By Ginny Woo
Freelancer. You’ll have to get used to being called that very quickly in Anthem. People say it with varying degrees of scorn and admiration within the ecosystem of the game. It rolls off the tongues of government agents, is spat out by disgruntled civilians, and it even has a desperate quality when you corner enemies that are about to die. The aural design of Fort Tarsis is impeccable, busy with the whirr of machines, idle chatter, and people calling out to you. Freelancer. However, once your Javelin’s visor slides off, you’ll notice that Anthem’s anthem is just that: a shallow tune peeled from an instrument whose composite parts are held together by too-heavy expectations and duct tape.
BioWare’s latest attempt at soothing its legions of fans is beautiful. It’s probably the first thing that you’ll notice when you load into the game for the first time if you haven’t been felled by known connection errors. Disabling the in-game Origin overlay was a temporary fix for some in the beta, but the presence of the same flaw here is unexpected. A lot of Anthem actually stumbles on similar notes: small, obvious mistakes that mar the otherwise pristine landscape of exploration.
The first real roadblock that you’re going to encounter is the ceiling of the theatre of your mind. Mileage is going to vary when it comes to Anthem’s story, and it’s really about how far you can stretch two pennies and a scrap of backstory into something worth caring about. You get a nice serving of science-fiction jargon to get you in the mood. An omnipotent enemy here, an ominous-sounding cabal of Dominion rebels there, topped off with an inhuman force called the Scar who just get in the way.
The game wants you to care about how Something Very Bad happened a few years ago, which resulted in you and others of your technowarrior order turning into errand boys. Now, Something Even Worse is happening and it’s tied to the Very Bad thing, along with an enemy called The Monitor whose most threatening action for most of the game is, well, monitoring your movements. There’s an Anthem of Creation, shady figures pulling strings, and whispers of a lost and ancient alien enemy. Oh, and mechs.
Anthem superficially ticks all of the boxes of a space opera without any of the vital groundwork needed to make it truly engaging. BioWare has made a name for itself on the back of RPGs lauded for impeccable narratives, so seeing them fumble here is puzzling even though the game’s marketing left plenty of room for cynicism. The aforementioned plot takes about 20 hours to plow through before endgame content is available. Even then, more tropes are used to shoehorn in the inevitable flood of DLC content to follow. It feels like a cheap use of well-made set pieces, and that’s without considering the other ways in which the game builds a world in front of your eyes before locking the best of it away.
You end up being herded towards some indeterminate end point about 10 hours into the game, which is coincidentally when you’re starting to feel like you’ve properly mastered the flying death machine of your Javelin. Instead of rewarding you for getting the hang of things, Anthem throws up a gate that you can’t pass until you complete a series of challenges involving collectibles, killing enemies a certain way, and doing other arbitrary things.
All the milestones needed to move on are individually acquired, meaning that if you’re playing with friends, you’ll have to collect twice as many items to hit your completion points. When other milestones require you to tackle world events in a forced multiplayer session without the ability to communicate to the three apathetic members of your session that you need help, the whole thing becomes an exercise in frustration and poor quest design. Confusingly enough, Anthem gives you another collection fest towards the conclusion of the main story which you can thankfully bypass by doing the right sidequests. This only begs the question: why not implement this design philosophy earlier? Engaging the narrative often seems like a zero-sum game, which is a 180 from the combat.
The different types of Javelin you can use are distinct but just well-rounded enough that solo play as any class can be contemplated. The Colossus shrugs off fatal damage with a shield that looks like its been ripped off the side of a spaceship. The Interceptor is a fresh, glass cannon take on blademasters. The Ranger is a well-balanced jack of all trades, while the Storm handles and looks a lot like Destiny’s Warlock. The classes make use of different specialist weapons and abilities, but this isn’t an MMORPG; each has to be capable of holding its own solo, which means that Anthem is unfortunately just shy of leaning into the thematic fantasy of each suit’s combat experience.
It’s a shame that going through the required motions of questing, looting, and repeating are held up by time-consuming progression mechanics. Almost everything else about Anthem is a delight to experience. From the feeling of soaring over a waterfall to taking a titan out with nothing more than a “Hail Mary” and a last-minute ultimate volley, engaging with the world through the power of your Javelin is empowering. Varied weapon and suit customisation options mean that you can play your chosen class any number of ways – it’s up to you to figure out what kicks the most ass with the most style.
Unfortunately, Anthem giveth and Anthem taketh away. With every painstakingly detailed expression and wondrous instance of flora and fauna, there’s a facsimile of the experience that Activision provided lurking around the corner. Loot being displayed as coloured rectangles on the ground. Power levels and damage numbers stealing the majority of your focus. Endgame progression being gated by the sheer passage of time, weekly resets and a staggering number of requirements. A paper-thin story that somehow means less the more you unravel about it. On the balance of probabilities, this Freelancer is likely looking at an early retirement if BioWare continues to grub around in the swill of content longevity instead of focusing on what made the studio great in the first place.