Anthem's overall game mechanics are immensely satisfying. BioWare has crafted an extremely competent action game with enthralling combat that's just as enjoyable solo as it is with friends. Gamers can zoom around the incredibly vivid open-world in their Javelin mechsuits like Iron Man, whizzing through the heavens and deftly barrel-rolling into crevices.
Flying around in Anthem is one of its strongest points, and makes for a liberating and unique experience. You can flash across the world in your portable jetsuit mech, careening over hills, rivers, waterfalls and rocky outcrops, and then break into a hover to blast enemies with gunfire or magical powers.
Combat is fast, fluid, and chaotic. Each Javelin mechsuit gets two skills to use and they're quite explosive, offering unique strategic innovations here and there. BioWare's penchant for combos is back in full force, and there's a dizzying array of cross-class mix-and-match tactical potential. The attacks can be combined with your friends' abilities to dish out serious damage over time, such as burning baddies with fire combos or freezing them whole with ice attacks.
Triggering combos is one of the most fun things about the combat and it's actually quite engaging. At it's core, Anthem feels kind of like an arcade game that's built around one simple premise: destroy everything in sight. It's here where the game's motivations are most pure and electrifying, and during these sequences you forget about its problems.
For a time, at least.
It's clear that BioWare put almost all of its focus onto combat. Anthem is basically the result of BioWare displacing its talents: instead of strong RPG content with unique stories, characters, and meaningful choices, they've put more emphasis on action this time around. It's kind of a carry-over from Mass Effect: Andromeda's focus.
In a lot of ways Anthem borrows from Destiny's space wizard feel, but with more of a fantasy bent. There's a mystical quality to everything in Anthem, as if it's a mixture of both Mass Effect and Dragon Age (and in many ways it is). Combat is empowering and fun and genuinely stands as one of the more impressive features in any recently released game.
The real shame about Anthem is how everything else is executed.
Outside of the incredibly vibrant world and the havoc-filled combat, Anthem is a mess. The amazing combat actually serves as a sharp contrast to show just how bad its other features are, the same way a student with a high GPA can throw off the curve for the entire class.
There's some seriously bad design decisions present in Anthem.
The game has barely any of the RPG elements BioWare games are known for. There's no meaningful progression outside of a blind, tedious and frustrating loot grind--no skill points, no real EXP progression upgrade path. Like Path of Exile or Final Fantasy VII, your usable abilities are tied to item loot drops that all have myriad of grades and random stats and bonuses.
This way gamers have to keep playing over and over to find the skills they want to use.
As you level up you just unlock new Javelin classes to use and slots to equip components to give passive bonuses to your Javelin. You can't equip armor pieces--armor is just cosmetic and built specifically around monetization--and guns give mediocre and very basic stats and bonuses.
There's no actual in-depth stats, for that matter. Anthem feels very pedestrian and a step backward to games like Destiny, who give you a baseline understanding of how your gear is affecting your character's prowess in battle. This takes away one of the most potent engagement patterns for any live service game: min-maxing builds.
If a piece of gear gives, say, +40% shields, there's no actual way to check how much your shields actually went up. Everything feels artificial, fake, almost like an illusion to make it seem like you're progressing. Every stat bonus is like this and really makes the game feel incomplete.
Anthem doesn't even tell you how much max health or shields you have. This is absolutely absurd.
This radically contrasts with the strong empowerment that combat brings. If gamers can't actually see the material net benefits of gear in a straightforward way, it strips away one of the core freedoms that all progression-based live games desperately need. In-game numbers mean a lot when they translate to specific in-game performance, and here Anthem just keeps us guessing.
To actually make progress, players need a tangible point of reference for their growth. Or else there's really no meaningful progression taking place outside of the vague Power system, which raises your overall level rating based on how many higher-level pieces of gear you have equipped.
So progression is inherently flawed and pulling itself in opposite directions. The Power system makes you want to equip the highest-level guns, components, and abilities just to boost that number up. But those guns might not be what you like to use, and those skills might not actually trigger combos. It's a catch-22 that works against itself to make Anthem more frustrating than need be.
One of the most annoying things about Anthem is you can't actually switch guns or skills while playing missions or roaming around the world map. Games like Destiny let you instantly swap out your guns, armor, or skills for specific situations.
But Anthem, being the confusing mess that it is, forces players to go to a non-interactive Forge hub to swap things out.
This is built around the mindless loot engagement strategy that BioWare has instilled within the game; the idea is by forcing gamers to go to a central area to swap gear out, that they'll be more likely to customize their Javelins with monetized skins, scrap gear they don't need to use and ready themselves for the ever-present loot quest, and then experiment with new abilities.
When these abilities end up being terrible choices, you're stuck with them for the entire session. Or you could just close the game out (which is what many gamers choose to do).
Anthem's menus are also badly designed and UI and world-based navigation are more complex than they need to be. The game absolutely bombards you with challenges and extras, making for a mess of vertical menus and junk that just clutters everything up.
The map is also needlessly frustrating. Everything in Anthem is online-hosted, including the UI, so there's always a bit of lag when you open the map and see where you're going. The real problem is there's no mini-map to accompany the compass bar. Anthem is a vertical game with dimensional flight, so a crappy limited compass bar isn't going to relay enough info.
A mini-map would dramatically help things and orient gamers as they try to traverse the massive world. You often feel like you're flying blind, and finding particular points on the map--like the Tomb of Artinia--can be a nightmare. Part of me thinks BioWare hindered navigation on purpose so we'd be more tempted to explore and check things out...but this, like many of the devs' decisions, backfired.
And finally let's talk about the loading screens.
Online-only games will have loading zones. That's to be expected. But Anthem's are graceless and rather long: they're just screens with a stock image and a moving bar and no flourish. Sure they've gotten better since launch, but they're always there, waiting to interrupt your sessions, your time, and ultimately fracture your experience.
There's loading zones when you complete a mission, loading triggers when you flag too far behind your team, and loading zones between cinematic sequences. The Forge loading has been significantly reduced, though, which is a huge plus.
Nothing breaks the immersion more than literally halting your gameplay with bland, non-interactive sequences. And Anthem does this frequently.
All of these things make for a bewildering, confusing, and plain annoying series of roadblocks that severely inhibit the flow of combat, progression, and overall enjoyment.
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