‘Anthem’ hands-on preview

What would it look like if Destiny and Mass Effect had a baby? ‘Anthem’

Can you blow up enemies a ton of different ways? Absolutely. Will you look cool doing it? We think so.
Can you blow up enemies a ton of different ways? Absolutely. Will you look cool doing it? We think so.
Can you blow up enemies a ton of different ways? Absolutely. Will you look cool doing it? We think so.

Highs

  • Dense, lush, and gorgeously-rendered world
  • Fun and empowering action
  • Charming characters
  • Javelins allow constant playstyle experimentation

Lows

  • More MMO than Bioware RPG

Anthem, Bioware’s upcoming sci-fi “shared world shooter,” draws influences from many popular games in recent memory. Fans and critics often compare Anthem to Destiny, and for good reason; its aesthetics, basic co-op structure, and reliance on loot seem to beg for it. Yet it also carries hints of Borderlands, the free-to-play MMO Warframe and, of course, Bioware’s own Mass Effect.

In other words, Anthem isn’t going to be anything shooter fans haven’t seen before. You will team up, grind missions for loot, upgrade and customize your Javelin exosuit, and blow stuff up.

That doesn’t mean playing Anthem won’t be a good time, though. All the elements Anthem cribs from other games blends smoothly into an active, intense, and fun third-person shooter. Although it may not focus on narrative as much as diehard Bioware fans would hope, the little taste we had of its characters and world still packed proportionally more charm than we have come to expect from the genre. If you’re looking for a big, slick, explosive action game that you can play with your friends for the foreseeable future, Anthem might be just what you want.

Do you really need a reason to blow stuff up in a robot suit?

Let’s get one thing out of the way — you aren’t going to play Anthem for the story. In past games from Bioware, the studio behind Mass Effect and Dragon Age, plot, lore, and characters would be all you care about, with gameplay and mechanics supporting the journey. Anthem seems to invert that relationship, with plot and world-building serving as a framework to support indefinitely open-ended, co-op gameplay.

The game’s basic premise is, like Destiny and its ilk, built around a flexible and never-ending conflict. The world of Anthem was abandoned by the gods, known as Shapers. They left their tools behind—immense and powerful alien artifacts for shaping the planet and its life—and most of the game revolves around trying to control or mitigate the chaos they create.

You play a “freelancer,” who pilots a powered exosuit called a Javelin. The freelancers protect humanity from enemy factions, like the rival Dominion, the vaguely alien Scar, and giant bugs called the Swarm. As far as we know, there’s no clear goal or way out of this conflict. You must keep fighting to protect the world and keep everyone alive. That sort of narrative structure handily supports the needs of an MMO, but does not lend itself to the taut, character-driven drama for which Bioware is known.

What do you play Anthem for? Guns and graphics, of course.

We played a condensed version of a “stronghold” mission—essentially a raid, which the developers described to us as a “longform four-player experience.” Our team had to find and destroy a base where the Scar is making powerful acid-based weapons. Once you do that, you find the creatures they were getting the acid from, giant bugs called the Swarm, have broken free and created a hive, so now you must destroy that, too.

The brief pre-mission cut scene we saw was charming, if light on narrative details. The characters who briefed us on the forward base had distinct personality, and we were left curious to know more about them. It may not be the sort of rich narrative on which Bioware has built its reputation, but the studio’s expertise in characters clearly helps punch up otherwise rote action-framing interactions with NPCs.

Variety is the spice of life…

What do you play Anthem for, if not for the story? Guns and graphics, of course.

Anthem is, first and foremost, a beautiful game. Not only are the characters, exosuits, environments, and effects all sharp and vibrant, it takes steps to keep things visually interesting. In just 30 minutes, we traveled from steamy, clifftop jungle villages through an underwater crevasse to creepy, alien-infested caves. The environments were dense and diverse, creating the feeling that our journey covered more ground than it literally did.

You’ll spend the most time looking at your exosuit, however. There are four Javelin types, each with its own play style, special weapons, and class-specific special abilities. We played as the Ranger, a balanced generalist class. The slower, powerful Colossus has heavy weapons like shoulder-mounted rockets and can soak up damage. The Storm has elemental special attacks, including a lightning strike. And, lastly, the Interceptor, which we did not see in our demo, will be a lighter, faster class.

