Anthem – BioWare’s brave new world that never ends
BioWare fans have waited a long time to get their hands on Anthem, the four-player co-op shooter set in a science fiction world that never ends (think Destiny). Electronic Arts, the parent company of BioWare, has promised that the world and stories of Anthem will keep evolving, as they will keep adding new live content over time.
I played Anthem this week at Electronic Arts in Redwood City, California. It has been a long time coming, this eagerly anticipated online shooter is EA’s first new big intellectual property in a decade. I think it has good gameplay and the world is enticing. But with around six hours under my belt, I feel like I have barely scratched the surface. Still, I think it inspires the kind of awe that you feel when you discover a brand-new gaming world for the first time, one built by some of the best game developers in the world.
And the action is satisfying, even if a lot of it is familiar with hints of Destiny, Halo, Mass Effect, Star Wars: Battlefront II, and a lot of other games where you collect loot and shoot.
I’ll refrain from concluding that Anthem is just an updated version of Destiny, with flying and swimming. Or maybe it’s like being Iron Man, with the cool flying suit. Anthem’s combat is quite similar to Destiny’s on the ground, but, taken as a whole, Anthem’s savage world and gameplay are a very different kind of experience. VIP players who preordered will get a chance to play the first Anthem demo on Friday, January 25 to Sunday, January 27. And then everybody will get a chance when the full game launches on February 22 across multiple platforms.
In my preview, I played through some tutorial missions that help the player learn how to maneuver, fly, and shoot. Then I learned how to use the store and browse through the Cortex, or the lore of Anthem. Then I played a mission dubbed “Lost Arcanist,” where you search for a lost researcher named Matthias. The first video captures some about 10 minutes of that experience.
I engaged in a long bout of free roaming and moved to the demo missions, one of which is recorded in the second video. In that series of missions, you work with Matthias the Arcanist, who uses a mysterious technology that turns him into three separate beings. I also interviewed BioWare lead producer Mike Gamble for a separate story.
What you’ll like
A vast world with interesting new fiction
Anthem takes place on a planet that was being crafted by the Shaper gods. The problem was that they left in the middle of it, and they left their tools behind. These tools were like a game development engine, like Unreal, used to craft the world as the gods liked. But the Anthem, as the tool of creation is called, spits out cataclysms and creatures at random intervals.
This makes life hard on the planet, and the human race has to cluster together in outposts to survive. As with Destiny (you knew that comparison was coming), some people serve as guardians, dubbed Freelancers. They fly out in Javelin exosuits (big Iron Man style flying mech suits) to explore and pacify the surrounding areas, which are filled with a variety of dangers.
The main outpost is Fort Tarsis, named after a general who used to be the leader. It is the home base for the player and a community of ragtag humans. Fort Tarsis is a like a frontier town, and you can only leave its safety in an armored flying suit. You have to go out on missions, which mostly have to do with protecting settlers or scavenging, as there is no mass production in Fort Tarsis.
You find that you have to deal with indigenous beasts as well as enemies such as the Sentinels, which keep the order on Anthem, and the Dominion, a militaristic group headed by a leader known as The Monitor. You can get backup communication from Cyphers, who can communicate mentally over long distances in support roles, and you can receive missions from Corvus, a network of intelligence agents. Arcanists, meanwhile, do research on the mysteries of Anthem.
On your side, you have a crew that includes a Cypher and others who become a part of the story over time. I like the world of Anthem. It looked beautiful, with mountains, greenery, rivers, ancient ruins, and secrets. The first couple of missions and conversations with the veterans of Fort Tarsus will convey the basic conflict to you fairly early in the game. And that’s where you’ll learn more about the Dominion and The Monitor, and why they want to control the Anthem of creation.
Customizable character, suits, and weapons
When you start Anthem, you can choose whether you want a male voice or a female voice. That voice stays with you in the story-based missions, which are preceded by interesting cinematics. You can customize all sorts of things about your suit, such as the quality and wear of the paint.
When you leave the fort in groups of four, there are multiple kinds of Javelin suits you can wear. The Colossus is like a tank with heavy armor and weapons. Others are called Storm, Ranger, and Interceptor. As you salvage resources in the world, you can use them to craft new kinds of weapon attachments or weapons.
When you start with a beginner assault rifle, it can feel like you’re handling a pea shooter. It takes a lot of hits to bring down the enemies minions. If you’re wearing a Colossus suit, it’s easier to just press the Y button (I played with an Xbox One controller on a PC), you can do a ground pound, which wipes out all the enemies in a given radius.
If you level up through combat enough, you can release your Ultimate capability, which gives you some super powers for a short time. Every now and then, if you take down a bigger enemy, you’ll collect some ammo other energy that drops from them. You’re not, however, constantly collecting loot. I occasionally ran out of ammo but solved that problem by running over some loot icons where the bodies lay. You can change things up with grenades and rocket launchers, but those are in limited supply at the outset. Over time, you can earn different weapons like mortars, sniper rifles, or rail guns.
