As a competitor to Bungie’s Destiny series, BioWare’s Anthem offers enough that’s new to justify its own existence. The world is pretty. The characters are tolerable. Most importantly, it moves and plays in a way that feels right. This is a competent piece of work.
Although a shared-world shooter is a departure from BioWare’s solid action-RPG history, Anthem retains enough of the developer’s creative signature to mark it as more than just an attempt to regain ground lost to the genuine innovation that was Destiny.
As in many BioWare games, the dialogue options, decent voice acting, and passable facial animations here reveal characters who display basic personalities, desires, and motivations. Anthem’s player character, a mercenary known as a Freelancer, is in a constant state of needing (and wanting) to level up, to improve weapons and stats. The player passes through verdant landscapes, stopping occasionally to engage in battles.
But at its core, Anthem is a solid shared-world shooter that doesn’t take too many risks. It feels like a fantasy world designed to be conquered, bit by bit, by small groups of pals.
One of the weird things I enjoy about Anthem is the mission start animation, in which I climb into my battle suit. It’s a first-person moment in which I get to see that the suit — called a Javelin — looks super snug and comfy. The deep padding seems vaguely intestinal, but in a good way, like it’s warm and squishy in there.
Near the beginning of the game, I choose one of four Javelin classes. They cleave to role-playing combat standards. I choose Colossus, a slow tank with high damage tolerance. Other options include its opposite: a fast-moving sprite called Interceptor. There’s a magician-like Storm, designed to hover from above, delivering area-of-effect sprays. And then there’s the well-rounded Ranger, which I also try.
I can choose my gender, which is important because my voice gets a lot of airplay. And I can select my face, which is less important, because I rarely see myself.
I join a group of four, which includes all classes. Our mission is to find a missing scientist. This is where we get to fool around with our Javelins’ flight capabilities. It’s a simple matter of following a reticle, which allows me to maneuver between obstacles.
Flying outside feels natural, even liberating, though it becomes a good deal more challenging when I enter underground arenas. This is where players with skills and a faster Javelin are going to make all the difference, especially against airborne enemies.
I can’t fly too long without overheating. This means that I land every moment or so to cool down. Or I fly through waterfalls to cool off more quickly. If I’m hit in combat, I crash to the ground. I can also hover in the air, firing my weapons, or I can fire and fly at the same time. It’s a great way to announce my arrival at a battle scene.
As the mission progresses, my team moves from waypoint to waypoint, mopping up small pockets of resistance. We arrive at the final arena, where we’re up against a large number of grunts, a smaller number of high-tolerance artillery units, and a floating, magical boss surrounded by an energy shield. There are large numbers of access points and convenient places from where we can experiment. I charge right in, though.
As a Colossus, I find it easy enough to kill basic enemies, which include savage dogs, giant scorpions, and human foot soldiers. I can fly into battle, land in the middle of the action, and begin dealing out damage.
My melee move is an absolute peach. It’s a huge stomp that sends anything close to me flying backward, carving out immense damage stats. Anything left alive is already on death’s door and is finished off with a gun. My machine gun takes a while to get going, but once it’s in full flow, it’s extremely effective. When my ammo runs out, I can switch to my second gun, which is a shotgun. But at this early stage of the game, ammo drops are everywhere.
As the mission intensifies, I feel the satisfaction of knowing that, as part of a team, I’ve served my purpose, soaking up damage and clearing large swaths of enemies. More problematic are flying griffins, which dodge and weave out of my field of view. This is where my more agile teammates come in.
Bosses require that I make use of terrain for cover, of which there is a lot, at least in the early combat sequences. When I kill enemies, I move as fast as I can to collect health, bullets, and twinkly loot, but this puts me at risk of high-impact boss attacks and high-damage lasers fired from tall pillars. I wonder why my teammates haven’t taken these placements out.
At times, I fall prey to some enemy attack and am stuck in a pillar of ice. On other occasions, I’m engulfed in flames. If I’m close to the end of my health, I can try to find a quiet spot to get better, but recovery time is slow, so flitting in and out of the fight is not a sustainable option. Later, when I’m playing as a Ranger, I note how much quicker I can evade incoming attacks with rolls and dodges.
The Colossus’ big weapons are excellent. The first is a mortar that I aim and lob into the heart of enemy packs, or at a boss. The second is a wave of energy that fires out in a wide arc, at eye level. I did not play enough to craft or collect tons of alternative options, but judging by the basic loadout, I feel optimistic about the later weapons we’ve seen listed so far.
