Hoooooo boy. Where to start with this one, eh?
Let’s go with the safe ground to kick off: Anthem is a multiplayer online game in the ‘looter shooter’ genre – you rob various sweet old pensioners at gunpoint (shoot villainous types) and then trade in all their silverware at Cash Converters (get guns and gear). Then you do it all again when they’ve claimed on the insurance and got a new tea set (respawned).
If you’ve played Destiny or The Division you know broadly what you’re getting here (and indeed whether you like playing this sort of hobby grind game or not), though I say ‘broadly’ because there are differences – the way the loot system operates is more Diablo-like than simply ‘here’s a new gun that shoots a bit more quickly’. The perks and stats of gear and how abilities work mean you have a lot of scope to build a character to play exactly how you want to.
As you progress through the story, side missions and freeplay (pottering about on your own), you level up, allowing you to take on tougher and more numerous enemies, missions and the like. After you defeat the final boss, there are ‘endgame’ events – missions and quests to do that are much harder, designed to keep you playing until new story content arrives.
Well that’s that out of the way. Now on to the part you’ve really come here for: Anthem is like buying a mystery prize hamper where it turns out some of the gifts inside are really cool stuff like funky expensive trainers and iPhones, but most of them are month-old dog turds. And then it turns out the trainers are full of furious wasps.
Basically, it’s a ruddy great mess.
I can’t remember playing a game where some bits were so well done and so polished, and yet other bits were so awfully handled it was bordering on hilarious, and with the latter some of the decisions are bewildering. It’s the gaming equivalent of going on holiday to the Maldives, but instead of staying in a luxury hotel you’ve decided to sleep in a wheelie bin for the week and have resolved to only eat discarded flip-flops.
For example: the open world itself is phenomenal looking, the shooting gameplay is solid, the music and sound effects are fitting and well done, and the ‘feel’ of the Javelins – the armoured suits you bod about in – is genuinely great. They might look a bit industrial and charmless, and don’t have anywhere near the bonkers flair of some of the designs of e.g. Warframe, but they all handle like you expect they would.
That is, the weighty colossus actually handles like you’re walking about wearing iron trousers you’ve made out of a large delivery van. The interceptor is stupidly fast, light and nimble. The storm (basically, a wizard) is floaty and much more ability-based. The ranger is a mix of all of them. It doesn’t sound much, but getting this sort of thing wrong can ruin an experience – if you’ve ever played a driving game where the car feels ‘floaty’, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
The story and side-stories also have much more to them than games of this ilk usually have. It’s no single-player deep and meaningful epic, but it’s definitely a step up – there were interesting characters who developed over time who I was actually a bit invested in, which is a marked improvement on NPCs with 3 voice lines on loop.
The other thing Anthem absolutely nails is flight – or rather, feeling like you’re in a tin suit with rockets on. If you’ve ever wanted to be Iron Man, this is as close as you’ll get for now. Jumping off a crumbling ruin, firing your jets and flying up to land on a high outcrop with the sun glinting through the trees is properly an ‘Oooh!’ gaming moment.
This ‘playable sci-fi hero movie’ is, in fact, the sort of thing I always wanted a game to be. When I was a kid, slogging through the dismal graphics of the 8-bit era, there was no choice but to fill in the vast chasm between expectation and naff, pixelated, beeping reality with my imagination – but now, here it is. A massive, open alien world to explore, rendered in fabulous detail.
And it’s a world almost totally ruined by massive dollops of stupid topped off with a heap of freshly grated stink-up.
To say that Anthem has had a troubled birth is an understatement on par with saying a woman who has just had octuplets and then immediately gone on a 10-hour horse ride might be feeling ‘a bit tender’ in the groin region.
The pre-launch VIP demo was riddled with game-breaking bugs. And even outside of them, it revealed a game with a UI so confusing people (me) actually had to look online how to just start a mission. There were also load times (and lots of them) long enough for you to make and drink a cup of tea then think about having another one, monstrously restrictive player tethering causing ‘joining allies’ loading screens to pop up every few minutes, and poor in-game viewability of allies, objectives, abilities and so on.
Then there was the frankly moronic staggered launch where PC and Xbox players signed up to EA’s premium service got to play the full game a week early, but they had to struggle through a build still awaiting a huge day 1 patch that effectively arrived for them on day 7.
