- The first blockbuster game of 2019 is nearly here: “Anthem” arrives on February 22 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.
- A lengthy demo for “Anthem” was available over the past weekend, and I spent much of that time flying around its lush, alien world.
- Having spent much of the last 72 hours with “Anthem,” I found a lot to love – and a few concerns.
There’s a lot riding on “Anthem,” the huge upcoming game from EA’s legendary BioWare studio.
For starters, it’s the first major new franchise from BioWare in years, and it’s an online-only, multiplayer-focused shooter – a major departure from the single-player role-playing franchises, such as “Mass Effect” and “Dragon Age,” that studio is known for making. Second of all, BioWare’s last game was a massive flop that damaged one of the studio’s core franchises.
Moreover, it’s a direct competitor with games like “Destiny 2” and the upcoming “The Division 2,” both of which have dedicated audiences at this point.
With all this background in mind, I tentatively approached the first public demo of “Anthem,” which was available through various means this past weekend.
Great news: Based on that demo, “Anthem” is a promising, fun, and gorgeous game.
It has all the open-world exploration of the “Destiny” franchise, but with a heavy sprinkling of BioWare’s signature style. From the time I spent with “Anthem,” it felt like a fascinating new twist on the burgeoning genre of online-only, persistent-world games.
These are highs and lows of my 72 hours with “Anthem”:
First and foremost: What is “Anthem”?
You know “Iron Man”? The guy in the robot suit that flies through the air? Robert Downey Jr. plays him.
“Anthem” is basically an “Iron Man” game, albeit one that’s entirely removed from the world of Marvel. You control a human inside of a robot suit – a “javelin” in the parlance of “Anthem” – and you do a lot of shooting.
Sometimes you’re shooting humanoid enemies, sometimes it’s types of animals, and sometimes it’s a giant that shoots heat-seeking fire bombs.
All of which is to say this: “Anthem” is a third-person shooter that’s set in an online-only, multiplayer-focused open world. It’s a lot like “Destiny,” but with jet packs.
What I liked: 1. Flying!
The hook of “Anthem” – what primarily separates it from other games in its genre – is that you can fly through the air. To that end, it’s more than just a novelty: It’s a core component of movement and combat.
The primary mode of transportation in “Anthem” is your jet pack, whether you’re on your way to a far flung part of the game’s massive world or simply trying to get away from a bunch of especially vicious enemies. Depending on the moment, you’re more or less able to take to the air whenever you want.
After a few hours of playing, I was masterfully flying through tiny crevasses and catapulting myself to tiny little spots perched high above the ground.
There’s a sense of the javelin’s weight, which varies for each of the different robot suits you can wear, that feels unwieldy at first. That sense of weight quickly turned into a foundation for me. Instead of feeling sluggish, it feels logical after a bit of use.
A massive metal robot suit would be a touch heavy, don’t you think?
2. The world of “Anthem.”
It was tremendously frustrating to explore Fort Tarsis, the single-player portion of “Anthem.” Not because anything was wrong with it, but because it was intentionally limited for the demo.
Of the dozens of interactive characters I saw in Fort Tarsis, only a small handful were allowed to speak with me – many more issued a prompt telling me that they weren’t available in the demo.
And that is unfortunate, because Fort Tarsis is one of the most promising aspects of “Anthem.” It’s a bit like the Citadel from the “Mass Effect” series, offering a means of progressing the game’s story and characters without having to shoot a bunch of bad guys first.
The idea of Fort Tarsis is simple: You can upgrade your javelin or make cosmetic changes to it, but you can also meet the many characters that make up its society. Through these interactions, you’ll learn more about the planet they live on and what life is like in the world of “Anthem.”
Frankly speaking, this is the part of “Anthem” I’m most looking forward to playing.
3. The vibe.
There’s a very distinct BioWare vibe to Fort Tarsis and the world beyond its walls – a sort of nerdy irreverence that’s characteristic of BioWare games.
Unlike the deadly (self-) serious “Destiny” franchise, there’s a playful silliness to “Anthem.”
The gentleman above, for instance, was originally just one man. After a mission to recover an object for him, he attempted to activate it by brute force – which resulted in his consciousness being split into three people.
The object, it turns out, is one of many items left behind by the original creators of life. On the alien planet that “Anthem” is set on, those creators had to leave in a hurry, so they left behind a lot of tools that are used to create life.
In this very small way, “Anthem” pokes fun at the silliness of its own premise by using it to create a sitcom-like scenario. It’s one of many such instances I encountered during the demo in which the game winks and nods at players.
4. Combat is surprisingly great.
For a studio known primarily for its storytelling prowess, BioWare created a surprisingly great combat system for “Anthem.” It actually feels akin to the combat in the “Mass Effect” series, albeit with more freedom of movement and variation based on class.
The long and short is this: Each of the game’s javelins has two gun slots and two special powers. Those special powers are often tied to timers, so you can use them only every so often. On top of all that, there’s an “ultimate” ability that charges up over time.
Using those various elements in concert means you can do a lot of continuous damage to enemies. And, given that you’ve always got a jet pack, you can get away pretty quickly.
