If you read part one of my Anthem ramblings from yesterday then–welcome back! If you didn’t and would like to, go do that and I’ll keep this page warm until you get back.
All done? Excellent. Seemed kind of dour, didn’t it? I agree. Except for some general “I have hope” sentiments I don’t think I really gave anyone reasons to be excited. So let’s change that and I think there is no better place to start than the setting.
Unless you’re building a game that functions solely on its mechanics like Dead Cells, Tetris or QWOP then a story is an important fundamental aspect to your title. One that I think Anthem has in spades.
The Anthem of Creation
Whether we acknowledge it or not originality is one of the key hooks in any creative endeavor. Even if the skeleton of it is the same as it’s been for decades the veneer, a lot of the time, is what really counts. As more and more information about Anthem has been released the comparisons to recent and games long past have been steady.
The loot and RPG systems of Diablo.
The shooter mechanics of Destiny, and the loot.
I’m sure there are more than a few passing references to Borderlands.
The movement, combat and, loot of Warframe.
The cosmetic microtransactions of… any number of games.
The Sci-Fi setting of… any number of games, books and, movies.
I mentioned yesterday that as more details about the game have come out I was surprised by how many people were down on it’s aesthetic and story. I won’t deny that in many broad ways Anthem feels familiar, just like a lot of games to their spiritual predecessors. I’ve remarked on numerous occasions that to me Destiny at times feels to me like Bungie is still a bit lovesick for their Halo IP. The Cabal and the Covenant, Master Chief and the Guardians, humanity on the brink. In a lot of broad themes, these games to me have a lot in common beyond just their aesthetics.
But how similar are they? The truthful answer is not at all really, especially once you start getting into the details of the settings where they are significantly different. Each one with a lovingly crafted lore built out into a living, breathing universe that is constantly growing and changing. It’s not an easy undertaking to build something like that from scratch and only bear a passing resemblance to IPs that have come before. Bungie and Bioware both deserve a round of applause for managing to do this multiple times over their history as game developers.
Anthem for all its familiarity feels to me like a fresh universe to explore and that in and of itself means it has cleared one of the biggest hurdles a new IP has. So, let us take a look at what know so far before heading into the Open Demo Weekend.
The World of Anthem
The as-of-yet unnamed planet players will be exploring in Anthem is a world described by Mark Darrah as, “… a world stuck in the middle of its genesis.” As far as I can tell it’s not entirely clear whether or not the planet was being created from scratch or being terraformed from a previously uninhabitable form. The Shapers or Shaper Gods have long since left the world with their work unfinished and the inhabitants of the planet struggling to survive the aftermath. The technology used by the Shapers to harness the Anthem of Creation, energy unique to this universe, were also left behind and still active. Occasionally bursts of energy from these relics will radically alter the landscape and go so far as to mutate the indigenous life. These changes affect everything from their physical appearance to potentially making them more aggressive. We hear several references in trailers to something called The Heart of Rage which may or may not be related to the Anthem itself. This results in a dangerous and ever-changing planet where humanity fights back the chaos from heavily defended enclaves called Forts.
One of these Forts, Tarsis, is where the player begins their journey as a new Freelancer pilot responsible for flying one of the worlds rare Javelin mechs. Javelins are handcrafted suits of armor used by talented pilots to ensure the safety of the remaining human settlements. The story of the Freelancers and their inception actually goes back quite a long way according to the Legion of Dawn trailer. The voiceover talks about a time when humans were slaves to the chaos of the world. That is until one figure, in what we assume was the first Javelin, lead the fight to establish bastions of humanity that still stand today. The technology of the Javelin and this unnamed figures victories lead to the establishment of the Legion of Dawn. Precursors to the modern day Freelancers who still risk their lives to protect and someday reclaim the planet from the constant upheaval threatening to destroy it.
On top of the Shaper Relics and indigenous dangers of the planet, there looms another threat in the form of the Dominion. A faction of humans from the northern reaches lead by a man known only as The Monitor. The goals of the Dominion are simple: survival through strength. They seek to consolidate all of humanity under their banner and claim the Anthem of Creation for themselves. With that done they will be able to make and remake the world at a whim in any fashion they desire. As such the Dominion and The Monitor will be one of the main antagonists through much of the game as the Freelancers stand between them and their search for ultimate power.
On the periphery of this growing conflict, there is also an alien faction which comes from off-world called the Scars. This enigmatic force appears to also seek the technology left behind by the Shapers for their own nefarious ends.
This is only the tip of the iceberg with regards to enemy and allied factions out in the world and even within your home of Fort Tarsis. In classic Bioware fashion, our actions and interactions with each them will shape our version of the story and the world as we play and develop those relationships.
I think that is about as good as I can do for the “in a nutshell” version but suffice it to say for me this was enough to get the wheels spinning. Anthem’s developers have said that while we’ll learn more about the world during the campaign we won’t learn every detail about it nor solve all of its mysteries. Whether or not we’ll eventually learn the truth about the Shapers or their original intentions for this world is a toss up but in my estimation, a well-teased story is as good or better than a fully explained one. After all, there is something to be said about keeping the mystery alive and in this case, my place in the grand scheme of Anthem doesn’t have to sit front and center as long as I can keep flying my javelin.
