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I still don't know what to make of Anthem.

February 26, 2019

I don't think I've ever played a game that is leaving me on the fence quite as hard as Anthem is. It's quite telling that I used the exact same comment to describe my thoughts about it after I played the VIP demo back at the beginning of the month - and now having spent a couple of days playing the final version I'm still in that exact same state.

 

 

I'll make this crystal clear up front - this isn't a review of Anthem. Bioware's stab at the looter-shooter genre hasn't been out for anywhere near long enough for me to have played through it, but I think I've played enough to have formed some reasonable first impressions of it. Here's the current caveat: there are still big parts of the game I haven't experienced. I'm yet to do a stronghold. I'm yet to play in a full size team. It's quite possible that when I do these things that my opinion will change - and if it does, I'll be sure to let you all know. If this isn't a review, maybe it's part of what will become a series of pieces that will document my changing relationship with the game. We'll see, I guess.

 

Anyway, about those first impressions. Those impressions aren't great, but they're nowhere near as vitriolic and hostile as many that seem to be floating around the web - where a cursory google search will tell you that the game is "dead on arrival", that Mass Effect died for nothing, that EA are already giving up on it, and that all of this is causing the world to end. And of course, at the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the fanboys. They've picked their game to play this year and they're going to bat for it - differences of opinion and cognitive dissonance be damned. They're nearly as vocal as the haters right now, all screaming their lungs out trying to make themselves heard over the shitstorm of negative PR that's currently swallowing the game whole.

 

As usual, my opinion sits somewhere between these two extremes. I don't think any of the haters' thoughts are correct, for the record. I think some of them have valid points that would probably be taken more seriously if they were stated calmly and with less hyperbole. But even putting aside all of the online conversation, I can't help but feel that I'm simply not having as much fun as a I expected to be.

 

 

From a technical standpoint, playing on a Xbox One X, the game's in a much better state than the demo weekends would have led me to expect. I don't think I've had a crash or disconnect yet, and the framerate seems pretty stable. I've had one instance of disappearing and teleporting enemies which was an annoyance, but hardly a massive problem. There are load screens, yes. They actually complete now though, and generally put you into the game where you expect to be. I haven't missed a cut scene, or had to have my ass dragged to catch up with the other randoms in my squad.

 

My complaints with the game are more about the nature of the game itself. And (and here's the kicker) I don't think they're necessarily the game's fault. Anthem's mission structures generally feature the following gameplay loop, or subtle variations on it:

 

1. Get mission

2. Gear up

3. Go to waypoint

4. Kill everything

5. Find thing, hold X

Repeat steps 3-5 a variable number of times

Fight final wave of enemies - possibly with dialogue over the top

Open chest

Mission ends

Back to Fort Tarsis for tea and medals. And some guns.

 

If it sounds familiar, it's because it is. It's incredibly familiar. It's the same loop employed by Destiny, and by The Division, and to a degree by Diablo. It's the classic looter-shooter gameplay loop - and I honestly think that my perception of Anthem is being impacted (possibly unfairly, I'll admit) by the fact that I've been performing this sequence of events in one game or another since the middle of 2014 - nearly 5 years. I honestly think the reason I'm not enjoying Anthem is mostly that I can see the underlying routine all too clearly. Destiny hid it with patrols and strikes and ramped-up gameplay mechanics on higher difficulty levels. Sea of Thieves hides it with such a constant stream of emergent events that you can spend a whole evening and actually only complete the core gameplay loop of the game once. It feels as though Anthem is making no effort to hide it at all, though. It's there on display for all to see. And I'm not sure if the things it does well are enough for me to overcome what I see as a pretty boring loop. 

 

 

Because Anthem does do some things well. The flying is ace. It's outstandingly pretty. The music is wonderful. The abilities are really good fun. I unlocked my Storm the other night and promptly flew around freezing and detonating everything in sight. Those moments in combat are great, until you over extend yourself, die, and then have to fly back to where you were from a bloody long way away - with nothing to guide you back to where you were apart from memory. At the moment, the world is gloriously massive and apparently unknowable - but as we all know that feeling fades with time and the wonder will dissolve. For my money though, as well as it does these things, they'll become irrelevant if that core gameplay doesn't feel worth it - and for me right now I don't think it does.

 

Will I stick with it? Yes. For the moment. I need to play in a group, and I need to do the strongholds, and I want to finish the campaign. Once I've done those things, maybe I'll have more to say. I hope I will, and I hope it will be positive. I've said all along that I really want to love Anthem... maybe if I stick with it, it'll give me a reason to.

 

 

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