Updated: Jan 23, 2020
My colossus crashes to the ground in front of about seven scars, the bug-like, gun-toting grunts of Bioware's new looter shooter, Anthem. If this were Destiny 2, I might scramble for cover or throw up a barrier for protection. In Anthem, I simply pull out a man-sized shield, turn on the Tesla coil protruding from the back of my colossus javelin, and proceed to bowl over every enemy in my path. I watch with glee as their crushed bodies are flung about aimlessly like that rice people used to toss everywhere during weddings. And it feels GOOD.
After mopping up the scars, I try to find another world event - Anthem's version of Destiny's public events - but with no indicators for where or when one is spawning on the map, my best bet is just to fly around aimlessly and hope one pops up. Unfortunately, even if an event does show itself, I have no way of communicating its existence to the other three players in freeplay with me, so I'll probably have to solo it. I do eventually find something worthwhile in the form of an Ash Titan - a giant, fire-hurling monstrosity - but left to my own devices, I ultimately die. I hit respawn, only to sit through a loading screen and be revived somewhere far, far away from the Titan. Sadly, I have no idea how to find it again. If only I had been able to throw down a waypoint where the Titan was so I could have found my way back to it - but wait, Anthem doesn't allow players to place waypoints on the map.
Defeated, I end my freeplay session and head back to Fort Tarsis, the hub of the game. To do so, I have to sit through one loading screen, a screen that shows me the loot I got from freeplay, another loading screen so I can equip that loot in the 'forge,' another loading screen to get out of the forge, an animation to get back in my javelin, and another loading screen to load into a new freeplay session, stronghold, or mission. That's four long loading screens, one loot screen, and one long animation that I have to sit through just to be able to stop playing, equip new loot, and start playing again. Oh, and if you die at any point or get too far away from a party you're grouped with, you have to wait through yet another loading screen to either respawn or teleport to your party.
As you may have noticed, I just spent 95 words giving Anthem voracious praise, and 300 words describing what a chore the game can be. I feel like this one-to-four praise-to-criticism ratio adequately sums up my experience with Anthem - it's a game which, at its core, is absolutely brilliant. The only problem is, to see that brilliance 25% of the time, you have to slog through the bugs, glitches, performance issues, and baffling design decisions that make up the other 75% of the game.
Of looters and shooters
The looter shooter genre arguably had its first taste of mass popularity with Borderlands 2, which was released in 2012 to great acclaim. At its heart, the looter shooter is a natural evolution of loot-focused ARPGs such as Diablo or Torchlight - games that act as dopamine factories that keep players grinding for hundreds of hours on the thrill of constantly receiving new and powerful toys to mess around with.
Inspired by the success of Borderlands 2, it wasn't long before AAA publishers such as ActivisionBlizzard and Ubisoft started toying with the looter shooter genre. Bungie's Destiny released under Activision in 2014, and Massive Entertainment's The Division hit shelves in 2016 at the behest of Ubisoft.
Today, the looter shooter as a genre is cemented within gaming. And with significant debuts such as Anthem and The Division 2 hitting stores in early 2019, and Destiny 3 undoubtedly in the works, looter shooters aren't going anywhere anytime soon. But right about now, I can hear you asking: "what does all of this have to do with Anthem?"
Well, Anthem began development at Bioware in 2012, immediately after Mass Effect III was released. In other words, Anthem has been in development - at least to some extent - for six-plus years. Needless to say, the game's decidedly underwhelming critical reception post-launch fails to belie an IP that's spent so long in the oven. Most critics have given the game a lukewarm 6/10 or less, and many fans have been left wondering how a game in development for so long at a big-name developer such as Bioware could be released in such a flawed state.
Time for a little conspiracy theory.
If I had to take a guess, I'd say that 2012 Anthem was probably nothing like the Anthem we received in 2019 and that the game was probably originally conceived as Bioware's newest single-player or couch CoOp/drop-in MMO-lite IP. Think about it - four javelins, one of which the player could choose as their' class,' and the rest of which could be piloted by AI companions a la Bioware's trademark 'player supported by AI team' gaming experience. As far as atmosphere goes, the open-world - while beautiful - feels incredibly empty, devoid of any sort of meaningful wildlife or NPC interactions. It feels... unfinished. Could it be that the original, single-player Anthem was scrapped, development restarted, the campaign repurposed, and certain elements omitted at the behest of EA?
My theory is this: at some point post-Destiny, EA decided they wanted a looter shooter of their own, and Anthem - a hush-hush title in development at a lauded studio - was the IP chosen for EA's swing at the genre.
