Live service games are a very divisive topic in gaming. While it’s true that a majority of games released under this model tend to be unfinished and lacking content at launch, most of them go on to make massive improvements via patches and expansions. This makes it difficult to review a game like BioWare’s new online action-rpg Anthem using a traditional game review format.
However, that doesn’t mean that we should just ignore a live-service game’s performance at launch. Instead, this review will seek to strike a balance between what Anthem is now, and where it’s headed in the future. We’ll also be regularly updating this review as changes are made and new content becomes available, so make sure to check back.
Ever since it’s official announcement at E3 2017, most of the discussion surrounding Anthem seemed to be more about the development studio behind it (BioWare) and the game’s publisher (EA), than the game itself. This is understandable given EA’s track record for injecting micro-transactions into every faucet of their games and BioWare’s extremely poor execution of Mass Effect: Andromeda.
This created a situation where the odds were stacked against Anthem from the start. Regardless of what the end result looked like, there were a portion of gamers that would instantly reject the game. As of now, Anthem does not feature any of the predatory micro-transactions that are known to plague EA published games.
It does have an in-game store where you can purchase crafting materials, armor, emotes, and decals for your javelin with real money, however none of these are tied to player performance and can all be purchased with in-game currency. Right now there are some items that do feel overpriced, like emotes, and if you do find yourself wanting to buy a piece of armor for one of your javelins, you’re forced to purchase the entire set instead of individual pieces, greatly increasing the cost. However, the store can be easily avoided should you wish to never make a single purchase.
UPDATE: A recent patch has affected the drop rate for Masterwork and Legendary items, making it harder for players to obtain higher-rarity materials like Masterwork and Legendary Embers. While BioWare has stated that this was an unintended bug that they plan to fix, all signs point towards it being a method designed to force players to either invest more time playing or purchase materials from the game’s store.
Even after a day-one patch that addressed a number of problems, Anthem still has too many performance issues for a game that was supposedly under development for six years. While I only experienced one game crash and a few small bugs, my squadmates weren’t as lucky. I play mostly with my brother, who’s had his game crash multiple times, been unable to gain access to areas during missions, and in some cases received no rewards or story progression after completing a mission.
This led to a lot of gaming sessions that were understandably, cut short simply out of frustration. Although he played the game on a base PS4 and me on a Pro, I don’t think this excuses the game’s clear lack of optimization. Even if Anthem was designed primarily for mid-generation consoles, it should be able to run flawlessly on any platform it’s available on, yet it doesn’t.
Anecdotes aside, there’s one problem that will plague every player, especially those playing Anthem on PC: ridiculous load times. I started playing the game at launch after installing a patch that was supposed to reduce load times. Given the current abysmal length that’s required for loading into missions or even the game’s hub world, I can only imagine how much worse it must have been before.
UPDATE: Players are reporting an even higher number of performance issues in Anthem after a recent patch. Players have reported instances where they are unable to pick up objects or revive teammates. Additionally, the game is prone to not giving players rewards for completing missions and experiences frequent server crashes.
Where Anthem truly shines is in its gameplay mechanics and javelin customization. Hopping into your mech suit in first person makes you truly feel like you’re Ironman, even though people keep calling you a Freelancer for some reason. Players who love to customize every little detail have a lot of tools at their disposal, with a decent pool of materials, vinyls to decorate your javelin with, and a color wheel available from the start.
While some cosmetic items like new wear states or certain materials are tied to increasing your loyalty with different factions, this approach encourages you to play the game more and provides a sense of accomplishment once you’re able to obtain these items. With each javelin having their own distinct look, it’s really fun to drop into a mission and see how all my teammates chose to design their suits.
Something that’s lacking from the game is the ability to customize your Pilot, instead Anthem forces you to pick from a number of Male or Female preset designs. At first this didn’t seem like a huge deal since you spend most of the game in either first-person or third-person while in your suit; however there are cutscenes where your character’s face is shown. These moments were quite jarring as I never got a chance to form a bond with my Pilot and as a result, couldn’t sympathize with them in certain situations that were obviously intended to illicit an emotional response from the player.
This leads me to the game’s main story, which tries it’s best to live up to BioWare’s reputation for crafting a powerful narrative, even if it falls short. Don’t get me wrong, the story is completely serviceable for a game of this nature. You meet the bad guy, try to stop him, fail, have to regroup and try again, only this time better! Also, there’s this Anthem…thing?
There are a few interesting plot twists and character arcs, however the events in the game never truly resonate because they lack context. The player is never able to gauge the scope of the world, where areas are in relation to each other, the reasoning behind certain characters’ motivations, unless you’re willing to spend hours in poorly designed menus reading about it. The only exceptions to this are the characters Owen and Haluk, whose relationships with you evolve over the course of the main story in interesting ways.
