught with danger and when they do go awry the Freelancers are called in to save the day.
As Anthems prologue shows, the Freelancers failed to silence a major cataclysm called the Heart of Rage. This led to their shame and decline. The campaign picks up some time later in Fort Tarsis; a human refuge built with epic high walls to keep the wildlife of Anthem at bay.
It’s here that our hero gets quests and interacts with the different NPCs. Fort Tarsis is Anthem’s Tower for Destiny players.
Speaking to the characters in Fort Tarsis inevitably leads to a Contract that will take you out into the beautiful untamed world of Bastion.
I am Iron-Man
Freelancers ply their trade in Javelins; advanced mechanical suits that borrow heavily from Iron-Man. Anthem gives you four classes of Javelin with which to dominate the battlefield and tackle Shaper cataclysms.
The Ranger is an all-purpose and reliable soldier class that specialises in single target damage. The Colossus is the heavy hitter, capable of taking huge amounts of damage and dishing it too. The Interceptor is the ninja, swift, nimble and agile; dancing around your enemies. Finally, the Storm is the wizard class, harnessing the powers of the Anthem to float above the battlefield and throw down bolts of lighting, fire and Ice.
BioWare has done an exceptional job of differentiating these Javelins.
Each has unique strengths and weaknesses that make you change your play style. For instance, the Colossus doesn’t utilise an energy shield like the other Javelins. Instead, it has a ton of armour and a literal shield which you can use for defence as well as bashing enemies heads in.
Hulkbuster or Vision
The Storm is the total opposite, with almost no armour and shields that get more powerful only when you hover. This forces you to take to the skies in order to survive a battle which in turn changes your weapon choices.
Combat in Anthem is a loud and bombastic light show of explosive colour, sound and camera shake. You will fly around and do combat in the third person perspective similar to Mass Effect games. I was initially concerned that it wouldn’t feel as good as first-person like in Destiny but it works very well indeed.
You will be typically fighting the same few enemy types throughout Anthem; the Scar, the Dominion, Outlaws and Scorpions.
Each of these groups has tiers with your regular soldier types or trash mobs at the bottom and the Legendary tough nuts at the top. These will be interspersed with the odd Ash Titans and other boss type enemies who tower over the battle field.
Combat is a combination of gunplay and abilities although the game clearly favours abilities due to the Combo system. This is one of the most critical things in Anthem’s combat and yet mindbogglingly, never explained in the game anywhere.
Had it not been for those early YouTubers who played the game early thanks to the EA Game Changers program, I’d never have known how to do combos. As you progress in Anthem’s difficulty, priming and detonating is an absolute must to quickly take down most enemies.
It’s far more effective than all but the rarest rolled weapons.
To combo, you need to prime enemies with one ability; ice, fire acid attacks etc. When they are primed — a red bubble will appear above their heads — you then detonate them with another ability like lighting or explosive grenade.
A Star symbol next to an item’s name shows that it’s a Detonator and a Circle with a dot means it’s a Primer.
The Javelins all have different skills and components but thankfully, you don’t have to level each one up individually. Your pilot level is what matters here. Completing any activity in the game will earn you XP which goes towards your pilot level.
The game starts you off with one Javelin but growing your pilot level will unlock the others at levels 8, 16 and 24. Once you unlock a new javelin, you can pretty much port all your weapons and mod components to the new one thus quickly levelling it to the others you’d previously got.
What a wonderful world
Given the flight ability of the Javelin’s, you need a big open world to fly in and Anthem is definitely one of the most gorgeous worlds in a video game to date. A lot can be said about the challenges of making games with EA’s Frostbite engine but damn can it make some gorgeous stuff.
The map of Bastion is huge with a variety of biomes which you can fly to. Pretty much anywhere you can see, you can fly to. There are high rocky formations with gently cascading waterfalls, enormous mysterious shaper constructs that have long since been abandoned.
There are ancient ruins of human settlements and deep underwater locales with glowing jellyfish and turtles.
The giant mushroom-shaped islands that grow out of the ground like indomitable trees and massive stone statues of Freelancers of the legendary Legion of Dawn stand constant watch over Bastion. There is always something to see in Bastion that will take your breath away.