Flying is fun and it gives you a combat advantage
BioWare also made it easy to control. You can fly by holding down the left stick and stop flying and hit the ground by pressing the A button. You can push in the right stick to hover. That gives you the ability to float above the battle and concentrate on shooting at those below you.
Of course, you can’t do this forever. You’d be a sitting duck. You will also run out of thrust, as you can’t only stay flying for a number of seconds. In contrast to games like Battlefield V, it’s not that hard to master flying, particularly since you’re just controlling a character in an exosuit.
Four-player combat is frenetic
I liked the freedom of movement in Anthem, where you could land on a battlefield, jump into the air, fly to the other side, and take the enemies from behind. It’s not a static battle, where you’re pinned down or the enemy is holed up.
The enemies aren’t particularly smart. In fact, I shot a few that clearly weren’t working right, as they were standing still while I was shooting. Hopefully, BioWare will fix that before the game ships. But the game got pretty intense when I went on missions with three other human players. As we neared the combat zones for the missions, the action got pretty heated.
More enemies spawn, and in some places like caves, there are fewer havens where you can hide. The enemies spawn in all directions, so there’s no single front that you can create to hold off the hordes as they approach from a lot of directions. You have to deal with snipers, gun turrets, foot soldiers, and shielded enemies that float in the air. Sometimes, multiple boss-like creatures will spawn and run at you with shields. You have to shoot these tank-like creatures from behind.
Since the enemies are such bullet sponges, you really do have to play with more than one person so that someone has your back while you are emptying your clip into an enemy.
What you won’t like
Flying has drawbacks since you can’t fly forever
You can only fly for a short time in Anthem. You get so many seconds using your thrusters, and after that, you have to hit the ground and wait for them to recharge. Then you can hop right back into the air again. You can also regenerate some flying time by diving down at a steep angle and then going back up again.
This was a logical decision by the developers, who didn’t want you to ignore the beautiful creations that they made both on the ground and underground and underwater. Anthem is meant to be experienced as a full world, not just flown over.
But some of the terrain is high and steep. It’s so high that you may have trouble flying to the top of it in a single bound. Why create that high terrain when your mech is going to run out of flying power before reaching the top? You’ll just fall to the bottom, as I did a few times.
I also didn’t find an easy way to go straight up. Rather, you have to jump and fly sideways for a while, and then gain height more gradually. This makes it hard to just scale a cliff or get to a spot that is above you but just beyond jumping range. As a result, there were many times when I tried to jump to a ledge and couldn’t reach it, and then I tried to fly, only to smash into the wall. This is particularly annoying in the many underground caverns. This means that the capabilities of the mechs aren’t a match for the environment.
Navigating the 3D world
It’s not easy getting around in any open world, and that’s the case with the world of Anthem. Not only is it a big surface world, it also has multiple dimensions, such as high mountains, underground caverns, and underwater places. There’s no mini map that clogs up your view of the beautiful environment. That’s a plus. But BioWare didn’t make it simple to stay on track while you are moving at a high speed, as you are when you are flying.
You get a blue indicator that serves as a waypoint in the world. It tells you where you should go next, but the path to it is often blocked. The place where you are going might be at the end of an underground passage that curves, which means it isn’t in your view. So you have to figure out where to go in order to get to the indicator that tells you where to go. This kind of waypoint is not helpful when you are at a wall and are unsure if the path lies at the top of a mountain or at an underground passage at its bottom. It’s a trade-off that slows down your travel.
On top of that, I didn’t find a way to pursue multiple paths in a story at the same time. Hopefully, BioWare will be able to experiment with things like waypoints and colors better as the feedback comes in.
The good stuff will take time to earn
I played with characters both at the beginning of the game and at its end, when they are fully leveled up. It’s fair to say that when I had a pea shooter at the beginning of the game, it felt like I was doing very little damage to the creatures. By the end of the game, I had better guns, but I also went up against tougher enemies. The good thing was that I could re-generate grenades and rockets to fire.
You have an unlimited supply of these heavy weapons, but can only use them at certain times. If you hit the boss enemies with a grenade, rocket, and gun at the same time, you’ll do more damage. But of course, you have to earn this capability. Some people aren’t going to like that. Fortunately, at this point, EA has learned its lesson and will not enable you to spend real money to get these capabilities. I suppose this isn’t really a bad thing, but you do kind of feel a little poorly armed at the very beginning.
This is a common complaint in big games, but Anthem takes a while to boot up and load. It takes a while to load a mission when you re-enter the large world. And it also takes time to load an area of the map when you fly from one part of the map to another, like you do when you have to move from one part of a multi-part mission to another.
Anthem has hints of other worlds we’ve seen, but there’s enough original in it to be enticing. I enjoyed the freedom of flying and wandering through the dangerous world during my freeplay sessions. But I strongly recommend that you get the most out of it by playing it with a full crew of four players, as the challenge and the intensity really come through when you do that. Some people have been worried about this game, but I think BioWare and EA have done a fine job in bringing us a brave new world.