When it comes to hype, it’s hard to match the fever-pitched fervor of BioWare fans. These folks have ecstatically cheered though the good times and mercilessly jeered through the bad times. But regardless of where the audience’s reception of their games landed, one thing always remained consistent: passion. Partially due to fans so heavily investing in the worlds they’ve created, BioWare may have inadvertently cultivated some of the most outspoken consumers in all of gaming. While this level of feedback has usually helped propel the developer’s successes to unprecedented heights, it has also proven to be double-edged sword. This was on full display during the Mass Effect 3 ending debacle of 2012. Remember: Hell hath no fury like a spurned fanboy.
Fortunately for the studio, the audience’s reception to most releases has skewed towards the positive, which was no doubt aided by their consistently strong critical response. However, following the collective flogging of lackluster Mass Effect: Andromeda, not to mention a five-year streak of games being axed mid-development, the previously rock-solid future of the studio is now somewhat in question. Calling Anthem a “make-or-break” title might be a bit of a stretch, but its reception will undoubtedly dictate the direction of the studio moving forward.
On paper, Anthem seems like a fairly risky proposition. Based off of everything that we’d seen (or in some cases, played) it was hard to shake the feeling that action was far more central to the experience than the narrative. This was a significant departure from the narrative-driven experience that most would associate with a traditional BioWare title. Ultimately these concerns may end up coming to fruition in one shape or another, but this is still a well-calculated gamble. You don’t spend this much time developing a franchise if it isn’t going to be bankable for years to come.
The most painful part of any hands-on preview is that moment of anticipation, just waiting for permission to dive in. Sure, the “Press Start” prompt is blinking on the screen directly in front of you, but you’re not allowed to actually start without being given the go ahead. It’s brutal to be so close, yet still so far away. Luckily, the wait for Anthem was very much worth it. After burning through a series of intro cinematics that we’re unfortunately not allowed to discuss, players are introduced to the world of Anthem with the resounding thud of your javelin performing a “superhero landing” on some molten hunk of rock.
Without going too deep into the early narrative threads or the tutorial process, the early premonitions about the combat-heavy gameplay seemed to be spot on. Playing the role of a freshly-minted freelancer, players are chucked directly into the shit and are expected to fend for themselves against an increasingly insurmountable force of enemies. Assisted only by the cliché disembodied voice on the other side of the headset, this chaos sets the stage for everything that will follow in the campaign.
The Iron Man Fantasy
After getting through the initial period of being torn a new one, the world finally opens up and the real meat of the experience is unfurled. This is also when the much-touted javelin flight mechanics finally come into the play. After the intensity of the early gameplay, I had damn-near forgotten that we even had airborne abilities. However, as soon as flight was an option, it essentially becomes the one true way to traverse the map.
Each javelin has a slightly different interpretation of flight, but each unit’s flying powers would fall into the free-roaming, hovering, and charging varieties. Additionally, there’s an engine heat gauge that governs how long players can stay aloft. Though it seems like a more minor mechanic early on, it doesn’t take long to begin to utilize the smartly constructed cooldown systems in order to ward off an impending overheat. Actions such as taking a plunge from a great height will force air into the engine, thereby lowering the suit’s overall heat levels. Another method that I discovered a bit later on was flying in a close proximity to or grazing the surface of bodies of water will also result in a significant heat reduction. I don’t remember seeing any on-screen prompts that mentioned this water-centric cooldown method, but when you stop and think about it logically, it makes total sense.
Quickly zipping into the sky delivers the ultimate sense of gameplay freedom. I know it’s been said countless times since the early trailers, but every moment in a suit feels like it could be a slightly nerfed Iron Man game. I only say this because even fresh out of the tutorial, I felt like an unquestionable badass. The sheer power of being able to go anywhere and murder anything is an intoxicating sensation that’s worth the price of admission. And that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the gameplay.
