It has been ten years since Robert Downey Jr exploded onto our screens as Ironman and what a thing it became. In this time we’ve seen so many amazing films added to the roster of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that even James Bond starting to get jealous. While we each have our favourites, Ironman will always be my go-to hero. I love the concept of the Ironman suit and while it has become wildly advanced in Infinity War, the technology is mostly in the realms possible sometime in our near future. Given how Rocksteady totally nailed bringing Batman into gaming, I have been yearning for a developer to give Ironman the same treatment for a while now. A game that lets you feel the awe and exhilaration of flying a mechanised suit through the air like a rocket. Anthem, for all the issues and wrinkles I will cover in this review, might be the closest yet to giving us a glimpse of how good an Ironman game could be.
Bioware officially started work on Anthem in 2012, just after the release of Mass Effect 3. In 2017 the game was revealed at E3 with a stage demo and gameplay reveal. Anthem is a looter shooter in which you take control of a Freelancer, a pilot trained to fly advanced suits named Javelins. The world you play in is a fictional planet known as Bastion, which has been fashioned by the gods but left unfinished. As one character describes it, the Anthem is like a powerful river and the shaper tools are like damns that harness its world-changing energy. Many of these majestic and powerful ‘Shaper’ tools have been left lying around for the inhabitants of Bastion to dabble with, mostly with negative outcomes.
The game opens with your character heading into one of these Shaper Artefacts known as the Heart of Rage. Things go south and most of the team end up brown bread. This event serves as a tutorial of sorts which leads to the game starting proper two years later. Character creation basically consists of picking a gender and then a premade head of your liking. This isn’t the most in-depth character creation we've ever seen but you rarely see your face again other than a fleeting glimpse in cut-scenes.
The Truman Show
Anthem is split into two main sections, the game world in which you fight your way to your objectives and Fort Tarsis. This is a single player hub (unless you count the loading bay) that consists of a few main streets of the city and the various places that are attached to it. The launch area is where you Javelin awaits you for the next mission and it is here you can also access the forge to set up your suits. There are also two (why?) shops giving you access to the vanity store, even though you can access this anytime from the menu. As you venture further into the backstreets and subterranean tunnels you can check on things like your achievements, your standing with various groups or chat to the locals. Weirdly there is also a news section that actually tabs you out of the game and opens your internet browser, for various nuggets of information about the game.
The first problem with Fort Tarsis is that it doesn’t look as busy or impressive as the reveal trailer showed, but more on that later. As you walk around the town there are NPC’s stood around in various situations but most of them just look static and awkward, always having the same silent conversion or welding the same piece of metal. There are a few people walking back and forth and they will move to one side as you approach them, which is a nice touch. The main issue with Fort Tarsis is that the whole place to feels like an elaborate film set and as you walked in everyone jumped to their places. It is also these NPCs that have some very poor facial animations and I had some brief flashbacks of the horrors of Mass Effect Andromeda. This is odd because some of the other NPC’s you chat to have great animations and lip syncing. As annoying as Owen is, the way he moves around and talks is fantastic.
As you complete missions you will return to the fort to configure your suit but also pick up new missions. The rub here is that the map is usually covered in conversation bubbles and while you don’t want to miss them (they also generate faction loyalty) most are inane dribble. The worst part is that as soon as you have done a circuit (at the speed of a geriatric turnip) and are heading back to your Javelin, another few will just appear exactly where you just came from. This is just such a boring chore and makes me dread heading home after a mission. The problem is not that there is so much dialogue, I must have spent hundreds of hours chatting with side characters in games like the Witcher 3. It is the quality of the writing and how pointless it feels to engage with almost every person you meet. I will say that there are one or two character stories that are well worth following but these are in the minority. There are other issues as well, like how all conversations will offer you dialogue choices but these do not offer any change in outcome. They just seem to be there to offer the illusion of dialogue choice, even pressing on them requires you to hold the button like you can’t be trusted with the power of choice. Overall Fort Tarsis feels like a tacked-on options screen that does nothing to make me feel more immersed in the world of Anthem. If Bioware does copy anything from Destiny, I hope they destroy this area in the future story and work on a new city are that is actually fun to be in.
