Anthem is going to have a lot to prove in both the weeks leading up to release and the months following it. It already has a reputation as a Destiny clone to deal with and many are afraid that its developer’s signature style won’t have the chance to shine through either. Fortunately, neither of these fears reflect the reality of Anthem. At least not to the degree that most seem to think they do. Its framework is indeed similar to that of Destiny, and its story probably doesn’t have the depth of previous BioWare games like Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition. Anthem does nonetheless manage to carve out its own identity thanks in large part to interesting characters and the raw fun to be had in piloting its futuristic mech suits. If nothing else, the few hours we spent with it recently left us feeling hopeful that the full game will be worthwhile.
The first thing Anthem impressed upon me was just how good it felt to move around in its “Javelin” mech suits. These suits basically grant their pilots super-human abilities. Launching mortars from mid-air, calling down lightning storms and zipping around enemies in the blink of an eye are all on the table from the very beginning, and it all feels excellent. There are four Javelin archetypes for players to pick from: Scout, Colossus, Interceptor and Storm. Scouts are best described as the all-rounder class. They have moderately powerful abilities and shielding, and can do most things reasonably well. The Colossus serves mostly as a cross between a tank and heavy artillery; they’re bulky machines built to take punishment and deal it out in kind. The Interceptor is the complete opposite of the Colossus; it’s all about getting in and out of harm’s way quickly while harassing enemy forces. Finally, the Storm is something akin to a magic caster, a glass-cannon with unusual yet powerful attacks with large areas of effect. Players will have to pick one in the beginning of the game, but all will become available as the player proceeds through the game.
After spending a few hours playing Anthem and trying each of the Javelins out, several similarities and differences to games like Destiny became apparent. Like Destiny, abilities differ depending on which class/Javelin one picks. These base classes can also be further specialized into subclasses. One can pick individual weapons and components in order to better optimize for the task at hand, and the look of one’s Javelin is highly customizable. Unlike Destiny though, the player appears to have many more options available to them in all these cases.
Gear is important in Anthem, just like in Destiny, but its importance goes beyond the gear’s power level. One’s subclass is determined almost entirely by their loadout, depending on everything from weapon choice to a player’s selection of buffs and supporting tech. A Colossus player can build themselves to be a beefy frontline tank focused on holding the enemy’s attention while the rest of the squad deals damage. Alternatively, they focus on dealing massive damage from afar or using weapons like flamethrowers to burn away defenses and set up combo strikes. It’s as if BioWare has taken the character-building features from Dragon Age and adapted them to Anthem. It’s not as deep as Dragon Age of course, but it feels like there’s more to it than other games following the looter/shooter framework.
BioWare’s knack for storytelling seems to have successfully carried-over to Anthem too. Not much of the plot was available to see, and what was shown left some lingering questions, but there definitely is a story here and its characters are actually interesting. One character that stood out in particular is Owen. He’s a young man who’s one of the few who’ve developed the ability to link minds. As such, he works as a “Cypher” for the player’s freelancer and a handful of others. Despite this ability, though, he’s out to prove himself and enjoy adventures of his own, so much so that he’s practically chomping at the bit. The writers and voice actors have successfully given this guy a personality, one that makes me want to know more about him.
The same can be said for several characters that inhabit Anthem’s hub: Fort Tarsis. It’s the Tower from Destiny, but it’s also more than that thanks to these characters. It’s also supposed to be the main setting for much of the story, so players will have that to look forward to as well. Not everything happens in Fort Tarsis, though, as I encountered a few cutscenes while playing missions along the critical path outside the city walls. BioWare has a story to tell here, it’s just a question of whether or not it’ll be a good one.
Outside of playing around with the Javelin’s combat abilities, traversing the game world was also rather fun. Flight doesn’t sound like it would make that much of a difference at first, but it really does. Whether in the midst of a fight or just getting from A to B, flight is accessible at the push of a button. It can be used to hover and provide support from the air, one can pull of quick flanking maneuvers with it and frankly it’s just fun to fly around out in the open just going to the next objective. If nothing else, BioWare has nailed the feeling of flight in Anthem. It’s not clear whether the same can be said for exploration and enemy behavior, though.
First impressions of Anthem’s world are that it’s very large and very detailed. Outside of Fort Tarsis, one can pretty much just strike out in any direction and see what there is to see. There are caves to explore, strongholds to uncover, landmarks to find, lore to discover and plenty of resources to plunder. The exploration aspect of the game was enjoyable for the couple of hours I spent with the game, but I wonder if that feeling will hold out for very long. Locations like strongholds can’t be jumped into lightly and seeking out lore doesn’t seem interesting enough to carry this portion of the game for the long haul. Hopefully there’s more to find in the full game.
For the most part, the enemies encountered in these first few hours of Anthem didn’t pose that much of a tactical challenge. Their strength and defense got beefed up while playing on a harder difficulty, but most were not interesting in terms of the tactics needed to defeat them. A handful of larger enemy types required flanking and precision shooting to bring down, and bosses required some coordination to fight effectively. So there is potential here. It just depends on whether or not more interesting enemies are introduced as the game goes on. Anthem gives its players a wealth of options in terms of builds and combat options, so it’ll be a shame if there’s little to push their use.
At the very least, Anthem has potential. Each Javelin plays distinctly from the others and all allow for a large amount of functional customization. Taken as a whole, these suits enable a wide variety of play styles and roles, and the ability to fly makes a much bigger difference than one would think. The world is large, detailed and encourages player to explore its depths and uncover its secrets; whether or not they’re secrets worth finding remains to be seen though. As for story, we can at least confirm that it’s there and its characters are interesting at the very least, even the villain. These are good signs, but there’s still no guarantee that BioWare fans will get the kind of story they’re looking for here. It all has the potential to be good, even great. It all depends on whether or not BioWare can keep it interesting moving forward.
Anthem launches for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One on February 22.