Between the hustle and bustle of everyday life, work, family and playing some games, I haven’t been able to dedicate as much time as I’d like to jotting down on this here blog. I have been wanting to collect my impressions on games I play for posterity and for any old sod who decides to check this place out for my thoughts.
With that said, I figured what better place to start than with…*ding ding ding*, controversy! I have been playing Anthem since its release on February 22nd. It’s fair to say it hasn’t registered on the ‘good graces radar’ for many critics and quite a number of players. There is, however, a sizable population playing the game and still having a good time while still sharing grievances. I happen to fall into the latter category, and I’ll say it: While I have issues with some design decisions and technical problems that I hope get resolved, I’m still enjoying the hell out of Anthem. I’ll explain why below.
I have to mention something first that I feel probably gives better context to my thoughts on Anthem. I play games like Destiny, The Division, and now Anthem for different reasons than some others. It might seem a little strange but I like the world building, environmental discovery and exploration, characters and of course the shooting of Destiny. I enjoyed building up my base of operations in The Division while exploring Manhattan and taking in the incredible visuals. While it’s all about the loot and endgame for a large number of players of these games, it’s really not to me. I do enjoy getting new weapons, leveling up and becoming more powerful, but it’s not the main reason I have fun with ‘GAAS’. Those two facets of your typical “Games as a Service” title serve as more of a bonus for me.
Which brings me to Anthem. As a longtime fan of BioWare and the incredible games they’ve crafted, I approached Anthem with a sense of curiosity and optimism. They’d been making single player RPGs over the past couple of decades, so I was perfectly fine seeing them branch out of their usual mold to try something different.
First and foremost, yep, Anthem is one gorgeous game. Playing at 4K on my Xbox One X is a deep dive into never-ending splashes of eye candy. The environments are beautifully lush and peppered with all kinds of flowing waterfalls, rivers, underwater caverns and alien looking plant life. It’s all very reminiscent of a Pandora-like world akin to Avatar. There’s a full dynamic day and night cycle too complete with a weather system (rain, lightning, dust storms, etc) that provides stunning vistas everywhere you look. The lighting lends itself to breathtaking scenes of beauty. Frostbite is looking some of its best here thanks to extremely talented artists.
While Bastion is visual treat to behold, I felt the world begging to be filled with interesting and unique creatures around every corner. I’d love to have seen roaming herds of strange herbivores grazing the vegetation, carnivores hunting other animals (similar to the E3 2017 reveal) or other similar instances of wildlife really shining a light on a wild, untamed world. Instead, my time spent flying around and exploring Bastion often felt a bit…lifeless. That’s further exacerbated by the fact that a max of only 3 other players inhabit the world alongside me at all times during freeplay. I’d love to see more people in the world with me to at least allay that feeling of loneliness and silence.
To its credit, the design of Bastion is conducive to the gameplay’s design and environmental navigation. I was at first aggravated by what felt like an artificial limitation on my javelin’s jets, becoming irritated every time I’d get close to overheating and getting forced to land before taking off again. Through the natural course of playing, however, it actually…grew on me. Navigating the high vertical spaces, canyons, archways, caves and jungles turned into a sort of meta-game. I started enjoying trying to keep my javelin airborne for as long as I could by skimming the surfaces of bodies of water, flying through waterfalls to cool off or adjust my flight trajectory downward to gain more airtime. I think the designers also likely played around with longer airtime but might have found it tricky to have challenging and engaging combat if you could stay airborne indefinitely.
And that’s a particular area that I’m addictively fond of. The combat in Anthem is the most fun I’ve had out of any GAAS that I have played so far. While I do enjoy fighting the mobs in The Division and without a doubt some of the best combat there is in Destiny (Bungie’s a master of their craft), I love the freedom of mobility and agility available here. The enemies and combat encounters remind me of Diablo more than anything else. Cannon fodder sprinkled with higher level combatants are plentiful and taking advantage of combo effects is the surest way to victory.
But it’s the ability to jump up, zip around in the air and lay down devastating abilities on the fly that just feels so good to pull off. I mainly play as the Colossus because that thing feels like a true hard-hitting mech. My play style is to get right up in there, pull out my shield, charge through hordes of enemies to knock them on their asses, get back, lob a barrage of grenades from my grenade launcher and top it all off with a storm of mortars and the ultimate nuke attack. I find it all really damn fun and satisfying and one of the strongest aspects of Anthem.
