Throwback Review: Anthem

It’s shocking, to say the least, that two years have passed since Anthem was initially released. Admittedly, 2020 was kind of a blur with the constant suck of the pandemic distracting everybody. But still, time flies even when you’re not having fun. On its initial release, I was grossly disappointed, like a lot of people who expected something incredible from BioWare. Something that might have redeemed the lackluster Mass Effect: Andromeda and the middling Dragon Age: Inquisition.

I was so put off by Anthem’s atrocious performance, threadbare mechanics, and tissue thin storyline that I stuffed the game in its case before hitting the end, and deliberately tried to forget about it. I was particularly aggrieved since I had bought the “Legion Of Dawn” edition, and EA couldn’t get their shit together to let people actually redeem any of the content they promised.

When I heard EA might soon be deciding the fate of the long promised, nigh on fabled, “Anthem 2.0″ rework, it occurred to me that I should probably try to grind my way through the rest of the story. If I was lucky, I’d see if BioWare had made any improvements. And having crawled out of the Javelin power armor once again, I’m still pretty disappointed.

An example of some armor in Anthem
“RNG better be spitting some primo loot.”

I would be churlish if I didn’t at least mention what Anthem has successfully accomplished over the last two years, least to somebody coming back in after a long absence. Compared to those early days, the game is very stable, far more so now than what it was at launch. I was able to successfully claim those extra items (including Sarah Schachner’s awesome soundtrack) without further hassle. There does seem to be a slightly more forgiving heat management system in place than at launch, allowing some more flight time in the suits. And the game does not constantly pester you to group up like it did originally, settling only for a single “are you sure?” sort of prompt before letting you go about your merry way. You can adjust your loadout when you’re out in the world with any pre-existing gear you’ve collected up to this point. These seem like small things, but sometimes the small things matter quite a bit more than people think.

But even with these refinements, Anthem doesn’t appear to have fundamentally changed much from its launch form. The game still has the same obnoxious blind loot system. The combat, ground movement, and enemy behaviors are still shamelessly lifted from Mass Effect: Andromeda (which only proves how reinforcing failure is a terrible idea). You’re still stuck having to buy new looks for your Javelins, either through godawful grinding for “coins”, or the seasonal “crystals” – or buying currency with real money. You’re still trapped in a first person perspective inside the settlement and never get to see what the character you made looks like. Loading times are still unconscionably slow. And while Anthem doesn’t nag you to team up as much, its XP system absolutely punishes you for flying solo on missions, leading to a sluggish power curve.

It’s this last complaint that genuinely makes me worry about Anthem going forward. Because it was released as a live service game, should EA decide to pull the plug, that’s it. The game dies, and anybody who got disgusted with the appalling state of functionality at launch, but who’ve been wondering if it has managed to improve, are going to be out of luck. And frankly, that’s a terrible spot to put players in. If EA decides to kill Anthem in the very near future, they’re going to cement the terrible reputation it has earned forever. There will be no gradual redemption in the style of No Man’s Sky. There will be no bold recreation like Final Fantasy XIV pulled off. Just another failed title tossed into the pile, right along with the mobile versions of Dungeon Keeper and Command & Conquer.

A screenshot of the open world in Anthem
“They say you can hear the echoes of every spent shell casing, the fatal rounds still buried in the skulls of every studio they murdered.”

For me, I think that would be a tragedy. It would be tragic because Anthem is a game where you can almost see the better title that it could have been, and perversely might still become if EA decides to let BioWare put in the sweat. Yes, Anthem‘s sins are manifold: shitty mechanics, lackluster weapon design (a cardinal sin in a loot shooter), ridiculous quest gating, completely terrible character interactions, a cramped world map, and equally constrained storytelling shackled to it. But for all that, you can see the effort that was put in. It wasn’t a case of BioWare not giving a damn. BioWare built an incredible world, and the fact they managed to do so with a notoriously terrible set of tools makes their accomplishments all the more impressive. They just didn’t get the actual game to match up.

As for the future, the long promised “2.0” rework, there’s been no good information about what form that might take or how EA plans to handle the unpaid beta testers of those early days at launch. For myself, I’d like to see players pulled out of the first-person perspective around Fort Tarsis. I’d like players to be able to visit hubs other than Fort Tarsis, and be able to see each other doing it. The gear could stand a redesign, or at least some expansion, letting players have the chance to play with gear from “enemy” factions as well as “antiques” or “relics” which have an appropriately archaic look to them. I’d like to see the prohibitive cost of new armor styles and visual elements slashed to about a third of what they are now. And it would thrill me no end if the narrative team revamped story and character arcs, make us care about the people in the world almost as much as the world itself.

Some more armor available to purchase in Anthem
“Wait, those guys spent HOW much?!”

Failing all of that, I’d like BioWare to make it clear to EA that the days of using the Frostbite engine are over, as far as they are concerned. Anthem needs to be the coda to their enforced use of an engine which doesn’t serve the purposes of the games BioWare is expected to build. Seriously, if Andrew Wilson can sign off on a couple billion dollars to buy up a mobile developer, the fee for an Unreal Engine license should almost literally be pocket change. And the last time BioWare used Unreal Engine, we got one of the best sci-fi games ever made. I can only imagine how good things would get with Unreal Engine 5 at their disposal.

The copy of Anthem I have sitting next to my PlayStation 4 stands poised to either be the triumphant fanfare to a reborn game worthy of the BioWare label, or a dirge of disappointment for an unpitied sacrifice of a contemptible struggle against more worthy competitors. It’d be nice to hear a resurgent refrain from BioWare after far too many sour notes.

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