I doubted Anthem from the very first moment I laid eyes on it. On paper, an online PVE-only shooter where you pilot flying mech suits developed by BioWare sounds incredible, but ever since the debut trailer Anthem has failed to convince me of two of its main promises: that it would allow players to explore a seamless open world and that it would tell a story worthy of BioWare’s name. I’ve now spent around 15 hours with the game and it has been made inescapably clear that Anthem is a mindless, restricting, repetitive and dull shooter with a multitude of technical issues, aggravating characters and a story that lacks anything even remotely resembling a soul.
Anthem is set in a world where the gods, called Shapers, have departed from the planet leaving their tools of creation behind. You play as a Freelancer, one of a community of mercenaries who pilot Javelins, Iron-Man style mech suits with lots of firepower and rocket boosters extremely prone to overheating. Flying can be fun and is certainly a unique method of traversal for a game like this but it quickly becomes just another way to move around a world. When everything surrounding a cool idea is leeched of any creativity or intrigue, the cool idea means nothing.
Your base of operations is a town called Fort Tarsis, whose residents used to look up to Freelancers until they failed to silence an extremely dangerous storm called a Cataclysm that was triggered by some of the Shapers tools going haywire. Your pilot, as one of the few survivors of this Cataclysm, decides to improve the reputation of the Freelancers and inspire faith in the people of Fort Tarsis. There’s also a big bad guy who wants the Shaper’s gear for his own nefarious purposes.
Out in the field your Javelin can equip two guns, two offensive abilities on relatively short cooldowns assigned to Q and E respectively, a support ability assigned to Z and an ultimate ability assigned to X. Don’t like the gun you have equipped, or you want to swap your shotgun for a sniper, or you want to check out the new rare ability you just got from a treasure chest? Too bad, you’ll have to wait until the mission is over to do any of that. There are four types of Javelins: the Ranger, Colossus, Interceptor and Storm. Basically: all-rounder, melee-focused, tank and glass cannon.
Combat requires no brainpower. You have a bunch of generous cooldowns and you use them when you can, including your ultimate which is often just a matter of clicking a few times. The game provides no real opportunity to use any of your abilities in a strategic or skilful way. Even worse, class utility is not apparent, you could have a party of three Storms and an Interceptor and it wouldn’t matter.
When outside of Fort Tarsis you’ll have a buddy in your ear who… Ok, let me just pause for a second to tell you about Cyphers. So, in the world of Anthem certain people are born with an affinity to the Anthem of the Creation – a source of power left behind by the Shapers. Cyphers are trained from a young age to become telepathic messengers assigned to communicate with Freelancers when they’re out on missions, you know, like radio except with their mind. But radio already exists in this world, and people from Fort Tarsis who aren’t Cyphers also talk in your ear while you’re on a mission so I’m really not clear on why Cyphers even needed to be a thing. You can’t have a fantasy substitute for a real-world technology and then also have that real-world technology in the same fictional world, unless you do something interesting with it, which they most certainly do not.
In addition to not making much sense according to their own lore, it also just doesn’t make for an engaging way to interact with the world or its characters. There’s a disconnect between the player and these people who are meant to be your friends, they all sit back in town, reduced to a voice, while you go out into the world with three other real-life players who just don’t talk. Not one player has said a thing to me in all 15 hours of my time with the game. This silence is all the more deafening coming off the likes of Sea of Thieves and Apex Legends, where communication is actively encouraged through deep, non-verbal communication systems.
This feeling of disconnect carries over to the world as well. Because you can fly and there are floating waypoints every few metres so you don’t get lost, it’s very rare that the game gives you a reason, or the chance, to just soak up the environment. It’s all just a cardboard backdrop, whizzing past as you move from one mindless activity to the next. It may look pretty, but it’s superficial, the best you can hope to find if you go exploring is a lore entry or some loot, and given the inconsistencies of the former and the abundance of the latter, this is hardly an enticing prospect.
