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Eight Hours With Anthem: Why I’m No Longer Worried About The Game

Everything I expected and some things I didn't

by William Schwartz

anthem-screenshot

Something about Anthem has bothered me since it was revealed.  It was certainly one of the most promising games coming out of E3 2017, even if what we saw appeared to be an unrealistic level of visual quality.  It didn’t bother me that Electronic Arts was chasing the big live game as a service game, that makes sense.  It was the developer that was making the game, in Bioware.  The strengths of this developer have always seemed to be focused on telling great stories and having gameplay that is good enough to have you not bored to tears between the big moments.  The Mass Effect series wasn’t the pinnacle of third person gameplay, nor was Dragon Age, but they were both good for action role playing games.  From what we saw back then, Anthem was a shooter and that is definitely what it is today.  With all of their recent work, Bioware just didn’t seem like the likely choice for this game at all.  My lack of faith in them to make a shooter seems misplaced after spending some time with Anthem.

Incursion Main Story Mission Colossus (Edited)

Games as a service, live games, ongoing games, whatever you want to call them — they are all meant to appeal to different types of players, those who want to keep coming back to the game on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.   The progress markers in Anthem won’t necessarily be measured in how many missions are beaten, but how hard they are, and more importantly, what rewards were earned from them.  With that said, Anthem is exactly the game that you think it is and it might be better than you’re expecting.

Anthem is a competent third person shooter, with unique flight mechanics that make it feel wholly new and unique.  It’s got the story beats and character development that you expect from a Bioware game (or so it seems), and it’s got all the loot and customization that you expect from an ongoing game centered around character customization and progression.  While we still need to see a lot more of Anthem before we’re entirely convinced, what we saw at a recent event for the game was more than enough to start reserving some time to dive deeper into it as it nears release.

anthem-titan

One of the biggest things that I was worried about was the moment to moment gameplay of Anthem.  When players are in the Javelin suit it has to feel good, the special abilities have to feel special and the shooting has to be great.  Bioware has really nailed this aspect of Anthem, at least in the build of the game that we played.  A combination of gorgeous visuals out in the world, a level of verticality that I didn’t expect, and solid gun play and battle abilities kept much of the fighting feeling fresh, despite there being obvious hurdles to doing so.  Bioware runs into the same problems that a lot of the shooter/looter games run into eventually and that’s how to keep things varied despite sending players out on very similar missions.  Mostly this is done through the many ways that the Javelin suits can be customized, the actual differences in the javelin suits themselves (there are four classes), and the difficulty levels that can be chosen before missions, and enemy types that you’ll encounter.  There were some missions that showed a good bit of variety, with some light puzzle solving, and even some seemingly random stuff found out in the open world when exploring on my own.

This concern slowly dissipated in my time with the game as I was realizing that moment to moment Anthem feels pretty great.  With all the damage numbers shooting out of the enemies as you pour bullets into them and the occasional combo message popping up to let you know you’ve strung together a couple of different types of attacks, there’s plenty of visual feedback to let you know that what you’re doing is working.  Though like other games of this ilk, you are balancing the shooting with special abilities, melee attacks, and in Anthem you’re also flying around a lot.  It feels different than other games in this regard and sometimes you forget that you have the ability to do so.  Anthem is part Iron Man simulator and part third person shooter.  The flying is actually much better than I had expected and plays a big role in combat and exploration.  It all feels good though and comes together to feel quite enjoyable once you wrap your head around the possibilities that open up when you start thinking about the space above your head.  There might be a little bit of a learning curve to get all of the flight mechanics down, but once you do you’re slamming down on enemies from above, hovering and shooting down on large groups, and swiftly flying through tight caverns.  It feels like the basics for Anthem are pretty rock solid and there’s a lot surrounding this package to further that experience.

Lost Anarcist Mission (Edited) Colossus Gameplay

So I’m convinced that the gameplay is going to be good enough to keep me playing in Anthem, but there are still some concerns.  Anthem is a lot more than just third person shooting and flying.  There’s a big narrative that’s being told here and we only got to see a piece of it.  Despite being assured by Mark Darrah that there is a story here that wants to be told in Anthem we really didn’t get to see much of it.  Glimpses were all we saw.  Those glimpses were intriguing, but it’s hard to tell when you only meet characters for a minutes.  The world of Anthem seems like it is as rich and deep as the other universes that Bioware has created and hopefully they dive deep into this world.  Missions are broken down into main path, side missions, and exploration style content with the main path missions having cutscenes attached to them.  Most of the flavor of Anthem in terms of story and character building comes from the hub of the game though, which is called Fort Tarsis.

Here there are numerous characters that you can carry on interactions with.  From vendors to quest givers, there is no shortage of interesting personalities to meet.  It appears that here is where much of the color of the world is going to be delivered to the player.  When you enter this area, the camera shifts from third person to first person, in what seems like an attempt to draw you in a little more closely to the goings on in this hub for freelancers.

We just didn’t see enough of this stuff to be convinced that Fort Tarsis in itself would have enough colorful characters passing through it to deliver an amazing story.  It was an eight hour preview of a game that’s likely designed for players to spend 100’s of hours in, so we’re not judging but we are curious about how far and deep the character interactions are going to be.  Darrah did tell us in an interview that your interactions would go as far as to the point of banishing and NPC from the Fort, which he said was optional outcome that depended on choice,  but we saw nothing indicating that level of depth in our interactions with the characters of the hub and really nothing more than a basic two answer text tree.

What we did see was a complex web of vendors, quest givers and cosmetic stations to tinker with.  There was plenty to get accustomed to from places to craft and customize your Javelin suit to social areas where you can show off those customizations, and quest givers that seemed to be a little less static in their interactions with you than you’ll find in MMOs or other games of this type.

Freeroaming Solo Random Encounters Interceptor

The Hook of it All

The hook of a game like Anthem is the betterment of your character.  This betterment is achieved by going out in the world and seeking the rewards that missions will give you, completing the daily, weekly, and monthly challenges that the developers set forth, and going out in the world on your own and exploring.  As was wholly expected, there are numerous tiers of loot that you use to customize many different parts of your javelin suit.  You can find new guns, special abilities, and then these items that mod your abilities slightly and function as a skill tree would.

It appears that there is going to be plenty for Anthem players to dig into.  That is, eventhough much of the storefront content we saw was placeholder.  The costs of crafting materials and how much they will cost via microtransactions couldn’t be seen, but we know that stuff is going to be there.  You will have ample opportunity to spend more than your price of admission on Anthem.  The gearing of this content is yet to be seen though.  By the end of my time with Anthem the game already started trying to pull me in as I delved into the crafting aspects, challenges, and tougher missions.  There was both the character progression side of things and the personalization and attachment that you have to your equipment.  Then there’s the story, which was largely still a mystery when we walked out the door.  The story might be the most important thing here though.  If Bioware can relay something that makes sense for both the single player and the shared experience they will have done something that hasn’t been done yet and Anthem could have a multi-tiered pull to keep players invested in the world of this game.

We’ll have more Anthem coverage in early February when we’re allowed to talk about the late-game content that we got to play and our impressions on that.  In full disclosure we were flown to EA’s Redwood Shores campus for this preview event where the publisher paid for our airfare and hotel.

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