Each class also has an ultimate weapon that charges up slowly. While it’s being used, it also allows for full immunity from death. I hang onto mine covetously until I’m really in the soup, or I’m raging against the boss. If I knew my teammates better, and if I were better at this game, I might consider figuring out a way to coordinate ultimate attacks, but we’re all going at it pell-mell, which is fine.
Loot and upgrades
At the end of the mission, we’re all awarded XP, with some players earning more than others, either through combat effectiveness or by executing mission fundamentals, like switching switches or finding hidden messages. But the differences are trifling, so it doesn’t feel like a competition — more like fair rewards.
We part ways to inspect our individual loot hauls. My upgrade screen is a basic map of the Javelin, with various slots that I can fill right away or that require higher levels of power-ups.
All loot is personal, so there are no worries about scrambling against other players to pick up the goods. At my low level, most of my loot consists of trashy versions of the weapons I already own, but there’s a piece or two that’s worth switching in. The rest of it, I recycle, hoping to use for later crafting.
During my travels, I’ve picked up some minerals that I can also use for crafting. These allow me to make a trinket that upgrades my armor. It’s a small thing, but I slot it, and I like that crafting is so simple. So long as I have the blueprint and the ingredients, everything pretty much works automatically. Clearly, the later game is going to be all about finding those rarest blueprints.
At later upgrade points, I can also change my Javelin. But this opportunity doesn’t come around that often, so it’s an important choice. As I play, I pick up bits and pieces that will help me upgrade Javelins that I don’t yet own, so when I do make a change, I’ll have something to play around with.
I can also personalize my Javelin with new colors and with goodies, traded with a shopkeeper back at home base, which is where we now turn our attention.
When Anthem was first revealed, we saw the player move through a bustling alien marketplace. It looked great. Partly that’s because the marketplace, half a dozen stalls in all, turns out to be a large part of the game’s home base, called Fort Tarsis. There are a few other rooms, where characters hang around and conversations are overheard. Special challenges, which happen daily, weekly, and monthly, can also be collected here.
Likewise, the world outside is deceptively small. The map makes it look big, but once you begin flying, it becomes clear that its 24 different regions are packed closely together. Each is essentially a battle arena with a few additional environs.
The world is nice, in a Star Wars forest-moon-of-Endor kind of way. But it feels to me more like a fantasy play park than a real world. I hope I’m proved wrong about this. Perhaps its charms are revealed by closer inspection, or maybe there are large underworld caverns that increase its yardage.
The open world allows me to fly around, basically looking for trouble. Some other players can also be found, though only in small numbers. I run into enemy patrols and am repulsed by their superior firepower, or by my own strategic incompetence. Either way, I’m inclined to return here as part of a team, rather than solo (though it’s possible to play the entire game alone).
Missions are more structured and linear. The story has it that the world outside the city is dominated by a magical force, called the Anthem, that spawns monsters and various useful collectibles. This is a convenient piece of fiction that allows the developers at BioWare to throw anything they like into the story. For now, the monsters I encounter all seem standard fare for this kind of game. Devil hounds, giant yetis, massive insectoids.
The player character (unnamed, though I can choose a call sign) is bound by unspoken codes of loyalty to a guild of Freelancers, who pick up jobs in order to sustain themselves. The Freelancers are a once-revered cult of warriors, now gone to seed. My exploits will return their reputation to its rightful glory.
I encounter helpers who guide me toward objectives. An older rival sneers at my abilities. A young pretender wishes to be me. A stern soldier reminds me that the Freelancers are untrustworthy. A mysterious woman hires me to go out into the world. I collect things. I rescue people. I fix broken infrastructure. I listen to old recordings of missing persons.
The story unfolds through flashbacks as well as through missions. There’s nothing here we haven’t seen many times before, but it’s a comfortable sort of familiarity. The world is full of factions, but my job is not so much to worry about them, as to undertake their missions, which seem to follow a basic pattern of locate, investigate, and destroy. BioWare wants me to engage in this story at my own level. I’m inclined not to spend too much time worrying about the same-old, same-old political divisions of Fort Tarsis. More fun to pick up a mission, get together with teammates, and get out there.
Anthem is out for PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One on Feb. 22. A chunky demo, set around midway through the main campaign — and which I highly recommend you play — is out on general release on Feb. 1, with pre-order VIP access starting Jan. 25. Look out for Polygon’s review in the weeks ahead.