Anthem suffers from an identity crisis, torn between its efforts to be a cooperative shooter and a single-player story. In this unusual pairing of styles, we see BioWare spreading its wings to deliver something new, but also refusing to let go of the past. This makes for an uneven journey in which players are united and then forced to disperse for chunks of time. Anthem periodically shows us how both of these elements can be interesting and powerful on their own, but struggles to unite them, leading to aggravating progression that is sometimes poisoned further by performance issues and peculiar design.
Living up to BioWare’s RPG pedigree, Anthem’s world is inviting, mysterious, and filled with fascinating backstory and characters. We see humanity struggling to find its place in an alien land, hunkered down and on the brink of extinction in an old walled-up fort. The story setup succeeds in delivering the tone of desperation, but is muddied when you see the tools you get to use to help keep humanity alive. You don’t get a sword, or a banged up gun. You basically get to be Iron Man. You are given a powered exosuit called a javelin that is designed to be a one-person army-killer.
No matter what color you make your javelin, or what helmet you choose, it ends up looking like some variation of Iron Man. BioWare’s adoration of Marvel’s property is clear as day, and is put to good use. The javelins are Anthem’s biggest triumph, making almost every little action feel like you are controlling a superhero capable of unleashing hell. Javelins give their users temporary jet-fueled flight and a wonderfully deep arsenal of offensive and defensive tools to play with. As the game goes on, that well of toys expands deeply and in exciting ways.
Flight is handled exceptionally well, allowing players to skim dangerously close to rocky terrain, plunge into water, dart out of it like a dolphin, and quickly transition into a hover where shoulder-mounted rockets and firearms can be used. Once you truly understand how these suits control, you can rip around the battlefield with calculated precision and unleash a wealth of strategies unique to each javelin class. All four javelin types are nicely designed and a blast to control. Raining down elemental chaos as the Storm is as good as it gets, but just blasting enemies with machine guns as the Ranger ends up being a great time too.
The javelins are deployed from the fort to take on story missions, contracts for specific characters, and can also be used to explore the world freely to tackle random events, harvest supplies, and find hidden nuggets of lore. In any one of these activities, Anthem begins to show cracks in its armor. No matter what you are doing, it all bleeds together in familiar ways. You arrive at a location, waves of enemies teleport in, and there’s a good chance you’ll be asked to track down a specific number of items in the nearby area to activate a strange device. Despite the combat being exceptionally fun, the gameplay loops stagnate quickly. No matter how much the characters on the coms try to sell the illusion that the scenarios and stakes are different, they aren’t. In one mission, I had to interrupt a weapons auction. The supposed auction ended up looking exactly like every other conflict with enemies standing around in a swamp. I kept hoping the next mission would change things up, but the only real differences are new enemies, or the same enemies with shields.
The four javelin classes are meant to complement one another, but coordination and teamwork are not necessary for most of the game. During the story-based campaign, we didn’t need to sync up attacks or send in the Colossus to draw fire. We annihilated every threat with relative ease. The only urgent teammate action needed was reviving someone should they fall. Marching into battle with friends and reigning over the opposition as super-powered titans of death is a fulfilling power fantasy, but it’s not because of any team dynamic. For roughly 20 hours, Anthem feels a bit like a single-player game masquerading as a co-op experience. The true vision of co-op isn’t realized until the player finishes the campaign and hits the level cap. At this point, the grandmaster difficulty levels are unlocked, and they live up to their name. Only at this point did I find the need to coordinate with other players to target specific enemies first, line up the timing of combo triggers, and position javelins to take down bullet-sponge bosses. The endgame doesn't offer much that the player hasn't seen up to that point, but the higher difficulty makes the missions and three strongholds far more entertaining. It's too bad it takes this long for Anthem to show its true colors.
When any mission concludes, loot is handed out liberally, early on delivering a satisfying haul of goods that slows to a disappointing drip after level cap. Post-mission, the player is then forced to return to the fort. This is where the single-player story unfolds, and time basically stands still, especially if you are in a party of friends. BioWare wants you to get to know the characters on a personal level, much like the quality time spent on the Normandy in the Mass Effect games. I love that BioWare wants to tell these stories and connect the player to the world through narration, but this design doesn’t work. It alienates the cooperative dynamic, and is also guilty of feigning player choice. In most conversations you can pick from one of two things to say, but they’re all binary choices, and don’t change much of anything other than a character’s immediate response.
As much as I enjoyed Anthem’s side stories – there are some heartfelt and hilarious arcs that remind me why I consider BioWare one of the all-time greats in terms of story – the central plotline is a predictable eye-roller with ham-fisted drama and a terrible villain at its core. BioWare has struggled to create interesting villains before, but the Monitor is easily the studio’s worst. The biggest threat he posed until I eventually squared off against him was scrambling my HUD once. I also ran into numerous instances where I couldn’t resurrect teammates, my audio cut out completely, and the game crashed to the title screen, but I have a feeling those were unfortunate glitches that have nothing to do with the Monitor’s interference.
I ended up dreading going to the fort, not just for the story, but because of how long it takes to load. I can’t recall another game that loads so much. Just loading the fort or a mission can take minutes. If you just want to look at your weapons or change your armor in the forge, there’s a load. If you see a mineral in the open world that you want to harvest, you may become separated from your team, resulting in another load. I understand that the game needs to keep players close together, but the leash in this game is way too short. These narrow boundaries make it feel like you are being punished if you dare explore the world or do anything other than closely follow the player in front of you.
Anthem should have been all about that Iron Man fantasy. When the guns are pumping and the thrusters are ignited, the game is a legitimate blast to play. That’s where the experience shines, and everything else holds it back from being truly engrossing. This is one of those games that frustrates because you can see the greatness within it, but it's always just out of reach.