While my views on the game’s story may come across as negative, and they partially are, I don’t think story is inherently important for a game like Anthem. A majority of my friends skipped the game’s cutscenes and didn’t have any interest in learning more about the world of Bastion or any of the NPCs backstories. It’s a gameplay driven experience that a lot of players will approach when they want to turn off their brain and just have fun with their friends.
I think if any other studio besides BioWare made this game, the story would be looked at as needless fluff, but because it is BioWare, there’s this grandiose expectation that Anthem simply can’t live up to. If you’re willing to dive a bit deeper, explore the game’s codex, engage in conversations with the citizens of Fort Tarsis, you will find entertaining stories and dialogue. However, a majority of players won’t do this and I don’t see any reason why they should have to go out of their way for a decent narrative.
Now in terms of gameplay, Anthem’s combat and traversal both feel really great. Being able to take off at a moment’s notice and fly in any direction feels seamless and the game’s wide open areas give you a lot of room for traversal. For some, the heat meter that slowly fills while flying or hovering will be a turn off, but without it I think flight becomes a bit too simple.
I enjoy having to juggle a number of systems at once so keeping an eye on my meter during combat makes me feel more engaged. The heat system also encourages you to come up with creative ways to maximize your distance by incorporating jumps and dashes into your movement and flying past bodies of water to cool off your suit.
Each of the game’s four classes feels distinct and plays drastically different than one another. The Colossus is slow and tanky, the Storm is frail and can stay in the air forever, the Ranger is extremely versatile, and the Interceptor is quick and deadly. They each fulfill a unique role in battle and add a lot of replayability to the game.
Mission structure has little variation and usually boils down to killing waves of enemies while retrieving a magical orb or cube and delivering it to a specific location. Anthem tries to add a level of challenge by disabling flight when holding certain items, however all this really does is temporarily remove access to one of the game’s best mechanics. Missions are relatively short, which works in the game’s favor by preventing objectives from becoming too repetitive.
Where Anthem excels is in its Strongholds, which are lengthier “mini-raid” missions that have you and your team infiltrating a large area, culminating in a big boss battle. These offer a lot more challenge than normal missions and reward you with better loot. Unfortunately, as of now the game only features three different Strongholds, which makes taking them on feel repetitive far too quickly.
Like many other parts of the game, Anthem’s combat mechanics are a matter of taste. Even though the game’s commonly referred to as a “looter shooter”, it greatly emphasizes abilities over gunplay. As a result, most abilities including your Ultimate are on relatively short cooldowns, which can be reduced even further through weapons, components, and support gear. Having frequent access to each javelin’s unique pool of abilities makes battles feel epic and encourages you to perform combos with your teammates.
It’d be great if the game also managed to nail its shooting mechanics but that’s simply not Anthem’s strong-suit. The shooting is still serviceable and becomes a lot better in the end-game once you have access to more powerful weapons. However, Anthem’s lack of customization when it comes to weapons forces you to deal with each gun’s default skin, which in most cases looks dull and uninspired.
I had reached level 24 by the time I had wrapped up the events of the game’s main story, which included replaying some missions for deeper understanding and to help my friends progress. After hitting this point, I still found myself wanting to return to the game each day, even as I write this review. As you get closer to level 30, the current cap, you start getting higher rarity weapon drops, which have a chance of dropping with some pretty cool attributes.
Aside from completing weapon-specific challenges, a new overarching story challenge has unlocked that seems promising. Additionally, I still have to increase my loyalty with some factions, unlock more blueprints, and upgrade each javelin’s abilities. While I’ve seen every story mission, there are a few contracts I haven’t yet experienced, however I’m sure at some point I will step away from the game in favor of something else, returning whenever new content drops.
The Final Verdict
To me, Anthem feels exactly like what a live service game should. BioWare has created a template that they plan on fleshing out in the future with new content and improving on with incremental patches. As of right now, there is enough of a decent game here to justify my purchase. It’s more than likely not going to be the same for someone else.
Yes there are better games you could play in favor of Anthem, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad for what it is. BioWare has already done an excellent job at fixing issues and communicating with players regarding the future of Anthem. Decide for yourself whether this is a game you’re willing to stick with through some growing pains.
UPDATE: We have revised Anthem’s final score from a 7 to a 6 following a number of performance issues from a recent patch. Additionally, BioWare has made some changes to higher-rarity item drop rates that feel exploitative.
If you’re new to the game or plan on picking it up, check out our extensive guides for unlocking everything Anthem has to offer: