Few studios have more passionate fans than BioWare’s, most of whom fell into their fandom because of Mass Effect and, to perhaps a lesser extent, Dragon Age. Anthem, the Canadian studio’s anticipated new IP, has engendered trepidation among a number of fans due to the lukewarm critical reception to Mass Effect: Andromeda and the fact that, in early trailers, Anthem appeared to be an action-based game that wouldn’t offer the same interpersonal, dialogue-driven intrigue the studio has become known and lauded for since the days of Baldur’s Gate and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Which is to say, fans demanding romance will find that, in Anthem, love most certainly isn’t in the air.
Instead, the air is an open playground for you to fly around at your leisure. Anthem is a third-person shooter in which you step into one of four types of awesome-looking, customizable mech suits called Javelins and rain hellfire on galactic grunts from the sky alongside up to three friends. The action is fast, frantic, and chaotic, full of explosive potential, but a relationship simulator this is not.
“It is something different,” Anthem executive producer Mark Darrah says of the game compared to BioWare’s previous work. “It shares a lot of common threads with things we’ve done in the past, but it is different. When you look at fan reactions to our E3 announcement in 2017, you had people that didn’t understand what it was and were making assumptions. It was important for us to make sure that they understood what the game was and what it wasn’t so that they weren’t making a decision based on faulty information.”
After playing Anthem at a preview event for several hours, I can say that BioWare fans will likely only get maximum value out of the game if they’re able to manage expectations and take the game for what it is as opposed to what it’s not. When asked how fans could best manage their expectations, Darrah offered some clarity.
“This is a cooperative game first and foremost,” Darrah explains. “It’s driven through progression, and it’s driven through taking your four Javelins and making them better and better. It’s anchored on a story with really powerful characters with their own backstories. But there isn’t romance, so you’re not getting into relationships, or at least you’ll get relationships that are slightly different than what we’ve had in the past. This is a game that’s familiar if you’ve played a lot of BioWare games, but it is ultimately a more action-driven game more driven by progression systems than it is driven by story.”
That’s not to say that Anthem’s lacking in the story department. From my time with the game, I got a sense of a deep, rich world with plenty of lore and colorful characters to discover and meet. The planet is peppered with technologically advanced mechanisms that mysterious beings called “The Shapers” used to harness Anthem, a powerful, ever-present energy, and shape the world to their liking.
The Shapers have now long vanished, leaving their ancient mechanisms unmanned and volatile, like futuristic volcanoes threatening to explode and bring death and chaos at any moment. Human beings have found shelter in places like Fort Tarsis (the players’ main hub) and only venture out when Freelancers, Javelin-piloting defenders of humanity, fly off to diffuse the Shaper’s artifacts whenever they act up. Years prior, an evil faction called Dominion, led by a madman named Doctor Hawkin, set out to use one of the ancient tools to control Anthem itself but instead set off a cataclysm that destroyed the prosperous city of Freemark. Dominion disappeared for a while, but now they’re back and surely up to no good.
You play as a Freelancer, soaring into action in one of four types of Javelins: Ranger, Interceptor, Storm, and Colossus. Ranger is the most well-rounded, offering good mobility and melee attacks, with a big focus on gunplay and long-range support. Interceptor can dart around the field like lightning and has quick melee attacks that can be chained together with ease, but this Javelin also lacks firepower and is lightly shielded. Storm boasts powerful elemental attacks that allow you to strategically manipulate the field, but you’re even less shielded than Interceptors. Colossus is the tank of the lot, making up for its lack of speed and mobility with almost impenetrably thick shielding.
Javelins are deeply customizable, from every component of their respective loadouts to their victory emotes. There are six ranks of gear: Common, Uncommon, Rare, Epic, Masterwork, and Legendary. It’ll be fun to delve deeper into the game to search for the gear that best suits my play style, and I imagine that the more your character progresses, the more unique your Javelins will be compared to your friends’.
The designs of the Javelins look incredibly cool and brought me back to when I was a Transformers-obsessed kid. Showing off my kitted-out exo-suit to my co-op companions was a lot of fun, as was checking out their souped-up rides. You can alter the look of your Javelin down to the finest detail, using custom decals, a rainbow of color palettes, and rare armor pieces that you can purchase with in-game currency, called “Coin,” or premium currency, called “Shards,” which you can purchase with real money. (Other than these cosmetic upgrades, Anthem will charge no extra fee for added content, like story DLC, which is a relief.)
I tried out all four Javelin classes and discovered that they all support quite different styles of play (though you can further tweak them to your individual needs via your custom loadouts). I gravitated toward the Interceptor because I was having an absolute blast zipping around the battlefield, hovering above groups of enemies and unleashing poison grenades on their heads while my Ranger comrades lit them up with gunfire. Ranger was fun too and felt best suited for traditional players with quick trigger fingers. Colossus was a bit less engaging since its SUPER slow and its mobility is limited, but I can imagine players with a more measured approach having fun with it.
