Score: 8/10 | ACTION RPG | THIRD-PERSON COMBAT | MATURE THEMES
“Anthem is a visually stunning action RPG with loot and freeform flight at the forefront, though loading screens disconnect the gameplay from Bioware’s renowned storytelling.”
Anthem is an online multiplayer action roleplaying game developed by Bioware and published by Electronic Arts. After initially being teased at E3 2014, Anthem was originally slated to release late 2018. As hype grew over 2017 and 2018, the release date was pushed out to early 2019. Anthem officially released on February 22, 2019 on PC via Origin, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Players who are subscribers to EA’s Origin Access were able to play a week earlier from February 15. I was fortunate to be provided with a review key, so I played very early on with little to no issues until the masses started to flood in on day 1.
The launch of any online game, even going back over the years, seems to be fraught with errors, disconnections and crashes, and Anthem has been no stranger to that. This isn’t unique to EA or Anthem, it’s just one of those things that game developers across the board still haven’t been able to nail down. Having experienced these kinds of day 1 problems going all the way back to the first MMORPG’s in 1997 with Ultima Online, I’ve come to expect issues upfront from any game that features multiplayer. This review will focus on my experiences in Anthem over 28 hours and includes the 1.02 and 1.03 patch content which fixed many recently reported issues.
The game is named after the Anthem of Creation, a mysterious energy source that has power over life, death, creation and destruction. Centuries ago the Legion of Dawn, under the leadership of General Helena Tarsis, had inventor Arden Vassa build the first javelins (armour suits giving pilots superhuman powers). The Legion fought back the Urgoth and other forces that were ravaging the world and had enslaved humanity. General Tarsis sacrificed herself to overthrow the Urgoth which haven’t been seen since. 10-years prior to the events of the game, the forces of a faction called the Dominion wanted to access a shaper relic beneath the city of Freemark, called the Cenotaph. They believed it would grant them control over the Anthem. In activating the Cenotaph, this caused a cataclysmic event which destroyed Freemark leaving behind the Heart of Rage.
You start the game as a rookie Freelancer on a mission with characters Haluk and Faye into the Heart of Rage. Your team is overpowered and Haluk gets badly injured. In order to survive, you defy Haluk’s orders and rescue him, becoming the only survivors. You part ways with Haluk and Faye and two years later, commence your journey in Fort Tarsis with your new cypher, Owen. Owen is a charismatic young man with ideals of becoming a Freelancer himself one day, though has a lot to learn. Fort Tarsis, named in honour of General Tarsis, is brilliantly detailed and I often stopped and looked up to see the effort the art team went to in order to create this central hub. As you walk through the shops and hallways, NPCs are going about their business and talking amongst each other. It was cool to stop and listen to their stories in between missions. This is where you interact with various characters throughout the game, learning the lore of the land and completing contracts (side quests) and missions. The launchpad in Tarsis is where you can enter the forge to customise the gear attached to your javelins.
There are four javelins in Anthem – the Storm which is built for elemental attacks, the versatile Ranger for precision attacks, the Colossus which is built for destruction and the agile Interceptor built for speed. You initially choose one to start the game with and then progressively unlock access to more at levels 3, 8, 16 and 26. Each javelin has two pieces of offensive gear, one piece of support gear, six components, two weapons slots and an ultimate ability that is unique to each javelin. Loot you pick up in the game can be used in these slots and switched out to build up your gearscore which is the power of your javelin, and you can swap out gear to better assist your group in varying circumstances. You can also loot crafting materials and break items down to create items using blueprints you can unlock through gameplay.
One of the great things with Anthem is the ability to customise the appearance of your javelin and you can spend a lot of time in these screens! You can customise the suit with different materials, paints, vinyls and more to personalise it how you want it to look. There are some absolutely amazing javelin designs out there on social media. I’ve seen a lot of Colossus javelins customised to look like the Ironman Hulkbuster. You can go nuts with designs here. Me, I am a huge Mass Effect fan and so I was excited the developers added an N7 skin that you can purchase with in-game coins to make your javelin look like Commander Shepard’s uniform. What I would like to see added though is the ability to see all of the javelins we own standing on the launchpad so we can show them off, like the image of the javelins above. I am still using the Storm javelin which is the first one I chose, and haven’t touched the others. If they were on display then I would at least customise how they all look.
Once you’ve customised your javelin, Fort Tarsis has many NPC’s to talk with to learn the lore of the land which adds cortex entries into you journal. When you find a cortex item or you unlock a cortex entry through a conversation, you can press ‘J’ to read the history behind that object. This system is like one found in the Mass Effect games, but I found the menu system in Anthem is a bit clunky to navigate with many cortex entries being added all the time, so I ended up ignoring them. This is a shame as there is so much detail available to read if you have the time. Being a father of a 2-year old, I only have a couple of hours of game time a night, so I use it sparingly. I think this limited play-time also helped me appreciate talking to each NPC, listening to their story and finding codex items spread around Tarisis which made me connect with the story well.
Yellow icons on the map indicate NPC’s you can interact with and mission directions. Some are NPC’s that you have conversations with after each mission which gives a bit of backstory into life on Tarsis. You also gain reputation points with the Arcanists, Sentinels and Freelancers. Raising these faction reputations will unlock crafting blueprints for your javelin. Conversations are in a first-person view, so while the NPC character animations are amazing, you don’t get to see what you look like. This is why there is only limited character creation mechanics at the front end of the game, but I didn’t mind this too much.