The result? A looter shooter that feels like it was in development for AT MOST a couple of years - almost as if its development was completely scrapped and subsequently restarted around 2015-2016 - and a whole bunch of angry gamers and critics.
However, the harsh truth is that EA probably had nothing to do with Anthem's failures. In late July of 2017, Corey Gaspur - the lead developer on Anthem and a Bioware veteran who had been with the developer for almost a decade - died. In early 2018, Steve Gilmour, Anthem's lead animator who had been at Bioware for seventeen years, left the project. Anthem's lead writer, Drew Karpyshyn, also left the team in 2018. In 2017, Bioware veteran of 17 years and general manager Aaron Flynn left the studio, followed by James Ohlen, a developer who had been with Bioware for 22 years.
That many team leads and veterans don't just get up and quit a project that's going well. Even if some of them finished their work, as Bioware claimed was the case for Karpyshyn, too many influential individuals left the team between 2017 and 2018 for it to merely be a coincidence. I don't doubt that Gaspur's death was an emotional blow Bioware, but it's clear that something was always rotten in Anthem's development. Whether it was Bioware or EA who made a mess of Anthem, the end result is the same - a game that, at a fundamental level, simply was not ready to be released.
For my part, here's what I'll say about Anthem - it's a genuinely, profoundly flawed game. It can also be brilliant. Let's explore that contradictory nature a little more, shall we?
Note: many of my 'assumptions were backed up in an article released by Kotaku that acted as an expose of poor working conditions at Bioware leading to Anthem's release. You can read that article here.
The Good stuff
Combat: Blowin’ stuff up feels mighty satisfyin’
The most crucial element of a looter shooter, in my opinion, is the combat loop. In this department, Anthem delivers in spades. Anthem sets itself apart from its genre compatriots by being much more ability-based than other looter shooters and depending on the build choices players make, javelins are capable of using abilities at a rate that trivializes the need for gunplay. This allows the player to feel powerful as they consistently put out hard-hitting, flashy skills. It also helps that Anthem is a PvE only game, allowing players to have a solid power fantasy experience since abilities and weapons don't need to be balanced around PvP.
Anthem also succeeds with is its combo system. In Anthem, certain abilities act as primers, and others act as detonators. The basic premise is that if you hit an enemy with a detonator after lighting them up with a primer, that enemy goes boom, you see a nice extra-fat number, and a sublimely satisfying sound effect plays for you to enjoy. The ability to synergize javelin abilities amongst party members allows players to enjoy dynamic, intuitive, and synergistic gameplay - even between randomly selected teammates - that other looter shooters often lack.
Javelin and build variety: from stampedes to sniper rifles
Every javelin in Anthem feels noticeably unique, which is fantastic. None of them fill the same role, and yet all feel equally powerful and fun. This is a challenging feat of game design, and I don't think like Bioware has received enough credit for pulling it off. Additionally, the number of builds and sub-builds you can have for each javelin, depending on what you want to specialize in, is pretty incredible. Want a colossus that gets the attention of enemies and just smashes things while electrocuting them? You can do that. Want a colossus that stands back and shreds things with an autocannon (read: 50-cal. machine gun) while mortaring groups of enemies and providing shields to the party? You can do that too. In a game that relies on players wanting to make multiple builds as its endgame, Anthem has a LOT to play around with, and that's fantastic.
Movement: if I could have one superpower, it would be flight
No other looter shooter has a movement system as fluid as Anthem's. While I'm excited to play The Division 2, I'd be lying if I wrote that I wasn't dreading the transition from Anthem's flawless (at least on a controller) flight system to the slow, cover-based experience that The Division 2 will offer. Bioware has done something truly revolutionary with the flight system in Anthem, and I hope that other developers start thinking more about using vertical space and mobility in similar ways soon.
Story: Bioware’s pretty good at writing and stuff. Shocking.
Look, the story of Anthem isn't as good as the stories of Mass Effect or Dragon Age. While the campaign feels a little undercooked, it's still far more compelling than the story experiences other games in the genre offer. Beyond the campaign, the world-building and lore for Anthem are genuinely impressive and intriguing, and I'm excited to see what they do with it moving forward.
The only caveat here for me is that the game's story feels... disjointed at points. Almost as if it was much larger at one point and was then chopped up and put back together again with chunks cut out of it. Certain characters show up randomly in missions with lines that indicate you already know them before they're ever introduced to you, which is strange. Additionally, it feels like some characters were supposed to play more of a role in the story and then suddenly had sections of their screen time cut out. These are just some of the many indicators that Anthem was rebooted close to its release. However, I still think that the voice-acting, writing, and animation of the characters in Anthem stand above the rest of the offerings in the 'live service' looter shooter genre.
