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July 2019


Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: RPG/Action
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: BioWare
Release Date: Feb. 22, 2019


PS4/XOne/PC Preview - 'Anthem'

by Redmond Carolipio on Jan. 24, 2019 @ 10:00 p.m. PST

Anthem is a shared-world action-RPG, where players can delve into a vast world teeming with amazing technology and forgotten treasures.

Pre-order Anthem

Anthem, even in small bites, sounds easy to like. If you knew nothing of the story, you've likely heard that Electronic Arts and BioWare are putting you in an armored suit that can both fly and travel underwater, basically telling you, "Go. Have at it." But is that really enough? Like many others, I was curious about more. What would the characters be like? What kind of depth of story are we looking at? How do the story and world shape up? How does the game feel? These are the kinds of things one can only find out through playing.

That's what we did during a large-scale preview event at EA's Redwood City campus. It was a day's worth of gameplay, where we and dozens of others dove into difference aspects of BioWare's newly crafted, futureworld odyssey about a planet apparently orphaned by gods and held together by heroes in mechanized armor.

To recap, you assume the role of a Freelancer, one of the people tasked to keep the peace on a world that was left in chaos when the gods who were building it suddenly disappeared. Left behind were various creatures and other bits of unfinished crazy. At the heart of all this is the "Anthem," which is the chief tool or source of energy the gods used to build their world.

To hear the game tell it, the Anthem seems like one of those fickle kinds of untapped supreme power, the kind not meant to be mastered and totally cool with damning those who wish to try. To combat this madness, humans built the armored suits (called Javelins), which begot the Freelancers, whose charge is to make the world tenable by fighting all threats ranging from large creatures to storms brought on by strange artifacts.

One of the striking narratives appears to be how the Freelancers are perceived. Our demo started with a tutorial-style mission that witnessed the Freelancers at the height of their powers, geared up to take on something called a "cataclysm" named the Heart of Rage. For this mission, you step into the armor of a rookie, who's been tossed into the thick of combat with a veteran team and a lot of Anthem-specific terminology that you might not know right away, unless you're truly read in to the lore (I was not). You get terms like "arcanist," "cypher," or "cataclysm" hurled at you, and it was left to us to sort of figure out what those words meant.

I was intrigued at how the first elaborate cinematic leads to a moment of customization for your character: You actually crash and your systems are offline, which leads to your cypher (handler/dispatcher) bringing your suit back one piece at a time, leading to a point where you choose your character's voice (male or female). You then start to get a feel for how the Javelin suits work, though it's not fully powered. You move with the left stick, but a click of the left stick triggers a boosted sprint, while you can also double-jump with the X/A button. The triggers do what you'd think they do in terms of aiming and firing: left to aim/zoom, right to shoot.

We also learned that there's a historical bent to the tutorial mission. This is the day the Freelancers lost. Without getting into too much detail, let's say that the Heart of Rage mission became such a mess that it essentially fractures the Freelancers from within, shatters their visage as humanity's superheroes, and is referred to in a tone of fearful reverence. Fast-forward to the game's true start, and your rookie Freelancer is now a veteran survivor of tragedy, taking jobs as they come – if they come.

That bit of exposition brought us to the Anthem version of a hub: Fort Tarsis. It's one of the few, if not only, times you're actually out of the suit. You'll also transition from third-person to first-person to explore and interact with the various people within who can offer illuminating conversation or different missions. Since this is BioWare, both. One thing that stood out to me: Every person I spoke to face-to-face within the Anthem universe had an attractiveness about them. These are some damn good character models; it was like watching a show on the CW. All the dudes were charming, dashing or rugged regardless of age, and all the ladies seemed to carry either a unique, outward or understated (but not really) beauty to them. It almost feels like a tease with the knowledge that you can't romance anyone in the game like in past BioWare works. The future may be bleak, but it'll be hot as hell, I guess.

This extends to the faces you can choose for your Javelin pilot during a character customization screen once you get situated at Fort Tarsis. Since I picked a female, I was treated to a kaleidoscope of lovely, billboard-worthy faces. I look forward to the February release of the game, where the savior of the world could also double as an Instagram model.

