It’s hard to know where to start, really.
It’s not that Anthem is offensively bad, exactly. It’s just that it’s not particularly amazing, either. Electronic Arts’ latest foray into open-world, live gaming sits somewhere astride ‘shoddy’ and ‘spectacular’, a foot stamped firmly in each camp and constantly swaying between the two like a drunk donkey.
At times – perhaps when you’ve toppled a particularly troubling Titan – it’s brilliant. And at others- usually, when you’ve been disconnected from the server just a few painful seconds from the end of a mission – it’s anything but.
Which means it’s just as hard to outright pan it as it is to stamp it with any kind of hearty recommendation because in its frantic efforts to be everything to everyone, Anthem‘s identity has melted away into little more than a grey, goopy soup of ‘meh’.
It’s A GaaS
You might have seen the term "designed by committee" thrown at not just Anthem but any number of other "Games as a Service" (GaaS) offerings that enrage and enthral gamers in equal measure, but never – EVER – has the term so perfectly applied to a single game before.
In its desperate bid to be a crowd-pleaser – magpie-ing ideas and mechanics and systems from a plethora of games but mostly the one that begins with D and ends with Y and has the letters E, S, T, I, and N in the middle – Anthem is a beautiful but empty thing, all style and no substance, a glorious but strangely forgettable open-world playground that fails to hook the player in any meaningful way.
Interestingly, that doesn’t mean it’s terrible or even dull to play. Connection wobbles aside, Anthem offers a satisfying story with a couple of fantastic twists, but it seems to go out of its way to hide it from you, tucking intriguing notes and flavour-text away on a distant sub-menu (sorry, but we can’t read this curious piece of lore right now, Anthem – we’re in the middle of a fight and picked up this collectable accidentally).
The combat’s brilliant, feeling reminiscent of both Mass Effect and Destiny – it’s a perfect, heady blend of solid gunplay and bombastic special attacks that make every encounter a little different – but the identikit enemies and a lack of bad-guy variety eventually bleed the enjoyment from this, too.
Meching a scene
To survive beyond the city walls players must don exosuits called Javelins, sturdy, strangely reptilian armoured suits that enable a group of skilled protectors, Freelancers – we know, it’s a lot to take in, but stay with us here – to explore the unhospitable world beyond the walls of Bastion.
While, like Destiny‘s Guardians, these suits give the player a range of abilities – including a devastating ultimate ability – unlike Bungie’s Guardian gear, the Javelins are customisable by the player so you can tweak your loadouts even further to suit your particular playstyle.
Coupled with the generous weaponry selection, it might take a little while and a lot of experimentation to find the right balance of offensive/defensive buffs and weapons, but it’s all the more satisfying when you stumble upon a combination that really works for you. The Javelins also fly, although this isn’t anywhere near as cool or liberating as it sounds as you’ll spend a lot of time careering headfirst into tree trunks or cliffs, or making frequent descents to cooldown your mech suit.
Flying into/through water helps with this, but the constant threat of overheating means your progress – and immersion – is forever interrupted by the need to stop off somewhere as though your Freelancer’s got a weak bladder and a gippy tummy.
Your ‘lancer – that’s what the people in the biz call it, by the way: Freelancer is shortened to ‘lancer, as though everyone’s far too busy saving the world to say the entire word – is perfectly sassy and embodies all the charm and personality sorely missing from Destiny‘s mute Guardians.
You get to choose from a couple of fairly nondescript RPG-esque dialogue choices – sadly, nothing quite so spectacularly diverse as Mass Effect‘s dialogue trees – but they’re perfectly perfunctory, and we found ourselves growing a begrudging affection for the other ‘lancers in our strider crew, even if Haluk always looks like he’s one second away from hulkin’ out and smashing you against a wall. The same can’t be said for the other NPCs that litter Fort Tarsis, mind (although shout-out to my Welsh boi, Lucky Jak).
And while we’re on the subject of immersion-breaking… can we talk about the loading issues?
If you’re not sitting on a loading screen you’re probably about to be, as they bookend pretty much everything you do. We could live with it if they were merely used either side of a story mission or Freeplay, but they’re always there, constantly, perpetually, ready to pounce every time you want to explore a cavern, or duck into a Tomb, or even tweak your Javelin in The Forge.
They’re not even varied or particularly engaging, either, which means you’ll be bored of them within an hour or two and thoroughly sick of the sight of the things by the time you complete the campaign.
There are other irritations, too. Respawning mid-mission means you have to sit through another agonising loading sequence – here’s hoping your teammates don’t finish before you spawn in, eh? – and in Freeplay, players outside of your immediate fireteam are displayed on the map with the same icon.
On its own, it’s not a sackable offence, no, but given the busy HUD, the slow, meandering menu system, and the beautiful-but-cluttered environments, this means it’s very easy to accidentally track the wrong player in the heat of combat.
In another section of the main campaign, the story insists you go into Freeplay and pass a dazzling array of "challenges" including combos and multikills. Trouble is, the game does an astonishingly inadequate job of explaining how, exactly, to do this, forcing many to scour Reddit posts and YouTube videos to figure out something the game should have expressly conveyed itself.
The truth is, we never felt compelled to play Anthem. In the sea of competing titles released in just the last few weeks alone, it falls short on almost everything, and there’s rarely the temptation to stay up too late to have One More Go, finish off one more mission, or whizz about, idly collecting more stuff.
It’s weird because, again, it’s not a bad game, and whilst we’re in the grips of it – tackling a Stronghold, perhaps – it’s not boring, either.
But beyond the Javelins and pottering about in The Forge, obsessively tweaking your loadouts to boost your level, nothing in Anthem stands out. We’re not sure what BioWare can do to inject a little more colour into the game’s bland, underwhelming world (and it’s possibly already too late to do so).
It’s not even that the studio – famed, quite rightly, as it is for its astonishing single-player stories and complex, compulsive world-building – doesn’t have the chops to pull it all off. It simply feels like in its desperation to tick all the boxes and appeal to all players, Anthem, as mechanically solid as it is, has become nothing for no-one.
Fine, but disappointingly unremarkable
Javelins are unique and fun to tweak
Solid, enjoyable combat
A fantastic, character-driven tale
Lack of stuff to do once the story’s over
A lot of grinding for comparatively little reward
A cluttered and confusing UI and menu system