- After years of development and tens of millions of dollars spent, EA finally launched its huge new franchise, “Anthem,” on February 22.
- The game is beautiful and massive. It enables players to pilot Iron Man-like suits around a gorgeous alien planet.
- Despite the best efforts of EA’s legendary BioWare game studio, “Anthem” is a vacuous, aggressively boring game.
Years of hype and tens of millions of dollars led up to the February 22 launch of “Anthem” from EA’s legendary BioWare development studio. The game is finally available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.
Whether it’s worth your time is the big question. For me, the answer is an emphatic, almost aggressive no.
Having spent the last weekend trying – and failing – to find any fun in “Anthem,” I’m pretty certain I’m done with it forever. Here’s why:
First, a brief primer on what “Anthem” is …
“Anthem” is an open-world third-person shooter with a focus on loot – a so-called “looter shooter,” along the lines of the “Destiny” and “The Division” franchises.
Players take on missions, then join with other players in a shared online version of the open world. Completing missions offers rewards, such as better armor or weapons – the looting side of things.
There is no competitive online section of “Anthem.” It is solely a cooperative experience.
Additionally, there is a single-player area of “Anthem” known as Fort Tarsis. It exists to provide a story for “Anthem,” as well as offer players a chance to customize their mech suit.
… and what “Anthem” isn’t.
- “Anthem”/Electronic Arts
On paper, “Anthem” sounds fine. It’s got a neat hook (flying!), genuinely impressive visuals, and it’s from a studio with serious chops: BioWare.
There are aliens to shoot! Pretty places to explore! Missions to take on! Shiny things to collect! What could go wrong?
In my experience with the game since last Friday: a lot. “Anthem” is a repetitive, boring game wrapped in the veneer of a blockbuster.
Flying — the main hook — is no fun.
For a game with a massive, open-world environment, where Iron Man-esque suits called “Javelins” are the main form of transportation, you might think that flying would be a ton of fun.
Unfortunately, after a few initial hours of joy, the feeling fades. Instead, I found myself frustrated as my javelin overheated on the way to my next objective.
Each time it overheated, it forced me to the ground where I had to wait a few moments before it was ready for another brief run. Dive-bombing cools down the suit a bit, and flying through waterfalls offers a complete recharge, but these options are rarely available in plentiful enough supply to stay in permanent flight.
So much of my time with “Anthem” was spent flying from place to place – not in combat, but simply getting there. That’s why it’s so unfortunate that flying is so tremendously limited.
Combat is generic, and enemies are extremely dumb.
- “Anthem”/Electronic Arts
Whether I was fighting a humanoid enemy, a massive rock creature, or any of the other handful of generic bullet fodder in “Anthem,” there was one constant: A total lack of weight to the situation at hand.
Sometimes I died. Sometimes I easily blasted through everything around me. It’s hard to say why one fight was any different from another. They certainly all felt the same, only with varying amounts of enemies. Since the enemies rarely take cover and aren’t very good shots, their only way to win is through sheer numbers.
In this way, every combat encounter in “Anthem” felt like a spreadsheet fight: Will my damage numbers outpace the game’s production of enemy units?
At that point, skills don’t matter as much as having a higher number. And that makes me wonder, “Why am I playing this?”
The world of “Anthem” is like the video game equivalent of “Avatar”: generic and self-serious.
In James Cameron’s sci-fi pastiche “Avatar,” an element seriously named “unobtanium” is the plot device by which the film’s conflict hangs. It’s become the symbol for all that is ridiculous about “Avatar.”
In “Anthem,” the “anthem of creation” is the very silly, very serious plot device everything hangs on. An enemy faction known as “The Dominion” looms vaguely in the ether. For some reason, everyone in the human colony of Fort Tarsis relies on people in robot suits for protection. Outside of the walls are the unstable, unpredictable creations unleashed by the leftover tools that were once used to create the world of “Anthem.”
Did I lose you? I probably lost you. I, too, was lost by the ambiguous, generic storytelling of “Anthem.”
There is no cohesion to the world of “Anthem,” and its characters convey no sense of weight to the story playing out. There’s a snark to the characters that’s reminiscent of the latest Marvel films – a kind of wink-and-nod that says none of what happens actually matters. Why should I care if the game doesn’t?
The single-player area, Fort Tarsis, feels like a broken set from “Westworld.”
As I walked through the one main street in Fort Tarsis, vendors gestured at no one while customers waited in line for a shopkeeper that would never respond. One customer broke off from the line, walked about 10 feet, then joined a trio of characters who were all talking at no one in particular while standing in a circle.
None of their voices could be heard, to say nothing of their movements. Walking around Fort Tarsis feels like walking around a testing facility for malfunctioning animatronics.
A bunch of “people” are engaged in humanoid activities, but only insofar as they’re demonstrating a kind of faked version of normal human activity. The only noise in the main market comes from the sound of a blowtorch being used to repair a javelin, despite dozens of people mulling about.
Any attempt at exploring Fort Tarsis beyond the obvious paths is rewarded with invisible walls. Put simply, Fort Tarsis feels old – like something from a video game released 10 years ago, albeit far more attractive. It feels less alive and interesting than BioWare’s own previous efforts with the “Mass Effect” series.
It’s clear that a lot of time and money went into “Anthem.” What’s missing is a soul.
If game design were a checklist, “Anthem” would be a massive success. It’s big and pretty and buzzword-friendly. It’s got emergent gameplay! And shared online experiences! And epic loot drops!
But game design is far more intangible than that.
Who would have thought that a free-to-play Battle Royale shooter from the “Titanfall” developers would be the biggest new game of 2019? But “Apex Legends” has far more character than “Anthem,” despite not having any dialogue. That’s because it’s got personality and style, whereas “Anthem” feels derivative and staid.
Given the nature of “Anthem” as an online game, it’s likely that it’ll evolve over time into something more interesting. For now, I’m going back to playing “Apex Legends.”