Will Anthem sing?
Anthem is proving to be an odd one so far, isn't it? I mean, allowing for the fact that all we've played so far is a demo and the fact that the hype train is building up steam, I'm finding myself straddling the fence on it - and I'm quite surprised by that. I want to like it, and I want to like it a lot. I like Bioware almost as much as I hate EA - just like everyone else who plays video games, it seems. There's a lot of buzz online that Anthem failing could mean the end of EA and a relaxed assumption that that's a good thing - but to my mind, if there's a risk that Anthem failing will jeopardise the future of Bioware, then I desperately want it to do well.
The game itself is almost a tick box of things I quite like. Fantastical world? Yep. Mech suits? You betcha. Guns, rockets, and other assorted explosive weaponry? Hell yes. Bioware style, narrative driven questing? Apparently so. Loot by the metric fuckton? Certainly. Plans for future content to be delivered without a season pass? Oh yes. So far so good, right? I mean, what's not to like?
Having spent reasonable chunks of the last two weekends playing the demo, I've found that the game does a lot of things that I like. The flying in particular feels wonderful - I've played flight sims that don't feel as good as flying does in Anthem. The shooting is solid and chunky, the various abilities and power-ups feed into the power fantasy it's selling. Watching the damage numbers flying upward as different elemental combos are slammed into groups of enemies feels as satisfying as it ever has. Graphically, it looks stunning on the Xbox One X - with framerates being much more stable in the second weekend demo than they were in the first. The music is suitably space-inspired and ethereal, and I have a feeling it's a matter of time before it finds its way onto my classical playlists.
How you play and what you carry to do it looks so far like a system with a glorious mix of breadth and depth - lots of different weapons available, all with different perks and stats, that get better and better as you roll through the game. Your Javelin has a set of inherent abilities that depend on which suit you've chosen (there are four currently). You can then enhance those abilities by equipping different grenades or support gear to perform elemental attacks that limit enemies' movement or inflict damage over time. Components can be added to your suit to give additional perks, such as increased armour or longer lasting shields. As you level up the javelin, you'll be given more and more slots to equip items into - meaning that the ability to create incredibly specific loadouts to compliment a team setup is possible.
In addition to all the loadout options the game gives you, the level of visual customisation is great - I've longed for a system that deep and detailed in games for as long as I can remember. It reminds me a lot of the one from Halo: Reach - in which I ran a spartan in white and light purple armour. I've spent some time making my Javelin in Anthem wear the same colour scheme, much to my amusement.
But in spite of all these positives, all is not rosy - at least for me. The mandatory story missions offered by the demo felt chaotic - playing with randoms generally gives me a headache, and so far Anthem is no exception. I have a feeling that they'll be a lot more fun when played through either solo or with a team that can actually communicate. Freeplay felt a little empty, to be honest. I seemed to have to walk/fly for a good while before I could find anything to shoot at - and when I finally did, it handed me my ass. The respawn mechanic (or lack thereof) is also absolutely horrible. In Anthem, if your Javelin is too badly damaged, you're downed - all well and good. The issue is how you get back up. Or more to the point, how you don't. If you end up in this state, you'll stay in it until one of your squad mates revives you. At the moment, there seem to be precious few Freelancers out there who are willing to resurrect a fallen team-mate - meaning that you'll sit staring at this screen for an interminable amount of time. I'm sure this will change once the game is live and players learn the mechanics properly, but through the course of the demo, this screen has been one of the most annoying things about the game.
The demo, let's be fair to it, had some... problems. Its first weekend was as glitchy as the glitchiest game demo I've ever played. I've played games in alpha that have been more stable than Anthem was during its "VIP" demo. For the first half of that weekend, it felt as though you were getting in (or not) based on the roll of a dice. And then, even if you managed to actually get in in the first place, you had to run the gauntlet of a bug that would stop loading a mission at about 95%. Sometimes, closing down the game client and re-opening it would allow you jump the hurdle. Sometimes not. The second weekend has been notably better than the first for most people. I've still experienced regular crashes though - especially at the stronghold boss, which crashed no less than FIVE TIMES before I was finally able to get into an instance that remained stable enough for long enough to complete the fight. As annoying as technical issues may be, though, they're also the kind of thing that can be fixed by launch. Bioware are already insisting that a lot of the issues present in the demo have been fixed in the release version.
Beyond the technical problems though, I've got some reservations about some of Anthem's mechanics and content. I've no idea how long the campaign will be, but I'm happy to go on Bioware's track record for quality and assume that it'll be interesting and varied. If freeplay, contracts, and strongholds are the core focus of the endgame though, I'm not sure if it'll be enough to keep players engaged for as long as they'd expect - whether those expectations are realistic or not (and that's a conversation for another day). Fairly or not, Anthem is getting compared a lot to both Destiny and The Division - both of which were games with incredibly long tails in spite of their problems. For my part, I think Anthem might be closer to Monster Hunter World - which from my experience consumed players entirely, but for a comparatively short period of time. For me, that's fine. I don't think I need one single game that will consume every hour I spend in front of my Xbox as I'm enjoying playing a list of other things at the moment. On balance, I think I'll be picking it up, but I might be waiting for some feedback from some other people I trust before I do so.
Let's say I'm cautiously optimistic. I'm fully aware that making decisions about a game based on a demo is not the smartest way of forming an opinion - especially when we're talking about a game with the size and sprawl that Anthem is reported to have. For the moment though, it's all we have - until 22nd February 2019, anyway.