Ah, Bioware. How I’ve enjoyed your games in the past; apparently one of only three people in the world who actually liked Mass Effect Andromeda.
Now Anthem is here have they managed to break the curse of Andromeda to be able to create a universally good game? Is it the masterpiece to catapult Bioware back to the dizzy heights that they used to occupy? Join me as I climb into a Javelin to find out.
The first thing to say about Anthem is that this is a proper Bioware game. Branching dialogues, interesting story, a wealth of lore to unlock and find; all the things that make a Bioware title are present and correct. Add to this a fascinating, living, breathing world both inside and outside of the game hub – Fort Tarsis – and the scene is set for not just a great game, but a great experience.
Just running around in the Fort, you will find that there are a lot of people to talk to, some of which will lead to new contracts out in the field, whilst others are just there to tell a story, needing your help and allowing you to influence things by choosing different branches across a dialogue tree. As an example, a woman named Nadirs will ask you to talk to her husband, Leyton. Depending on how you choose to speak to them, they can either remain together or be separated by Corvus, the secret police of Bastion. There’s no impact on your own personal progression, but getting to know these people does make you care about what happens; a bad outcome is quite painful to see.
There are various factions, for want of a better word, that inhabit Fort Tarsis, and by actioning tasks and completing contracts for these people, your reputation with them will rise. The Arcanists are the scientists of this world, constantly probing at the Shaper relics that are kicking about, usually getting themselves into trouble along the way. The Sentinels are almost like the Police crossed with the Army; responsible for peace keeping and maintaining law and order. The last faction are the Freelancers, and this is the group that our character belongs to. It seems that the Freelancers reputation has taken a bit of a knock with the general public since the events of the Anthem intro, and our task is to perform heroic tasks and contracts to try and convince the general public that the Freelancers can be trusted again.
The story of Anthem is very engaging, starting with a trip to the Heart of Rage, a massive Cataclysm that was kicked off by a Shaper relic called The Cenotaph going critical. These relics tap into the Anthem of Creation, the song of the Gods who created the world of Bastion, and as such can be made to do absolutely anything, from creating giant monsters to making a replica of the Bermuda Triangle, where people disappear and remain frozen in time, experiencing their past, present and future all at the same time. When the Anthem is in play, you really should expect the unexpected!
With a variety of missions, side missions and further contracts to chase, you can play the game at your own pace, only advancing the story when you are good and ready. Running through freeplay or the side missions is a good way to unlock extra gear for your Javelin, or even to unlock new flavours of Javelin as you level up. There are four types to unlock too, ranging from the giant armoured Colossus that can take a whole lot of punishment and still manage to keep on ticking, through to the fast but fragile Interceptor, whose main weapon is speed and evasiveness. The Ranger is the jack of all trades, specialising in neither offence nor defence, but more than suitable for all occasions, while the final type is the Storm, who has a lot of elemental attacks at its disposal, flinging ice and lightning around.
The visuals of the Anthem world, as you step outside the walls of Fort Tarsis, are amazing, with draw distances to the horizon and an almost unbelievable attention to detail. The waterfalls look amazing, the water effects are almost photo realistic, and swooping around the place like Iron Man in a good mood is just fantastic. Real thought has gone into the traversal of this world as well, as the thrusters on the Javelins overheat with extended flight, but flying low across water or up a waterfall cools them, extending the flight time. If there is no water around, a steep dive from height will also cool the jets, allowing you to swoop through the sky like a particularly joyful swallow.
You can even even dive underwater, the suit transitioning from flight to submarine mode seamlessly, with the sound becoming muffled and watery, for want of a better a word. Bursting from the water like a Trident missile and rocketing up into the sky never fails to amuse, and slamming down into the middle of a group of enemies with a melee attack as a Colossus is almost life affirming it is so satisfying.
The enemies you face are an imaginative bunch as well, from the Scar, who are like a robotic insect army, to the Dominion; like regular soldiers but ones who can control animals and utilise them in battle. The Outlaws meanwhile are the dregs of human culture, living outside the walls and attacking freelancers and Arcanists alike. They and the Dominion also use Javelins, and the higher level Dominion Storm Javelins can be a real pain to take out alone. This means that having a fireteam on hand is always a good thing with Anthem, and although you can choose to play Missions and contracts solo, playing with others increases the rewards and experiences that are gleaned from its successful completion. Strongholds and Freeplay do not have a solo play option which is a bit of a shame, as challenging a stronghold as a solo fighter would be an awesome challenge, and in Freeplay the chests that people know about always get opened very early in a session, meaning that if you are looking for chests as part of a challenge, it can be quite frustrating to go from empty spot to empty spot.