And to BioWare’s credit, each of the four classes of javelins actually feel very unique in practice. Playing as an Interceptor or Storm class is a completely different ballgame than a Colossus or Ranger and required me to change up my play style considerably. The Tyrant Mine stronghold is an especially addictive mission that lays out a lot of fun combat encounters and obstacles to progressing forward. I never get tired of it.
The soundtrack accentuates that combat too, getting loud and heavy when the action ramps up onscreen and making me feel like a true badass while I’m pulling off abilities and wrecking opponents. Some tracks employ a deep sci-fi synth tone that exude fantasy and give off vibes of the original Mass Effect score that always hits home with me. I only wish it played more often! There’s too many instances of silence during playtime where some music would really help with immersion.
All of this makes for a great time when it works, and to be honest, it usually does at least from my time on my Xbox One X. I rarely get disconnected from servers anymore, but there’s something going on with quickplay and some matchmaking in missions and strongholds. I’ve since stopped jumping into quickplay because I keep getting into contract missions where there’s no actual waypoint and the missions literally don’t progress, forcing me to leave and try something else. Initiating strongholds also sometimes places me mid-mission or even at the tail end where the final boss was just defeated. Huh?
Similarly, I don’t believe there’s been one instance of running the Tyrant Mine stronghold where I didn’t get a big onscreen prompt telling me I’m too far from the group (even though they’re actually maybe a few meters in front of me?). This in turn goes into a mini-load screen for a few seconds where I’m transported back to the others. In the same token, there is a big hit to performance when the effects get crazy with a bunch of enemies onscreen, even on the Xbox One X. It’s unfortunate because these issues can become frustrating when I’m otherwise having a good time.
Anthem’s story isn’t one to rewrite the history books, but it was designed strong enough to motivate me to push through to the end. I found myself becoming more and more attached to its characters. Owen was constantly putting a smile on my face with his happy-go-lucky attitude through much of it. Haluk and Faye started to feel a bit like family, each wanting to watch out for each other and me.
Going back to the home base of Fort Tarsis outside of the main storyline and chatting up NPCs was one of my favorite parts. Even though Anthem isn’t a “traditional” BioWare RPG, Fort Tarsis felt like a little slice of BioWare that I love. While not quite as memorable as something like Mass Effect’s Normandy, coming back to take a breather between missions and gain some introspective into people’s lives felt so cozy. Whether it was getting updates on Sayrna’s quest to get a Korox into the fort, chatting up Max the bar owner about bar life or hearing the latest gossip from the creeper Neeson Giles, I genuinely enjoyed the downtime. There were many to talk to as I played along and each felt like mini-stories in themselves.
Due to the game’s design, I suppose creating a wider branching narrative akin to Mass Effect and Dragon Age might not have worked. I would have liked more choices during dialogue, but the two choices that constantly pop up during conversations at least allowed for some deviation from being a simple cutscene and some do affect some of the decisions characters make, which was nice to see.
What bugs me every time I do decide to hit up Fort Tarsis is the silence! It was refreshing to see the fort change and become more alive the further I got into the story, but there’s a strange quiet to it all. It all sounds like a group of people conversing in the distant background. Shopkeepers, their patrons, and characters onscreen should sound like a bustling bazaar with lots of chatter. There’s also barely any music when walking around. This was also an issue when walking around the Nexus and Skyhold in Mass Effect Andromeda and Dragon Age: Inquisition respectively. I’m not sure if there’s a reluctance at BioWare to throw in some nice tunes in their hub worlds lately, but man does it show! Music goes a long way in immersing a player into a world and I hope that’s something they’ll implement more in the future.
I can’t praise the cutscenes and cinematic direction enough though. The facial animations alone are eerily accurate and genuinely some of the best I’ve seen in a game. Whether being a comedic scene or serious in tone, they’re extremely well done and acted. The voice actors do a great job of bringing the characters to life.