All javelins can fly or hover with a tap of the left or right stick, respectively. Hovering is slower, but you can still use weapons, and both modes will gradually fill out a meter below your character and overheat if used for too long. Wait a few moments on the ground and you’re good to go again, or you can fly under a waterfall to instantly cool off. Zipping around by jetpack felt powerful and was easy to get into. The environments had a lot of verticality to take advantage of this mobility, which helped make playing the game feel suitably epic.

There isn’t much of a barrier to keep you from playing with different classes as situation or whim demands.

Gunplay feels equally slick and impactful, with Borderlands-style damage numbers pinging off impacts to provide immediate feedback. The jetpacks enabled us to zip around and reposition constantly, raining down explosive death from above.

Our fights generally involved lots of enemies, coming at us from all angles and ranging from small little grunts to giant, horrific monsters, which kept the action very kinetic.

At no point were we ever particularly worried about managing resources like ammo or health, or clinging to cover to avoid devastating attacks. The difficulty was almost certainly turned down for demo purposes, but we had the general sense that combat was fast, fun, and dynamic, more about feeling like a superhero than tense survival in a hostile world.

It behooves you to coordinate with your squad and choose different loadouts, if not classes, for every mission. Javelins can combine their special weapons to make even more powerful ability combos, which do increased damage and send damage numbers flying off enemies, ringing up higher counts than an accountant on tax day. Our squad got a lot of mileage out of freezing groups of enemies with frost grenades and then following up with boosted melee attacks.

Luckily, there isn’t much of a barrier to keep you from playing with different classes as situation or whim demands. You can swap among the Javelin classes in the Strider, a “forward operating base” where you select missions, or Fort Tarsis, the game’s home city. According to Bioware executive producer Mark Darrah, your character level spans across all four classes.

…Especially when it comes to loot

Loot is, by Bioware’s account, a big deal in Anthem. There many different types of weapons you can pick up. They have stats and colored “tiers,” like rare and legendary. The best loot adds extra bonuses or abilities to your gear, not just better stats.

Choosing weapons will be less about min-maxing and more about combining minor, concrete effects to define your play style.

In the demo, Bioware suggested that what makes Anthem’s loot special is breadth, not depth. There are many different types of guns, and they work in different ways. As in Destiny, the Witcher, Mass Effect, and plenty of others, your Javelin has a series of special abilities tied to several buttons and combinations of buttons on your controller. Some of these are universal across each class but many, it seems, come from customizing your Javelin with different types of equipment.

We ran with an assault rifle, an SMG, and a “frost bomb” grenade on the left shoulder button, which would temporarily freeze enemies in a sphere and make them susceptible to extra damage. On the right shoulder we had a pulse gun that could charge up single, powerful shots. Our rifle was legendary, adding an effect that made our frost bombs chain to nearby enemies, while another player had one that periodically added an area-of-effect knockback to their shots.

We get the sense that choosing weapons will be less about minute min-maxing of numbers and more about combining minor, concrete effects like this to define your play style. With four different classes of javelin that everyone can use, that gives you incentive to collect a lot of different gear to have a wide range of options, rather than constantly honing your ideal set.

Javelins just wanna’ have fun

Anthem is not going to change the way you see video games. It probably won’t even change the way you think about shooters and MMOs. It does, however, seem perfectly suited to scratch many of the common itches found among shooter and/or RPG fans. Does it have a lot of customization options? Yes. Can you blow up enemies a ton of different ways? Absolutely. Will you look cool doing it? We think so.

While many fans have been bemoaning this as Bioware abandoning their strengths, it’s better to think of it as Bioware bringing their narrative expertise to elevate a genre of gameplay that’s generally struggled to tell coherent and compelling stories. For us, that’s enough. If it’s enough for you, keep an eye out for Anthem when it launches February 22, 2019, on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.

Looking to read more about what’s happening at E3 2018? Check out Digital Trends’ E3 hub to read everything about the biggest games from the show.

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