It is undeniably reductive to claim that Anthem is essentially Destiny developed by BioWare.
It’s also not altogether unsound.
The Edmonton-based gamesmith is famous for its story-first role-playing games, including both the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series. Anthem, in contrast, is a move towards a more multiplayer-focused experience running under a games as a service business model — at the direction of its owner, Electronic Arts, one can only assume — but with the famed game maker trying desperately to carry along its storytelling DNA.
Anthem is set on an ancient world composed of human cities walled off from a sprawling wilderness littered with ancient ruins and infested with strange creatures, some of which are exceedingly hostile. A group of armour-clad heroes known as freelancers work to protect their people not only from the planet’s monsters but also aggressive human factions, like the Dominion, a group keen on using godly relics to reshape the world according to their whims.
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It’s not quite up to the standards of BioWare’s best stories, but the lore is at least mildly compelling, comprehensible (certainly more so than Destiny, anyway), and filled with interesting characters and a sense of history. Plus, the acting is terrific — especially Sarah Elmaleh (of Gone Home fame) who provides the female voice for the player’s character. She’s instantly likeable, infusing our hero with roguishness, confidence, friendliness and authentic wit.
But the exposition is constrained by the type of combat it’s forced to serve.
The best interactive stories mould activities around characters and plot, with spectacular, meticulously crafted, carefully paced events cleverly designed to develop and grow key personalities. Cooperative multiplayer shooters are not conducive to such heavily directed set pieces. They have to keep the action flowing and allow freedom of choice for multiple players simultaneously. Save for an occasional mid-mission non-interactive cut scene, storytelling is limited to voice over dialogue, much of which players are bound to miss because they’re too busy shooting stuff and trying to stay alive.
So Anthem gives us the beginnings of an interesting world about which I’d like to know more — I found myself wishing I could access its collectible textual lore entries, of which there are many, in an app away from the game, so as not to interrupt the flow of play — but stops short of fully satisfying exposition.
And the action side of things fares about the same.
I’m legitimately impressed by the sense of power that comes from stepping into one of Anthem’s suits of armour, known as javelins. They bestow upon us the ability to intuitively double-jump, fly, and hover in battle. And, depending on which of the four styles of armour you choose, you’ll have access to a range of wicked class-specific armaments ranging from Predator-like shoulder rockets to powerful shields, all of which recharge surprisingly quickly, allowing you to make ample use of these satiating abilities.
Our stock of more traditional weapons — handguns, assault rifles, light machine guns, shotguns, sniper rifles and the like — are a bit less satisfying. They handle well and pack sufficient punch, but they somehow lack in character and distinctiveness. Once I tried one marksman rifle, I sort of felt like I’d tried them all. To be sure, some are more powerful than others, but those I’ve encountered in my first 20 hours all seem to look and handle about the same.
Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised further down the line by the introduction of more interesting guns. If not, this constitutes a problem for a game founded on the notion of driving people to keep playing via the promise of finding better and better loot. I haven’t really gotten excited about anything I’ve managed to scrounge up. I simply examine its level number and equip it if it will up my stats.
It’s an issue that might have been mitigated to a degree by creative mission design — so long as we’re enjoying what we’re doing, the rewards don’t matter as much — but most expeditions in Anthem are pretty unimaginative. Fly to location A, kill everything there, fly to location B and collect some stuff, fly to location C and shoot some towers, then fly to location D and find some more stuff before. The bulk of missions feel like variations on this repetitive theme.
Special “stronghold” missions provide more of a challenge — and more loot — but not much more diversity. I found myself relying on my teammates a lot more in stronghold missions, especially on harder difficulty levels, but it’s almost always a question of skill rather than strategy. There’s little in the way of puzzle solving and few innovative solutions to be found; it’s just a matter of how good you are at shooting and not getting shot.
Admittedly, it is early days for Anthem. If you were to look at what Destiny was when it launched and what it became years later, they are two vastly different games. I expect Anthem will be changed, enhanced, and grown in the coming months and perhaps years. BioWare has created a sufficient foundation of story and play mechanics. Now it just needs to figure out a way to properly meld and symbiotically grow both elements.