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

About Tony "OUberLord" Mitera

I've been entrenched in the world of game reviews for almost a decade, and I've been playing them for even longer. I'm primarily a PC gamer, though I own and play pretty much all modern platforms. When I'm not shooting up the place in the online arena, I can be found working in the IT field, which has just as many computers but far less shooting. Usually.


PC Review - 'Anthem'

by Tony "OUberLord" Mitera on March 4, 2019 @ 12:00 a.m. PST

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

Buy Anthem

There's an NPC in Anthem that at almost every opportunity extols the importance of being flashy and arriving in style. A snappy coat of paint and some impressive details can be important if you really want to leave a mark. Anthem itself clearly subscribes to this philosophy, and the vibrant graphics deliver the spectacle of using a javelin suit to enact your might upon the battlefield. It is beyond that spectacle where Anthem struggles, as the underlying gameplay lacks depth, and the story is poorly portrayed.

Anthem starts off strongly, though, when you don your javelin suit as the newest member of a squad of freelancers. The freelancers dive into the cataclysms in world and try to stop them. On this mission, the cataclysm is far fiercer than usual, most of the freelancers become casualties, and only the player and a handful of others survive. Years afterward, the player is one of the few freelancers still operating and scraping by in the area of Fort Tarsis.

Once that mission wears off, Anthem begins to struggle to explain itself. The game has a codex that lets you dive into topics you've discovered and read up on them. The problem is that it's effectively required reading to make heads or tails of major elements in the game's world. Characters will name-drop factions, locations and people out of context as inhabitants of the world would, except you as the player have no idea what they're talking about.

This lack of information extends to the plot as well. For the first few hours of play, the underlying plot is incredibly poorly established. The Dominion show up and are portrayed as a stereotypical enemy force that went away for a while but are back. They wish to control the Anthem, the song of creation that reshapes the world and is the same power that can manifest as cataclysms. You learn this via a couple of cut scenes, but otherwise, the topic doesn't come up again during normal gameplay for quite a while.

In the meantime, you carry out contracts to help the inhabitants of Fort Tarsis, the largely static hub area that you slowly navigate on foot while trying to return to the fun part of the game. The fort is stunningly gorgeous and well detailed, and it's where you walk around and speak to the various NPCs. In the conversations, you can occasionally select one of two responses, but it rarely matters. There are no relationships to build, and there certainly aren't any romances or enemies. That's not to say that some of the characters aren't memorable, such as your cypher friend Owen, but most conversations are merely hurdles to clear before more quests or plot "unlocks."

You can visit the forge to swap out your javelin's loadout or tweak its look, the former of which you'll do after every mission to equip your new loot. There are four classes of javelins: Colossus, Interceptor, Ranger and Storm. Each of the four javelin classes has the same number of slots, but the slots have completely different options. The Colossus has explosive mortars and railguns, while the Interceptor has poison clouds and armor-piercing shuriken. Each ability slot has a few different potential options that can be used, so you can mix and match as you obtain more powerful versions in loot or want to try new combinations.

You must select just one of the javelin types to start with, but as you level up, you'll eventually have all four available. As you level up, you also unlock additional component slots for all of your javelin types, which increases your javelin's power by a noticeable amount. All progression in the game centers around getting better loot that you can slot into your javelin, which in turn makes it stronger. You might have a railgun that has an item level of 15, get one that has an item level of 16, and swap it in to become incrementally more powerful.

It's also clunky when items of uncommon rarity or higher have other modifiers. It might increase your magazine size for weapons, increase the damage shotguns do, or other such buffs. The problem is that there isn't a single screen where you can see a summary of your current buffs. Even in the early game, you can have 10 slots, all with their own potential buffs. Trying to keep track of these manually by poking into each submenu and trying to benefit from the synergy they can provide is nearly more troublesome than the benefits are worth.

Get past the plodding pace of Fort Tarsis and the convoluted mess that is the gear system, and the actual in-mission gameplay of Anthem is quite fun. You can play the game solo, but some content can be very difficult and cumbersome to get through on your own. You're better off playing with friends or with a group of random people through matchmaking. Downed javelins can be brought back up and running by their squadmates, which would otherwise be a death sentence in solo play.

It's in these moments with a full squad where Anthem really sings. It's fun to down a ton of enemies while javelins zip through the skies. Some of the more elite enemies are weaker when flanked, since their weak points can be exploited, so you'll have times when a Colossus taunts an enemy to keep its focus while an Interceptor dodges behind it to rack up some damage. On the harder difficulty levels, people really need to work together on missions, which tightens up the gameplay even further and makes it more enjoyable.

It's a problem that you had better get used to the same style of gameplay, as Anthem doesn't do a great job of providing variety. The landscapes may change somewhat, and you might occasionally fight inside of a structure or underground, but you fight a lot of the same enemies. Most enemies lack much in the way of AI short of, "get on the battlefield" and "stand there while shooting at players," so the battlefield doesn't feel dynamic. If anything, it's better described as chaos, since enemies spawn in from different locations and in all directions. In these situations, players must keep killing enemies until they've killed enough, and the game decides when they can progress further in the mission.

Occasionally, there's a bit more to a mission, and this is an area where the game shines. For example, some players might need to fend off waves of foes from the top of a ramp, while others have to destroy floating orbs that shock everyone in the area. More commonly, you might have things that need to be destroyed in an area or balls of light that need to be collected and brought to an area to unlock a "door" to proceed. It adds some spice to slaying dozens upon dozens of enemies that individually don't pose much of a threat.

Javelin customization is simultaneously a great touch within the game as well as one of its slimier aspects. You can customize a fair amount of a basic javelin, which involves picking a material type for different areas and (most of the time) picking a color. Want to make your javelin look mostly chrome, but the inner "cloth" bits should be leather? Have at it.

Unlocking more customization takes a lot of in-game coin, so it can take many missions' worth of income to unlock a single piece of armor. Of course, you can spend real money in the in-game store to get these items more quickly. Granted, they're cosmetic items, but we're talking about a $60 game here. It feels wrong that the only available customization options (currently one or two sets per javelin) are behind either a wall of dozens of missions or swiping your credit card. It feels even more distasteful after you realize that the voiced NPC in Fort Tarsis does nothing more than extol the virtues of a good-looking javelin, so he's basically there to drive in-game sales.

It's tough to know what Anthem will be like in a year or two, where it will presumably have more content. As it stands now, the game involves a lot of repetition, and what little plot exists unfolds at a snail's pace, is poorly explained, and lacks the necessary context to make sense of it. It's capable of being a very fun shooter, especially when friends comprise the rest of your squad. It's just that the rest of the game feels far from the polished content for which Bioware is known. As a "live" game, Anthem should continue to grow and improve over time, but as it stands now, it's difficult to recommend it over other games in the genre.

Score: 6.7/10

Reviewed on: Intel i7 4790k, 16 GB RAM, NVidia GTX 970

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