I’m no stranger to playing weird and confusing games, having reviewed everything from house-flipping sims to erotic milking mini-games, and even a few titles that don’t actually exist. Even so, it’s been a long time since a game has left me as bewildered as Anthem. From its core dissonance between gameplay and storytelling to its dreadfully predictable mission structure to some utterly bizarre design choices and a litany of facepalm-worthy bugs, I am continually scratching my head while playing Anthem. The biggest mystery, however, is why I still feel compelled to play it in the first place. Even Marie Kondo would run screaming from the mess that is Anthem. So why am I having fun?
I should start by admitting that I’m not the hugest BioWare fan in the world – the Dragon Age series has never done much for me, and neither do all the hornball romance options that have players humping their way across whatever galaxy or fantasy realm they find themselves in. Call me old-fashioned, but when you’re fending off an intergalactic calamity threatening all life as we know it, there are better uses of your time than trying to figure out if your sex parts are compatible with some equally freaky alien.
That said, I do consider myself a regular-sized BioWare fan – outside of the romance subplots, the developer has served up some superb storytelling. I still look back fondly on my time with Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire, and Mass Effect remains one of my favorite RPG series of all-time. Well, Mass Effect remains one of my favorite RPG trilogies of all-time. Playing Andromeda made me want to swan dive into another beam of pure energy, regardless of what color it might be.
The best thing I can say about Andromeda is that it didn’t deter me from the prospect of another sci-fi game from BioWare. It did, however, install some warning klaxons in my brain, which Anthem triggered almost immediately. Sure, Anthem’s spaghetti missiles and snazzy Iron Man suits javelins certainly looked promising, but the problem with Andromeda was that it prioritized mediocre gunplay and open-world busywork over the thoughtfully designed missions and storytelling BioWare is known for. And Anthem… seemed to be doubling down on that decision?
Whatever its problems, Anthem sure is easy on the eyes
I’m happy to report at least one part of that initial impression turned out to be false. Anthem’s gunplay and overall gameplay mechanics aren’t mediocre. Shooting your way through squads of enemies feels great, and every aspect of piloting your javelin – from takeoff to mid-air dodges and double jumps to slamming down on top of foes – is a Tony Stark power fantasy come true. Even when I’m jetting headfirst into a rocky outcrop on the side of a cliff, I feel like a total bad-ass. So, surprise, I actually do know why I’m enjoying Anthem: Blasting the crap out of aliens in a knock-off Iron Man suit is fun. Frankly, it’s the only part of the game that makes sense.
As I’ve outlined a couple times in this column, my gaming time at home follows a familiar ritual. I usually play a new game for a few hours until my wife takes notice and asks a simple, yet dreaded question: “What’s it about?”
In Anthem’s case, her question was a little more pointed than usual. “This game doesn’t look fun. What’s it about?” As best I can tell, my wife’s criteria for judging the quality of video game comes down to some secret ratio of talking to gunfire, and it’s usually surprisingly accurate.
Here is the best Anthem summation I could come up with for my wife: “It takes place on an alien planet, and everyone lives in an old fort despite all of the fancy technology they clearly have. And I guess I’m not even in the actual fort, because this place is like a block long and only a dozen people are here. Anyway, everyone stays in the fort because the rest of the world is filled with deadly creatures, but I go out on missions to help people, because actually they are leaving all the time and getting into trouble. Beyond that? Not much really, just more missions to get better weapons and stuff while fighting aliens.”
And for once, I feel like my utter confusion isn’t my fault! Not only is Anthem full of nonsensical sci-fi hogwash – “The Monitor is a cypher who wants the Cenotaph to control the Anthem of Creation!” – the multiplayer nature of the game makes the storyline a jumbled mess unless you and your friends play all the missions together in the exact same order. Reiner had a head-start on me when we played together, and it made the narrative about as intelligible as the plot of Memento would be to the guy IN MEMENTO.
The bigger the dude, the badder you know he’s going to be
In one of the rare missions that actually contains a mid-quest cutscene, Reiner and I got double-crossed by a certain NPC character. After we finished up, Reiner got the rest of the story payoff in a post-mission scene, but I was simply returned to the fort – only to get roped into an inane conversation with the same character as he tried to guess my birthday. A few days later, I fought and killed the main bad guy with Reiner. An hour after that while playing solo, they actually introduced who the hell that character was.
