Anthem Review — Make Another Pitch, Freelancer
BioWare's Anthem is as disappointing as it is boring, with the game's biggest fault being that it just gets in the way of its own self.
Xbox One X
Review copy provided by the publisher
There’s been a lot of hubbub about Anthem since it was originally revealed back at E3 2017. As a drastic departure from BioWare’s previous games, many seemed hesitant to see the beloved developer join the ranks of Destiny, The Division, and Warframe with its own take on the loot shooter sub-genre. Despite the concerns though, I was always very much all-in on Anthem from the beginning. The idea of basically just playing as your own version of Iron Man in a massive open world was alluring to me from the get-go, and I have remained positive on Anthem leading up to release.
After playing the final product though, Anthem is a game of mixed emotions for me. I’m frustrated that EA pushed it to be released now when it clearly wasn’t ready. I’m baffled at some of the design decisions that BioWare opted to go with for the game’s structure. More than anything else though, Anthem has left me vastly underwhelmed to the point that I don’t love it or hate it, but instead just feel so incredibly indifferent about its continued existence moving forward.
“…controlling each of the four optional Javelins at your disposal in Anthem is largely its best aspect.”
There are so many issues that Anthem has but before I even get into all of that I want to at least praise the one generally solid element: the gameplay. The act of controlling each of the four optional Javelins at your disposal in Anthem is largely its best aspect. From the speediness of the Interceptor, to the tankiness of the Colossus, or the wizard-like elemental abilities with the Storm, each Javelin feels unique unto itself and offers a variety of playstyles to swap between over the course of Anthem.
With each suit also containing the ability to fly, combat situations in Anthem have a level of verticality rarely seen in other third-person games. Being able to fly about the large open world found in Anthem is typically a sight to behold given the immaculately designed environments. The only downside with flight is that you’re in constant need to cool-off your jets before overheating, which gets pretty annoying the more you play.
All in all, the smoothness of the controls and most of the abilities that each Javelin has in Anthem are great. That being said though, there is a major downside to combat specifically and it deals with the weapons. Guns in Anthem largely are not enjoyable to use. In the amount of time that I have been playing Anthem, each gun in the game feels generic. This is a real let down given that most of Anthem is centered around getting new loot. When the weapons you continue to acquire as loot hours into the game all feel bland and indistinct from the same ones you were using at the start of Anthem, then that’s a problem. The grind for more loot just starts to feel undesirable.
Coinciding with this poor gunplay is the fact that most of the enemies you’ll come across in Anthem are just massive bullet sponges. More often than not, you’ll enter a combat situation and immediately use your abilities before proceeding to blow away other foes with your weapons while you wait for the cooldown on your abilities to run out. You’ll simply hold down left trigger and follow up with the right trigger to wipe out the same hordes of recycled enemies endlessly. Even the handful of bosses that you’ll come across like Anthem’s Titans are more annoying to fight than they are fun. I’m all for gameplay being relatively static over the course of a gaming experience, but Anthem has the most “rinse, wash, repeat” style of combat that I’ve seen in quite a bit.
What doesn’t aid Anthem at all in the realm of gameplay and combat is the entire structure of the game, especially when it comes to the missions you’re doing. Nearly every single mission in Anthem will see you flying to Point A, killing a bunch of enemies, then flying to Point B followed by killing even more foes before then maybe culminating in a boss fight or a larger horde of baddies than usual. Anthem tries to mix some of these objectives up from time to time but the variations don’t help. Some of these extra tasks include standing in the middle of a circle to defend it, collecting orbs scattered around the world, or interacting with random devices in the environment with the simple press of a button. The missions Anthem gives you are downright mindless and it’s easily my least favorite element of the whole game.
I also can’t go without mentioning the Tomb trials in particular in this review because it’s one of the worst sequences I think I’ve ever come across in a game. If you haven’t heard of this section of Anthem already, it essentially is a main path quest that forces you to complete a series of arbitrary tasks to advance. Some of these include opening a number of chests, completing open world freeplay missions, and so many other mundane objectives. In a game full of boring missions, these trials stand out above the rest and put a drastic halt on your progress early on in Anthem.
“Keep your phone handy while playing Anthem, because you’ll definitely have plenty of time to kill.”
