Bioware has a long history of making amazing games. They’ve knocked it out of the park with several titles in multiple franchises for more than 20 years. Their ability to craft RPGs with memorable stories and characters is second to none. They even use the tagline “Rich Stories, Unforgettable Characters, And Vast Worlds” for their website. However, their recent games seem to have been shifting away from those first two core tenants, and Anthem appears to be to abandon all three.
The Initial Experience
Anthem shines in its ability to create a good first impression. I enjoyed the demo and once in the game I was elated with blasting away at the enemies I encountered. The spectacle of the game’s effects are exceptional from the very start, giving the player a sense of power straight away rather than building up to it over time like other RPGs. Mowing down enemies with a Gatling gun or launching huge blinding screen-clearing explosions with special attacks couldn’t be more fulfilling. Not long into playing you’re introduced to your initial cast of characters along with some well-crafted cutscenes explaining the central backstory to the game. Then you set off, as one would expect, doing the requisite main and side quests collecting new gear and unlocking new Javelins to suit up and charge into battle. It’s wonderful to rush out into environment flying around through the jungle, dipping in and out of the ruins and water and spotting the variety of flora and fauna. However, as time marches on, things start to fall apart and you start to see just how shallow Anthem actually is.
An Inch Deep
The phrase “mile wide and an inch deep” is thrown around for many different things, but Anthem exemplifies what this saying conveys. While it’s somewhat justifiable to not have the depth of a traditional RPG in the ARPG derivation ‘looter shooter’, the expectation was that Anthem would do more than the bare essentials in developing a story and atmosphere. Once you try the handful of weapon types that, even within their own categories don’t differ all that much, you’ve essentially tried them all. They’ll only get better stats as you progress in the game. Once you’ve seen the class specific weapons, abilities, and gear for each class, you’re only going to see stat-enhanced versions of those going forward as well. Even after flying around the world for 25 hours, I couldn’t identify any specific area of the map because most areas are the same biome with the same assets. The moderate pool of enemies you encounter slowly expands to a slightly larger moderate pool that you see in nearly every single mission you encounter. The Scars, Dominion, and Outlaws all start looking the same. The three or four fauna that are aggressive don’t mix things up much either. Even the missions themselves boil down to only a handful of tasks that involve going to similar multi-level open areas or caves and either shooting all the bad guys or interacting with one of a few puzzle-style engagements.
These issues wouldn’t be as much of a problem individually if the rest of the game provided more depth, but the fact that so many different parts of Anthem fall short at the same time brings the whole thing down. The central gameplay loop has the appeal necessary for maybe a maximum of ten hours, but the game is dragged out for much longer. The best parts live within a handful of missions and special dungeon encounters called Strongholds where the gameplay flows through multiple areas and can actually last longer than the 10-20 minutes most missions clock in at. However, my sour experience with the depth and gameplay aren’t the only issues I have with the game overall.
One of the most frustrating things about Anthem are the load times. More specifically, it’s the amount of times you have to load. You’ll have to load going into a mission, you’ll have to load within the mission if you get too far away from your group when they get to a waypoint, there may be another load screen for going into a cave, then another when you come out, and if your squad wipes, you’ll be loading again. These are varying amounts of time, but they’re so numerous compared to the sometimes extremely short missions that it starts to feel like it’s the only thing you see. I started instinctively picking up my phone to entertain myself every time one popped up. The most annoying load screen is probably the one for the Forge, which functions as your character screen where you equip gear you’ve gained. You’ll have to load in and out of that every time with a loading screen. Even this could be potentially overlooked if the thing Bioware is known best for could deliver in this game.
Anthem’s story could be summarized in a single word: mediocre. It has some of the classic twists and turns you would expect from a Bioware story, but overall it is poorly fleshed out in the bulk of the mid-game and really only has value in the very beginning and end of the game. The fact that it’s muddied and buried under side quest stories that often involve a lot of the same set pieces (shaper relics, ancient texts, the Dominion, etc), it’s extremely easy to lose track of what parts were actually involved with your primary task.
The worst part of this is your character interaction within the story itself. They don’t even bother giving the main character a name, just calling him “Freelancer” the entire time even though there are Freelancers walking around the very place you’re strolling around. Oh and you do “stroll”. The speed you move within Fort Tarsis is beyond slow. A ‘sprint’ was added after the beta, but it makes you go about 20% faster than walking. Can you imagine if you took off running and you were only going 20% faster than someone leisurely walking? Yet you still breathe like you’re half way through a marathon.
Slow movement aside, making your way around the fort and conversing with the people interested in talking to you is one of the least Bioware-like experiences that I’ve had in playing the vast majority of their games. The interaction has gone steadily downhill over the years, from the several sentences sometimes triggering character abilities, to small phrases usually denoting ‘good’, ‘bad’, or ‘non-committal’. Yet now we’re down to only two. It’s not just two answers that evoke “A” or “B” responses, it’s more like “A-1” and “A-2”, meaning the outcome is already chosen and you’re just deciding what the NPC’s next like reaction is like. The setup of these encounters embodies the flawed flow of the story. It’s as though they created a movie where you have to tap a button to show you’re awake and you’re just along for the ride. Characters are forgettable and often just fade into the background or disappear altogether once their stream of dialogue is over. Even going into and completing the final mission felt like just another bump in the road shoveled in front of the player with minute fanfare before and after. Nothing about the story felt like traditional Bioware. It didn’t even feel like contemporary Bioware. It was just a disappointment.
Can It Be Redeemed?
These days, ‘games as a service’ as well as committed developers have made quite a few games have a “comeback” where they’re much more popular well after release than at release. Anthem has the ability to do that as well, but it’s going to require a lot of work and some fundamental changes to the gameplay and experience. Embracing the Strongholds and building more player-involved missions will help. Removing and shortening most of the load screens could mean a lot as well. Yet, I think if they want to be a real looter-shooter that people play with the same perception of something like Warframe, they’re going to have to make it possible to see and use gear in game as you get it. Having to pop in and out of the fort or to view and equip gear just doesn’t work.
I don’t think this will ever be ‘traditional’ Bioware game, the limited story and character interaction has made that virtually impossible. I’m not even sure it will ever be an above average game, but I do believe it has a chance to be more than it is currently if Bioware and EA are willing to put in the time, effort, and money for it. I think most people want that to be the case because the game looked as if it had loads of potential. Sadly, we can only give feedback and hope the game becomes something worth sticking with.