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


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In-Depth PS4 Review - 'Anthem'

by Redmond Carolipio on March 12, 2019 @ 12:45 a.m. PDT

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

Buy Anthem

If one of the best things you can say about Anthem is that it kind of, sort of, maybe has a chance to be pretty good a year after release, it's not a stretch of the imagination to say EA's launch of this heavily hyped (and even more heavily disappointing) open-world shooter could have gone better.

Instead of a great game, Anthem feels like a skeleton of great ideas that lacks connective tissue, such as a developed, cohesive story or even an honest chance at a bug-free experience. To use a sports analogy, I'd compare Anthem to the 2018-19 Los Angeles Lakers: It had promising pieces, high expectations, and a need to perform well after subpar past performances (Mass Effect Andromeda feels like lore for all the wrong reasons). All of this goodwill is quickly undone by baffling construction decisions, poor fundamental execution, and the unshakeable feeling that much of this feels like a result of institutional hubris, where a company can hype up and then dump out what feels like an unfinished product and then expect a constantly on-the-go game enthusiast public to wait for it to improve.

I shouldn't be thinking, "Life is too short for this s**t," when I'm playing a game, but that is Anthem's leftover echo in my mind. It pains me to say this, too, because as any of the previews I've written about this game show, I stood behind very few when it came to waxing poetic about what BioWare was cooking up: Flying around like in a cool-ass suit of armor in what appeared to be a world rich with possibilities, secrets, adventures and stories. I just have to, you know, actually get past the load screens and a menagerie of other weird stuff every time I start up the game.

It is impossible to talk about the Anthem experience without talking about bugs, so let's rip off the band-aid and get those out of the way. Past loot-shooter offerings like The Division and Destiny have their share of kooky glitches and errant moments, but the problems I faced in Anthem were baffling and staggering in their scale and consistency: There was not one time, not one play session, in dozens and dozens of hours, where I didn't see something within the structure of the game careen off the rails at least once. It was impossible to avoid. I could probably fill this entire piece by simply cataloguing all of the duncery that myself and others have encountered since the demo. Aside from dealing with things like connectivity problems and game freezing, here are a few of my favorites:

  • The quickplay feature, where you can hop in and help someone else complete their mission (and get XP and items) was a complete crapshoot. There was a 50-60 percent chance it wouldn't work at all, and that percentage is probably generous. The game either froze on a load screen, or it would drop me into a mission that would be crucially broken: There was a mission section where we had to fight off Dominion soldiers, except they kept being generated endlessly. In theory, we could have fought forever, with the mission never progressing.
  • A patch was released to ease some of this, but the sense of tethering was off balance. It would feel like I'd be trailing the rest of my party (or vice versa) by only a few seconds, only to get a perpetually unsatisfied countdown to being unnecessarily pulled into place with everyone else. It's much looser and less annoying now, but it still leaves everyone paranoid enough to jet ahead with their javelins as quickly as possible.
  • This one was kind of fun: There was a bug that turned your meek, level 1 assault rifle for Ranger javelins into an unreasonably powered tool of the gods. Bullets from my starter-kit rifle (I had to start a new loadout) would melt enemy shields and blast apart enemies that would usually take a few heavy attacks to put down. Boss monsters were no match for any squad woke enough to know what was happening. I'm pretty sure people peeled through the intense endgame "stronghold" missions in record time for at least a night or two.
  • Sound was funky. I'd go from hearing an NPC speaking clearly to them sounding as if they were locked in a trunk, even though I'd be standing right next to them.
  • My character once disappeared completely from a cinema screen, but you could still hear voice and other audio, like footsteps. Also, the camera angles would shoot as if my character was still there and everyone could see her, so I was treated to the sight of Haluk (one of the characters) talking to air right next to him, as if he's talking to his imaginary buddy. It was hilarious and sad.