Graphics: well gawrsh, that’s a purty-lookin’ robit
Yes, the game has been graphically downgraded since its 2017 E3 reveal. However, Anthem still stands out as a graphical powerhouse, shining with pristine texture work and fidelity. The animation work done here is incredible, and the game world looks breathtaking. Overall, the Frostbite Engine and the graphics it brings to the table - despite the engine's multitude of problems - help make Anthem's world one of the more immersive video-game creations of recent years.
Sound: the remarkable Sarah Schachner strikes again
Not much to say here, but it deserves mention. The soundtrack and voice-acting, as well as the general sound-design, are fantastic in Anthem. Sarah Schachner is typically brilliant with her music, and she deserves recognition for her work here.
Customization: let’s talk shop - mods, mechs, and money
Wanna look like a mecha from Evangelion? No problem. Anthem has some of the best character customization options in the business. Players have the full-color wheel to play with and are inundated with various materials to cover their javelin with. There are also armor patterns called vinyls that help players add some character to their javelins. While the offerings as far as silhouette-changing armor goes are limited, I have high hopes for what we'll see in the future. What is strange is that several armor and customization options that were showcased during a November 2019 developer livestream are noticeably absent from the game. While they'll hopefully show up as in-game rewards eventually, this is just one instance of the Anthem release builds noticeably lacking content featured in pre-release promotions for the game.
In terms of microtransactions, the cosmetics that you can buy from the in-game shop are surprisingly easy to afford with coin, the currency earned by playing the game. The ability to get a good few of the cash-shop items with in-game currency just by playing consistently is nice. While the shop items are a tad overpriced for my liking (it's currently $8.50 for a javelin armor pack, I would have preferred a solid $5), the monetization feels fair overall. I'm also appreciative that Anthem and The Division 2 are funding free DLC through cosmetics-only cash shops because doing so allows them to avoid splitting the player-base with paid DLCs (take note Bungie). While I doubt I'll ever have a favorable opinion of the 'games as a live service' model, Anthem pulls it off exceptionally well.
The Bad stuff
Here we go. After throwing some praise Anthem's way, it's time to discuss what the game does wrong.
Performance: I don’t feel so good, Mr. Bioware
You know how I wrote about having to sit through four long loading screens just to stop doing something, equip loot, and start doing something again? Yeah, that's sort of indicative of Anthem's performance as a whole. The game is incredibly poorly optimized, with one Reddit user reporting that Anthem read 610.5 gigabytes of data from their hard drive in a two-hour play period. For the technically uninclined, your average high-fidelity game - for example, Battlefront 2 - probably reads less than a tenth of that data over a similar time frame, topping out at maybe 20-30 gigabytes worth of data read total. When compared with Anthem's 610.5 gigabytes, that's rather shocking.
Unfortunately, excessive data processing is just the tip of the iceberg.
From bugs to glitches to loading screens to lag, Anthem has it all, and Bioware's silence on fixing some of these issues - particularly one bug which causes players to have drastically less health than they should according to their items - doesn't exactly inspire confidence. There's a reason the Frostbite engine typically isn't used for developing open-world games. It's an infamously hard engine to work with and seems ill-suited for most games outside of the Battlefield and Battlefront series that developer DICE specifically programmed the engine for. Sadly, Anthem's poor performance is but one aspect of its rather horrifying design, which is the subject I'd like to explore next.
Design: I don't get it... did they just not play any other games in this genre?
A lot of people are wondering why Anthem has been getting ratings worse than or equal to monstrosities such as Fallout: 76 or the release build of No Man's Sky, and I get that. Because objectively, on both a gameplay and a story level, Anthem is simply better than those games. But I think that what makes Anthem worthy of its lukewarm reviews in the eyes of critics and players are the utterly baffling design decisions that plague the game.
In almost every instance that it has the opportunity to do so, Anthem makes the same mistakes that other looter shooters have already made. Worse still, Anthem makes mistakes that other looter shooters have long-since addressed. This makes Anthem reek of troubled development and gives the game all the hallmarks of a product pushed onto shelves long before it was ready just to pad quarterly earnings reports.
For example, as I already mentioned, Anthem doesn't allow players to place waypoints or see where world events are happening on the map. Players shouldn't have to fly around like headless chickens hoping they'll run into some event eventually or not knowing how to get from point A to point B simply because they can't place a basic waypoint. To not have simple quality of life elements such as a minimap, event locations, and timers, or waypoint markers is an egregious oversight for a game releasing in 2019. This is especially true for Anthem, in which roaming around in freeplay and doing events make up a not-insignificant portion of the endgame. Anthem also lacks any sort of stats screen, which is laughable in a game that relies on players improving their stats through loot to enter higher levels of difficulty and make their javelins more powerful.
