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Anthem: Critical Consensus

Exhilarating flight and stylish combat dazzle the critics, but they can't hide a lack of substance in BioWare's latest title

By some definitions, Anthem has been out now for over a week. A mix of early access and ten-hour trials across Origin Access on PC and Xbox One resulted in an oddly staggered flow of players, who experienced varying amounts of the game in the lead-up to its official release. However, most critics held off on impressions until after a critical "Day One" patch, which dropped late last week, in the hope that it would improve a number of issues reported throughout the early launch period.

It doesn't seem to have done enough. With most critics' impressions now published, there is a fairly clear consensus that Anthem is a game that looks pretty and feels good at points, but is rife with technical issues and low on story, meaning or context. Kirk McKeand of VG247 summed it up well near the start of his review by illustrating the game's emphasis on style and lack of substance:

"[Anthem] feels like a direct response to the backlash against Mass Effect Andromeda [also developed by BioWare], a game taken down by shareable gifs of awkward facial animations.

"Those facial animations were likely an issue of scope. Andromeda was a proper RPG with hundreds of thousands of voice lines and branching paths. The budget went elsewhere. In Anthem, all the money has been pumped into making sure it can't be mocked by gifs. It looks phenomenal and the performance capture is some of the best I've seen. It's also lacking any substance."

"It looks phenomenal... It's also lacking any substance"

Kirk McKeand

The bulk of the game's "style" that critics praised across the board involved the feel of both the traversal mechanics and the combat. Multiple critics specified how much they enjoyed the flight mechanic, including Kallie Plagge at GameSpot in her review.

"Launching upward off a jungle floor and bursting through a thick canopy of trees, bobbing and weaving your way under a waterfall as you take in the lush landscape below you, is one of the highlights of Anthem. Flight, in these moments, is freeing, serene and exhilarating all at once.

"But you will eventually have to come back down to earth. When you don't have a means to cool down in the air, you have to interrupt your flight to cool off on the ground -- or else your suit will overheat and send you careening downward much more violently. This is what Anthem is like as a whole: a game where promising moments are bookended by frustration, where good ideas are undone before they can be fully realized."

Critics were somewhat more torn on whether or not Anthem's combat was enjoyable, though. The actual mechanics of it were praised by some such as Russ Frushtick in his Polygon review.

"Anthem feels like I'm in control of a Marvel movie. I am death and destruction, tossing freezing grenades at mechanized infantry, calling down lighting on spidery hordes, or slicing hijacked turrets at close range. I am an unstoppable force. I am off-brand Iron Man."

But Rick Lane at The Guardian came away with a different, far more tedious impression in his review:

"Whether you're following a key story expedition or embarking on a side-contract, almost every mission involves the same blend of flying through pretty but empty environments, stopping only to shoot repeating waves of enemies. Occasionally the game will mix things up by throwing in a boss at the end, or inexplicably forcing you to collect sparkling orbs from the air. Even the rewards for completing missions are curiously underwhelming, a samey mixture of guns and upgrades delivered with all the grace and fanfare of your average Yodel courier."

For Chris Carter at Destructoid, the repetition Lane describes is an expected part of the genre, and far more bearable in the endgame as he describes in his review:

"Is it grindy? Sure, that comes with the territory. The main map of Anthem is huge and I still haven't explored all of it, but the chief goal is to try to best existing content on higher difficulty settings and bag more impressive loot. Once I'm tired of it I'll stop, but I've been trying out all four Javelins sporadically and have been having a blast just... playing it. There's a lot more to say about Anthem's endgame in the coming weeks (and months, perhaps years), but right now I'm having fun."

"Is it grindy? Sure, that comes with the territory"

Chris Carter

Grindiness aside, one element that reviewers largely agreed upon was that the game was made difficult to play at all points by the prevalence of technical issues and the length of the game's many, many loading screens. Frushtick counted a total of four loading screens just to equip a new piece of gear. Sam Loveridge at GamesRadar found their prevalence disrupted her ability to follow the game's story.

"Rubber-banding is a huge issue for this multiplayer title," she wrote in her review. I've lost count of the number of times I've dropped into a mission, only to be told I'm outside the mission area and be warped to the rest of my squad. You regularly miss out on vital mission information because of it, which doesn't help its major problems with scene setting, and forces you to watch loading screen after loading screen just to get into the action (which has sometimes even finished by the time you've caught up).

"Even after the Day One Patch, the loading screens are incessant, and plentiful, with them cropping up whenever you move from one area to another. Heck you have to watch two just to get in and out of your loadout menu, which is frustratingly only available from the Forge within Fort Tarsis."