It’s worth pointing out that there are Strongholds included in Anthem as well that essentially serve as larger combat-focused missions and culminate with you fighting a unique boss. Strongholds themselves are better than your standard mission in Anthem, but at the end of the day, the formula within is pretty much identical. Fly from Point A to Point B, kill enemies, and move forward. For having such a wide array of gameplay tools at its disposal, BioWare did little to nothing with the mechanics in Anthem and instead just forces you to endlessly and mindlessly do similar tasks. The whole thing gets stale pretty quickly and is even worse the further into the experience you get.
Perhaps Anthem’s most objectively annoying quality though is that it is constantly getting in the way of itself. After every mission you complete in Anthem, you are immediately ripped out of the world and forced to revisit Fort Tarsis, the Forge, or the Launch Bay before getting into another mission. In between every one of these sequences, you’ll be greeted with some of the longest loading times I have ever experienced in a video game. Even playing on the higher end Xbox One X, load times in and out of the game’s open world were taking up to two minutes or more.
This feature is made all the more obnoxious by the fact that you cannot even access your weapons or change your Javelin’s loadout unless you first return to your base. For instance, let’s say you get a new weapon or ability that you haven’t tried yet and decide to equip it. Once you use said item in the world and have decided you don’t like it, you can’t just simply hit the pause button and return to what you had equipped before. Nope, you’ll have to return altogether to your base to go through this whole process again which will see you greeted with numerous loading screens along the way. Keep your phone handy while playing Anthem, because you’ll definitely have plenty of time to kill.
Even if these loading screens were shorter, I’m still puzzled by Anthem being so segmented in this manner. Rather than feeling like a fluid experience, Anthem feels like a lot of disjointed pieces thrown together with none of them cohesively working with one another. Nearly 50% of your time in Anthem feels like it is either spent in Fort Tarsis walking around, loading screens, or perusing the game’s poorly designed and not well-detailed menus.
As for longtime BioWare fans who are looking for the studio’s pedigree of storytelling to shine through, Anthem never comes close to reaching the same heights as some of the studio’s past work. I blame this mainly on the fact that you play as a nameless and (mostly) faceless character simply known as “Freelancer” for the entirety of the game. It was hard for me to ever become invested in what was happening throughout the story when I felt like I was just playing as a generic nobody.
That being said, even the characters you meet throughout the story serve the purpose of just giving you more missions to do than anything else. It doesn’t feel like you’re building a relationship with many of the characters in Anthem even though the game tries to utilize a this-or-that style dialogue prompts. The narrative also tries more than once to throw you some curveballs but these moments fall flat and almost never feel earned. It’s also worth mentioning that I still have next to no idea of what’s really going on in the world of Anthem and the way in which lore and backstory are presented is so wordy and obtuse, especially compared to BioWare’s previous games.
“Anthem desperately needed a bit more time in the oven and the resulting product is one that I’m incredibly lukewarm on”
As a final mention, I also ran across a handle of bugs and some performance issues (mainly related to framerate) while playing through Anthem. Some of these issues included me needing to entirely restart a mission once and others that hindered me from inviting friends to my party. Luckily, BioWare has been good about pushing out patches since launch and I’ve already seen most of these issues rectified.
I think the best thing I could say at the end of this review is that months down the road Anthem will likely be a much more polished experience with a lot of more content to keep you hooked into its world. The only problem is that I don’t believe this to be true. Anthem isn’t just something that needs more content to make it more enjoyable; there are a lot of fundamental and foundational flaws with this experience that I believe need to be fully ripped out or reworked to improve the overall experience. Maybe BioWare will opt to do some of these drastic changes, but if they don’t, I struggle to see Anthem sustaining any sort of audience in the long term.
Anthem desperately needed a bit more time in the oven and the resulting product is one that I’m incredibly lukewarm on — which is almost worse than if I had outright hated it. I don’t understand many of the design decisions in Anthem to the point that I wonder how so many of the game’s aspects ever got greenlit in the first place. I’d like to continue crossing my fingers and hoping that BioWare will return to be one of the industry’s leading devs in the coming years, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned at this point. Anthem will potentially hold your attention for the first few hours, but as a game that is supposed to keep you hooked for weeks and months on end, I can safely say I never plan on returning to my own Javelins barring some drastic changes.