All of these things build up to a game that feels unfinished. What adds more pain to the experience is that there is some truly good work to behold, the kind of magical sparks that keep luring me back in, even with the knowledge that there's still so much wrong.

By magical sparks, I mean bullets. And armor. And fire. And just … power.

The one section of Anthem that feels complete is the fluid, occasionally transcendent action elements. It is why, even after wading through this bog of an experience, I still keep firing up the damn thing. The best action games have controls that make sense, enabling you to play fast and intuitively within any scenario. You also sometimes need awesome toys for good action, and few things move the needle toward awesome quite like the Javelins.

To refresh, the Javelins are the armored suits you use to navigate and fight in the Anthem world, and there are four different kinds, all with varying strengths and abilities: Colossus, Interceptor, Ranger and Storm. We'll get to the lore behind them a little later, but their mere existence and combat functionality is at a level that actually seems out of place with the rest of the game.

I really enjoyed the fact that each Javelin was so customizable. You can burn away chunks of time simply playing around with weapons loadouts and color schemes. I've spent plenty of time waffling back and forth on whether I wanted to add a diamond-plated finish to the shoulder hinges on my Colossus, or if I should give its core that nice matte-black look. I've painted up my Interceptor to pay tribute to Captain Marvel, and my Ranger resembles the colors of the crown jewels of my sneaker collection (a pair of Jordan 32s, if you're curious). That kind of customization gives players an intimate sense of ownership and expression. It is very cool to watch something you've built and worked on in action, all the time, and even in cinematics — especially when it has a chance to throw blades, bullets, lightning and shells.

It probably took me about five minutes to master the art of flying a Javelin. When Tony Stark takes his suit for a spin in the first "Iron Man" movie, he rockets out of his garage, wobbles around in the air to steady himself, and then says, "handles like a dream" before turning on the boosters. That's what flying the Javelin feels like, every time. If you've ever played a game where you have to fly, then you can handle the Javelin easily on the sticks. Pushing forward on the stick kicks in the afterburners, and one thumbstick click puts you in hover mode. You can also jump and click to start hovering as well, or you can pull down on the left trigger while flying to whip out your gun of choice and hover. One thing to keep an eye on his overheating, which will cause your jets to shut down in mid-flight. You can fly into water or cruise through waterfalls for a quick cool-down. You might find this a little tiresome at first, but it was easy to get used to after a few flights.

The one thing you can't do is fire straight ahead while you are in full flight. This annoyed more than a few people, but I didn't notice or need it, as there were so many other ways to rain down hell upon my foes. The transition of the Javelin from air-to-ground is seamless, as you use the ever-familiar left-trigger-aim/right-trigger-fire setup, with the shoulder buttons as your gateways to different kinds of rechargeable weaponry, like junior railguns for the Colossus or ice strikes for your Storm. If you do enough damage, you'll fill up a meter to unlock your "ultimate" ability, an extremely powerful attack that, when used strategically, can close out major battles. Each one differs with each Javelin: The Ranger fires a missile volley, the Interceptor goes all "Wing Chun" and starts slicing through everything in sight, the Storm rains down ice chunks, etc.

Aside from the main story missions, there are other ways to flex the power of your Javelin, like "legendary" contracts or side missions for many of the key characters you encounter. There's also Freeplay, where you pick a place in the middle of the map, drop in, and roam around. Sometimes you'll find enemies to shoot, and other times, you'll find dungeons to raid. In a perfect world, it would've been the kind of places you'd find in deeper open-world experiences, where you can stumble on a character or place that yields a low-key massive adventure. Most of the time, however, I just found more stuff to harvest. For the most non-story, guns-blazing fun, I took on the strongholds, the game's equivalent of super-dungeons that feature a boss monster at the end.