Though Loveridge was frustrated at the difficulty of following the story due to loading screens, it doesn't sound as though story moments sans loading screens were especially interesting. James Duggan at IGN felt the game's plot was largely pointless to the rest of the game.

"The bulk of the plot is delivered in lengthy, barely interactive chunks every time you return to Fort Tarsis between expeditions. You'll exit your nimble Javelin, mute voice chat, and meander around the small and eerily silent walled city at a snail's pace.

"Only during two major plot developments during the approximately 15-hour storyline do the things being discussed here appear to have actual consequence beyond the gates of Fort Tarsis, pairing unique mission gameplay with story elements in a meaningful way -- even though there are no meaningful decisions to be made that affect outside gameplay. But these glimpses of the BioWare of old dissipate back into your regularly scheduled tedium as quickly as they arise."

Like Duggan, McKeand and others found Anthem to be a disappointment from BioWare especially, given the studio's past successes at merging strong storytelling with meaningful gameplay.

"I went into Anthem with an open mind," McKeand concludes. "It's a game I wanted to succeed from a studio I've always been fond of. Unfortunately, it's everything everyone feared at reveal. It's a hollow experience that's been designed to appeal to the widest market possible while squeezing more money out of those who are hooked in by its doggy treat design."

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Latest comments (4)

Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 3 months ago
Add to the list that most players are best served subscribing to Origin for the one or maybe two months they will play this and Bioware is in real trouble over this game. Especially since the main competition launches, just around the time the first month of Origin Access runs out for most people. Ubisoft could not have asked EA for more.
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Look to Apex for guidance and soul
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Bob Johnson Studying graphics design, Northern Arizona University3 months ago
Yep Apex is a well thought design and a well--polished game and it's free.

It's a game that truly recognizes it is in the games business. Not the trailer business.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 3 months ago
Apex is on an entirely different scope. It is a min-max game. The minimum amount of game required to make a maximum amount of money because the flavor of game it represents happens to be the trend. Measured by other entries in the Titanfall IP, the mobility options are appalling, the gameplay is lumbering, and players are nailed to the ground. Apex makes Rings of Elysium look like a mixture between Need for Speed and Ace Combat. Apex is built on the pillars of buying streamers, which buys you an audience, which sells the game. Let me help you help me help us all make money. There is not a shred of pretense for Youtubers to get angry about. Battlefield may have pretended to care, Apex does not. It gets away by doing the sexy bad guy routine. I guess one can call it a victory for people finding the flaw in female WW2 soldiers but not in driving a tank through a house at full pace.

Anthem on the other hand is the overproduced unholy mass of mismanaged expectations and ignorant presumptions. Bioware literally put hours of this game online for everybody to see and as it turns out, that really was the game all along. The criticisms read like a nasty list of revenge fouls that those videos were not peddled out as exclusives. So one website can reveal 20 ground textures, the next site drip feeds five weapons to instantly salvage and the third site has the full scope on all shades of red dot sights, while Digital Foundry muses on various forms of pixelation you may encounter when putting the Hubble space telescope to your 8k monitor. Anthem is pulling your forward because of other players? Change setting to private when playing story, problem solved, group play is only mandatory in Dungeons and Freeplay. You think Anthem has loading times? Try The Division for size, those are some loading times. You think Destiny 2 will load off your SSD in 5s? Sure it does, but you will still wait 60-90s until you connect to an instance, which is technically not loading, good thing Activision monetized "not-loading" screens in the shape of player ships. People rushing through Anthem complaining the higher difficulties hit too hard? That is not a flaw in Anthem, that is a flaw in gamers since Final Fantasy II, take your pick which one.

By the end of next month, EA will have done some soul searching why it is that people do not seem to tolerate it when Bioware does a game that refuses to be exactly like Mass Effect. Which is like blaming Nintendo for not making Mario like Tetris. Because, dear sir, I only hold Nintedo in high regard because they made Tetris, so why is this Mario game I bought from them not about clearing lines? With reactions being the way they are, the Bioware name will be retired, people can get angry about it for a week, until they resume complaints about every Battlefield and CoD game being the same for a decade. Meanwhile, EA marketing will be happy that without people mass projecting their expectation on a game based on its developer, PR can manage these expectations for them. Which is a bit like quit smoking in favor of regular asbestos injections.

The real flaws of Anthem do not matter at this point, because there is this list of other perceived flaws which boil down to asking the question whether the person prevented Steam from updating games while Anthem is being played on Origin, or read the instruction on the screen, or some other facepalm reason. Because a game offered to your for $15 for the month you actually play it instead of $60 at the store makes you feel the squeeze. I bet tomorrow we hear about bad sales, because Netflix for games subscriptions are the future, yet when it comes to Bioware games, we expect people to still flood the retail stores like idiots.
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