I am Ironman
So what about the meat and potatoes of the game? Well, I am happy to say the actual main game for Anthem fares a hell of a lot better than the whiny millennials simulation back at the Fort. As soon as you’ve hopped into your Javelin you will be presented with the mission screen. Here you will see the playable space for bastion and whatever missions you currently have ongoing. These can vary from relatively easy contracts to the strongholds, which are Anthems version of end game dungeons. Once you have selected a mission you’ll be able to vary the difficulty, invite friends and add buffs. So far adding my friends to the mission has been a simple process that has worked perfectly every time. Once you have spent a few months waiting for the game to load in, you are all dropped at the launch balcony of the fort and can get cracking.
Flying my javelin is by far my favourite thing to do in Anthem, it feels incredible to just leap off a ledge and ignite you suits rockets. Once in flight mode, you can head in any direction (but not above the clouds like in the trailer unfortunately) and the first sight of Bastion is jaw-dropping. You can do an evasive roll in mid-air and also switch to hover mode. All of this flight heats your suits up and when the red line hits maximum you will fall out of the sky like a sack of shit. What is really cool is that skimming water (or diving in it) will cool your jets allowing you to carry on flying at full pelt. This also includes waterfalls which are a nice touch. I can see the heat mechanic being a contentious one and some gamers will see this a too restrictive, but I like how it makes you think about how you fly over the terrain. I love any game that lets me dive under water and you can certainly do this in Anthem. It looks amazing as you plunge beneath the surface of a few scattered lakes as your rockets now vent jets of bubbles and you glide through these beautiful aquatic scenes. I do wish that there had been more made of these water areas and maybe even some combat for good measure. The big issue with swimming is that your suit controls like a bus strapped to a ten-tonne block of concrete, so fingers crossed they work on this.
When you are on a mission there will be an indicator showing you the direction you must head. If you get left behind by other members flying ahead a countdown will pop up and after a few seconds, you’ll be teleported to the location of the group (via a loading screen). This tether mechanism has really pissed a lot of people off and I do agree it’s way too sensitive. It is so frustrating when you are just a few feet away from the group but still get thrown into a loading screen. This is also compounded by the frequency and length of load screens (which I will cover more later), which can have you launch into the game only to hit another load screen immediately because the group has already flown ahead. A minor upside to this mechanic is that this keeps everyone on task and stops those random players who like to scoot off for a bit of sightseeing at the expense of the group.
Metal Gear Wobble
There are four suits available right now and each has a unique look and play-style. The all-rounder suit is the Ranger which offers firepower and survivability. Then you have the Colossus which is clad in amour and will be the suit that takes the brunt of the damage. The Storm suit harnesses the power of the Anthem to cast elemental attacks and due to its armour is certainly the glass cannon of the bunch. Finally, the Interceptor is the lightest suit offering agility and close up damage. I have tried both the Ranger and Storm so far and both offer a varied experience, but not to the extent that I would like. The visuals on all the suits look great from and in this regard, the designers have done a bang up job.
When you are setting up the suits back at the forge there are various item slots to consider. Two of these will be your main two abilities, one is for a support effect like a shield, one is for components that add varied bonuses and then, of course, your weapon choices. In regard to the ability slots, I think the choices here are decent enough and allow you to change your attack style or a setup that is good at hitting combo kills. I would really have liked a few more abilities for each suit, just for some variety but also because you cannot change your set up once you have left the fort. I will just note while talking about configuring your suit that the colour customisation is fantastic, letting players go to town with pretty much any colour scheme they can imagine. The variety of actual armour skins is very limited at this time and another area that feels like it was rushed. You can, of course, pay for cosmetics in Anthem but the fact you can also earn in-game currency for all these items makes it a none issue (for now).
You can carry two weapons at any time and these consist of the usual suspects. Assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles and various pistols. Compared to the powerful abilities the weapons can feel a little anaemic, especially when you start to take on the harder difficulties of dungeons. Weapons do come with statistical bonuses, so choosing the right setup can be interesting but the overall design of these guns is just so generic. Considering this is a looter-shooter, the developers should really have worked on making the loot more appealing and I hope they can rectify this in the future.
