I have pre-ordered Anthem, but I do not recommend you do the same. I got the game to feed the content mill for the ever-hungry internet. If I didn’t write about games for a living, then I’d hold off until after the first reviews came in. The public demo ran from February 1-3, and I spent as much of the weekend with it as I couldI was held back by health problems that kept me away from the computer for a lot of the time. Pardon if this entry feels a bit dashed-off, I’m just getting back to work now and wrote this in a hurry.. I managed to hit the demo level cap of 15, and then did some grinding until I was fully decked out in rare gear.
Based on what the demo showed me, this game is basically a showcase for the recent sins of EA and late-stage BioWare.
- We think all games should be LIVE SERVICES that require an online connection, except we can’t build a stable network to save our lives.
- We want to copy the money-sucking microtransactions that the competition is doing, but we’re too dense to notice that those other games are free-to-pay and our game starts at $60.
- Dialog is important! Story is important! But it’s not so important that we’re willing to polish the dialog and make sure it’s worth listening to.
Going into Anthem, I wanted one of two things. Either it should be a great game that recalls the days when BioWare could make a game with heart, or it should be a disaster that punishes EA for taking this “story first” developer and making them produce a “it’s all about the shooting and looting and who cares about story?” style of game. Sadly, the game seems to have fallen into the boring but predictable space between these two extremes. I did occasionally have fun with the demo, but I also occasionally had a really miserable time.
It’s Just a Demo!
Apparently the demo was based on month-old code. I’m guessing they forked the game when it went gold. Part of the team focused on adding more stability and polish to the final game, and the other part of the team began stripping out features to make the special demo build. This has resulted in a very annoying argument from apologists. Like I said on Twitter:
Worst thing about Anthem demo: When you complain about the bugs, disconnects, UI issues, & missing features, there’s always some fanboy saying, “It’s based on a month-old build! It’s not fair to judge the game on this!”
Shit, kid. You deserve everything the publishers do to you.
— Shamus! Young! (@shamusyoung) February 2, 2019
If you like the demo, then you should pre-order the special edition and sign up for Origin Premier so you can start playing a week before the plebs show up. If you don’t like the demo, then it’s no fair complaining about the problems because this is an old build. What’s your problem? Are you some kind of biased hater? Why can’t you just trust EA to deliver a quality product?
Are We Having Fun Yet?
So you join the game. It starts you off in town. You’re not allowed to run here, so you need to slow-walk all the way to the other side of town to reach your JavelinIt’s an Iron Man suit with chicken legs, basically.”. Then you use the overly convoluted match system. You look on the map to pick out what sort of activity you’re interested in. Then you set the matchmaking so you can join a public group. It FEELS like you should just be able to jump into the game by double-clicking on the appropriate map marker, but instead you have to switch to a totally different screen to hit the “launch expedition” button. Then you wait for an excruciating load screen.
Then you play for a while before it disconnects. You sit through another load screen before it boots you back to town and makes you slow-walk back to your Javelin before you can try again.
This would be bad enough, but the game doesn’t actually give you any rewards until you complete an expedition. This is a good idea in theory. During the game you’ll pick up glowy things and the game will tell you “You got a rare item.” But you can’t see what it is until the match is over. You can’t level up or examine loot until the expedition is over. That fixes the problem of randos who slow the game down by fussing around in menus when they should be helping the team. The problem is that if you get booted out of an expedition, you get nothing. On four different occasions I did an entire expedition and then crashed or disconnected during the final boss fight.
Some players pointed out that if you quickly join a freeplay game and then immediately exit, you can get the awards for the failed expedition. It’s true that you’ll get a screen listing your rewards, but I don’t think you actually get them. I dinged level 12 three times before it finally stuck. The game kept telling me I’d hit level 12, and then once I was back in town I’d discover I was still level 11.
Okay, so the servers are unstable and the reward system is designed to punish players for server instability. That sucks, but it’s safe to assumeEh. Is it, though?, this sort of thing will get ironed out at or around launch.
But How is the Story?
The demo worked very hard to avoid showing much story content at all. Yes, in a BioWare game the demo is designed specifically to sell you on gameplay alone. It is breathtaking how poorly EA understands game developers and gamers. It’s probably a good thing Will Wright left the company in 2009, or they’d have the poor bastard making shooters by now.
I can’t comment on the story, but the dialog is atrocious. It feels a lot like Andromeda: Vague, overly verbose, and constantly stopping the flow of conversation to offer the player the chance to say one of two things, neither of which matters or expresses what a person might reasonably want to say.
