The whole looter shooter genre is one in which I have dabbled in the past, but I’ve never really found a game which was more than a passing fancy for me. This is probably best explained by the fact the search for better gear is one which has never been one of my core reasons for playing a game. I have a low tolerance for grind, and if I don’t feel like doing a thing, I simply won’t do it no matter how much shinier the gear is. With this in mind, I approached Anthem with cautious optimism. While I generally enjoy BioWare games, Anthem is a type of game I’m not prone to enjoy. I am happy to say while it might fall short for the people who love looter shooter games, I’ve been having a total and utter blast.
Story and Setting
The world in which Anthem takes place is a sprawling beautiful world packed with many dangers. Humanity’s history in this world is one marked by a “recent” history of being slaves to some race of people we don’t directly interact with during the main storyline. Their presence, however, is still felt and referred to often. Humanity is still trying to find its way in Bastion and how they fit into the world. Underlining all of this is the Anthem of creation which both creates and destroys things in seeming randomness.
As is quite often the case with BioWare games the world building in Anthem is impressive. There’s a ton of information to be found and added to the cortex which fills out a lot of the gaps in the history and world which the various characters you meet and talk to do not directly address. Additionally, there are a ton of funny things to stumble across and is ideal for anyone who is generally interested in the lore of games they play.
One area which Anthem doesn’t have as much to offer as other BioWare games is player choice. Which they have been saying was the case with Anthem, so it isn’t a surprise. You do get to choose if your character is male or female and pick a preset face. However, except for quick moments when the helm of your Javelin is raised, you never get to see your face after you select it. No one else does either because every location where you are out of your suit is single player. Honestly, I picked a face at the beginning and then later in the game when I saw my hands, I was surprised they were a darker skin tone because I had completely forgotten how my Freelancer looked.
There is some choice to be had when talking to various side characters though. For the most part, these choices are simple and don’t seem to have a real impact on anything. I will, however, say there was one choice where I wish I could reload my save because it was tough to choose what to do and I’m pretty sure I picked the wrong thing.
The side characters are all worth your time and attention though because they all have their own stories and even the ones I didn’t like were still well executed. For example, there’s one character where every time he had a chat bubble up my thought was “Ugh, I wonder what this nimrod has to say now”. Which is a sign of him being well written even though I didn’t like him at all.
The one real downside to having so many people you can talk to every time you return to Fort Tarsis is it can be a pain when playing with friends. Everyone has to ready up before a mission can be launched and if one person is going around talking to people while everyone else wants to get to the mission, it can be frustrating. Additionally, it can sometimes be difficult to hear if your friends are busy chatting away on coms.
As part of the story, I had to do some Trials to prove my worth, which honestly annoyed me the first time around because all of the things I needed to do were things I had already done, but they didn’t count. Thankfully as part of the Day 1 patch, all players start earning credit towards completion of the trials from the moment they start playing the game. Also, credit for opening treasure chests doesn’t require you to open them yourself anymore. Now, as long as you are in a group and nearby when a treasure chest is opened, you will get credit towards your trial completion.
Everyone uses the Ranger first, which is probably for the best as it has some mobility to it, but it is also a bit more tanky than either the Storm or Interceptor. After completing the intro missions though it’s time to choose the first javelin which will be yours. Once this choice is made (at level two) you won’t be able to pick a different javelin until level eight so it’s a choice you’ll want to make carefully lest you end up playing with a Javelin you don’t like for a while.
Since each Javelin has a different feel to it, they can change how Anthem feels to play; I wish there were a way for players to try each of them before they must choose. Sure, there are only six levels to get through before a second one is unlocked, but if the playstyle of the Javelin isn’t to a player’s liking, those six levels will be rough. For example, if I hadn’t been reviewing the game and I had gotten stuck with the Ranger for those first few levels I probably would have quit. Whereas, I love the movement and playstyle of the Storm and can’t wait to get out in more missions to play even more. As it is, do your best to read the descriptions before choosing. There are tips and tricks for each javelin in the Tutorial section of the Codex which is worth reading before choosing.
Freeplay is one of the best ways to explore the world of Bastion. There are a few different areas where you can load into Freeplay but the entire area is interconnected, and you can quite easily move around. Though there was one area where I was trying to get from one side of some mountains to the other, I ran into the wind walls which tried to keep me from straying too far out of bounds. I eventually realized I could power through the wind wall and get to the other side, but that wasn’t readily apparent because most of the time the wind walls indicate areas I could not go through. Aside from that moment though I was able to explore all around on my own. I was even able to find the locations where various instanced missions took place out there.
Unfortunately, Freeplay does have a couple of big drawbacks to it. At one point I was wandering around working on world events by myself. While I was doing this, I died a couple of times, and since the event didn’t show on my map until I got close to the event it made finding my way back frustrating. I would prefer to spawn near where I died but even just having the event icon show-up on my map after dying would help. Along the same line being able to mark spots on the map ourselves would also be a huge help. This has been a feature in so many games for so long I honestly don’t understand how that ability is missing in Anthem.