Speaking of loot, Anthem's highest rarity levels of gear - masterwork and legendary items - are fitted with inscriptions. These inscriptions can do things like increase the damage of your weapons by a whopping 250% or increase your weakpoint (read: headshot) damage by absurd amounts. Sounds great, right? Well, you can also get COMPLETELY useless inscriptions. One inscription increases the magazine-size of sniper rifles by 3%. Others provide damage bonuses to completely random types of weapons you may not even be able to use on your javelin of choice. For example, a colossus can loot a masterwork autocannon that gives a 35% bonus to machine pistol damage, and colossi (I think that's the plural) can't even use machine pistols.
In essence, for every 6 or 7 masterwork or legendary items that you get in Anthem, perhaps one will actually have good inscriptions that will make it usable for your javelin - if you're lucky.
Now, given that you'll probably have to farm 50-100 masterwork and legendary items - and that's being optimistic - just to get one build's worth of optimized loot for your javelin, you'd think that Anthem would be generous with its loot distribution. After all, plenty of other loot-based games have figured out that showering players with loot is far better than trickling it to them. In fact, a former senior game designer at Blizzard, Travis Day, gave a talk about how being excessively generous with loot was directly responsible for the revival of Diablo III when the Reaper of Souls expansion released - you know, the expansion that was universally acclaimed and gave the game such a long tail that it is still played today.
However, Anthem has failed to learn from the sins of its forefathers and instead trickles loot to players - even in the highest difficulties - at a pathetic pace. I'm sorry, but players who are pushing the boundaries of endgame content in a looter shooter shouldn't still be getting common, uncommon, or rare items. It's just absurd. They should be getting showered with masterworks and legendaries as a reward for their skill and playtime investment, but in Anthem, they just aren't. As a result, I fear that many of the players who might have otherwise kept Anthem alive through this rough launch - hardcore gamers with the time on their hands to play hours per day - will abandon the game instead of sticking with it.
To make matters even worse, Anthem had a small period of increased drop-rates in which players were getting a respectable number of masterworks and legendaries, only to have the drop-rates for these higher-tier items drastically nerfed once lead producer Ben Irving confirmed that the increased drop-rate was a bug.
At the time of writing this review, players are desperately clamoring for the drop-rate to be increased back to its bugged state so players can earn around 5-7 masterworks (and maybe a legendary if they're lucky) per run of a stronghold or contract, and I agree. Even if Anthem's inscriptions are fixed to become more useful as Bioware has stated will happen, drop-rates for masterworks and legendaries should still be drastically increased because doing so literally only benefits the game.
The quality of life issues with Anthem are almost too numerous to count, and the ones mentioned here at only the most pressing issues I've noticed during my time with the game. Sadly, these problems are only exacerbated when paired with the game's next (and last) big flaw that I'll discuss in this review:
Content: it’s coming soon! We promise. Wait, where are you going...
Players who blast through Anthem's story and leveling process will run into the same problem players who speedrun the meat of every multiplayer game at launch encounter: there's just not much to do at the endgame right now. But considering the amount of time Bioware supposedly had to develop this game (cough mid-development reboot cough), the amount of endgame content in Anthem is almost laughable. You have a few options for grinding out endgame gear in Anthem: you can run strongholds - the game's equivalent of dungeons, complete legendary contracts that are essentially just daily quests or fly around in freeplay doing world events. All of these activities are completed in parties of four, although in freeplay, players can break off and choose to fly solo. Players can also technically solo missions, but doing so is tricky and generally takes a long time. The endgame blueprint pushes players to complete these activities on progressively hard and harder difficulty levels (the highest being Grandmaster 3) to grind for loot with which they can min-max their javelin's build. Once one javelin build is finished, players will presumably move on to creating a different build either for that javelin or for a different javelin entirely.
The only problem is, there are just three strongholds in the game, two of which show up as missions in the campaign. You can only complete three legendary contracts per day, after which you are forced to join mission quickplay and hope you get matched with other people doing legendary contracts if you want to do more. Two of the three strongholds are pointlessly long and overly burdensome, which means that most players are just running one stronghold - even worse, it's the first stronghold introduced to the game - repetitively to get good loot with any consistency, a process that gets boring fast.
In my experience, playing on difficulties harder than Grandmaster 1 just isn't worth it. Not only are loot drop-rates barely any better in harder difficulties (in Grandmaster 2, I'm still getting common, uncommon, and rare level items that are completely useless and shouldn't be dropping at all), but harder difficulties also fail to be more interesting than lower difficulties.
