It’s no secret that both BioWare and EA are on thin ice with fans at the moment. Whether it be greedy business practices or unfinished games rushed to release, there are plenty of reasons to be cautious about Anthem. I was eager to see how both publisher and developer would try to sway public outlook into their favour through the VIP Demo, and after spending around 5 hours piloting a Javelin, I’m cautiously optimistic about what Anthem can bring to the table. It’s a title that’s ripe with potential, fresh ideas, and a satisfying gameplay loop that could have a profound effect on the shared-world shooter genre as a whole.
The demo takes place partway through the story, starting your Pilot at level 10. You have access to three story missions, a dungeon-like activity called a “Stronghold,” and Freeplay. The small vertical slice of the narrative presented isn’t much to go off of. It doesn’t do much worldbuilding and seems inconsequential to the larger story at play. There’s some quirky writing, interesting characters, and a simplified version of BioWare’s signature dialogue wheel. The real star of the demo was the world, which is begging to be explored, and I can’t wait to see what I can find in the full game.
Part of the allure of Anthem and the games it’s inspired by is the power fantasy it provides during gameplay. As a pilot, you don Iron Man-like suits that have superman abilities, flight powers, and specific combat styles depending on which class you pick. Before each expedition, you’ll customise your loadout and Javelin at the Forge in Fort Tarsis, Anthem’s hub world. For the most part, it feels pointless and seems like it will mostly be used as a vehicle for the narrative and other mechanics within the game. A social space akin to the Tower in Destiny is painfully absent, though there are plans to include one at some point. The deployment screen leaves a lot to be desired. It’s not terrible, but it suffers from a poor layout and clunky navigation to complete the simplest of actions, which are things that can be fixed, so here’s hoping they are.
However, once you’ve loaded into your desired expedition and start taking control of your Javelin, Anthem starts to shine. There’s an exhilarating sense of freedom that comes with the ability to fly around the battlefield as you proceed to your next objective. You can have two weapons at any time, which follow genre archetypes. Different weapons will gel better with different Javelin types depending on class and build, but there’s a lot of player choice and customisation. Each suit has two offensive abilities, a support ability, and an ultimate attack. Each Javelin can obtain different abilities for these slots, which can be mixed and matched to create a unique build that suits your playstyle. I always found myself toying around with new elemental attacks when I unlocked them for the Storm Javelin, trying to see what I found worked best for me. It’s a simple system that the demo only scratches the surface of regarding its depth and has potential to keep the game diverse both in cosmetic customisation and build functionality.
Combat reminds me a lot of Mass Effect Andromeda. It’s a third-person shooter with punchy weapons where utilising combos is paramount to taking out some of the tougher enemies. The main difference is the inherent mobility that a Javelin provides. Flying around the battlefield to avoid damage, dipping in and out of hover mode to deal damage, all while you monitor your heat levels, so your suit doesn’t overheat. It’s a demanding system that requires player attention at all time, and you will be punished for playing poorly. The combos as mentioned above allow skills to flow into one another for significant damage and crowd control. It’s an immensely satisfying system that’s at its best when your team is working together.
Technically, Anthem is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the game is drop-dead gorgeous on my PC and never once dipped in framerate during my time with it. The world and Javelins are beautifully detailed, and the particle effects that come off Ultimate Abilities is the kind of stuff that we’ve come to expect from BioWare after Inquisition and Andromeda. On the other hand, the title is riddled with all sorts of bugs. During the first five hours of the demo going live, I played about forty-five minutes of actual gameplay. Infinite loading screens would frequently occur, enemies would disappear as I got closer to them, and my HUD was showing things it shouldn’t have been more than once. The way this demo launched as a premium “VIP” experience is inexcusable, and all we can do is hope that these issues don’t plague the full game.
My time with Anthem has left me more optimistic about it than I was before, but also more cautious. It’s far too early to gauge what the quality of the narrative and story will be like with the small sliver shown in the demo, but we can speak for how its gameplay systems hold up and how they might deepen upon release. It has a satisfying gameplay loop and a combat system that rewards player experimentation and cooperation. The Javelins provide a seamless amount of freedom and customisation both cosmetically and build wise. When I was playing Anthem, I did enjoy it, but it was a struggle to get there. The issues present in this demo are not a good sign for the full release. While there’s certainly time to patch some of these issues in the weeks leading up to launch, part of me can’t help but worry that Anthem’s technical side will be its downfall.