It was a real joy going from the initial javelin – which is a kind of middle-of-the-road soldier with a grenade and a rocket as special powers (“Ranger”) – to a much faster, melee-focused javelin as the demo progressed (“Interceptor”).
5. Flirting. Yes, that kind of flirting!
It may sound ridiculous – and, honestly, it is kind of ridiculous – but developing romantic relationships with characters is a staple of BioWare games. A major part of my memory of “Mass Effect” is directly associated with Liara T’Soni and caring about what happens to her character.
To that end, BioWare clearly has some form of flirting in “Anthem” that may or may not lead to deeper romantic relationships.
In my time with the demo, I was able to successfully woo Zoe – one of the engineers who maintains and upgrades the javelins – and keep “Lucky Jak” at bay. The simple act of enabling this level of interaction is tremendously heartening for BioWare fans. Choosing one of two canned responses to give, which impacts your relationship, is less exciting than the more complex conversation options in other BioWare games, but it’s a smart, necessary nod to what so many people love about BioWare’s games.
Flirting and making friends is silly fun, no doubt, but it gives you something to hold onto – however shallow.
What I didn’t like: 1. Loading. So. Much. Loading.
The “Anthem” demo is just that – a demo. So, it’s hard to know how much this will change over time. I should also note that I played the demo on an Xbox One X; if you played on PC, you might have had a much faster load time.
All that said: Holy cow there are some pretty bad load times in “Anthem.”
Starting the game from zero takes at least a minute, and that’s just loading into Fort Tarsis. If you want to get into a mission, you have to (slowly) walk through Fort Tarsis to where you can get into your javelin. When you get there, another load awaits.
Worse than any of this: load times between areas within the open-world section of “Anthem.”
Doing something as simple as entering a cave can result in a sudden, jolting jump to a load screen (like the one above). These are sometimes brief, but they’re always unfortunate and sudden.
Of note, earlier in this piece I complimented the combat in “Anthem.” That stands!
But the shooting itself is just OK at best. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, but it doesn’t feel great. Some weapons do feel better than others, but there’s a lack of oomph to shooting in “Anthem” – something that’s particularly problematic in a game that’s so heavily focused on shooting.
A major part of what makes the “Destiny” franchise so appealing to people, that keeps them coming back, is the top-level shooting. The basic act of shooting enemies in “Destiny” feels good in a way that’s hard to put into words.
In “Anthem,” it feels more like you’re shooting bullets into objects rather than beings. In short, it can feel more like a massively multiplayer online game – along the lines of “World of Warcraft” – than a shooter.
3. The world feels somewhat empty.
What I love about Fort Tarsis can’t be said for the world beyond its walls.
We’re talking about a completely blank slate here: This isn’t Earth, and there’s no reason to assume the world of “Anthem” has anything to do with our own. There are humans, but there are also fantastical creatures that look more like dragons than anything else.
With that blank slate, BioWare has left the open world seen in the demo relatively blank. Much of the gorgeous and massive open world is filled with nothing other than pretty vistas. There were no merchants to be found or cities to be explored, and no enemy forts to pillage or characters to meet. It feels like a big, empty playground aside from the occasional small herd of animals or flock of airborne creatures.
As with all the criticisms here, it’s entirely possible that these things are absent from only the demo. The full game, which arrives on February 22, may have a rich, vibrant open world that’s teeming with life.
The one I explored in the demo of “Anthem” was, like “Destiny,” little more than a very pretty thing to look at on the way to somewhere else.
4. Not being able to pause: It’s bad.
Listen, I know this is a standard in online, open-world games, such as “Destiny” and “The Division.” I understand that there’s a tradeoff for enabling persistent worlds like the one in “Anthem.” I get it.
That said: Not being able to pause a game is bad.
It was bad in “World of Warcraft,” and it’s bad in “Anthem.” If you’re outside of Fort Tarsis, you’re officially online and therefore unable to walk away. This isn’t such a big deal if you’re not in the middle of a mission, but it’s a frustrating hindrance regardless.
Maybe they could build areas in the world where you can pause. Maybe that’s asking too much!
What if you’re a parent? Or the oven timer on your brisket goes off? Or the phone rings and you have to take it? Or, you know, any of another trillion things that might make you want to pause the game you’re playing. Life happens!
It stinks not being able to pause “Anthem.” Period.
One final note: There were some major issues with the “Anthem” demo up-front, which impacted a lot of players. They were addressed relatively quickly, but it’s not a great sign.
I’ve seen a ton of it myself on Xbox One, which was seemingly hit hardest. It’s been rough!
The game’s head of live service, Chad Robertson, even called the service “rocky” in a piece on BioWare’s blog.
Beyond the standard connection issues lots of players were having, I encountered several instances of the game dropping connection midmission. There was even one instance where I took down several large, difficult monsters with a group of people – and “Anthem” booted me as the mission ended. I lost that progress and had to redo the entire mission.
All that aside, these are addressable issues that happen with many online games. The vast majority of the time that I spent with “Anthem,” I had zero connection issues. I was able to seamlessly match up with other players to take down missions. I’m hopeful that this was little more than some early turbulence.