It’s unfortunate then that much of the campaign relied on mission design that ultimately felt lacking in variety and vision. While encounters with the Monitor, following trails of General Tarsis and the last mission felt fresh, a large number of them devolved into repetitive tasks. I can’t recall the number of times I was required to collect 6 pieces of shaper fragments and transport them to a relic to silence it or to follow a radar to find hidden runes in the environment. Holding down a circular area to fight off waves of enemies? Plentiful.
It’s especially disappointing when the world is so beautiful and beckons for unique encounter design. I would have loved to engage in some cinematic aerial chase with an opponent, investigate clues in the environment to track down a spy or face down an encroaching army in overwhelming odds. These are just examples that spring to mind. It’s a good thing then that I find the combat so fun which makes up for a lack in mission variety. Still, I do hope that’s one area of focus in content moving forward.
I have played a lot of Anthem. During that time I completed the campaign, played through all three of the strongholds, reached level 30, tricked out my javelin, talked to every NPC at Fort Tarsis and played around in freeplay and the ‘endgame’. The loot is a massive component of these games and, understandably, one of frustration for quite a few players. My biggest issue with the loot, or more precisely, the weapons, is the similarities in design. Your weapons range from pistols to assault rifles, sniper rifles, shotguns and for the heavier Colossus, grenade launchers and assault cannons.
It’s too bad that so many of these guns begin to blend in with each other. Almost every assault rifle is the same bundle of rectangular shapes and edges. Sniper rifles, shotguns and machine pistols share 95% of the same form of their respective classes. The worst part are the masterwork and legendaries, which merely add unique marks, vinyls and paints to the standard weapons as differentiators! It’s one area that genuinely surprised me. These hard to get weapons and gear should be rewarding to receive and feel extremely unique in design and purpose yet don’t. While my ‘Insult & Injury’ grenade launcher feels powerful and ‘Thunder of Yvenia’ marksman rifle carries a 33% chance of bringing down a bolt of lightning, they ultimately don’t come off as exceptionally special, which is a shame.
An argument can be made that it’s the javelins and their abilities that are the main attraction when it comes to specializing my combat capabilities but the weapons are still a major component of gameplay and more variety would have added a lot satisfaction.
Speaking of javelins, the level of customization is ridiculously high. There are several areas available to the player to change and color as they see fit. Tons of different materials, meshes and colors add up to create something incredibly robust in scope to ensure your javelin can be truly unique in appearance. Though, again, a downer in this case are the limited armor options in the game. There’s little to start with and only a couple different sets available by the end of the story. You can purchase different sets that become available in the featured store but that brings me to another point of frustration.
The store in Anthem is fairly basic and small. I was really hoping we’d get tons of different armors and parts to mix and match unlockable throughout the game. Instead of a fully featured storefront with everything available to you, the store operates on a cycle that rotates every couple of days. Sometimes the store’s newest featured items are nothing more than some emotes, vinyls or new material with maybe a new armor set here and there. It’s something I’m not particularly a fan of at all. Just let me get my new armors!
I fully acknowledge that games like Anthem are all about the “min-maxing” for many. The loot grind is all they care about and getting better and better stats in a weapon or javelin build through dozens of hours of play is the name of the game. If it’s not obvious enough after reading through all of this, I’m not that big into my character’s stats. That’s not the main area of focus for me.
It’s a huge undertaking to create a new IP from scratch. There are a number of design decisions that I’d categorize as missteps but throughout my time playing Anthem, I can’t help but reflect on how much fun I’m having. Bastion and its inhabitants are interesting enough for me to care about. I liked the cast of characters I met and am hopelessly addicted to the combat loop. I enjoyed checking my email inbox to hear from characters, browsing through hundreds of Cortex entries that told me about the legend of General Tarsis, the history of the Ur Goth and how much of a bastard a Wyvern is.
What’s clear is that BioWare has a lot of work ahead of them to make important quality of life improvements and take fan feedback into consideration, which I see they’re trying to do. Many of the initial bugs have been ironed out through a series of patches, with more to come. I’m invested in the story and the characters and the ending left a real tantalizing desire to see it continue through new content, which should be coming throughout the year.
All that said, I have put in around 50 hours in Anthem and feel pretty satisfied with how much I have gotten out of it so far. I continue to run through strongholds and legendary contracts not only for better loot, but for simply how much I enjoy flying, shooting, and decimating enemies. I’m genuinely excited to see BioWare continue to add on to the game in the future.