Storm was by far the most difficult ride for me. Summoning gigantic lightning bolts on a group of enemies I’d just frozen with ice attacks was satisfying and resulted in a massive hit combo (combos are based on setting enemies up with elemental abilities and then knocking them down with brute force, a strategy that’s deadly effective when players cooperate). But the utter lack of shielding left me so vulnerable that I died constantly. On one mission, I piloted a Storm and linked up with another player using Storm and a Ranger. The Storms died constantly, and our Ranger ally (I’m sure she was annoyed) was forced to revive us over and over again. This suit clearly requires more finesse and strategic thinking than I possess.
Controls during combat feel tight and responsive, and the various special attacks look spectacular, especially when you and your buddies are simultaneously wreaking havoc on your hapless foes. One thing to note is that, while playing with a group is a lot of fun, the game feels significantly easier than when flying solo, even on the hardest difficulty. My squad didn’t meet an enemy battalion we couldn’t wipe out, but hopefully, the difficulty ratchets up later in the game. Solo play poses more of a challenge, but isn’t nearly as enjoyable. In fact, playing solo sort of makes the game feel like a rudimentary shooter, taking away all of the unpredictability you find when playing with a team. Additionally, squadding up allows you to accrue Alliance Points at the end of missions in addition to the normal experience points you earn. At the end of each week, Alliance points are converted into Coin, so playing with others is highly recommend to get the most out of the game.
One of the coolest, most unique aspects of gameplay in Anthem is the ability to fly freely around the deep, expansive environments. It’s a genuine thrill rocketing around, doing barrel rolls, nosediving into gaping chasms and then plunging into a lake to find a hidden underwater cave that harbors valuable loot. Flight is as, if not more, enjoyable than combat, though in truth the two go hand-in-hand. For example, one hulking enemy type uses an impenetrable shield to protect its frontside and light you up with a giant flamethrower, but by taking to the skies and circling behind it, you can quite easily target its fuel tanks and blow it to smithereens. Flying around makes you feel like a superhero, an exhilarating sensation Darrah says the team worked hard to achieve.
“It’s like a leap of faith every time,” Darrah says. “Every time you do it, you feel like you’re going to fall, but you don’t. Somehow, that feeling never goes away. You always feel that initial moment of trepidation, but then the game kind of catches you.”
The game’s story plays out mostly in Fort Tarsis, where you’ll interact with NPCs, buy items, find new missions, etc. “The storytelling and emotion really live in Fort Tarsis,” Darrah says of the game’s structure. “This is where people are relatively safe but they can react to what’s going on in the world, and this is where the nuance and story come in. But when you go on a mission, this is very much about advancing the plot. When in Fort Tarsis, we can push on the emotion harder, and when we’re on a mission, we can keep the plot really simple and clean, which means we’re not doing as much exposition in the middle of the fighting. We’ve sort of fallen into that trap in the past.”
The way the game is divided into these two main sections does feel very streamlined, and I’ll be interested to see how fans react to the narrative elements BioWare has built into Fort Tarsis, which you explore in first-person. There are a plethora of characters to interact with, ranging from crusty and curmudgeonly to charismatic and colorful, and you are given simple dialogue options when talking to them. The first-person perspective lends to the immersion and, coupled with BioWare’s improved facial animation system (one of Mass Effect: Andromeda’s most infamous blemishes), is quite impressive.
One character, your buddy Owen, is a quick-witted fellow with a bouncy British accent who shares with you his dreams of one day becoming a Freelancer as he hops around Tarsis and awkwardly squeezes past roaming denizens in the Fort’s narrow hallways. The performance capture appears to be top-notch. All of the characters feel fleshed-out and like real people, thanks to the terrific voice acting. While you don’t have a lot of freedom to shape your character’s relationship to your heart’s content like you did in Mass Effect and Dragon Age, the relationships on display are presented in a much more natural, intimate, and cinematic way in Anthem than they were in those games.
BioWare is dropping a VIP Demo this weekend for those who have pre-ordered the game as well as EA Access or Origin Access subscribers. The rest of the world will be able to take the demo for a spin next weekend. I played through a bit of the demo, in which you start as a level 10 character and have a few story missions to embark on solo or with friends, as well as the ability to free play the map, which allows you to tackle Strongholds (dungeons, basically) and explore the environments freely. The demo will give you a very good idea of how the game feels and it will help you decide whether or not Anthem is for you.
Anthem launches on Feb. 22 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.