Anthem screenshot-flying in a Javelin

Thoughts on the Anthem demo

This weekend I’ve been spending a little time on the Anthem demo/beta. That is, eventually, once the initial networking issues were resolved. It’s part of the reason for these betas, especially for online persistent games like Anthem, The Division, or Destiny, but the scale of the networking issues suggests that either someone completely underestimated the number of players, or made some very poor technical choices.

Regardless, I managed to get into the demo and spend some time flying around in my Iron Man-esque Javelin suit, and here’s what I made of the experience.

Teething Problems

First of all, let’s get this out of the way. There were tonnes of issues with the demo. From the game being literally unplayable on the first night due to networking issues (essentially a self-inflicted DDoS), to the fact that the game crashed for me every time I started a mission, there haven’t been issues to seek. Along with that I’ve had some serious framerate and smoothing issues, and that’s playing on an Xbox One X.

Not encouraging for a game so close to launch, and if rumours are to be believed, a lot of these issues will persist beyond launch day. Whether the game can recover from that, who knows?

Premise

There’s a trend for online, persistent world games these days. Destiny, The Division, Sea of Thieves, Fallout 76; all have done it, to varying degrees of success. Anthem sees Bioware (of Star Wars: KOTOR and Mass Effect fame) attempt to make their mark on the online-only social sandbox/RPG-type genre. Seriously, what do we even call these games?

Set in a world (Earth?) which has been shaped by some mystical forerunners using advanced technology called the “Anthem of Creation”. Over time, this tech has continued to change the world, introducing new threats and instability that threatens the fragile existence of humanity. At least, it’s something like that. Freelancers (hey, that’s you!) tear about in powerful exo-suits called Javelins, protecting the people and generally kicking ass.

The combat and flying elements blend together very nicely.

As a Freelancer, you’ll explore the world, team up with friends (or randoms via matchmaking), and take part in missions looking for experience points, loot, and story progression. It’s not clear yet what the endgame looks like, and this is usually where this sort of game falls down. It’ll be interesting to see how Bioware plan to keep the game alive once the majority of players have beaten the story content.

Gameplay

Anthem is your general third-person shooter fare, and I simply can’t get over how much this feels like Mass Effect: Andromeda. While I’m a huge fan of the Mass Effect series, and Andromeda has been generally praised for its movement and combat controls, it just never felt quite right to me. The character movement was never quite right, and it rather felt like you were just floating around the environment, rather than interacting with it. When I play third person shooters, I still inevitably think back to the Gears of War series as the benchmark for physicality and a feeling of reality in the movement.

Anthem is at its best when you’re flying around the open world and attacking from the air.

Yes, Anthem feels a lot like Andromeda, right down to the rocket-boosted jump your Javelin does when you press A. The only real difference here, is the addition of flight. And to give Bioware their due, it’s absolutely perfect. Clicking in the left thumbstick while jumping/falling boosts the Javelin forward into horizontal flight. The left thumbstick controls velocity while the right controls direction. One of the immediate observations made during that original E3 reveal was how much the Javelin flight looked like Iron Man, and that still rings absolutely true. Indeed, launching into the air and zipping around feels like exactly how you would want an Iron Man game to play. It allows you to add a vertical element to the gameplay which is very welcome.

The only downside is that your Javelin’s flight time is limited by a “heat meter”, which fills rather rapidly as you fly, more-so if you pick up the pace, or gain altitude. Your Javelin can be cooled by diving rapidly, or flying through waterfalls (which are plentiful), but the alloted time is just never enough. There appear to be upgrade options that will allow extended flight time as you level, as can class selection, so hopefully the finished game will enable this to be increased greatly, as flight, and the added verticality it brings really are my favourite thing about the game so far.

The Forge, where you customise your Javelins and embark upon Expeditions.

Combat also feels very like Mass Effect: Andromeda. The weapon aiming just doesn’t feel quite right, and while there’s recoil and feedback, it just doesn’t quite sync up. Again, this may be a technical issue related to the framerate problems. Numbers spring out of enemies as hits land, and levelling up lets you dispense enemies quicker and deal more damage. There are some rather cool backup weapons that are slaved to the bumpers, allowing you to throw a grenade, or launch a rocket, and an “Ultimate” that must be built up before it can be unleashed. The default one of these is a multi-target rocket that allows you to paint multiple targets for destruction and unleash hell. Very cool when you’re able to unleash it all.