Sure, the load times, player tethering, in-game HUD and UI are much better now, as that vast patch made a huge difference. But this should ALL have been in as soon as what was billed as the full game was available, not days later.
There’s also the issue that subsequent patches have introduced bugs that lock out players, and there are still parts of the game that clearly don’t work quite right: disappearing enemies, abrupt mission ends, server crashes. All part of daily life as an Anthem player.
Outside of technical issues, there are also design oddities. Anthem is a team shooter – the ideal is a group of 4 of you take on each mission. So yes, there’s matchmaking everywhere. But they only added a barebones social area on launch, and guilds are only coming in April? Whaaa…? Why was it not blatantly obvious that this sort of social hub and team-building needs to be the core of the game, not a rushed afterthought?
It all adds up to what looks like a certain publisher pushed for a fixed date to have a big title launch on its premium subscription service, and in doing so served up a decidedly undercooked effort to people who – in theory – are its most loyal customers, giving them all the runs as a result. A monumentally boneheaded, self-defeating effort, worthy of a handclap so slow it would have needed to start when Pangea was still a thing.
Let’s face it – EA have done themselves NO favours here. Many people genuinely loathe them as it is, and this utter honk-up means they’ve given such folk a golden opportunity to liberally administer the boot. And my word, that opportunity has not been passed up.
Read and watch some reviews on Anthem, and you’d be fairly convinced it was so dreadful that on purchase a thug wearing an EA shirt comes round your house and trashes it with a sledgehammer before doing a poo in the bath and punching your nan in her aged norks. It has even been described as ‘complete trash’ and ‘one of the worst games ever’.
Which is where, having aired my grievances, I get off the moaning bandwagon momentarily. Yes, there are undeniably problems: bugs, clunky design that can’t be erased overnight, question marks over whether the new stuff is coming quickly enough and in big enough amounts to satisfy more hardcore gamers who have already powered through to the endgame. But there’s also more than a whiff of a pile-on here.
Worst game ever? Don’t be daft.
Anthem is badly flawed, but still has a fair bit going for it. And ultimately, I enjoy it for now. Sorry, but it’s fun to zoom about in a suit of armour shooting giant bugs. Plus I don’t have time to sink 50 hours into a game in week 1, so that ‘professional streamer level’ burnout that has seen some reviewers complain they’ve ended up with nothing to do (read: nothing to make videos on) won’t kick in for me until there probably *are* new things to do.
There are also other positives. Microtransactions? None that remotely matter – you can only buy cosmetics, and there is nothing that can’t be bought with currency earned in game anyway. Paid DLC? Nope. It’s all free for the life of the game. EA have at least learned that lesson, even if they’ve gone on to soil themselves profusely in other new and creative ways.
But most of all, Bioware’s responses online have been a masterclass in how to handle community feedback. I’ve played quite a few games of this ilk, and their openness, willingness to listen and speed of response puts others to shame. If that was different, and they’d gone the silent, grumpy route for ages (Hi, Bungie!), been downright arrogant (Hi, Bethesda!) or just carried on as if nothing were up (Hi, Ubisoft!) I’d be much, much more reserved.
It’s just a massive, massive shame such an exercise is needed in the first place because of the state the game is in, and now: time to get back on that bandwagon. Why did they not learn from what happened with Destiny and The Division, or even Fallout 76? And why did EA push to launch a clearly unfinished game? They must have known it would go down like a pint of cold horse wee and trash their already heavily-skidmarked reputation even further.
It’s absolutely mystifying.
So where are we at? Well after all the above, it’s not exactly a glowing endorsement but Anthem probably isn’t as bad as you’ve heard it is – but that’s ONLY because you’ve probably heard it’s so bad, it gives you leprosy. It has a ton of problems, but the core gameplay is there, the narrative and world are well thought through, and the developer at the very least seems to give the impression they want to put things right.
If you know you don’t like the genre, obviously avoid it – there’s no point sticking with an experience still needing much work if you’d not be that keen even if it were perfection. But if you fancy a new hobby-type game in a few months or so when patches and more content have dropped, see where it’s at. It’ll probably be cheaper then, to boot. It’s a disappointment but there’s something there that could be built on. Let’s just hope they do.
Don’t believe the hype, but don’t necessarily believe all of the gripe either. Just most of it.
SCORE: SIX TOOTHPICKS out of A JAVELIN