The missions themselves are shockingly repetitive. The voice in your ear will tell you and your three silent buddies to collect fragments, echoes, tags, or to activate runes, follow tracks or hold a certain location while waves of enemies come at you until they don’t. Upon completing one of these activities, the voice will say something like “I have something else for you nearby”, rinse and repeat until the mission is over. Main story missions will occasionally spice things up with an in-game cutscene or even a bombastic cinematic, but when it transitions back to gameplay you’re still gonna be fighting waves of enemies and/or solving brain dead puzzles.
Upon completing a mission you’ll return to Fort Tarsis which you explore in first-person but just like most other elements of this game, it is a chore. Movement is ludicrously slow, the people are static and while the town does change as you progress through the story, these changes are insignificant and just sort of happen. My thought process was less, “Oh cool! Because I helped this person I can now buy this thing, or make the town look this way”, and more, “I think that’s new? Yeah, that definitely wasn’t… maybe? Was that broom always there?”
The characters you meet in town have their own missions and a general story for you to follow, but the writing just isn’t good enough to warrant the time investment. In Anthem, almost every character is that self-deprecating joker archetype, including the protagonist. The amount of non-jokes in this game is excruciating. If you’re familiar with Cayde-6 from Destiny, roughly 80% of Anthem’s characters are just carbon copies of Cayde-6 but with half the charm.
One genuinely cool element of Anthem with no caveats is the customisation of the Javelins themselves. Seeing the wacky colour schemes other players had come up with and spending a decent amount of time fiddling with the different shades was one of my favourite parts of the game.
About six or so hours into the game the story missions get abruptly blocked off by an absolutely absurd grind. You need to get into these tombs and for literally no discernible reason the doors will only open if you complete a set of challenges. These challenges include such riveting tasks as open 15 chests, complete five world events or kill 50 enemies with your ultimate. I would put a spoiler alert here but there’s really nothing to spoil: the tombs are one room, you interact with the sarcophagus and you’re done. It was the perfect opportunity to do a story-focused mission with heavy exploration and lots of cool lore stuff to uncover but nope, just another checklist with an absolutely unearned grind barrier and zero payoffs.
On top of all these fundamental problems with the design of the game itself, Anthem has a lot of technical issues too. I witnessed a number of bugs, some of which happened before the Day One patch, so it’s possible they’ve been fixed, but others I definitely experienced again after the patch. These include one instance where my Javelin paint job completely reset back to default for no apparent reason, the mouse cursor would often stay in the middle of the screen after leaving the menu, one time I loaded into the Javelin customisation screen only to have the Javelin not appear. Weather effects would sometimes still be active around my character even though the rain had passed. I experienced a significant number of crashes, both to the desktop as well as complete lockups. I signed up for a stronghold, Anthem’s dungeon equivalent, and was met with a door that would not open making it impossible for me and another player to join up with the rest of the party.
Load times are significant, even after the recent patch, and given how segmented Anthem is this quickly becomes a huge annoyance. An example of how disjointed it all is: from the main menu you load into Fort Tarsis, walk painfully slowly to your Javelin, load into the matchmaking screen then load into the mission which might involve loading into a sub-area. The same thing happens upon the conclusion of a mission: load into the mission complete screen, if you wanna check out what gear you got, load into the customisation screen then load into Fort Tarsis, painfully slow walk to an NPC, turn in the mission, listen to the NPC say the same dialogue you’ve heard fifty times already upon ending a conversation.
Despite its many flaws a part of me still hoped that at a certain point Anthem would shift, and an element I hadn’t envisioned would suddenly inject this mediocre game with that BioWare magic I’ve enjoyed so much of over the years. But it wasn’t to be. Anthem is everything I thought it would be, and much, much less. As a long-time fan of BioWare, of Dragon Age and Mass Effect, I take no pleasure in having my doubts confirmed. It is likely that Anthem being made top priority directly led to Mass Effect: Andromeda having so many issues, as well as setting back Dragon Age: The Dread Wolf Rises by several years. When Destiny 2 underperformed Bungie and Activision were able to part amicably, I can only hope that one day BioWare does the same.
Anthem was reviewed on PC with a code provided by the publisher.