Even in the webbing of this awesome combat, I still noticed a few problems. The one that jumps to mind is that most of the lesser enemies are stupid. They seem to move with little purpose other than to be targets for your superior weaponry. They're kind of like fighting extras in a Bruce Lee movie, wandering around or standing there waiting for their turn to get a faceful of pain. In every battle, I'll be privy to enemies running right past me or standing there begging to get shot. I like delivering righteous mechanized fury as much as anyone else, and I even found the abundance of moronic assailants to be a little therapeutic, but other times, it can drag — and it did, especially without other narrative pieces to engage the mind.

This is where we talk about my biggest problem with Anthem, other than the bugs: Where is the storytelling? Oh, there's plenty of lore about the Anthem of Creation, and how the beings who created this world suddenly left, leaving the world unfinished and unstable, which led to people creating the Javelins generations ago to ensure humanity's survival. You can find bits of and read that text anytime in the game. As far as the use of narrative as a pathway to intriguing legends, colorful characters with their own backstories, plots within plots, and other things we've come to expect from BioWare: They're not there. It's like we get BioWare Lite, with potentially likeable and aesthetically pleasing characters who rarely get past the conversations you're caught in that feature binary responses. You can keep talking to the same people, and they eventually have more to say, but I never got the feeling that it was going anymore. No extra or hidden missions sprung up, no bonuses, no branching dialogue trees, and nothing to bend or influence your character to differing interactions or effects. It all feels shallow, down to people repeating the same stuff over and over again while you're walking around in Fort Tarsis, the place that functions as your home base.

This lack of depth goes against everything we've come to expect about BioWare. Personally, this was the unknown element that I was willing to hang my hat on: When we started looking into Anthem, my thought process would be that BioWare has finally nailed down its action identity to near-perfection, and it was about to merge it with its signature brand of galactic tale-weaving. That's not what we got. Instead, we have some characters who hint at being very interesting and lore that backs up a poorly told, clunky narrative that leans on a few too many familiar tropes.

After all that, what's left? Well, this is a loot-shooter, so the lasting appeal would be to keep playing and ramp up your Javelin to the point where it's considered a "masterwork," and then wait for any kind of expansion or new content. I won't get into the minutia of the loot system, mainly because I wasn't compelled enough to have much of a vested interest in it. Sure, I would get some joy about unlocking a masterwork assault rifle (after encountering "common," "uncommon," "rare" and "epic") pieces along the way, but in the early going, there were far too many instances of useless garbage being dropped after raids. Again, a patch has apparently addressed that, but many patches or expansions at this point almost feel too late.

At least the game is pretty. I'm not trying to be cute. I mean this is a very, very good-looking game, one of the best you can view on any system if you can get past the occasional pop-up or visual hiccup. The cinematic facial models and expressions are some of the best I've ever seen, and the world both above and underwater begs for exploration.

I'll leave you with an explainer about a crucial story mission that sort of encapsulates the core problems I have with Anthem's narrative. It involves you, the Freelancer, needing to discover the ancient armor of General Tarsis, apparently the greatest hero of Freelancer history. To do that, you need to find the tombs of the general's other lieutenants, each legendary warriors in their own right. Sounds dope, right? At this point, my mind wanders to the possibility of flying around, finding each tomb, exploring it, maybe encountering some guardians or solving some puzzles to show my worthiness. Each tomb would be an adventure, right? It has to be. How awesome.

Well, as some of you might know, that's not what you get. Instead, you get gaming homework. Each tomb's "trial" is a shopping list of "do x amount of combos" or "find x amount of materials." It's busywork, meant to be done in Freeplay. With the completion of each trial, you simply fly to the tomb, open the door, open a sarcophagus, and then get what you need. That's it. There was so much possibility here, but it was reduced to a Freelancer grocery list.

I will probably fire up Anthem more than a few times again, if only to experience the joyous nature of plopping down a Colossus in the middle of a firefight and unfurling fiery, shelled death upon the landscape. It's a wonderful distraction. But unfortunately, Anthem doesn't look like anything more than that. I can't recommend it.

Score: 5.0/10

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