The Underappreciated Magic of Anthem
Anthem has had a rough go of it since coming out. As is becoming a rite of passage for online loot shooters like The Division and Destiny, Anthem is having a troubled launch. It's is a game that has a lot of potential but is garnering ire due to it lacking a significant reason to log in every day, as well as some baffling design choices. Critics, influencers and audiences are piling on to the game to pour fuel to the fire of the online discussion.
I share some of their concerns too. There are confusing design choices that are preventing me from loving the game. The combat is really varied and each javelin brings something genuinely new to a fight, however, the readability is really lacking. Especially when playing the game at harder difficulties where you can go down in one or two shots, it can be near impossible to know what took you down. This seems to be a combination to server latency (getting hit by something even though you dodged a good second before) as well an unclear UI and death experience. Trying to fight Titans, which feel unfairly overpowered, especially when there are other adds around is just a frustrating experience
Also, the loading screens, which have been well covered, are nonetheless hard to ignore. Anthem clearly needs to rethink its equipping system, as you could face as many as five lengthy loading screens between getting a new ability or weapon and being able to try it out. God forbid if you decide you don't like it and you want to change back.
I'm not feeling that pull to play Anthem for long periods of time every day like I have in the past for, say Destiny 2 post-Forsaken.
However, all that being said, Anthem is magical and it's not getting its due.
While the discussion feels focused on the game's negatives, the title's considerable positives are being tossed to the wayside as a footnote. I have a tendency to see the best in games, sometimes to a fault it's been suggested, but I really do think there is plenty in Anthem, right now, that is well worth recognising.
Back in November, Marvel's Spider-Man stole people's hearts partially because of how good it felt to swing around New York. Insomniac weaved a beautiful web, pulling all aspects of the game's design to create this wonderful sense of webslinging.
Anthem executes on a similar level. It's easy to fall in love with just flying around this world Bioware has created. This isn't just achieved by one aspect. There is an orchestra of design coming together to create, if not an anthem then a symphony. The exotic creature and environment design, the gorgeous animation, the swelling of Sarah Schachner's exceptional soundtrack, the rumble of the controller as you feel the wind pushing against your propelling javelin. They all build this experience of motion that is genuinely compelling on a moment to moment basis.
The way it can blend with combat too is really quite something. You see some enemies on the floor, you can dive down, superhero landing and all, combo a few moves together from your carefully curated ability loadout, wipe them out and then be flying to another destination as if it was all one fluid motion. When you see and feel this sequence weaved together, I personally find it hard not to appreciate what Bioware achieved there. It's beautifully seamless and I for one, have fallen for the freeplay in the game as I fly around with my crew and we hop from world event to world event.
Getting into it, it's hard to not praise the game's combat structure either. While I've stated my problems with damage readability, the fun I've had trying to create 'builds' in this game has been really satisfying. As a big Destiny player, builds aren't much of a thing. You can spec towards an ideal but certain guns gain so much notoriety and utility that the distinction between game experiences of classes and importantly, subclasses can diminish.
Anthem's take is genuinely interesting. By making the Javelin incredibly customisable and allowing the player to mix and match their abilities to their specifications, it unveils a lot of depth. Right now, I'm running an Interceptor that is focused on Acid buffs and gaining Acid auras through combos. I've even painted it to look like a praying mantis to match the style. It's my Javelin to the point I've even themed it. However, you can spec your Interceptor to not even care about comboing or damage types, and make a blade-wielding whirlwind, or there is a devastating sniper class that is all about never reloading. The class also facilitates an ice ninja if that is more your speed.
That is just one class. From Storm to Colossus to the Ranger, these Javelins are all distinct with many poential subclasses. The combat system really allows you to create fluid and varied play experiences. That's even before you get into the idea of comboing with your teammates in coordinated attacks but you get the idea. There is a lot here.
One of the more divisive aspect of Anthem is its story. Bioware has a long-standing reputation as one of the best storytellers in the AAA space. However, Anthem is something else compared to Mass Effect or Dragon Age. Its design is less about luxuriating in vast depth of its story, instead being a pretty standard AAA shooter story. And for the most part, it doesn't excel that structure. It has common problems of stories like that, chiefly a weak villain. It plays out as you would expect and despite throwing around some cool lore ideas on the periphery and creating a neat tone for the universe, it isn't something I'd hail in particularly special regard. It's workmanlike. Nothing to write home about but it just about gets the job done.
That as it is, I did continue to find it compelling. I was drawn to see it through to the end. That is down specifically to the characters in the game. Bioware has crafted a cast of characters that really stand out from standard fare in the genre. They seem sincere and nuanced, and despite a couple stumbles along the way, I could see why characters were acting the way they were. I wanted to spend time with them. I wanted to go up to them after every mission and see what they had to say about what was going on. I don't want to get into spoilers, but there were specific moments and explorations of relationships that I found quietly meaningful. For the core group, their friendships felt genuine. They have messy and interesting connections that are given more time than usual in this genre to explore.
That's my take away too. Anthem's story is a clear exploration of friendship and not in just the one note 'the power of friendship will prevail against all' kind of way. It shows the mess that being friends can be. How that can break down, how you can treat those you love poorly and other nuances that I found above what we normally get in these kinds of action based stories. It's not Shakespeare, but I did find myself significantly caught up in these people's lives. That's plenty for me.
Also, those facial animations? Ooft. Some stellar work there.
Anthem is a complicated game for me. I hear, sympathise with and share a lot of the criticism being thrown at the game in its current state. It needs work. (Although the speed with which Bioware seems to be listening to fans and implementing change is genuinely encouraging.) However, when I think back to my time with it, these moments of quiet magic, the fluidity and heart I see in the game is what sticks. Unless you are compelled to have the absolute best buffs so your Javelin is perfected, there may not be a long end game for you here.
However, I think back to a moment, when I was capturing footage for the game. I was standing on a long-forgotten relic as the world went on by without me. The sun coming over a mountain in the distance and the birds and wildlife going about their day as I messed with files on my other screen. Eventually, I found myself looking away from my work to enjoy the scene. I then turned off all my UI and proceeded to fly around for 30 minutes with no goal in mind. I just went around playing Anthem for what it was in that moment. That's the kind of stuff that sticks with me.
Of course, value is in the eye of the beholder and it's hard for me to say you should rush out and pay full price for a game that may not keep you engaged with its long term content. However, if you're willing to look, there is a majestic fluidity to Anthem that, I think, is rarely matched. That sells the experience for me. For all that's being said about it right now, I can't help but for my main takeaway to be one of appreciation for the things Anthem does well. That among these trees, the wood is very much worth seeing.