Teamwork does have an upside though, and this comes in the shape of combo attacks. Hitting bigger enemies with an attack that causes a status effect, like fire or ice, will allow other players to attack and cause extra damage as a combo attack. These can make the difference between success and failure, especially as some of the enemies – especially the Titans and the Ursix – can soak up a ton of punishment before going down for good.
There are however many different ways to build your Javelin, and giving some thought to the combo possibilities can make you a much more valuable member of a fireteam. With the amount of gadgets to use, and variety of different weapon types and the way they interact, the possibilities are endless when it comes to gearing up. Do you prefer a pistol or a grenade launcher? Sniper rifle or shotgun? You can carry two main weapons at once, and there is bound to be one of the weapon archetypes that you like, and so finding out which is your favourite is a good chunk of the fun. Each weapon class has three weapons in it too, with each weapon, three challenges attached, so you will quickly find out that mastering every weapon is a long term commitment. The various gear gadgets also have challenges attached to them, with each Javelin having 12 gadgets to choose from, so again, each suit is going to be a challenge to complete. The sheer amount of content in Anthem, whether it be found through missions or world challenges is absolutely staggering, and will keep you entertained for a good long time.
Games like this do however live or die on the endgame, and luckily Anthem starts to really blossom after the main story is done. As soon as the big bad hits the floor, two more Strongholds, the challenging dungeon type mission, open up, more missions become available and a whole new series of challenges comes into play. Contracts for the main three factions become available in epic proportions too, and with new difficulties becoming available once your pilot reaches level 30, there’s a lot to take in even when the story is over.
The Grandmaster difficulty does exactly what it says on the tin, and after trying a stronghold on Grandmaster and the whole squad getting stomped in the first encounter, you will certainly need to think seriously about how you will build your Javelin up to even stand a chance. Increasing the level of the gear that your Javelin has raises its rarity to uncommon, then rare, epic and finally masterwork, and it will only be then when your Javelin will become virtually unstoppable.
After putting upwards of 30 hours into Anthem on Xbox One at time of writing, I’ve only had one masterwork weapon drop, but the grind is a big part of why these games work. If you think of this in the same way as Destiny – which it isn’t a million miles away from – and the amount of hours put in running though the Prison of Elders waiting for one particular helmet to drop for my Titan, then the grind here in Anthem is the same, with gradually increasing weapon levels and gear stages building your Javelin up step by step.
It must be said though, I’ve had a lot of fun just bimbling about in the wilds of Freeplay, doing missions as they crop up, while running about and seeing the enemies and wildlife interacting with each other is a lot of fun. The grabbits in particular are very well designed and if you run up to them, or aim a weapon, they’ll scatter. Walk up slowly and keep your guns in their holsters though and you can get right up close and personal.
All is not totally rosy in the Anthem garden however. The most annoying and prevalent complaint I have is found within the loading screens, be it into a mission or even loading into a different section of a mission. These are just too long, and I’m not joking when I say that they can completely destroy the flow of a mission. Another complaint is the way the game keeps everyone in the same area. There’s always that one guy, in every fireteam, who isn’t interested in looking around, picking up collectables or killing enemies but just wants to blast through the mission as quickly as possible. Well, in an attempt to keep the fireteam together, Anthem forces you to keep up with the fastest member of the team, even forcing a loading screen on you to drag you into the next section. This then leads to another long wait, amplifying the frustration.
In addition The Fort Tarsis section of the game feels slow and cumbersome, with a sloth like walking pace that contrasts harshly with the utter freedom that you have in the suit and outside the walls. One tweak I would like to see is in the Forge section of the game, where you gear up the Javelins. It would be nice to be able to check on the progress of the weapon challenges as you load your Javelin out, but it’s currently not possible. If you are wanting to finish a weapon category, you need to remember which weapon isn’t completed, and if you select the wrong one, then you need to load the forge up again, with all the delays that that entails.
All in all though and Anthem is a great deal of fun. The in-depth story, believable characters and masses of content promise to keep you busy for a good long time. Bioware have unveiled a roadmap of content coming to the game, including Cataclysms and new story missions, and with some tweaking to the loading times, these would make the game a hugely attractive prospect for the future, and I feel that the future is bright.
The Andromeda curse, if it exists at all, is, in my opinion, well and truly broken by Anthem, with lots to see and do. In fact, I highly recommend you try this game – flying like Iron Man never gets old!