It can be a tough life being a gamer, having to repeatedly save the world, over and over again (repeat ad nauseam), so it’s almost refreshing that Bioware's upcoming Anthem (opens in new tab) game is taking a different tack. In this world, you play as a Freelancer, and instead of being the hero, all of your kind are struggling to make ends meet, scrounging for money and missions wherever you can find them. Heck, sometimes you can’t even afford to buy a sandwich. That’s because our Freelancers have fallen out of favour after their defeat at the Heart of Rage, a giant Shaper Storm - read: maelstrom of the God's making - that started raging about two years prior to where Anthem’s gameplay is really set.
It’s an interesting starting point for a BioWare game, especially as my biggest association with the studio is my years spent playing as Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard. But it definitely helps give the game a little bit of intrigue in those opening moments. While you might be down on your luck, it’s apparently still a huge privilege to be a Freelancer at all. It seems the Javelin mechs themselves are a rarity, usually passed down from generation to generation, and thus almost sacred entities in themselves.
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And of course, it is really all about the Javelins. Although you do get a little bit of character customisation for your pilot (the human inside the mechs), it’s actually no more than picking a default head from a line-up, and deciding whether to have a male or female voice. Instead of sculpting your Freelancer's face, you’re going to want to spend an inordinate amount of time fiddling with the various textures, materials, and colour schemes that you can apply to your Javelins until you’re happy with your creation. And trust me, you’re going to want to, because there’s nothing quite as satisfying as watching your bright pink Javelin soaring through the sky.
Like a bird
Oh boy. The flying. Where the swinging was all anyone could talk about prior to Spider-Man PS4 (opens in new tab) coming out, all anyone could talk about at this Anthem preview event was the flying. Initially, I thought not being able to fly all the time would be frustrating, but overheating actually feels like a pretty minor inconvenience because the cooldown system works so well. Diving down from great heights to cool yourself down, spinning through waterfalls, and even just taking a tiny pitstop on a cliff edge gives a human edge to your souped-up mechanic bodies, and actually makes you appreciate the areas where BioWare has built that little bit more. The actual flying mechanics are ridiculously satisfying too, gifting you just the right sense of speed, agility, and power to make you feel like you're really, well, flying.
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That compliments each mech's unique abilities, which you'll learn the more you play. You basically start out with an aging Ranger, but as soon as you've worked through the first two missions, you're gifted a brand new exosuit of your choice. I went with the Interceptor, mostly for its speed, and was amazed at just how much it changed my playstyle. The Ranger is a great all-rounder, but with the Interceptor I could dart in and out of close-quarters combat to deliver devastating melee attacks in a way that the Ranger never could. On my squad we also had the space wizard Storm, with its array of elemental attacks, and the shield-touting Colossus, which basically acts as your tank. Getting all four Javelin types working together is quite the spectacle to behold, and adds an extra layer to the gunplay, which is already solid and satisfying in itself.
But there’s a catch. Anthem should feel like an amazing blend of Destiny 2 (opens in new tab) and Monster Hunter World (opens in new tab), imbued with those amazing characters and player-crafted relationships that BioWare is famed for. But what you end up with is slices of all of the above, yet from what I've played so far, nothing ever seems to come together to form something cohesive. The world is a stunning, marvelous piece of engineering, where cosmic creatures roam seemingly unfazed by your gunplay antics. Rabbits with feathers for ears, and big wide eyes that suggest they may well be able to see through time, just stare on as you weave through their territory in your Javelin - although I did get attacked by one giant creature called an Anrisaur, which shows there is some kind of ecosystem here. But unlike the bountiful Monster Hunter World, taking on any of these creatures doesn’t net you anything. A rather adorable small hippo / rhino / elephant / hybrid that we decided to mow down (like monsters) just disappeared into the pixel ether without even leaving a pelt behind. It’s not clear how crafting or upgrading works quite yet, apart from the fact that Ember plays a part in it, but you can guarantee the fauna aren’t having any of it.
The Destiny problem
When it comes to the inevitable Destiny comparisons - I shall neither be the first, nor the last to make them - the similarities to Bungie’s series are palpable, from the mission structures themselves to the content contained within them. There’s a heavy reliance in the first few missions of 'stand near object X, then fight off monsters while it does Y.' There are even 'Respawns Restricted' sections in missions, which you're alerted to by a big banner across the top third of the screen, and open chests after completing missions that spew out loot of varying colours and rarities. Sound familiar? There’s even a sassy (slightly more annoying) Ghost-alike chattering in your ear in the form of your Cipher, Owen, who's basically your mind-linked adviser who helps you with Javelin issues, waypoints, and other essential info from Fort Tarsis. Owen isn't a tiny floating robot you can dress up, but he might as well be.
Then there's the mission structure: even in the story-heavy first few missions that I played through, everything focused around your hub, Fort Tarsis. You do a mission from the Expedition screen, then go back to the Forge, which is the siloed area where you upgrade or customise your Javelin, or return to the Fort. At no point did I get a sense that Fort Tarsis and the areas you explore are part of one big, brilliant, cohesive world. I'll admit that I didn't get much chance to dabble in Freeplay mode where this feeling may change, but from the looks of it freeplay mode just give you unfettered access to the areas where the missions take place.
And where there are things that are unique to Anthem, they’re just not that convincing as of yet. One repeated activity was collecting golden orbs known as Echoes, which you must deliver in increasing quantities to a Relic in order to silence it, which after the first round of doing so felt incredibly mundane and repetitive. It doesn’t help that your main foes, the Scar, look like B-movie insect people and, thanks to the fact BioWare is keeping the story tightly under wraps, it’s unclear exactly what kind of threat they pose right now. The dialogue options also feel a little under-baked. During certain conversations with the NPCs on Fort Tarsis you'll be able to choose between two dialogue options, but there are also plenty of cutscenes where there are no dialogue choices at all, which makes the others feel far more redundant.
The fact that BioWare still isn’t really talking about Anthem's story, or how it will evolve beyond the campaign, is a huge concern. We’re less than a month out from its February 22 release date, and while I fully support the idea of a spoiler-free launch, it’s hard at this point to pin down exactly why you should be playing Anthem, which is concerning when what I've played is the first, crucial, few hours of the game. If Mass Effect: Andromeda (opens in new tab) felt like a red flag, Anthem may well be the bull standing behind it.