Anthem Review

By Kevin Tavore, 25 days ago
I spent a long time trying to write an intro to this review of Anthem. I thought about highlighting BioWare’s history. I thought about recalling how Anthem’s design philosophies are dated, outdone by games released well over a decade ago. I thought about making a joke about how my hero is “dressed up in the prettiest gear money can buy.” I really liked that one. But none of it really worked because I can’t get excited about loving or hating Anthem. The game feels dead in spirit and that dull virus must have infected me as well. It’s a game built straight out of the playbook of other games, but in fleeting moments it’s still fun. So for an intro, I’ve got nothing going on. I think that suits Anthem just fine.

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I’ll serve you up the good news first. Anthem’s moment to moment combat is excellent. If you’ve played Mass Effect multiplayer, you know the drill. You’re a soldier and you’ve got guns. Thirty different types, to be clear, and each one feels at least a little bit different than the others. You’ve also got abilities that are so technologically advanced, they’re more akin to magic spells. It feels great to wade into a group of enemies, throw a poison bomb, get a crit with your shotgun and then annihilate an enemy with a sword. Like Mass Effect, enemies have armor and shields and you can use different elements to create combos that are more or less effective depending on the enemy type. It’s nothing new, but everything feels intuitive to use, packs a punch when it should and feels just strategic enough to remain interesting for many hours.

There’s also the flying. You’re basically Iron Man and you can fly anywhere you want as you explore the wild world of Anthem. The controls are excellent and in almost no time you’ll be making daring turns through caves before dropping into a group of enemies. Or perhaps you’ll fly above them and rain down fireballs and electrical storms and bullets. There’ve been other games that tried to capture the feeling of being a mechanized, flying badass, but Anthem’s got them beat in fun without a doubt. If the rest of the game were this good, this game would be something truly special. Instead, Anthem serves as case in point for the premise that fantastic moment to moment gameplay alone can’t save a game.

Anthem

Let’s start with the story. You are a nameless freelancer, which means you’re a soldier from an order that failed to save the world. Now you’re trying to save the world once again, and that’s about all there is to say about you since, despite having a voice, your character never offers anything of substance or relevance to the story beyond dialogue prompts to color other characters. Those other characters are by the numbers with few, if any, motivations. Instead of deep side characters like Liara or Grunt, Anthem treats us to characters so vapid I can’t even remember their names, with motivations so thin that they’re completely unbelievable. This isn’t necessarily worse than many other games, but it’s far below expectations for this particular studio.

The world itself is perhaps an even greater failure. It just doesn’t feel real. You’ve got your home base, Fort Tarsis, that’s mostly empty of attractions despite the high level of technology present. Fort Tarsis is full of NPCs that have nothing at all to offer you — not even a basic fetch quest to color their lives. Out in the world, there are essentially four enemy factions: the wildlife, Scars, Outlaws and Dominion. Just like Mass Effect or Destiny, these factions each have a distinct visual look and fight just a little bit differently, though there’s not much going on in the story to tell you about their motivations and desires. You’ll encounter them in scripted missions and occasionally while exploring, but otherwise the world feels as empty and soulless as Fort Tarsis despite its apparent beauty.

The progression design is the most egregious aspect of the game. Outside of free play, which is literally wandering around for upwards of 10 minutes hoping for random events to spawn for almost no XP, the game features quests and contracts. Here's a rundown of how one works: first, you spawn in the world and wait around for some story exposition to tell you where to go. Then you follow a moving checkpoint for 3-4 minutes, stopping every 15 seconds to let your heat dissipate so you can keep flying. Finally, you get to your destination where you'll either use radar to find some collectibles, stand in a circle to fill a bar, kill some enemies or some combination of that. Then you'll repeat this a few times until the mission ends. It's completely uninspired and utterly dull. The quest design is disastrous and it is baffling to me that this is the product of years of development.

anthem

In an online game like this, the dungeons and raids should serve as the pinnacle of challenge. Anthem doesn’t even have raids and any future raid doesn’t appear likely for at least three months. The dungeons, called Strongholds, stand as the ultimate endgame challenge. Unsurprisingly, the boss design in these is incredibly simple. In every fight, you essentially have players either separated into various areas or fighting a boss, depending on the encounter, with little of note happening to mix it up. This is design that was outdone by at least a dozen different online RPGs since Burning Crusade launched in 2006. It's frankly unacceptable in 2019.

Finally, a review of Anthem wouldn't be complete without giving a shout out to the load times. I played this on an Xbox One X with a solid state drive. My load times were regularly multiple minutes, and they are copious. Those without the solid state, or heaven forbid, on a standard Xbox One, will find the experience to be miserable as you miss story beats thanks to others loading in faster. If you're really unlucky, you might even be so far behind that you're automatically teleported to your allies which, you guessed it, earns you another load. Bonus load times come for everyone any time you finish a mission for the mandatory results screen, and then again when you load the cutscene after the mission, and then again when you finally want to go back to town. It's a real thrill.

The achievements will be a bit of a grind, though it's not as bad as it looks at first glance. There's the standard assortment of story quests for about 300 Gamerscore, plus some points for finishing up the side questlines available at launch. Beyond that, the bulk of the points will come from collectible searching and completing challenges. Those challenges appear daunting until you realize you only need the first tier of each challenge, which makes them trivially easy if still a grind. You'll have good progression naturally, especially if you're trying to work on them as you level up, so the completion shouldn't be truly difficult. It'll take a good deal of time, though.

Check out our Best Xbox One Third-Person Shooters Available in 2019 article for a compilation of other great games in this genre.

Summary

After spending hours with the game, I'm confident I know how Anthem was created. BioWare was provided a list of features from Destiny, a game with its own fair share of issues. They then took Mass Effect's multiplayer and went down that list checking off features as they added them one by one without a care for whether it was a positive inclusion. Mediocre story with no noteworthy characters? Check. Terrible open world? Check. Fair dungeon design? No, the dungeon design isn't even fair, but they did manage to squeeze in enemies based on uninspired factions. It's not all bad. The combat and the flying are legitimately amazing in Anthem. They're so good that, despite everything else about the game being quite bad, I still thought about playing the game during my hours away from it. In a few years, Anthem might be a good experience. Today, it's hard to recommend.
3 / 5
Anthem
Positives
  • Combat is excellent and plays like Mass Effect
  • Flight adds a fun dynamic to the game
Negatives
  • Story has no interesting characters and confusing motivations
  • World feels completely empty and soulless
  • Dungeon design is really poor
  • Quest design is somehow worse than the dungeon design
  • There are no raids
  • Load times are inexcusable and frequent
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent approximately 17 hours leveling up, completing missions, doing Strongholds and finishing the story before dipping his feet into the end game. He earned an 14 achievements for 405 Gamerscore along the way. The game was played on an Xbox One X. A review code was provided by the publisher.
Please read our Review and Ethics Statement for more information.
Kevin Tavore
Written by Kevin Tavore
Kevin is a lover of all types of media, especially any type of long form story. The American equivalent of Aristotle, he'll write about anything and everything and you'll usually see him as the purveyor of news, reviews and the occasional op-ed. He's happy with any game that's not point and click or puzzling, but would always rather be outdoors in nature.