STAFF REVIEW of Anthem (Xbox One)

Monday, March 11, 2019.
by Adam Dileva

Anthem Box art Since Anthem was first shown back at one of the E3’s, there’s been a feverish excitement and following for its release, and for good reason; it simply looked awesome. You control a mech (javelin) much like Iron Man, and it had remnants of Destiny and Division loot based co-op gameplay. Oh, and BioWare is behind it, so naturally fans became quite excited quickly. It was easy to get aboard the hype train once it was shown, and now Anthem is finally here, so has it been everything we’ve been waiting for? Well, kind of.

Given BioWare’s pedigree in storytelling and narrative based games, I was expecting big things from Anthem’s narrative. You’re one of the few remaining Freelancers left standing after the battle within The Heart of Rage. This was a legendary battle where almost all but a handful of Freelancers fell in battle after things go south quickly. The world doesn’t really see Freelancers the same way they once did since that day, and even though two years have passed since the resounding defeat, you’re still trying to do the right thing and prove Freelancers are still great as they once were.

Sentinels are essentially the army and police in Anthem’s world, yet Freelancers are the ones that will need to take out contracts and repair their reputation amongst the public. Your main hub, Fort Tarsis, is a small city where a large portion of your gameplay will take place. Here is where you’ll talk to merchants, make friends, accept contracts and more. In typical BioWare fashion, you’ll have dialogue choices to make during conversations, though none of these decisions feel like there’s any weight to them for the most part, simply picking one of two responses as the opportunity presents itself.

The Dominion is the other faction, the ones that are trying to harness the power of the Anthem of Creation for themselves, destroying anyone who gets in their way. Essentially the ‘bad guys’, they will be your main enemy throughout the storyline, led by a very ruthless and powerful foe that you’ll learn more of as you progress. You’ll meet more characters as your journey extends, some of which are very unique and memorable, while others are annoyances and simply serve to give you more missions, albeit with a lengthy talk beforehand. While the few main characters you’ll forge relationships with, the rest of the characters simply feel empty shells.

Get used to slowly traversing in Fort Tarsis, as you’ll be here often after every mission and lengthy loading screen. Even on an Xbox One X, with Anthem installed on an external drive, the load times are absolutely atrocious at times, and frequent. You’ll have not only the main story missions, but a plethora of side missions and contracts to complete as well, and I suggest as doing as many as you can before you eventually hit the wall of progression halting.

At one point in the story, you’ll be in search of specific Tombs, but won’t have access until you fulfil a certain amount of side objectives, like killing a certain amount of specific enemies, finding hidden engrams, melee kills and more dull objectives that force you to play a specific way for no real reason at all other than to gate your progression. Luckily I didn’t need to do much ‘back tracking’ to fulfil these, but I’ve heard of players who have had to spend time simply doing these poorly thought out tasks to progress.

Anthem is simply the greatest Iron Man simulator you’ll play. Your Javelin suit can instantly turn on its jets to allow you to fly, for a short period, and you have an arsenal of weaponry at your disposal. Something to keep in mind though is that Anthem requires a persistent online connection, as well as Xbox Live Gold. While this won’t matter to most, you’re always going to be at the mercy of the servers and any updates that are pushed through.

While fully possible to play alone for most of Anthem’s experiences, it truly is meant to be played as a team of four, ideally friends with constant communication, as anything less is simply frustrating and nowhere as rewarding. You begin your journey by choosing which of the four Javelin’s you wish to pilot, but will eventually have access to all and be able to switch between missions whenever you choose. Each Javelin is very distinct, not only in its visuals, but more importantly, its playstyle.

Myself, I fell in love with the Colossus, a Hulkbuster-like brute of a Javelin that utilizes a literal shield and can take the most damage of the four, essentially the tank class. Ranger, the most rounded of the bunch is adaptable to any situation is great at massive single target damage. Interceptor is the smallest, but more agile and melee based Javelin. Lastly, and arguably the most popular, is the Storm, an elemental based attacker that can deal some massive damage, even on their own, while also having the ability to hover.

It takes some time to find the Javelin to suit your playstyle, but once you do and figure out its nuanced playstyle, it becomes much more rewarding. Once I learned how to effectively use my Colossus’ shield to not only mitigate incoming fire, but to cover and distract enemies, the team based gameplay opened up so much more. While there’s no “perfect” group composition, as I’ve completed missions with 4 Colossus, but had a much better time when the party was more rounded with different classes.

Every class has its own specialty equipment, as well as an Ultimate that can be used once the meter is filled. My Colossus for example can launch rockets that do massive damage to anything it hits, or in the vicinity. There are also specific weapons meant for certain Javelins, like my Autocannon for my Colossus for example, but you can generally equip any of the weapons you wish to suit your play style.

Unless you’re a Storm class, you’ll do the majority of your fighting on the ground. This is because your jet thrusters can only be used for a short time before needing to be cooled down. The world of Anthem is incredibly vertical, so there will be many times where you’ll need to fly from the ground up to the top of a large waterfall. Being able to fly for only a short distance before needing to rest your jets a moment so they don’t overheat, is a little of a downer, as some of the best gameplay comes from these Iron Man-like moments of flying through a narrow tunnel or open archway. While you can temporarily cool off your jets by flying through some mist of a waterfall, or rapidly descending, having more flight time would have made for a much more exciting experience, instead of the on/off gameplay. That being said, the handling of the suits is near perfect, as I can thread the needle when needed and land whenever I want quickly.

While most classes will rely on their guns for the majority of their damage, again, every class plays quite differently, and I actually rarely use my weapons now, as I prefer to use my abilities and melee ground pounds to deal the majority of my damage as a Colossus. Enemies aren’t much of a threat on Easy, Normal or Hard difficulties, but once you start to challenge yourself on the Grandmaster 1, 2 and 3 difficulties, you’ll quickly learn that even the smallest enemies can be massive bullet sponges, a problem I absolutely detested in the original Division.