Grabbit and Run With It
In addition to the landscape, players will enjoy gorgeous sunrises, sunsets, shaper storms that spit deadly lightning, giant Venus flytraps that spew toxic gas and of course the Grabbits.
It’s a truly phenomenal world to play in with so many nooks and crannies that’ll have you scouring for some chest. It’s unfortunate then that this big open world is mostly empty. I’m not sure if its due to technical limitations but BioWare have been unable to deliver on the living world shown to us at E3 2017.
Even when you are playing with others, the game locks all instances to a maximum of four players at a time. In a Map this big, you might actually never come across another Javelin when you are out doing Freeplay.
Tell me a story
When you hear the name BioWare, you expect expansive and engaging stories with memorable characters and events that stay with you for a long time. The world of Bastion isn’t the galaxy-spanning epic of Mass Effect but it is perfect for good storytelling.
Sadly, BioWare hasn’t delivered a compelling story with this first act.
The foundation is there but for the most part, it’s not presented in a meaningful way. BioWare designed Anthem to work with “Our World, My Story” ethos. What this means is that the world is shared by all players with events and things to do together but the story is personal, constrained to only the player.
This explains Anthem’s dichotomy between Fort Tarsis and the open-world. Fort Tarsis is your story hub, where you speak to all the characters and get quests. You do this in first-person, presumably to make it more personal. It’s slower and more measured than out in the Javelins; maddeningly so.
It’s a stark contrast from the speed and agility that comes with a Javelin. In Fort Tarsis, you aren’t a superhero. You’re just another person walking around on your own two feet. Getting around is slow and laborious, moving from one area to another to simply activate your next quest after a fairly meaningless spot of dialogue.
You’re a bit of a character, aren’t you?
There are a number of different characters you’ ll meet in Fort Tarsis. Some are story critical like the delightful Owen, your sidekick or Mathias the daring scientist. Then others are transient, offering a bit of lore exposition to the world through personal stories that don’t affect the campaign.
These passing characters can be hit or miss. One memorable one involves a woman who is traumatised from the loss of her child and latches on to the idea that you are the long lost child all grown up. Another seemingly involves a struggling marriage but leads to the intrigue of espionage.
In my playtime, I was happy to keep talking to characters to see how each story would progress. I can see the potential for BioWare adding a plethora of characters passing through Fort Tarsis to add some extra life to the game.
However, unlike BioWare’s other games, your conversations don’t really endear you to the characters. There is no one I can call my friend after almost a hundred hours of play. Which is a huge shame because it means most of the game’s stakes mean nothing. I don’t fear to lose any of these people. They are simply quest givers I have to endure.
The main story is rather rushed and predictable too. It follows familiar tropes and doesn’t really surprise.
For example, when one character betrayed me later in the game, I wasn’t remotely shocked. Furthermore, The Monitor, as a villain isn’t fleshed out enough. Although he’s clearly meant to be a badass, he’s never a threat to the players progress.
Defeating him, in the end, is extremely underwhelming.
Now, it’s important to remember that BioWare has broken up the story of Anthem into Acts that will be rolled out over time. This is Act 01 which introduces us to the world so who’s to say we won’t get much better? But for this first chapter, BioWare hasn’t captured my heart. It’s merely passable.
Stay a while and load…
Now I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that for everything Anthem does really well, it seems to do two badly; sometimes inexcusably. The first of which is the atrocious loading screens.
My God, everything in this game requires a loading screen.
Start a mission, loading screen. Get spawned in far from your team, loading screen. Enter a dungeon, loading screen. Clear out the dungeon and head back out, loading screen. Finish mission, loading screen. Get mission results and check loot, loading screen.
It’s honestly my single biggest gripe with Anthem. In Destiny 2 loading screens seem almost non-existent in comparison. And when there are loading screens, you can at least access your menu to tinker around with your load out, customisation or read lore and check your challenges.
It’s rather ridiculous that Anthem can’t do this.
Show me the stats
But there’s more. For a looter-shooter that’s all about becoming more powerful, Anthem does a terrible job at explaining how powerful you are. Typical games of this genre will have some sort of stats page where you can see how different items change your damage input and output.
Instead, you are left with a fairly meaningless number called a Gear score which thanks to a recent discovery by a Reddit user TermperHoof, turns out to be useless. Essentially, changing your load outs requires some complex spreadsheet dexterity to figure out how things are affecting your ability to deal damage.
