How I had looked forward to the VIP demo of my most anticipated game of 2019, Anthem. How I sat there, on my sofa, controller in hand willing the time to click down to the promised 5pm GMT start time. How blue the air was at exactly 5:01 pm as the first of the many messages popped up on screen telling me that the EA Servers were full and for me to kindly sod off and try again later.
The wails of anguish in my ear as my fireteam were all denied access, yet the big streamers were all managing to not only connect to the servers, but swoop around and have fun while we gazed at the loading screen. After a while many questions began to bubble up in my mind; how long was that man going to spend welding the elbow of the left hand Javelin? Surely it’s going to melt in a minute? What were those kids looking at? Why didn’t EA have a Scooby as to how many people would want to play this demo? Preorders plus EA Access subscribers multiplied by the three friends code foe each that were given out, surely? I certainly felt like a VIP sitting there looking at nothing, I can tell you.
Twitter was on fire too, with gamers asking EA the same questions that had occurred to me; their responses about spooling servers up being met with predictable derision. When the situation had not improved by 11pm, six hours after the time we were supposed to have started, I gave up and went to bed, a much saddened individual.
Roll on the clock to Saturday morning, just after 7am, and with no expectations beyond getting stuck again, I fired up the demo and tried my luck. With confident tweets from EA and Bioware buoying my enthusiasm, I got past the first hurdle – the loading screen – without incident. Having played the alpha build, I had a rough idea of where things were, and set off on the first stage of a solitary story mission that the demo would let us play. Now, for the purposes of this impressions piece, I’m not going to delve into the narrative, as a snippet somewhere in the middle won’t do the story arc justice, however I will say that from the bit I played, those internet moaners complained about a lack of story may need to eat their words; the characters that you meet and the situations that unfold seem to be fully fleshed out even at this early stage.
Having got the mission, I dawdled over to my Javelin, as the armoured suits are known. I didn’t dawdle by choice, it just seems that the walking speed in Fort Tarsis is set on the geriatric end of the scale, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a zimmer frame in the cutscenes, so slow is the rate of progress. Eventually we wandered to the Ranger Javelin, the default model for the demo, slipped into it and we were away.
Now, the first things I have to say are that the controls in Anthem are bang on. Absolutely sublime allowing dashing, sprinting and flying through the levels without a care. There is a freedom, a pure deep joy to being in a level, jumping into the air and flying away, then smashing down into the middle of a group of enemies with a melee ground pound style attack, before shooting another and sliding into cover as you reload, before carrying on. There is also a verticality to the maps that you don’t often see, and other than the arbitrary fake ceiling that Anthem imposes to ensure you don’t fly too high, if you can see somewhere you can usually fly to it. Quite often this is a big advantage, and so positioning plays a big part in the fights; you quickly learn to look around not just at ground level, but above your head when looking for cover.
Once in the suit, the world of Anthem opens up and the graphics are nothing short of breathtaking. The draw distances are amazing, there is no fog obscuring far away landscape features, and as long as they aren’t outside the demo map, you can pick a point and fly to it. It’s a living landscape as well, with creatures going about their business and enemies bimbling about the place. Spying out the land before swooping down to attack is awesome fun, and hovering to get a good look is a great experience.
The sound is equally as good, and the urge to start humming “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC every time your thrusters fire and you zoom into the sky is very strong indeed. The different guns and Javelins all have signature sounds, and presentation wise at least, Anthem is bang on target for the release.
Shooting, dodging, flying, running, crying, hiding: all the shooting game cliches are here with this game. Cliche is too harsh a word, maybe tropes would be better? Anyway, getting shot to pieces, darting out for health that the enemies drop and waiting for your shield to regenerate, are the skills you’ll need. In this way, along with the Ultimate attacks that each Javelin has, Anthem is a lot like Destiny. In fact, sticking with the Destiny theme, the Storm Javelin is a Warlock, the Colossus a Titan and the agile Interceptor is a Hunter. The Ranger is a mixture of the three in essence, but to me doesn’t seem good enough at any one thing to make it stand out. In fact, if Destiny and Titanfall were to shack up together and produce offspring, it could well be a lot like Anthem.
It has to be said too that giant robots and magical powers make the gameplay always interesting. And I defy anyone not to feel like Tony Stark the first time you leap off a waterfall and fly down through the spray, using the water to cool your thrusters as you swoop through the sky like a swallow in a good mood. I seem to lack the vocabulary to explain just how much fun flying around is, stopping to hover and shoot at enemies, both wildlife and enemy factions, swooping low over rivers to cool the jets again before smashing down with one fist to the floor, just like Iron Man.
In addition to the story mission, the Anthem demo allows us to experience the freeform gameplay of Free Roam and a Stronghold Expedition, which seem to be akin to Destiny’s Strikes. The difficulty of the Strongholds is certainly a step up; the one in the demo having a series of three set piece battles, and then a boss encounter with a giant bug that looks like it stepped straight out of Starship Troopers. These give good loot but are very hard, and teamwork is essential if you’re going to succeed. Having the server gods on your side helps too!,
Free Roam on the other hand is exactly as it says on the tin; you are dumped into the wilderness and left to your own devices. As I flew about the enormous maps, every now and then a mission would appear that allowed me to gain rewards for helping Sentinels out, and also exploring allows you to gather materials for crafting that can’t be found any other way. It’s also fun just exploring, seeing what trouble you can get into, seeing all the various enemies kicking about the place. Drawing enemies into fighting each other is also quite fun, allowing you take a back seat and then mop up the rewards.
Sadly, not all has been well with this demo. In addition to not being able to initially play, the loading takes way too long, and quite often will freeze at about 95% loaded and just hang, requiring a restart and the loss of whatever progress has been made. Falling through the floor, dashing into walls and not being able to get out, sound stutters and glitches, even just random dashboarding are all present and correct. I know this Anthem demo is – in effect – a beta and these things will doubtless be ironed out by the end of the demo period, but even so, the appearance of a loading screen makes me nervous every time.
After spending time with this Anthem demo, I’m still wildly excited for the full game and think it will be something different. It’s not the most original concept in the world, but with four Javelins to unlock and equip, different weapon classes and types to get used to, and an RNG grind that promises to keep us playing long into the future, the future of Anthem is looking very bright indeed.
It could well be said that I have been accused of being a proper glass half full optimist in the past, and I suppose it could be true, but I’ve yet to meet the Bioware game I didn’t like, and with the financial muscle of EA behind them, I feel that they would have to almost have to try and make this game anything other than a runaway success.
So, Freelancers, did you get into the demo? What did you think? Can Bioware pull it off? Will Uncle EA spoil the party? What are you looking forward to in the full game? Let us know in the comments!