Basically, enemies hit harder the higher the difficulty (leading to lots of unfun one-shots that can't be avoided thanks to an afore-mentioned health bug), and have more health, but that seems to be about it. If there's going to be this little content, I would expect the enemies actually to get smarter and gain more abilities on harder difficulties - you know, to make playing on harder difficulties a fun process that actually requires players to get better at the game - but alas, Bioware seems to have just made dumbed-down AI bullet sponges of enemies to inflate the difficulty of the game artificially. Oops.
On the positive side of things, Bioware did release a content roadmap that actually looks fairly robust. New freeplay events and items are coming in March, more freeplay events, items, and a new stronghold in April, and an event called the Cataclysm in May that will probably hit players with a whole bunch of goodies judging by how it's being hyped up.
But these additions, just like quality of life improvements such as better inscriptions, waypoints, bug fixes, increased drop rates, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc., will take a while to reach players. And if Anthem really wanted to be a success, these elements should have released on launch, with the game ready to go.
Conclusion: that’s a YIKES from me chief
Look, all I'm saying is that the Division 2 hits shelves on March 15, and looks to be releasing with robust, polished content that will embarrass Anthem's current game-state. That should terrify Bioware.
Anthem needed at least a few more months, if not another year, in development to reach its true potential. As it stands now, I genuinely love Anthem's world and its gameplay. I also genuinely loathe the poor design decisions that plague Anthem and that have already been made, acknowledged as mistakes, and fixed by almost every other looter shooter genre or loot-based game.
The sheer lack of awareness towards intelligent design in Anthem just makes me more confident that, whether or not EA had anything to do with it, Anthem's development must have been incredibly troubled. The game doesn't even feel like it was in functional development for even two years, let alone six. Something went horribly wrong somewhere along the way with Anthem, and I'm looking forward to (hopefully) learning more about its development cycle in the future.
Somewhere within Anthem, there's a brilliant game that I'm incredibly excited to play in three or four months, assuming EA lets it live that long (remember how Mass Effect: Andromeda was supposed to have DLC until the reviews hit?). But right now, Anthem simply gets too much wrong to justify grinding away at what it gets right. And with The Division 2 and a new season of Destiny 2 right around the corner, that means that Anthem just isn't worth getting invested in right now.
What a shame.
Review Addendum: oh god, it just keeps getting worse
In the weeks since its release, things haven't been going well for Anthem. The game once again experienced a period of increased drop-rates, which were yet again declared a bug and nerfed. As a result, players are up in arms, and a post on the Reddit suggesting that players stop playing the game in protest is currently sitting on the cusp of 12,000 upvotes.
That's just the beginning of Anthem's woes. One player found that due to how the game handles damage scaling, level 1 weapons were actually the most potent weapons in the game. Yikes.
While this issue was quickly fixed, it sparked a deep dive into the back end of Anthem's loot and damage systems by players, and the results weren't pretty. One player figured out that, even with a set of fully god-rolled legendary items, the Grandmaster 3 difficulty of the game is still laughably imbalanced in favor of the game's AI. Another player figured out that damage and player builds in Anthem are actually meaningless due to bad coding and balancing decisions. Multiple players have also reported playing the game for 10-15 hours sessions at the highest difficulty setting, only to receive zero upgrades from loot. To make matters even worse, the odds of getting a god-rolled legendary are about the same as the odds of winning the lottery - yes, for real.
To put it lightly, Anthem is in shambles right now. Either EA or Bioware (possibly both) seem determined to ignore the community's pleas to increase the drop-rates of loot. This was evidenced when Bioware's head of live services Chad Robertson tweeted that Bioware was looking to address loot issues over "the next few months."
I have a feeling that for the majority of Anthem's players, a few months just isn't good enough. With people's Origin Premiere subscriptions running out and The Division 2 right around the corner, I fear that Anthem will shortly see a mass exodus of its playerbase. Worse still, I'm not convinced that Anthem can be resurrected in the future, even if it is improved dramatically. While many of the first 'live service' games such as Rainbow Six: Siege and Destiny 1 saw players pour back in after continued development improved those titles, those games also had little to no competition within their niches. I simply don't see players burned by Anthem returning to the game when The Division 2 and Destiny 2 already exist to offer polished, fun gameplay experiences to fans of multiplayer looter shooters.
At this point, my patience with Anthem has run dry. While I may jump back into the game occasionally over the coming months, in its current state Anthem is simply not a game that respects the time investments of its players. Unfortunately for Bioware, I do happen to respect my time, which means I probably won't be playing the game more anytime soon.
Again, what a shame.