Enemies seem to come in a number of different flavours. The Scars are the main ones I encountered. A variety of grotesque mutated-looking monsters that come in various archetypes and carry guns, shields, and have special abilities that they regularly use. Some of these even have the capability of overheating your Javelin, bringing you crashing down to earth and making you vulnerable, which means you need to keep your wits about you, even when flying/hovering. There are insects and other animal enemies as well that regularly show up, meaning there’s quite a variety of enemies to contend with.

Customisation

There are four classes in Anthem, delivered via four archetypes of Javelin. There’s your starter suit, the Ranger, a general all-rounder with a balance of defence and attack. The Colossus is, as the name suggests, a huge, hulking monstrosity, reminiscent of the Hulkbuster armour in Avengers: Age of Ultron. This is the tank, built to both take punishment, and deal it out in the form of heavy weapons, and a superb Ultimate ability, which when activated, gives you a short lived mini nuke launcher with which to clear the battlefield. The Storm uses fancy abilities to fight, and is surrounded by a permanent shield. This is the support class, able to lay down elemental abilities to help their team. The Storm also seems to benefit from a slower overheat rate, which is welcome for those who love flying. And finally, the Interceptor, a lightweight but fast and nimble class, built for offence. The Interceptor’s abilities provide enhanced close-combat with the ultimate slowing down time, allowing the Interceptor to dance around their targets, inflicting huge numbers of melee attacks in a short space of time.

The Interceptor is fast and aggressive, geared towards melee combat.

I’m between the Storm and the Interceptor as my favourite so far. I think I’ll likely lean more towards the Storm as my go-to, but the Interceptor is a lot of fun, as the video above shows!

There are plenty of customisation options available. These allow you to change various armour pieces, as well as fully customise both the material and colour scheme of your Javelins to a high degree. Add in the availability of custom vinyls that apply livery to your suit, and there’s a lot of scope for people to make their Javelins their own.

Anthem screenshot - character customisation
There are plenty of options to customise loadouts, abilities, and appearance.

Visuals and Audio

If I’m perfectly honest, I find the visuals a little disappointing. I played the Alpha back in December and it doesn’t feel like there’s been a massive amount of polish since then. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not an ugly game by any stretch, but even playing on Xbox One X there are frame rate issues, movement is jerky in places, and textures, at least in the open world, can look rather flat. There are some very nice lighting effects, especially in combat where different weapon types (the usual sort of RPG set up – fire, water, electricity etc.) explode and dazzle. NPC models look great, as does the main social hub in general. There’s definite quality there, so maybe some of the issues are related to the technical challenges people have been experiencing so far during the demo. I’m hopeful there’ll be some final polish in the full release.

Screenshot of Fort Tarsis, Anthem's social hub.
The social hub Fort Tarsis, really shows off Anthem’s visuals.

In terms of the audio, I didn’t notice much to report really. It’s decent enough, some great sound design and interesting noises for the various enemies. Weapons sound good, and the noises around the Javelin’s movement (especially flight) add some welcome realism to proceedings.

Summary

While there can be no doubt of the effort Bioware (and EA) have put into Anthem, and attempting to make it a success, it still feels to me like it’s missing some soul. This may not be a surprise to some, given EA’s involvement.

For me, I’m just struggling to get away from the comparisons with Andromeda. It’s the only Mass Effect game I haven’t (yet) finished, as it just never grabbed me like the others, and so far, Anthem feels very similar.

I really like Bioware, and I want Anthem to be a success for them. It’s a game that I really, really want to like, but at the moment I’m struggling to find anything that really makes me go “wow”. Early on I was finding it all a little bit “meh”, although it feels like it’s got something about it that could burst into life at any point and make it more like the game we all hoped it would be. Getting my hands on the additional Javelins definitely helped matters, and I’m hoping that on full release, there are plenty of ways to customise these even further, with some good endgame content lined up.

I’ll keep my pre-order for now (thankfully I managed to get a disc-based copy for around £32 from ShopTo, although I’m not sure if this offer still stands) and hope that it all comes together at launch.

If you’ve been playing the Anthem demo, let me know what your thoughts are in the comments below.

Solutions Architect at Indicia and Final Boss of picnicerror.net. 1600HP. Vulnerable to Tequila. Data geek, football fan, and Xbox gamer.

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