I’m sure you’ve noticed that I have used synonyms for the word “kill” several times so far. It should probably come as no surprise that in the vast majority of what we were played from the early campaign, “shoot” or “kill” is the most common way to engage with the environment. Whether you’re attacking a wandering band of opposition or liberating a captured base, death is being dealt around every corner. For this reason, the player’s arsenal becomes the most important part of the pre-mission checklist.
A Mech Suit and Your Loot
Throughout the course of missions, players have the ability to gather items that are dropped by enemies. These key collectibles can take the form of health powerups, additional ammunition or javelin components. Once level cap is reached (more on that later) the upgrades are where the main progression occurs. While this won’t shock fans of the genre, what might catch them off guard are the javelin customization options.
When discussing customization, I’m primarily referring to the malleability of the color schemes. Simply put, there are countless options to pimp your ride. With that in mind, I took it upon myself to create the ugliest unit that has ever existed in the world of Anthem. The successfully hideous result looked like the byproduct of Lisa Frank painting the portrait of the bastard lovechild of a GoBot and Ninja Turtle. It was disgusting, yet amazing, all at the same time.
But enough about all of these petty customization mechanics. I’m sure you’re looking for a glimpse at that sweet, end-game content. Anyone who has previously played a game-as-a-service style title knows that reaching the end of a campaign narrative is just scraping the surface of the overall experience. And if what we’ve seen is any indication of the final product, there will be plenty to be excited about, long after the credits have rolled.
For our playthrough purposes, save files were zipped to what we were told was post-game. Progress was instantly apparent due to my character clocking in at a whopping level 30. Without actually saying it outright, this somewhat implies that at least the base game will likely cap out at the same place. Luckily, while leveling may cut off at that point, the meta of grinding for better gear and perks looks to be alive and well.
It’s somewhat significant to note that as I spawned into my first mission, I was immediately paired up with three other players. There was nothing done on my side in order to facilitate that process. The matchmaking was seamless and didn’t appear to have any impact on load times. I literally had no idea it was even happening.
Together as a Team
A perfect testament to its effortlessness was when I dove into the heat of combat, and other party members jumped in as well. At the time I didn’t even know that I had other members in my party and proceeded to unload an ineffectual clip into my pre-ordained teammate. It didn’t take me long to realize that I wasn’t the only person in the mission, at which point I felt like a total dumbass. Of course there were other players on the map! What was I thinking? This was driven home even further by the guy down the row that exclaimed, “Really, man?” I can only assume the sarcastic proclamation was fired in my direction. Let’s just say that I kept quiet and didn’t let on that I was “that guy.” Yep. I’m a total coward.
After getting over this initial embarrassment, I turned my focus to the task at hand. Unfortunately, there were some objectives that were fairly confusing. It took the members of my team several minutes to discern what was actually being asked of us, before we started making any inroads on the opposition. Granted, the goals that my team deemed confusing may have been something that would make total sense if we’d completed the campaign. It’s hard to say without the proper context.
Ultimately, the confusing objective boiled down to collecting bombs from dispatched enemies. These explosives would then be used to wipe out weapon stockpiles, which were located at another position on the map. The gameplay itself did begin to feel very repetitive due to the constant respawning of the same units, in the same location, at the exact same cadence. However, if we’d known what we were actually supposed to accomplish right out of the gate, the combat may have never gotten to the point of tedium. Common logic in game design is that if you are finding more bogeys to mow through, you are likely moving in the right direction. In this case, however, that was not the case.
As the mission progressed, there were a series of different fetch tasks that needed to be completed. Everything culminated in one final confrontation, where we desperately fought off continuous waves of Scar combatants, while trying to pick away at the health of a single bullet-spongy, four-legged crawler. At the risk of leaning too much on Destiny comparisons, it felt a lot like battling the first spider tank that appears in the original Destiny’s campaign. All it takes is paying a little ammunition attention to the critter’s armored legs and head, and it will eventually crack open like a fresh lobster. Fortunately for our freelancers, it jettisons loot instead of meat. All told, over the course of this stage nine new pieces of gear—of varying levels of quality—were collected.