Overall I have found the combat to be a fantastic experience and certainly one of the best parts of the game. The ability to fly, hover and generally leap all over the place can really make you feel like Tony Stark on his best day. However, even here there are issues. For one, the enemy AI is basic and at times flat out none existent. Some enemies will chase you with surprising gusto, like the insects on the floor of the spider cave. It is a shame though that more enemies don’t leave the ground and take you on in the air, only a few kinda float off the ground in energy bubbles. Speaking of the spider cave, these strongholds are the best content in the game right now. Unfortunately, there are only three and even one of these is the last story mission rehashed. Once you have finished the game you will be given another checklist to tick off and sent in the direction of the nearest treadmill. Each tier in grandmaster difficulty offers nothing new and instead just adds more damage and health to enemies. This is lazy design and shows a real lack of commitment to this games long term success. Considering Anthem has been in development for nearly seven years, the lack of content is shocking and I do wonder what Bioware has been doing with their time.
Fundamentals of Design
So I love the flying and the way the javelin moves around the environment, but there are some glaring issues that I still can’t believe have made it to the final game. For one, while the flight mechanic is very satisfying, it has also been woefully underused in the core gameplay loop. Each mission in the game, whether it be a contract, side mission or story quest will follow the same basic path. Fly to location, kill enemies, click on something (or collect some orbs) and repeat; that is is. There are two missions later in the game which try to mix this formula up a little but ultimately the mission variety here is none existent. In the near seven years this game has been in development why couldn’t we have seen much more diversity in the mission objectives. Maybe a convey mission, a chase sequence or multi-layered structure you need to destroy? These are just off the top of my head.
In terms of the environment you fly through, it reminds me of a mountainous version of somewhere in South America with impossibly huge pieces of rock jutting into the sky. There is also a large amount of trees and vegetation both in the valleys and growing all over the various rocky outcroppings. In addition to this there are rivers, deep lakes and beautiful waterfalls cascading down from the skyline: on first inspection, the world of Bastion really has that wow factor. Unfortunately, it will become very clear this area looks pretty much the same no matter where you fly. Sure there is the occasional fort, deep ravine or monument but the actual biodiversity and topography never change. It is so much so that I cannot recall a single place in my mind, other than the Dawn fort where I had to spend an hour because of a quest not triggering the next stage.
Javelin on Fire
Anthem was born on a lie with a reveal trailer that was not representative of the final game. It was Watchdogs that really made me aware of the practice of downgrades and of course we’ve seen some beauties since then (The Division etc). The reveal had three of the developers trotted on stage to chat about what the game was all about. Some lofty ideas were floated about like “We wanted to create a world that would change every time you come back and play it” and “Characters you can have a connection with and choices you can make”. As far as I can see these two statements are bullshit because the world of Anthem never changes each time you come back and there is literally no dialogue trees in the game that change any outcomes.
The reveal trailer opens up in Fort Tarsis and right away you can see a huge difference in the visual fidelity of what it shows and what we are playing right now. Every character seems to be full of life, facial expressions are on another level and there is just a tonne more visual candy. I have to be fair here and say that a few of the main characters do offer a level of facial animation that comes close to what is shown here, Faye and Aron, in particular, look amazing. As you saunter over to your javelin there are shafts of light cascading down and as you gaze upward there’s a Strider thumping past the base. Even the way you walk out of the fort and ready yourself for the mission looks different and more importantly, not a single loading screen.
Then the gameplay demo continues with your javelin flying through a tunnel where we see a herd of animals cross the player's path. This does not happen in the game and it seems like more visual window dressing, purposefully designed to give the audience an impression that the final game never delivers on. As usual, we have the scripted buddy conversations playing out, which for me always feel disingenuous. I'd have far more respect for a developer who hung their balls out there and did a live demo. The list of discrepancies goes on and so I will provide a link below so you can make your own judgments. Props to the Red Tie Guy for putting together an excellent comparison video.