Making enemies soak up massive amounts of damage doesn’t make you feel powerful; quite the opposite. When I’m using a 200+ round autocannon and it takes a full clip to kill a single grunt enemy, that’s simply not that fun. Yes, you’re meant to use all of the tools available to you, like your equipment, abilities and most importantly, combos, but it becomes tiresome, even more so when you fight the Titan bosses that require even more damage to be taken out.

Also, you’re going to be fighting the same handful of enemies over and over throughout your Anthem career. This doesn’t ever really change, nor does the formula of reaching point A, kill X amount of enemy waves and progress to the next point to start the cycle all over again. Sure, sometimes things vary slightly, like having to defend a certain point as a meter fills, or find a handful of collectibles to move onto the next stage, but it’s all generally the same formula from start to finish.

While the gunplay itself is a bit underwhelming, due to enemies being bullet sponges, the real thrill comes from learning how the combo system works. Every Javelin’s abilities are either pure damage, a Primer or Detonator. While the pure damage abilities will show you big numbers, being able to setup and pull off combos is where the massive damage will come from. To start, you need one of your Primer abilities. My Colossus for example, I have a wall of fire, that when enemies pass through, take slight fire damage, but become primed for a combo. When primed, you’ll see an icon above their heads, or they'll completely frozen if ice is used, and if you use a detonation ability, like my melee ground pound for example, you’ll combo other enemies in the area for a huge amount of destruction. Having a team that can effectively setup and perform combos are an absolute must in the harder Grandmaster difficulties, as a Turret for example can easily lay waste to your squad if not taken care of quickly and efficiently.

Once you complete the campaign and reach level 30, this is where Anthem starts to open up more, it’s just a shame you need to slog through he rest before then to really start to experience the chaotic and rewarding nature of Grandmaster difficulties. The higher the difficulty, the more rewards can be gained, so it’s a balance of skill and challenge, based on how effective your squad is. While you can play with random’s for any mission or Stronghold (dungeons with bosses at the end), it’s a completely different, and far better, game with 3 other friends in party chat.

I was quite excited once I got to experience my first Stronghold, as its Anthem’s version of dungeons. The same formula applies though, as you get to point A, kill baddies, repeat until you reach and vanquish the boss. I was hoping for some very cool and interesting boss mechanics, and while some do have a few tricks you need to utilize, they are just even more massive bullet sponges for the most part and none are very memorable, except for that turret boss of the second Stronghold; Eff that guy.

You begin weak, and as you defeat enemies and find loot, your power level will increase, much like Destiny’s light system. Common loot begins white, eventually you’ll find greens, blues, purples, masterwork and legendaries. The better loot seems to be tied to player level and progression, as I joined a Grandmaster mission early in my career through a friend, but was only getting rewards based on my own level. As you increase your Javelin’s power, enemies become easier to defeat and you become stronger, thus the hamster wheel of searching for loot begins.

While I’m all for diving head first into a shLOOTer, the progression needs to keep up, especially in a game like Anthem where you’ll be running the same exact missions and Strongholds over and over again. If I need to spend an hour doing a Stronghold, I better get a reward out of it. And this is where BioWare has currently dropped the ball. Yes, you’ll get upgrades, but it’s completely randomized, and I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve gotten the SAME drop, resulting in me simply deconstructing it for materials to craft later on. Even once I started getting top tier gear, I noticed minor improvements in my power and abilities, but was never 'wow’d' by the increases. There’s a long and arduous grind for the gear, and you simply need to hope that luck is on your side when it finally does drop, or else you’ll be running those missions all over again in hopes for what you actually want.

Most impressive is Anthem’s visuals. Not simply its fidelity playing on my Xbox One X, but the aesthetic throughout. Anthem is a very vertical game, and flying through the world in Freeroam is a delight to see all of the backdrop and scenery that you pass by. Javelin’s are incredibly detailed if you take the time to look up close, and while the world itself isn’t nearly as large as I expected, it’s beautiful from end to end with flora, waterfalls and nature surrounding every corner.

Audio is a mixed bag, for a few reasons. Voice acting is top notch, and the sound effects are fantastic, especially when you kick in your thrusters for your jets and take off, but I’ve had nothing but issues with audio since day one. I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve had my audio completely drop for no apparent reason, forcing me to restart to get it back; Party chat worked the whole time, so it was simply the game audio that would drop. This has happened more than a dozen times, even up to three times one night when I was doing some Grandmaster Stronghold runs with some friends. To say that it’s frustrating is putting it mildly, and that’s not even factoring the hard system crashes that has happened to me as well.

Anthem has some grand ideas, and what it’s great at is a lot of fun, but there’s so many odd design decisions that baffle me. It’s almost as if they didn’t learn from all of the mistakes Destiny had at its launch. Even as of now, the proposed fix for loot still isn’t working as intended (white and green loot dropping for a level 30 is a waste of time). I get that an online persistent game is going to have its issues, and this is BioWare’s first foray into this specific genre, but I feel like nearly half my time played is walking slowly around Fort Tarsis, delving into menus or waiting on a ridiculously long loading screen.

I have no doubt that down the road, Anthem is going to be fantastic, special even, but the road there is long and bumpy. Polish and changes for the better will come with time, no doubt, but there’s a laundry list of frustrations that let me down. That being said, I’m still getting on every night to play with my squad, running on that proverbial never ending treadmill for new and better loot, so it’s got to be doing something right, I just hope more variety gets added soon.

Overall: 8.0 / 10
Gameplay: 7.5 / 10
Visuals: 9.5 / 10
Sound: 7.0 / 10


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