One aspect of the contract that I found to be a bit distracting was the overall lack of boundaries. While exploration is a staple of this genre of this game, there’s also something to be said for helping to keep the progression of the gameplay on track. As you can see in the gameplay footage, there were several points where I was able to wander away from my entire team, without ever being pointed back towards the end goal. I was even able to navigate to a portion of the level that pulled me so far out of the action that it forced me to re-load into the main world in order to battle the final boss. Hopefully these sorts of inadvertent exploration distractions can be dealt with a bit more organically in the final product.
The last piece of endgame that we had time for was plowing through the meaty stronghold, the Temple of Scar. Of the content that we were allowed to play during this session, there were a grand total of three strongholds that we could’ve explored. Think of strongholds like an all-out assault on the a heavily fortified enemy base. Your freelancer is sent in guns-a-blazin’, with the goal of wrestling away control of a specific blip on the map.
As it was obvious that things were going to get really harry, really fast, we all equipped our strongest weaponry before diving into the chaos. My arsenal of choice consisted of submachine guns and assault rifles. Thankfully I also thought to customize these loadouts with extended clips, because things were going to become very messy.
Into the Temple
In another example of effortless matchmaking, this time I was paired up with a squad that was already working their way through the seemingly never-ending gobs of meat targets. I was surprised to see that I’d spawned into some sort of an underground bunker of sorts. The spelunking setting was consistent throughout the stage. Yet, despite the fact that everything was contained in a cave, there was still a verticality to the design that took full advantage of the already hyper-emphasized flight mechanics.
Aesthetically speaking, the structures were an interesting hybrid between something you might find in Warhammer if it were crossed with the more scavenger-centric designs of Borderlands. The combination works well to establish a setting that is unique, yet still familiar enough to not feel overly intimidating. Thankfully, this time around the objectives were also FAR clearer. Go here. Kill this. Gather that. Disarm turrets. There was very little ambiguity and the subterranean locale left very little room for deviation from the scripted structure. Considering how much the open-endedness threw me for a loop in my first end-game mission, the critical path focused approach was fine by me.
One aspect of this stage that differed from the first was the inclusion of objectives that actually encouraged mild, albeit non-mandatory, teamwork. There was a portion of the action where explosive tanks needed to be stacked next to a locked entrance. While carrying these objects, a player’s weaponry capabilities were extremely limited and flying was disabled. It was best to pair up with a teammate, with one doing the hauling while the other performed the mauling. Sure, it isn’t rocket science, but at least it tries to venture outside of lone-wolf land.
Death, destruction, and chaos would follow, culminating in one final proper-ass boss battle. During this confrontation, for the first time in my nearly 10 hours exploring the world of Anthem, every member of my party was killed. After hearing the sweet siren call of the afterlife, we were forced to respawn at a very generous checkpoint shortly before the boss appears. After dealing with the several different permutations and stages of the final conflict, there was again rejoicing in the street and more than enough treasures to go around. Ultimately, the adventure was nothing earth shattering, but it was a perfectly adequate 45-minute jaunt deep into the underbelly of the Scar faction.
Based off of the post-game content that we had the privilege to sneak a glimpse of, I could tell there were plenty of reasons to continue returning to the world Anthem. That said, there wasn’t really anything here that I would classify as groundbreaking. It simply felt like more of what I had enjoyed before, only this time the action was turned up to eleven. Hopefully there’s plenty more content where this came from or the development team plans to iterate on these missions as time progresses.
My overwhelming take away from several hours submerged in the guts of Anthem was unadulterated excitement. It’s obvious that great time and care has been put into designing a living, breathing ecosystem for players to explore and enjoy. The wealth of emergent experiences, customization opportunities, and dynamic difficulty makes every moment feel like it’s exclusively MY experience. I cannot wait to play more of the game, when it hits store shelves on February 22, 2019!
Our hands-on Anthem preview was done at an event. Travel and accommodations were provided by Electronic Arts.