A Good Mechanic Goes a Long Way
A great story and setting is all well and good but what about the mechanics of the game? This is the part where I really wish I had done some capture during the demo but with the limited amount of time I had to play it was a secondary concern. Fortunately, there are plenty of great content creators out there on YouTube who have more than enough captured footage for you to enjoy if you weren’t able to play last weekend. Even better is that if you want to try it yourself there is an Open Demo starting tomorrow that you can take part in on the PS4, Xbox and PC.
In the interim what I will tell you is that the game feels amazing. I’ve read, listened and watched a lot of reviews in the last few days and much like the aesthetic complaints I’m just not seeing a lot of the criticism being levied at Anthem. That is until you get to the swimming part and I will 100% agree that feels abysmal with a mouse and keyboard. The flying took a little bit of tweaking on M+K to get just right but once I had it dialed in I didn’t want to do anything else. There is absolutely no substitute for the freedom and verticality offered by Anthem in its traversal which is made only better by the sheer mobility in combat.
The mission structure of the game is one aspect that I will say is not my favorite as it sort of breaks up the immersion. As funny as that is to say about a third person shooter. Queueing up in a lobby before loading into a mission or Free-Play is fine but it sort of bypasses the potential magic of suiting up, walking out to the launch platform and jumping. I won’t quibble too much about a load screen being in between a player and their adventure but you can’t argue with the beauty of a seamless transition from one area or activity to the next. In this age of gaming, it would have been nice if Bioware had found a way to ditch the dreaded static load screen for something more immersive. That being said once you are loaded in the world is your oyster with loads being limited to entering into caverns, buildings or other dungeon-like areas. Many places, even underwater, are free to be explored without hesitation.
As the name looter shooter implies guns play a rather large role in Anthem although perhaps not as large a role as we initially assumed. Bioware has stated that the main reason for the lack of a PVP mechanic in the game is they didn’t want the power of characters limited by necessary balance concerns. As such the Javelin’s myriad abilities recharge very quickly ensuring that you are never relying on only your weapons for very long. The ensuing cacophony of explosive elemental effects comboing off one another is truly a sight to behold. The rattle of guns is still a constant soundtrack in combat however and they handle okay. There is a jittery aspect to the machine guns that I don’t care for although I suspect its a conflict between aim assist and M+K control scheme. Shotguns feel and sound incredible, there is a weight to them that is unmistakable and satisfying. Sniper rifles, especially my favorite the Devastator variant, bring long range damage with an explosive kick to the battlefield. Marksman rifles for me felt the best to me during my playthrough although as a Storm main it was always destined to be. Pistols I could take or leave although I didn’t spend as much time with them as I should have.
Before this gets too much longer the last thing I want to talk about, in broad terms, are the javelins themselves. The stars of the show. From top to bottom they feel different, look different and play very different. While there are only four base javelin types the weapons, mods, and components you pick up can radically alter how you approach a battle. None of them are relegated to any one role except in the most general sense.
A Storm will never tank a battle or spend much time on the ground, in the thick of things.
A Colossus will not sit back and pick off targets from afar or hover above the battlefield.
An Interceptor will not deal extensive area damage or spend much time in one place, ever.
A Ranger will not… uh, well. Ranger is kind of all-around good at everything so if you don’t like being pigeonholed this is the javelin for you.
Short of these clear divisions of labor, you can outfit your javelins to fit a wide variety of playstyles even if they may seem to run contrary to the javelins stated role. With only PvE content to consider it opens up the way for more experimentation with potentially sub-optimal builds. At the end of the day, the way you enjoy playing will trump the statistically optimal choice. With a group of three other javelins, their combined firepower and some skillful play I think we’ll find most if not all styles of play are viable in Anthem.
Anthem in its current state is far from a perfect game but as I said before it has enormous potential and that is what excites me the most about it.
Attentive readers will notice that I didn’t talk about the microtransaction scheme that will be in the game which is a fair criticism. The main reason I don’t want to is that the community already got what it wanted from Bioware and EA in regards to real money purchases. Cosmetic only. The supposed pricing debacle is something we can discuss after launch when it is set in stone but for now, the game is releasing with exactly what we said we wanted. They listened, we won to get out the ticker tape and let’s throw that parade.
With the fixes to come in the released game and the technical difficulties (hopefully) ironed out for the Open Demo starting today I think Anthem is finally a game that we can be honestly excited for. It’s here, it’s real and thus far it isn’t all of our worst fears from EA‘s corporate meddling to Bioware’s rocky reputation combined. We chided them for a long time that this game was shaping up, and indeed intended, to be their apology and redemption tour and it seems we were right.
Eventual success or failure aside I think we can confidently say that Anthem is the game Bioware set out to make. They offered transparency to the fans and listened to their feedback over the last couple years to improve on their vision. In a few weeks, the world will get a chance to vote with their wallets on the final product.
I don’t know about you but I can’t really ask for more than that.
P.S. Bioware also announced that all story-based DLC for this game will be free going forward because they don’t want to split up the player base.