18 months on, is Anthem worth playing?
I sat down this morning and finished off Anthem. If you've been following this site for a while, you might already know that I played the beta and then hit it on launch day... only to lose my temper and uninstall it shortly after. My uninstall was mainly down to my experiencing endless technical problems with it, and finally falling out with it when they combined with some obnoxious mission design that didn't so much stop me in my tracks as blow me off them entirely and topple me into a ditch. In the months that have elapsed since though, I've been quietly playing attention to what's been going on in the game. Following my completion of Star Wars Jedi - Fallen Order a week or so ago, I was looking around for something to play. A friend mentioned that he'd played through Anthem for the first time, and particularly referenced that it was in a much better shape now than it was when I threw my teddies at it - and maybe I should give it another look. "What the hell," I thought to myself... and fired it up.
So, the question I'm going to answer here is: Was he right? Is Anthem now in a state where it's worth playing - especially for those of us who became very disillusioned with it extremely shortly after launch? The answer, as usual, is "it depends."
I figured the only fair way to do this would be to start completely afresh. New game, new character - to try to experience the game in the same way that someone playing it for the first time today would. Of course, that's not entirely possible. We all carry bias with us, some of it conscious and some of it unconscious. Let's say I did my best to suppress the conscious bit as best I could. I'm not sure how successful those efforts were, but I'll say this: I ended up enjoying Anthem a LOT more this time around. To be clear, it's still deeply flawed and has some problems that it will never overcome in its current form, but this time it seemed easier to find the elements of the game that I could enjoy - where the first time around the game seemed to take an almost perverse pleasure in doing its utmost to hide them.
Let's start with the bits I liked. The world of Bastion is still great. It features phenomenal verticality and is just the right size to be able to fly around. It's still not populated enough. The music is still wonderful, and the game is still a beautiful sight to behold - especially if you can run it on a decent 4K HDR display. The flight controls are still sublime, and the need to constantly cool your jets to prevent your Javelin from overheating and crashing to the ground is still an annoyance. I liked the smaller narrative beats and stories, which were often far more interesting and better written than the core plot of the game. The combat felt better than I remembered it being - although the main gunplay that drives it still feels a lot less satisfying than destruction you can rain down using your grenades and special weapons in combination with each other.
For all of that though, there were still problems with the moment-to-moment gameplay that caused frustration. Weapons could be relied upon to run out of ammo at the worst possible moment. Mission waypoints still arbitrarily disappear. A small one which nonetheless irritated me immensely was the cadence of your character's footsteps as you walk around Fort Tarsis - the game's main story/mission hub. Based on sound alone, your character isn't so much walking as pretending to ride a horse like the knights in Monty Python & The Holy Grail. Framerate drops cropped up regularly in the fiercer fights, and... yeah. The game did crash on me - although only once.
The main problem Anthem had back at launch (outside of its appalling technical state) was its structure. It would dangle an interesting progression in the narrative in front of you, but then make you have to engage with the open-world in order to actually move it forward. That open-world was, and is, the weakest part of the game. It's pretty and it's well designed - and traversing it is fun - but it still feels empty and comparatively unrewarding to engage with. There are activities present now that weren't there when I first played, but having checked them out none of them left me looking forward to getting into my next Freeplay session. BioWare clearly see some of the same issues though - as the campaign has been streamlined to cut a lot of this out in the 18 months that have elapsed between my sessions with the game. Where previously I had to find tombs, they're now marked on the map as fast travel points. Where previously I had to open 15 chests in the world by blindly flying around the map looking for events that would drop them, I no longer had a mission constrained by demanding this of me. And even if I had, those events are now marked and easy to find.
The main problem with Anthem is still that it was marketed and sold as a looter-shooter, in the vein of Destiny and The Division. Let's be honest - it's a poor looter-shooter. What could have been a strong single player narrative RPG style game got diluted. The looter-shooter angle didn't work, detracted from the narrative pacing, and in retrospect also opened the game up to a whole barrage of criticism that couldn't otherwise have been levelled at it. It's a shame - as you play the campaign, every so often the game gives you a glimpse of what it could have been if the endless changes of artistic direction had been avoided. Characters hint at deeper stories, and a deeper lore for the world. The selection of responses in conversation hint at the kind of branching dialogue that BioWare is loved for - and on finishing it, I can't help but feel that it would have been received far better if it had stayed that way. It feels as though there was scope in there for spending more time with Faye, and Haluk, and even Owen - and as if their intimate story arcs were trimmed to better fit the less interesting whole.
The narrative around Anthem has been negative from the start. Is that fair? At launch... yes. Now? I'm not so sure. Whether you'll enjoy it or not depends a lot on what you go into it expecting. If you can put the looter-shooter expectation aside and go into it expecting a fairly linear narrative driven game, there's plenty to recommend. If you're after a looter-shooter though, you'll probably be disappointed. Still. Again. Personally, I don't need another looter-shooter in my life - but I love being told a decent story. Anthem has one. If that's something that appeals to you, give it another chance.