In all the years I’ve been doing this, I don’t think I’ve ever gone into a review anxious. I’ve been looking forward to Anthem since its announcement at EA Play in 2017, but the demo EA put out a couple of weeks ago rattled me. I’ve only spent a couple of hours with the launch version of the game, but I’m glad to be able to report that, at least so far, things are looking a whole lot better.
In Anthem’s story, humans are not the dominant force on their planet, but a species struggling to survive against a world tossed into chaos. BioWare’s pedigree has always been its ability to tell a good story and I have to say even though I’ve only experienced the early bits of that story, I’m already eager to see where the game’s mysteries lead.
The game opens explaining the history of the world of Bastion, a planet created by gods using a force called the “Anthem of Creation”. The gods disappeared during that creation, but the relics powered by the Anthem were left behind and continue to warp the planet, unable to be controlled. In order to survive, humans take refuge from the chaos in walled cities. Powerful exosuits called javelins were also created and these suits are used by a group of heroes called Freelancers who leverage the power of the javelins to protect humanity.
I don’t want to spoil too much of the story here, but I’ll say that Anthem kicks things off with a bang. The game skips forward a couple of years and you find yourself at Fort Tarsis, one of humanity’s walled cities, and where you’ll be spending a ton of time between missions. Think of Fort Tarsis as your Normandy or Skyhold. Tarsis is where you chat with a variety of characters, pick up new missions and manage your gear. Without the greater context, Tarsis fell kind of flat for me during the demo, but now that I’m playing the full game, I’m enjoying my time there a lot more. One of the things I loved to do in Mass Effect was run around the ship and overhear conversations from the minor characters and Tarsis has a good deal of this as well. These little bits of conversation help bring the cramped city to life. There aren’t as many characters, at least right now, but the locals talk about all sorts of things and I’ve enjoyed stopping to take a listen as I go about my business.
I’m also really digging the main cast of characters I’ve met so far. Anthem has come a long way from the stilted performances we often saw in Mass Effect Andromeda. The performance capture here is top notch, with expressive, well-acted characters such as your trusty cypher, Owen and a mysterious character named Tassyn that I’ve only just met. I have to say BioWare made the right choice in going with a first person experience for Tarsis. It helps conversations to feel much more natural. Story isn’t super important to me in a game like Anthem, but I’m happy with where things are going.
The biggest relief for me was how much the controls and other quality-of-life issues have improved over the demo, particularly when it comes to PC. Flight controls are much improved and you can give yourself what looks to be raw mouse input by dialing down the Response and Precision settings. Swimming is definitely a lot better, but there’s room for improvement. Unfortunately, the UI is still terribly nested, missing tons of information and features, and full of wasted space, but the menus are snappier and you can switch between tabs using the Q and E keys. It’s not ideal, but it works for now. It's probably my biggest pain point right now. Curious issues such as the inability to bind the alt keys in keybinds remain, but there’s another patch to come on the 22nd, so here’s hoping there are some more improvements ready to go. Load screens are still a huge issue, too. I’m on a beefy system with a lightning fast SSD and I feel like I spend a lot more time in loading screens than I’d like.
Between the surprisingly decent early story and the various improvements on PC, I’m feeling a lot better about Anthem now than I was a few weeks ago. The moment-to-moment gameplay was always fun for me, but those frustrating demo issues were alarming and it’s reassuring to see how rapidly BioWare is responding to them. Will things stay interesting all the way through the campaign and beyond? Those are questions I simply can’t answer today, but we’ll be digging into it all over the next few weeks before we deliver our full review.