Bioware is renowned for their conversation wheel in games like Mass Effect, Star Wars: The Old Republic and Dragon Age. You commonly had a choice of three to four answers to respond to the NPC – a supportive answer, a good answer, a bad and/or evil answer. Depending on which you selected would alter how the NPC reacted to you and this sometimes impacted the story (light versus dark force powers as an example). In Anthem, you only get a choice of conversation option 1 or option 2 – option 1 being the nice answer and option 2 being the not-so-nice answer, with no real consequence either way. I felt this lost a lot of its charm as I just pressed option 1 most of the time.
Other NPCs in Fort Tarsis will give you quests to complete. Some are contracts for a faction like the Arcanists, Sentinels or Freelancers. Others will be missions to progress the overall Anthem story which is rich with mystery and action and back to classic Bioware form. Once you accept a mission, the quest icon will update and point you to your javelin which is waiting on a launchpad. There is a fantastic animation of you getting into your javelin and then you need to confirm the mission you want to do. At this point you could change your mind and swap missions or enter a Stronghold or play Freeplay.
Missions can be taken on by yourself, inviting your friends or you can use matchmaking to open the mission up to other players in the world. The mission difficulty can also be altered prior to commencing from easy to hard for the first 29 levels. From around level 10 onwards I just did hard missions as there’s a better chance at good loot. Once you get to level 30, three Grandmaster difficulty levels are unlocked to challenge players as their gear gets more powerful. There were only a couple of times where I wasn’t matched with anyone for a mission, so I ended up completing it solo which took me a while. You don’t earn XP per enemy killed, instead you complete combat feats which are tallied for overall XP at the end of each mission. You also earn XP from feats earned by group mates, so it pays to form a group for each mission.
I found that playing with randoms and not having the usual voice chat in my ear from my day-to-day gaming mates meant I wasn’t distracted and could take in the sounds and sights of Bastion as we travelled to each mission, and I was able to hear everything the cypher said about my surroundings and the mission objectives. I love playing with my mates but with my limited play-time, sometimes I like to chill in quiet and take in everything the game throws at me. In Anthem’s case, it’s bundles of loot! Loot drops in game are shown by an icon coloured based on the rarity, but they remain unidentified until you return to Fort Tarsis. The lowest quality gear is common (white) then uncommon (green), rare (blue), epic (purple), masterwork (orange) and the highest item level available is legendary (yellow). With the increase in rarity comes more and stronger bonus inscriptions on each item. You start seeing blue items dropping once you reach level 10, purple at level 20, masterwork at 25 and legendary at 30 within the Grandmaster 3 difficulty level.
Strongholds are Anthem’s form of dungeons with an increased difficulty for the group, which you are rewarded with better chances of good loot. You must have a full group of four players to take on a stronghold. The first stronghold, Tyrant Mine, can be played early in the game. The two remaining strongholds available are the Temple of the Scar and the Heart of Rage, which open once you complete the main story – for me this was at level 24. You can start to earn masterclass loot drops from level 25, so I completed a mission to ding 25 then ran the Temple of the Scar stronghold with two masterclass loot drops!
You also have the option to play freeplay which gives you the freedom to explore the world around you. You can enter freeplay solo, your friends or public players can join your session, or you can join sessions of other players using Quickplay. The best thing about freeplay though is the freeform flight mode of your javelin. I’ve saved this best bit for last as you can fly from day 1 but honestly, this is the standout game system for Anthem and is unmatched in any other game for me. You feel like you are part Ironman as you jump and then boost into flight mode. Some of the scenes are reminiscent of those seen on Pandora in the Avatar movie with sheer rockfaces. Your javelin generates heat when you’re flying so to cool the engines, you can shoot down at a sharp angle using the wind, fly low over water or through waterfalls, and you can even transition smoothly from flying to travelling underwater. The underwater scenes are stunning, though I feel they’re underutilised in these early days.
In freeplay you can find many resource nodes which produces crafting materials, there are loot chests sparsely spread and you can come across world events. World events are things like killing an advancing horde of scars, or you might be tasked with silencing a shaper relic that’s become unstable. These help to tie the overarching story together, but after a while they are there to gain loot drops and chests. There are some contracts through the game where you need to complete ‘x’ number of world events, loot ‘x’ number of chests and so on. These feel a little grindy but aren’t too bad considering you’re out there gaining loot and raising your gearscore. Once you hit the max level 30, three tiers of grandmaster difficulty become available which is where you will commence the hunt for legendary items. Once you complete all the contracts for a given faction, this will unlock legendary contracts for that faction at a limit of three per day (one from each of the factions). These contracts can reward players with high-power gear that can help them climb the difficulty ranks into Grandmaster.
Bioware have released a development roadmap which briefly outlines their plans for adding content over the next year and beyond. So far only the first 90 days are loosely mapped out, with many additional freeplay events on the way. This is welcome news for a lot of us who are near or already at max level and looking for more variety in end-game content. I also spied a new stronghold is on the way in April – The Sunken, so perhaps this could utilise some of those stunning underwater areas. Then in May, the Cataclysm starts!
Overall, I gave the game an 8/10. Anthem is a visually stunning action RPG with loot and freeform flight at the forefront, though loading screens disconnect the gameplay from Bioware’s renowned storytelling. Bioware have been very proactive and transparent with bugs as they’re reported and fixes as they’re developed. I’m looking forward to charging to level 30 and into those legendary contracts and grandmaster difficulty levels.
This review utilised a key for the PC version of the game via Origin provided by the publisher with 28 hours of gameplay. Anthem is available now on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One and is rated M for violence and online interactivity.