Where you can really burn a lot of time is the Forge, which you can use to personalize your Javelin armor. You can typically rearrange your weapons setup, but flip on over to the "appearance" tab, and you'll have an entire palette of colors, textures, markings (when earned or crafted – you can craft stuff, too) at your beck and call to give your Javelin all kinds of personal touches. I probably spent too much time playing around with color schemes. First, I went with Jordan sneaker colorways that came to mind, then I went with a college theme, decking out my Colossus in USC or Ohio State colors. I did Lakers colors. Eventually, I did most of my work in a clean, matte-like finish of mostly black with gold trim.

As has been said before, there are four different Javelin suits you can use, and it turns out you can have more than one of them. You pick one at the outset, and you can unlock more as you reach certain levels. This time, I took each of them for a spin during a variety of missions. Fort Tarsis appears to serve as the mission home, where a mix of side tasks and critical path missions can be accessed by walking around and having conversations with different people. Markers popped up to guide me in the right direction or to the right person, depending on what I wanted to accomplish. Most missions, or "expeditions" started with me heading on over to my Javelin and getting in. This brought me to a map screen with mission and free-play areas marked on it. For missions, I had the choice of either jumping in to another party's mission in progress via quickplay, or start my own solo or with friends. The process of picking missions on the map took some time for some of us to get used to. For me, it was finding my way around all of the options available, such as squadding up, quickplay, matchmaking, etc.

What still makes an impression, however, is what happens when you're actually within the game world. This happened at E3 2018, and it happened again here: BioWare has found a control package that hits that sweet spot of being both intricate and seamless. Within five minutes, you can feel in total control of this awesome fighting suit that can fly, hover, dive underwater and swim around while also packing galactic firepower.

By now, we know about the Colossus (walking tank) and the Ranger (well-balanced), but the Interceptor class can impress as the agile, flashy hand-to-hand Javelin, slicing down enemies in a whirling dervish of blades while whipping and flipping around the battlefield. In terms of pure cool, the Storm class might occupy the top spot. It's a light-armor suit that comes with a small cape. While the other suits break into a jet-boosted sprint, the Storm starts gliding fast, with feet off the ground. The shield actually becomes a little stronger when you hover. The special attacks triggered by the right and left bumpers end up shooting elemental attacks from the gun handler's hands. Its "ultimate" attack can call forth a storm of lightning. Basically, you're a wizard, Harry. It felt like the perfect support-class/clean-up hitter for a balanced team.

The day missions I tried out ranged from a simple "find the missing person" task, where you explored and fought off monsters to teamwork-heavy contracts. Large-scale battles can happen over wide-open and closed spaces. There's even some light puzzle work in there, where we have to really communicate with teammates about interacting with the correct buttons or levers to open a door. Other missions were of the pick-up-an-item-and-place-it variety, where a team has to balance fighting off hordes by just finishing the task at hand. Given the fact you can fly, some items can be a little harder to access than others. And of course, if our E3 playthrough was any indication, there will be big, bad creatures to fight.

What I still have questions about is how Anthem's story and characters will unfold, mainly because I started to care about the ones I met during my playtime. Aside from the aesthetically pleasing character models, many of them seem ready to share intricate story arcs, like Matthias, the missing arcanist who knows a lot about the history of Javelins, how they work, and how this god-built world in chaos really ticks. There's the mysterious Tassyn, a female spy who starts you off with your first real critical path mission. Then there are the cyphers Faye and the extremely talkative Owen, who handle you through some of your missions. It wouldn't be BioWare if they didn't create characters worth knowing, so I look forward to seeing who else I run into during my journey into this world.

Anthem, like many titles arriving in 2019, has the potential to be special. Its comparisons to Destiny can be well-founded in terms of teamwork and feel, but the Javelin and the still-growing world adds levels of exploration and dynamism that set it apart. We'll see when it launches on Feb. 22.

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