And for all its Iron-Man inspirations, most of Anthem’s loot is remarkably unexciting and low tech. Guns have dull designs and though you can get rarer items with better perks as you level up, their design doesn’t change.
This is a far cry from Destiny where guns are varied and have individual designs, names and lore. It’s only the masterwork and legendary weapons that start to make a difference and even then, not by much.
As I said earlier, it seems BioWare initially designed the Javelins with a focus around their abilities rather than weaponry and it shows. The abilities you can equip are much more interesting and worthwhile when creating your build than the weapons.
And every time, you will need to go to the Forge to change anything concerning your Javelin. Why this exists as a separate place you need to load into is beyond me. Again, Destiny does it in the menu and you can immediately equip items as you get them in the field.
Anthem requires you first finish your mission, whereby it proceeds to show you vague accolades of your play style and then finally a screen with all the loot you picked up during play. From there you can decide whether to salvage or keep them but still, load the Forge to equip them. Sigh.
It’s incredibly frustrating to have to wait to see what you’ve just picked up especially the Masterwork and Legendary items.
I don’t see this changing anytime soon though.
Strong alone, stronger together
Anthem isn’t shy about letting you know that this isn’t a single player journey. By design and even in the narrative, it’s stressed over and over that you are strong alone but stronger together. It’s the Freelancer motto. While you can tackle anything solo, at higher difficulties it would be an exercise in masochism.
You are better off playing with friends and if you don’t have any, BioWare has baked in matchmaking for every activity in the game. By default, your expeditions are set to public but if you want to, a quick flip to private will make the world your private playground.
And it works very well from my experience. Comparing to Destiny that only has matchmaking for a select few activities, Anthem certainly one-ups it here. It’s also surprisingly fast in finding you a match.
But there are more benefits to playing with others than just killing mobs. As you play with friends or randoms, you will earn Alliance points at the end of each mission. These points are added up and earn your coin at the end of each week.
What’s great is that you continue to earn coin from your friend’s activities. As with all multiplayer, it works best with a coordinated team. You can pre-plan loadouts and assign certain players as Primers and others Detonators. And since Anthem is a hella fun to play, you and your friends will never lack a dull moment.
We’re in the endgame now
The main story campaign is rather short for a BioWare game; lasting about 12 hours. And it’s really only that long thanks to the convoluted Tombs of Tarsis section which demands a bit of a grind. This was thankfully patched to be easier to complete but was initially a blocker to most players.
Once the main story concludes, you are then presented with the Endgame activities which revolve around Legendary contracts, Freeplay in the open world and Strongholds; Anthem’s hardest activity.
New difficulty modes are also unlocked; Grandmaster 1, 2 and 3. These dramatically increase the damage enemies can dish out and take from you with Grandmaster 3 being almost ridiculous for underpowered players. Regular trash mobs will have the health of easier modes’ lesser Titan giants!
But that’s the hook after all. Players want to be able to grind for better and more powerful loot so they can be stronger and handle those higher difficulties.
When I started the endgame, I was getting one-shot killed by everything in Grandmaster 1 but with more Masterwork and legendary gear, I’m now at the point where GM1 is a stroll in the park while GM2 is still a bit of a challenge. GM3 isn’t even worth trying at this point.
Hope on the Scales
And this is mostly because of Anthem’s poor scaling and loot drops. The enemies power seems to grow exponentially with each step up; GM3 enemies gain 3000% more health or something ridiculous. But the game doesn’t do a very good job scaling your power and health to match.
Not only that, but Legendary loot which is necessary to tackle GM2 and 3 is way too hard to come by. Masterworks just don’t give you enough Gear score. I’ve played almost 100 hours and I’ve got only one legendary weapon and two of the same legendary Frost Shards for my Storm.
The loot drop issue has been a constant sticking point for players who are crying out for BioWare to open the taps. A ~recent update~ has seen changes to the drops in the game although my experience hasn’t been positive so far, perhaps even worse.
Strongholds and Legendary Contracts are the only guaranteed ways to drop a Masterwork. Completion of these will grant a Masterwork. Legendary contracts are refreshed daily so you can farm those with a group of friends for up to 12 a day.
Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger
Strongholds are supposed to have a higher chance to drop Masterworks and Legendaries though honestly not by much. Within each Stronghold are two chests which could spawn one or more Masterworks.
Sadly, that’s not the case.
You will still get mostly epics and rare items. Thankfully, BioWare patched the game so that level 30 players will no longer get the lower green and whites dropping anymore.
If Strongholds don’t do it for you, there is always Freeplay.
Load into the huge world and fly around looking for chests, caves and World Events. These random events happen in the world and reward you with a loot chest upon completion. There’s no predictable cadence to these like Destiny’s Public Events so you just have to keep flying around until the game lets you know one is active.
It’s out in Freeplay that you will most likely encounter the feared Ash Titans and BioWare is planning to do lots of special world events periodically to give players more to see and do in freeplay.
The last event had Ash Titans in spawning in the world.
Micro-transactions and customisation
Games as a Service has become somewhat of a dirty word and for good reason. It usually means paid DLCs and loot boxes that give you a power boost over other players. Anthem does have paid items but they are strictly cosmetic. No unfair advantages here.
The store in Anthem sells cosmetics for your Javelin as well as crafting materials. The great thing is, you never have to spend real money if you don’t want to because you earn coin as a Freelancer for completing contracts and challenges in the game.
Right now, I have about 80,000 coin which is enough to buy me a complete armour set which typically sells for 61,000 coin. I’m tossing up on whether to buy the 31,000 Mass Effect N7 vinyl which is hella cool.
In case you want to support BioWare, you can buy Shards with real-world money depending on your platform of choice. Shards can also be used to purchase any item from the store.
Do these shoes match my rifle?
And that brings me to customizations in Anthem. Anthem has one of the most robust and generous customisation tools in any game I’ve played. The Forge is where you can change individual armour pieces for different body parts. You can then change the materials, paint and wear state to express your unique fashion sense.
From a previous developer livestream, BioWare devs showed off a mind-boggling selection of customisations, the majority of which are not yet in the released game. A lot of them are gated behind in-game activities while others are bought from the store.
Literally doing anything in Anthem will earn you loyalty points with any of the three factions; Arcanists, Sentinels and Freelancers.
As you gain higher levels of loyalty with each faction, more customisation options and gear blueprints are unlocked for you to craft things with. For instance, when you start the game, you have just a few materials and only one wear state. As you complete more activities, more are unlocked for you to find in the Forge.
The Champion of Tarsis endgame quest to earn 150,000 loyalty points across all the factions will unlock the Gold metal material for Javelins. Not sure if that’s worth the grind but doing it passively will probably take me a year to do.
As it stands, I already have enough materials and options that I spend about a tenth of my daily play time tweaking the look of my Javelins. It’s just so much fun to see what other players have done.
Anthem is one of my favourite games for a long time.
Perhaps I’m just a BioWare fanboy but it’s everything I’ve been waiting for since Mass Effect 3 ended (ended poorly – Ed). Gorgeous huge world, sci-fantasy lore, varied characters, great action and that sweet Iron-Man power fantasy.
I disagree that Anthem was released unfinished. As a person who works in software development, I understand the process of continuous delivery. Games are now following the software industry in selling themselves as a service that is continually updated, getting more and more features and fixes.
Yes, there are some design and technical problems with Anthem but absolutely nothing that can’t be fixed in the coming months via updates. In the last month alone there have been three major patches and a number of server-side fixes that have radically improved Anthem.
I’m optimistic that BioWare will continue working and churning out great new bits to Anthem. It’s probably going to be a drip-stream but that’s ok. There are so many other good games to play in-between each new content release.
We do it all the time with Destiny. Now if only BioWare and other big developers can sync their schedules so that releases don’t clash, I’ll be happy.
Anthem was reviewed on PC, PS4 and Xbox One using digital codes provided by EA and purchased by PowerUp!.
Game title: Anthem
Fun, fun, fun - 10/10
Javelins are varied and amazing to fly around in - 10/10
Story and narrative choice doesn't live up to BioWare standard - 6/10
Amazing world and lore has promise - 8/10
Endgame and loot isn't great - 6/10
Javelin customization up the wazoo - 10/10
Bugs, loading screens and questionable design choices - 4/10