There also seems to be some sort of time limit to how long I could stay in Freeplay, which makes no sense to me at all. What happens is after running around in there for some amount of time (there didn’t seem to be any consistency to how soon this started up) I’d get a warning message saying servers are closing in two hours. Every player can freely come and go as they wish and when someone leaves a new person can join the instance. So, I just don’t understand why there is a time limit at all.
One thing I like about Anthem, but it also could be a problem, is the main story doesn’t gate you behind getting specific character or power levels to continue. Because of this, there was never a moment when I was sitting around grinding out levels so that I can continue the story. Unfortunately, as a result of this, I finished the main story at level 22 which left me eight levels to get through doing only Strongholds and contracts… which can get boring. On the upside, the last two Strongholds unlock after completing the story, so that helps with the variety a bit. Though clearly, they expect you to hit max level before finishing because I got a message saying the Grandmaster difficulties were unlocked as well, but they weren’t because they only unlock at level 30.
Strongholds are the longest piece of content we have currently and are the only thing a full group of four is needed to do; everything else you can do on your own if you want. You can think of them as being similar to dungeons in other games as they take more time to do than most of the other missions and contracts. Also, there seems to be more rewards overall from Strongholds because they usually have a few treasure boxes in them in addition to loot which can drop from the various mobs.
Since Anthem is planned to be an ongoing game similar to how MMOs operate it’s also worth looking at how well the game’s systems will hold up over time.
One of the biggest boons for Anthem over the long haul is how everything scales to each player individually. As a result, even if you have a friend who starts way after you or you fall behind friends who have more time to play everyone can still play together, and everyone will be able to feel like they are contributing in a meaningful way. Additionally, this allows higher level players who are using quickplay for the increased rewards to help others who are just going through things for the first time. Overall this system is the best solution for everyone.
There is one big drawback though.
During missions, there are always things to gather and are often a lot of random stuff to unlock in the codex or find. However, I have often found myself grouped with people who were higher level than me and would zoom ahead to the next location. As a result, I’d inevitably be ported to where they were missing out on the area I had been exploring. Which means while they were busy killing things, I’d be stuck on a loading screen. Since XP earned is primarily based on combat and damage done it would put me at a disadvantage.
Now you might be thinking “hey if you want to wander and explore things why don’t you just do the missions alone??” That’s a great question! The thing is Anthem heavily incentivizes grouping up with people because when you do you earn bonus alliance XP which can double the amount of XP earned in a mission or stronghold. As a result, doing missions alone is a MUCH slower way to level up.
While I’m talking about systems, I have to mention what seems to be the most significant missing feature in the game… why do we have to go back to Fort Tarsis, the Forge, or the Launchbay after every mission? Why can’t we go from one mission back to the map to immediately select the next one? I mean sure sometimes I want to equip whatever new items I just received or talk to the various characters in Fort Tarsis, but most of the time I’d prefer to knock out a whole bunch of missions all at once. Maybe it’s a bad habit from years of playing MMOs and RPGs but being able to bang through quests one after the other and sort through the loot later is fundamental to how I play games.
On a related note, there really shouldn’t be so many load screens. At the very least there shouldn’t be one between the end of a mission and the rewards screen. For the most part, playing on my PC the load screens were relatively short, but then I do have an SSD. I spent some time playing with friends, and one of them does not have an SSD. Never fail loading into freeplay or mission the one friend who didn’t have an SSD took about 30 – 45 seconds longer to load in. That’s a pretty huge variance. I did also notice the loadscreens on my PS4 were a bit longer than they were on my PC (but still shorter than loading without an SSD).
The primary goal of Anthem at max level is to keep getting better gear to keep doing harder content. For the most part, this works out well although RNG loot is often frustrating in any game. I got my first Masterwork item at level 17 and was disappointed to see it was a sniper rifle which I don’t like using in this game. But that’s the reality of RNG loot systems, it happens. What’s not okay is sometimes an inscription for a pistol would show-up on a marksman rifle, which is frustrating and makes no sense. Thankfully BioWare is patching that out and making some other tweaks to make loot overall better.
Then there are the difficulties everything can be done on. For the most part, the differences between easy, normal, hard, and grandmaster 1 seem to be smooth and not a huge deal. However, the difference between GM1, GM2, and GM3 is vast, and it can be difficult to tell when you should move up because waiting until GM1 is trivial wasn’t the right time because GM2 was still terrible. Also, it currently doesn’t feel like the rewards for doing GM2 or GM3 are really in line with the difficulty. There’s also the issue of just doing the same things repeatedly gets boring even if I am doing it on a harder difficulty.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room of future content. One upside is BioWare has made it clear they do not plan to make players pay for content updates. So, there’s no fear of an update and players suddenly not being able to play with friends who didn’t buy the DLC or of losing access to content you were previously doing because you didn’t buy the DLC. Fortunately, BioWare has also posted their roadmap for the next few months. The big question is if there will be enough to keep players engaged. While I’m happy to see we’ll be getting some new things in March there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot there. Also, there’s no indication of when we’ll get that update; hopefully it’ll be before the middle of the month. This is still better than being left entirely in the dark wondering if an update will come though.