Simply put, Anthem’s narrative format is completely broken, and even if you and your friends are perfectly synced up, being forced to go back to the fort for every story beat and to initiate the next mission is a total pain. It’s a bit like trying to bake a cake, only the recipe is in your neighbor’s kitchen.
And it turns out that cake BioWare is baking isn’t that good to begin with – having the majority of your story dumped on you by a few NPCs standing around a glorified microtransaction bazaar is the antithesis of “show, don’t tell.” The dialogue “choices” feel like a vestigial tail for BioWare at this point. Do I say that my last mission went “pretty well” or “great!” Who cares?! Does any of it matter? How far we have fallen from Commander Shepard making the snap decision to shoot a traitor or sacrifice an entire species – instead you can be friendly or kind-of standoffish to the lady who sells you crafting materials. Yay?
Are these enemies bugs? Or cosplaying as bugs? You be the judge…
Oh hey, there are some bug guys, so let’s talk about Anthem’s enemies for a bit. Several hours into the game it dawned on me that I didn’t really know who I was shooting or why I was shooting them – other than the fact some joker in my earpiece was telling me to. Sure, there are a bunch of appropriately alien-looking creatures that you run into, and they don’t require much explanation. “It’s like a pterodactyl, only it shoots fireballs – that certainly sounds like an alien to me!”
More often than not, however, I found myself shooting what just seemed to be other humans. Who are they? And why do some of them look like they’re doing bad cosplay of an obscure enemy from Star Trek: The Original Series?
Turns out those bug-looking enemies up there are Scars, and they’re actually alien insects that take on the characteristics of the dominant lifeform of…whatever planet Anthem takes place on. Does the world even have a name? Cause it seems like the first step of creating a new sci-fi world is to name the actual world…
Anyway, for some reason Scars copy humans, even though Titans are clearly far superior and any human that leaves the fort is immediately incapacitated by the first living organism they come across and in desperate need of your assistance. But even after deciding to mimic humans, Scars decide to don big campy bug masks anyway? How does that even make sense?
Other enemy factions actually are human – some are outlaws, another is a mercenary group – but it’s not clear exactly what they want or where they come from, because all they ever do is pop up in endless waves to try and stymie whatever your current objective is. There are also Elementals, which are strange, ethereal creatures that somehow still drop human ammo when you kill them. This dissonance is especially noticeable when–
And now is a good time to derail everything to talk about loading, since loading derails everything in the game ALL THE TIME. I seriously cannot believe how many loads there are in Anthem. If I stood up and did jumping jacks every time loading screen popped up, I could do an actual Ironman after a week of playing Anthem.
The longest loading times are when you actually start a mission, and can last more than a minute on an Xbox One X (a moment of silence for those playing on a base PS4/Xbox – or several minutes of silence, as the case may be). I am not exaggerating when I say that after starting one co-op mission, Reiner went off-mic to make a sandwich and still got back before the mission started. Granted, that anecdote probably says more about Reiner’s incredibly efficient sandwich-making skills, but it still ain’t a great sign for the game either.
If it was only the initial world load, I could live with it – everyone needs a pee break now and then, after all – but it’s so much worse than that. Once you’re in the “open” world, BioWare puts you on a tight leash. If you stray too far from your next waypoint, the game smacks you with an “Outside Mission Boundary!” warning that counts down to a mandatory warp to the objective – and another loading screen.
Umbilical cords offer more slack than Anthem’s invisible mission tether. I can’t count the number of times when my next waypoint has been “RIGHT THERE!”, and my fellow rocket jockeys are right by my side as we’re all counted down to load screen oblivion by Anthem’s anal-retentive virtual director. “No, that’s your mark, just literally stand on that ‘x’ on the floor, okay?”
