You don't become a 'forever game' without some top-notch endgame content. For many players, hitting max level in an MMO like World of Warcraft or a shared-world shooter like Destiny is merely the beginning - the gateway to a journey of gear optimization and tough-as-nails content you can only hope to conquer in an efficiently coordinated group. BioWare's Anthem game definitely has people interested to jump in and pilot their very own Iron Man-esque Javelin suit - but without a great endgame, those players will have little reason to stick around as members of an ever-growing online community. During some hands-on time with a max-level Freelancer decked out in impressive gear, I'm not yet convinced that Anthem's endgame feels distinct enough from the experience you'll get in the first few hours of play. Prospective hardcore Anthem players may want to start adjusting their expectations accordingly.
On The Radar: Anthem
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With Anthem clearly positioned as EA's long-awaited response to the massively popular Destiny, it's natural to assume that Anthem would deliver the same mix of complex quests, coveted weapons, and engagingly challenging raids. But you ought to start thinking about Anthem's endgame as something more akin to Diablo 3, where the neverending pursuit of slightly better gear is the primary goal, and the moment-to-moment action doesn't change all that much as a result.
Piloting a tricked-out Storm Javelin with a 406 Power level - Anthem's version of Destiny's Light level - initially felt cool, as I marveled at a fresh set of abilities and effects made possible by my gear. But when the enemies and encounters you're facing don't seem to have much variety, the thought of spending dozens or hundreds of hours plugging away at the endgame grind seems less and less appealing.
The most obvious parallel to Diablo is Anthem's difficulty system. When you first start venturing beyond the relatively safe walls of Fort Tarsis, you'll be able to tackle any mission on Easy, Normal, or Hard difficulties. But at the current cap of level 30 (where have I seen that number before...), you'll unlock access to three tiers of Grandmaster difficulty, where enemies have been juiced up with ridiculously inflated damage and health stats. It doesn't seem like there's much room to play with the number of enemies or the complexity of encounters if everything that's trying to kill you has a 3,100% increase to its stats on Grandmaster 3. Like Diablo 3's increasingly intense Torment difficulty levels, it's not that your adversaries get that much smarter or more diverse – only that they have a much better chance of instantly killing you, should you screw up or try to take on a new tier without farming the requisite gear first.
Playing as the Storm, Anthem's elemental spellcaster, is what really clinched the Diablo comparison in my head. My premade character build had a loadout packed with synergistic gear – most crucially in the six passive-effect Support slots – that turned my rusty Javelin into nothing short of a fire-slinging demigod. Every explosion seemed to trigger another temporary buff until my screen was filled with notifications of my newest power spike. And let me tell you, it felt great – the first few times.
Strong spells, weak weapons
When the particle effects had settled and my cooldowns were spinning back up, I became increasingly aware that firing my gun was a near-pointless interlude between my all-powerful spells, especially my enemy-obliterating Ultimate ability. No matter which high-level weapon type I tried, from assault rifle to sniper to shotgun to heavy duty handgun, they largely felt like ineffectual peashooters compared to the responsive, lovingly rendered, pack-a-punch armaments of Destiny. It's a bit like stacking Mass Effect 3 and Mass Effect: Andromeda's horde mode multiplayer against something like Halo: both types of gunplay have their diehard fans, but one's clearly captured more hearts than the other. And with no PvP planned for Anthem in the short term, there's no proving ground to show off your newfangled firearms and test their mettle against other players.
The same goes for the PvE-centric Diablo, where combinations of spells and gear effects are what define your monster-slaying build, rather than your choice of weapon. There's never really the question of whether or not you can kill a tough boss - just how long it'll take you. But you've got far fewer spells to work with in Anthem; only two of my four non-Ultimate abilities had the potential to kill, as my melee attack was pathetic and my support spell of a projected shield never really found a use against the easily outsmarted, bullet-sponge enemies I encountered.
Speaking of enemies, I was going up against the same Scar grunts I had been fighting in Anthem's opening hours, only now, they took slightly longer to kill. There was no sense of escalation against a hostile world that was full of dangerous enemy factions - only of shooting at more resilient targets that never felt all that fresh, exciting, or imposing to begin with. Similarly, the verdant wilds and ancient ruins that served as my max-level battleground were almost indistinguishable from the early-game biomes. Stronghold dungeons set in dark, dank caves certainly looked different, but jet-boosting a Javelin within the confines of a dimly lit, claustrophobic area is about as fun as it sounds.
In another bizarre choice, it's possible to get new spells as pieces of gear. I was excited to see what my first orange Masterwork item drop held in store - and it turned out to be a slightly better version of a fireball spell I was already using, just with bigger damage numbers. To think that one of the most valuable pieces of loot could be a modestly enhanced version of something you can already do – as opposed to a weapon or armor piece that opens up all kinds of death-dealing possibilities – seems like a deflating aspect of Anthem's endgame design, to say the least.
Cataclysms: way better than they sound
If there's hope for Anthem's endgame content, it lies with the Cataclysm events planned for a steady cadence once more players approach the later challenges of the existing endgame. "What we want to try to move towards with our post-launch content in general is something a bit more conversational than what we've had in the past," Anthem’s executive producer tells us in an exclusive interview. "I mean, the goal would be new content every day, of some form. I don't think we're going to get that, but it'd be nice to have some sort of touchpoint every single day. Cataclysms will obviously not be every day; they're designed to be content that you engage with for weeks, and they would come out less frequently. They're more meta-changing; they're designed to be more seasonal."
Little has been shown of how these Cataclysm events will take shape, but the general idea is that the gods-made Shaper Ruins which unleashed all kinds of chaos around the globe will set more fantastical events in motion. "The goal of something like a Cataclysm is that it should be impossible for you to fully explore in that first week," says Darrah. "You will need to do the Cataclysm to get the gear to do the Cataclysm better, so it will be somewhat self-gating. But never underestimate how quickly people can churn through your content."
Taking flight with Anthem
GamesRadar sits down with BioWare game director Jon Warner for an in-depth look at Anthem
Cataclysms should also keep dedicated players engaged in a way that daily, weekly, and monthly mission checklists and scouring the open world for crafting materials simply won't. "The ideal [situation] is that it should always feel like something new has come, or is coming, or just came," says Darrah. "It should always feel like something's about to happen." Be it a world-changing Cataclysm, a new Stronghold, or a holiday event, the hope is that there will always be a reason to stick around and endeavor to improve your Javelin loadout while you wait for the next big thing.
What I played at level 30 and what Darrah teased of Cataclysms sound like two very different experiences, but I want to give Anthem the benefit of the doubt. Diablo 3's expansions eventually turned the act of plowing through innumerable hordes of braindead, increasingly tough enemies into a worthwhile pursuit, so maybe Anthem can do the same despite its uninspiring gunfeel. And just look at the long-term success of The Division, which lost droves of players to its weak endgame loop at launch but eventually won many back with years' worth of improvements. If BioWare and EA commit to Anthem and swiftly react to player feedback – as they did with the painfully slow movement speed in Fort Tarsis – then the endgame could well flourish once the Cataclysm lineup gets going. It's just that, for what relatively little I played of its current state, Anthem's endgame couldn't hope to hold my attention on a nightly basis.
If you're not clear on exactly what Anthem is, how it plays, or are looking for info on how to access the Anthem demo this weekend our Anthem FAQ has the answers to all of your questions.