Is it PC?
So while I’m not a PC gaming elitist by any stretch, I do think that if your rig doesn’t have the minerals to run a game then that is not the fault of the developer. In Anthem we have seen one particular aspect of game performance come under intense scrutiny; load times. Now I am of the opinion that if you have a decent game rig, an SSD is par for the course. Not having one for demanding games would be like putting shopping trolley wheels on your new Aston Martin. However, in the case of Anthem, the excessively long load times are not due to running the game on a mechanical drive, they are down to the game's engine just not cutting the cheese. This is made infinitely worse because of the frequency and placement of them. Anthem was sold as a seamless open world (see reveal trailer) to explore and the constant loading screens completely derail this, instead leaving the player feeling frustrated. I do think this issue has also been far worse on console because this is one area of gaming where modern consoles still have not caught up to the raw horsepower of gaming rigs.
Controlling your Javelin with a mouse and keyboard is shockingly bad in regards to flight. Once in flight mode, you push the reticule in the direction you wish to fly and the Javelin follows this. Why this isn’t one to one input I will never know and shows a real lack of consideration for PC gamers. Once hovering or fighting on the ground the controls are just fine. Bioware did improve this issue slightly with a patch and more are said to be coming so watch this space.
There have also been a litany of bugs and technical problems plaguing all versions on the game. I personally have seen quest markers just stop working, leaving us in one quest for nearly an hour before we just gave up. I have also seen some shockingly bad animation glitches where the camera is literally pushed through another NPC or worse. In two missions I’ve seen the infinite load screen issue and once has all sound stop working until I restarted the game. It is also infuriating that when you go down in a mission, you are trapped and unable to even access a menu until someone revives you. In one mission our last standing party member got trapped and so we all literally had to tab out and just shut the game down. Considering the time Bioware has had and the resources they have at their disposal, these kind of issues are inexcusable.
On the topic of UI and interface, it is a mixed bag heading more toward the negative. First of all accessing any menu is a pain due to the unintuitive layering. This isn't a huge problem but they do feel very clunky and unresponsive, again, not designed for PC gamers at all. Also, quest information so poorly conveyed to the player that I thought I had run out of quests at one point. Turns out that halfway through the game you must basically stop the story and check off four inane lists of objectives. This is never explained to the player and I only found out about where these lists are located thanks to a friend. Another issue is when you are racing to catch up to a group and the timer starts ticking down to teleport you. This window actually covers the heat bar so you can’t even tell when you are going to fall from the sky and probably miss the timer anyway. This is atrocious game design and I cannot fathom how it made it past Q&A.
I think Anthem is in many ways a litmus test for where the gaming industry is right now, at least in the AAA space. These behemoth companies have become so preoccupied with how to get the milk faster, they can’t see they are killing the cows. The reveal trailers and stage demos are all perfectly orchestrated to create buzz and groundswell. I cannot stop thinking to myself, what if they actually made the game they told us they were making? I will not lie, I have had fun playing through Anthem and I can see there has been a lot of work put into some elements of the game world. There are, unfortunately, so many other areas that let the whole experience fall apart. In a game that was said to be narrative driven it is now clear, like much of the hype, this was just a buzz phrase that didn’t have any real substance.
Of course, Anthem is being rolled out as a ‘live service’ and so what does that mean for the long term? Well, in the case of Destiny 2 that meant a half baked core game, two dire pieces of new content and then finally the game got its act together with the third. However, I would argue that Destiny 2 didn't have so many fundamental problems under the hood because love it or hate it, Destiny knew what kind of game it was. I do believe that if EA show some conviction and pledge to spend the time (and money) making Anthem better, then a year from now we could be seeing a No Mans Sky situation. Unfortunately, EA’s record is against them on this and when a project (like Andromeda) flops, they have form for just killing the whole game and moving on. The problem is, EA is fast running out of new IPs to destroy.
Thank you for reading my review for Anthem on PC. If you would like to see more of my content please follow me on Twitter @riggedforepic and add me to your favourites.