The mission boundary message is also situated in a way that it blocks the heat meter for your rocket pack, so I also can’t count the number of times that I’ve been closing in on the mission area only to crash and burn because my suit has overheated – at which point I have to sit through another lengthy load time just to relocate 20 yards closer to where I was already heading…
How’s the heat level on my boosters doing? Oh that’s right, I CAN’T SEE IT BECAUSE OF YOUR STUPID WARNING MESSAGE
Hey, hey, guess what happens when you die? If your answer is “another load time,” you’re only half right. You will indeed face another lengthy loading screen when you respawn. However, chances are good that they’ll load you back at the last mission area, which instantly triggers the warning countdown with LITERALLY NO HOPE of you getting back into the current mission zone before it reaches zero – instigating a second load. Who thought this was okay?!?!?!
If you’re thinking this all sounds pretty bad, allow me to slap you with an informercial-worthy “But wait, there’s more!” You know how usually in games if you want to switch your weapon, you simply pull up the inventory menu and move things around? In Anthem, you can only change your loadout in the forge back at the fort, and it requires its own load apart from loading into the fort. This is despite the fact that, as far as I can tell, it’s just a damn menu!
This positively befuddling structure led to me sitting through eight load screens in a single mission. EIGHT! Don’t believe me? Allow me to count them.
First, Reiner and I started a mission – load one. We flew to the first location and fought a few waves of pesky Scars, but I died during the battle. Rather than wait for my preoccupied teammates to revive me, I respawned – load two. However, the game respawned me back at the starting area and I failed to make it back to the battleground in time because, as cool as my javelin is, it can’t move at the speed of light – load three.
Defeating the group of Scars eventually led us to a dungeon, which we entered – load four. There we fought another group of Scars, before being giving the coordinates to one final location. We left the dungeon – load five – and had one more showdown against some enemies. We then waited for the end-of-mission stats to show up – load six (yep, even the stats need a load!). I chose to warp directly to the forge to equip my new weapons – load seven – then had to exit back out to the fort to ready up for the next mission, for a whopping total of EIGHT LOADS – ah ah ah!
I honestly have no idea how a game could end up with so many load times. My current working theory is that the Frostbite engine is as structurally sound as the Edith Finch house. That or someone at BioWare just has a really weird loading-screen fetish.
Ultimately, however, all the loading screens in the world wouldn’t matter if the mission design is good, so here are some complaints about that.
Get used to objectives like “Defeat Scar Ambush” and “Eliminate Threat” and “Defend The McGuffin”
Allow me to describe every damn mission in Anthem: You fly a few minutes to place that some chatty quest-giver has sent you to. You fight enemies there for a few minutes. You do a thing – usually flipping a switch or putting a broken technobobble back together. You fly to a second place, fight more waves of enemies for a few minutes, then do the thing again. You fly to a third place, sometimes a dungeon, then fight more guys and usually a boss.
That is Anthem’s mission design, without fail, and about the only thing that changes is the dialogue being said by a voice actor who is desperate to convince you that this mission is somehow different from all the previous ones. That and the initial sci-fi McGuffin you’re hunting for changes.
One mission, I was looking for a character’s diary. Several other missions I was looking for journals, which is just another word for diary. I have also chased down “lost research,” “historical documents,” and “salvage” – which is really just mission-designer speak for “Good lord, I have to come up with another synonym for ‘crap’?”
Not to mention the fact that apparently everyone in Anthem’s world is constantly drawing maps to where they’re headed next and leaving them behind just in case something bad happens. At this point I’m so used to it that I’ve started doing it myself in real life.
Hey, you never know when you might stumble into an enemy ambush in the bathroom
Many other times the McGuffin is helping a group of sentinels – NPC soldiers who, despite having their own javelins, would still be overwhelmed by a pile of rocks. Theoretically, these sentinels fight alongside you in battle, but it only takes about five seconds of combat to realize why you are constantly investigating distress calls from them. During one mission, Reiner and I had to rescue a bunch of sentinels from primitive cages that they couldn’t break out of even though every character in Anthem’s universe has an unlimited supply of rockets strapped to them at all times. When we opened the doors, the sentinels didn’t even walk out – they just continued standing there, motionless. It really feels good to know you’re making a difference!
