If I was the kind to use hyperbole, I might say that Anthem is a heartbreaking failure, with flashes of brilliance and enjoyable action resting uneasily alongside what feels like a game cobbled together by focus groups, corporate mandates and the husks of other, better, and currently popular titles. Hyperbole aside, Anthem is a pretty good but ultimately disappointing game.
Anthem begins with a frenetic, in media res prologue mission that absolutely pummels the player with unexplained jargon and context-free references, and which appropriately foreshadows the vast majority of mission types that will be encountered later. As incomprehensible as its ultimate meaning might be, the action is fast, furious, colorful and satisfying, which remains true through most of Anthem’s later missions. And thanks to an insightful codex, players wishing to understand the story more completely may do so.
Much of the essential jargon gets explained: you play as a Freelancer, a heroic, once-elite class of super soldier, disgraced when the Freelancers failed to turn back an invading alien force at an epic battle called the Heart of Rage. Years later, the Freelancers are trying to get the band back together and make a comeback as it were, by taking on often menial contracts from whoever has a job to do. Of course, there’s an overarching and somewhat arcane narrative that is propelling the Freelancers to a much higher calling and a tepid antagonist to defeat, but that bigger story is lacking in the kind of propulsive energy that BioWare was known for in the glory days of Mass Effect and Dragon Age. But Anthem is not a typical, single player RPG, so perhaps story takes a backseat by design.
Home base is a well-realized place called Bastion and a settlement called Fort Tarsis, which houses the collection of NPCs, characters and mission givers that move you through the game. Fort Tarsis is — like so much of Anthem — beautiful and interesting to look at, but aside from story NPCs, it’s static and ultimately just window dressing. Anthem’s entertaining NPCs and story characters are often engaging and extremely well voice acted. The player character is written and voiced, and her cadence and delivery were understated, ironic and snappy. Coming off of Metro Exodus’ generally terrible and wooden voice acting, Anthem was positively brimming with crackling energy and nuance. Still, even the best NPCs and relationships in Anthem are pretty superficial.
While we’re temporarily waxing semi-rhapsodic, Anthem also shines in its world-building and environments, which are varied, colorful and exploding with life, and its combat and primary gameplay hook, the Javelin, is a master stoke idea. Instead of character classes, players may choose one of four Javelins, which are armor suits that look and function like a mech/superhero costume hybrid. Using the jet-powered Javelins, players can fly, hover, and hail fire from above. The Javelin classes include a heavy tank; a well-balanced all-around solider type; an ice and fire “magic” user and a super agile “rogue” class. The core of Anthem’s character progression is upgrading weapons and the Javelin. Although players begin with one Javelin, all four are eventually unlocked. And, once the weapons and Javelins start to reach their potential, they are much more varied than one might expect.
Anthem’s core loop is a series of co-op contracts/missions and the ability to explore the world solo, collecting crafting materials and completing challenges. The four-member squad missions yield higher rewards but are constrained in a number of slightly frustrating ways, from some infrequent bugs to the inability to explore away from the group, and to some rewards only being given to the player whose mission it is. The co-op missions can become repetitive in design and mostly consist of a series of waypoints to hit and waves of enemies to survive. Although the combat is frantic and fun, the group missions end up being pretty easy, until the endgame when a well-balanced and coordinated squad is critical. Exploring and grinding solo can be more satisfying but again, the lack of variety in goals and objectives ultimately tamp down the excitement here as well and there’s point in the story where progression is locked behind long and tedious hours of grinding with little reward at the end. There are two in-game currencies in Anthem, one of them connected to real-world money and microtransactions, which are generally cosmetic and easily ignored, unless you’re the kind of player that really wants to bling out your Javelin.
A number of other annoyances test your patience, like endless loading screens that really drain the momentum from the action, or the fact that Fort Tarsis vendor-NPCs are spread out around the city, or that upgrading the Javelin necessitates a trip to a crafting station called The Forge when it could just have easily been done from a menu and on the fly. While the loading times can be mitigated on a PC with a zippy solid state drive, they don’t go away entirely.
Defying classic RPG storytelling , Anthem‘s missions and campaign lack the variety, momentum and character-building that define the best games in the genre, and especially the best games from BioWare itself. That said, the voice acting is often great, the environments are incredibly beautiful and the action can be fantastic but eventually Anthem feels like all that colorful combat, sound and fury are in the service of nothing very interesting or innovative. In its current state, there’s much to enjoy in Anthem but maybe not for the long haul.
Note: This review was based on the Origin Premiere Subscription early release of the game. It does not reflect changes made by the “release day” patch.