My favorite mission tasked Reiner and I with breaking up an auction for illegal weapons. By that point, I had already played enough Anthem to know our objective sounded dubious.
First, we flew to a location, which turned out not to be the auction, but did coincidentally involve fighting waves of enemies for a few minutes. Afterward, we found a map(!), which was supposed to lead us to the real auction site. When we got there, however, it turned out to be an ambush – requiring us to fight more waves of enemies for a few more minutes. That led us to the actual auction site, during which waves of “bidders” for the non-existent weapons showed up and we had to fight them as well.
This location happened to be the same area we fought waves of enemies in during the previous mission as well – the only difference was the quest-giver constantly talking about the auction over our headsets in order to sell the charade. “Oh look, the next group of bidders have arrived at the auction!” Oh really, BioWare? How about the pack of damned Ice Wolves that just showed up? Are the Ice Wolves bidding on the weapons too?!
You can’t have an EA game without microtransactions!
Another mission set Reiner and I on the hunt for an Auspex. It was one of the few quest items that didn’t just sound like a stack of papers left behind by some forgetful egghead, so I was intrigued. Suffice it to say, after flying to and fighting enemies in three locations, I still didn’t know what the hell an Auspex was, but I was determined to find out. I googled “Auspex,” but the only entries that came up were full of people complaining that the quest-line was broken.
Reiner eventually got an explanation during another post-mission cutscene that I wasn’t privy to, because again, the disjointed narrative delivery during multiplayer sessions is INSANE. Anyway, apparently the Auspex is a magical sci-fi device that lets its user see the future – but only a minute into the future. A lot of good that does me. I already know what I’ll be doing one minute in the future – I’ll still be waiting for the next damn mission to load!
I haven’t run into any straight-up broken quests like others have been complaining about, but I have encountered plenty of bugs – and I’m not talking about the cosplaying Scars. Toward the end of one particularly grueling mission where respawns were disabled, our whole squad magically lost the ability to revive one another; all we could do was dance around our kneeling comrades while waiting for the missing revive prompt to pop up. In another battle, Reiner revived me, but the U.I. message remained – which also happens to be friggin’ huge. Try flying around and shooting a squad of enemies with this message plastered across your screen:
It ain’t the javelin that’s malfunctioning in this screen…
One time, the subtitle for a random line of dialogue stayed on the screen for an entire mission. Oftentimes, enemy health bars won’t show up, so you don’t know how much or even if you’re doing damage to them. The first time I unlocked a new javelin, the game crashed back to the Xbox dashboard, which I took as a sign I should stop playing for the evening.
During one mission, Reiner’s audio cut out completely, a bug he noted so matter-of-factly that I’m guessing it’s happened more than once. At the end of another particularly long mission, my game crashed to the title screen, robbing me of all the loot I collected during it. I can overlook a lot of problems, but when you rob me of a half-hour mission’s worth of loot, YOU’VE CROSSED A LINE. Apparently that line is a bit fuzzy though, because I’m still playing Anthem, and still – for some incomprehensible reason – enjoying it.
Ultimately, it is a testament to the core gameplay – the flying, the shooting, the bright and bombastic explosions showering every colorful battlefield – that Anthem is still a pretty fun time in spite of all its problems. I’m guessing BioWare isn’t content with “pretty fun,” and that it will continue working to transform Anthem into a great game. The potential is certainly there – all they have to do is fix all the bugs, consolidate and decrease the excessive amount of load times, figure out a better way to deliver story in a multiplayer setting, completely revamp its approach to mission design, rebalance loot drops, come up with some actual end-game content that doesn’t just involve endlessly re-running the same missions on harder difficulty levels, and stave off the crushing pressure from EA to regress the entire experience into an exploitative mess of microtransactions. Easy, right?
All joking aside, I do hope BioWare can sand off at least some of Anthem’s rough edges, and I’m genuinely interested in seeing where the live-service approach takes the game next. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Destiny, which seems like the more apt comparison. It took Bungie a long time to fix the substantial problems Destiny launched with, but it eventually figured it out and made fans happy. Then they pissed everyone off again by making all the same mistakes with the sequel, but we can tackle that when Anthem 2 comes out.