Most of the dialog I experienced came from the radio chatter during missions. In the demo, one particular strongholdLike a World of Warcraft dungeon. has you fight your way through a bug den while a three-way Skype call runs, with the characters talking to each other over the sound and fury of combat. They’re constantly commenting on the proceedings. However, their exchanges happen simultaneously for all players. Since the most experienced players will be out in front, newcomers will be hearing dialog discussing things they haven’t seen yet.
It feels like this:
NPC2: Boy, that sure is amazing!
Me: What? I’m in a tunnel by myself, fighting bugs! What is everyone talking about?
In some games the story feels like an afterthought, but here THE PLAYER feels like the afterthought.
During the mission, I found one of the characters to be really irritating. He was an insufferable smug jackass who scoffed at the idea of showing up for a mission briefing, made fun of one of the other people on the radioWho he didn’t personally know, since this was their first time speaking. and was generally a self-important jackass. Then I glanced down at the subtitles and realized this dickhead was my character.
Everyone in the game is stuck playing the same idiot, who is commenting on things the player can’t see and expressing things the player isn’t feeling. This is the worst possible design for a player character. The dialog in town gives you a chance to do a bit of placebo roleplaying, where you chat with an NPC about yourself. But then all of that will be ignored for the party chatter during the missions.
This is like an MMO where every single player is Nathan Drake, except in this story Drake has no agency, no arc, and we play him from a first-person view where we can’t see him emote. The player doesn’t get the feeling of self-expression that comes from crafting their own character, but they also don’t get the pleasure of seeing a character with agency experience some sort of character arc. And they can’t even skip the dialog. This is the most expensive and least satisfying way of doing things. A silent protagonist would make more sense in an MMO like this.
You can also choose to play as a female. Once I realized how annoying my character was, I tried to switch. I couldn’t find any way to do that in the demo. It probably doesn’t matter. My bet would be on the female character having the exact same dialog.
For whatever reason, every single area in the game was at the bottom of a hole, a crater, a canyon, or a cave. Sheer walls smother you on all sides, to the point where the world feels like a prison. Okay, it’s a gorgeous prison, but still. Why aren’t we allowed to see the horizon? We just spent 20 years developing graphics technology so we can have large draw distances and expansive views, and now we’re going to go back to the mid-90s thing of shooting dudes at the bottom of a canyon?
Shamus, this is a game where players can fly! We need the walls to keep them in!
The game already has an invisible ceiling on the world to keep you in the playpen. It also teleports you back to the playpen if you go somewhere it doesn’t like. The game could use either of these techniques to keep players in without needing to have the game take place at the bottom of a hole.
There are puzzles in the game. In one mission, players had to arrange three different colored symbols to open a door. The thing is, this a fundamentally single-player style of puzzle. The game has no text chat and I never encountered a single person using a microphone, so nobody had any ability to communicate. A puzzle like this takes some experimentation before you can suss out the solution. But if you’ve got one player who has been here before and another one who’s just flipping switches to get a feel for the thing, then it’s just chaos. Does this other player know what they’re doing? Are they enacting the solution? Are they experimenting? Are they deliberately griefing by scrambling the puzzle as the other players try to solve it? The symbols are on opposite sides of the room and there’s a huge column in the center, so you can’t even see the entire puzzle at once. Maybe your solution is wrong, or maybe you’re right but one of the other players messed up the bit on the other side of the room.
What are the possible outcomes here?
- Someone else solves a puzzle while I sit by and do nothing.
- Dumb or malicious people block the progress of the group by scrambling the puzzle while the sensible people try to enter the solution.
- Everyone knows the solution because they’ve done this mission a dozen times already and the puzzle is just busywork that takes everyone away from the shooting and the looting.
This is completely idiotic. It’s baffling that this wound up in the final product.
But What About THE GAMEPLAY?!?
It’s okay, I guess? The Javelin powers are fun and being able to fly and hover around a battlefield is really amazing. The special abilities are glorious to use. I saw a good variety of enemies with different behaviors and attack patterns, and I also got to fight them in a lot of different places. You need to constantly change your behavior based on your foes and the terrain. I never felt like I was stuck in a rut.
On the other hand, the enemies are bullet sponges to the extreme. As an example:
I get close to a guy and unload on his face. My rifle has a bit of kickback, so only one half or one third of the shots are headshots. The rest are regular hits. I empty an entire magazine into him and his shields are still up. I change mags, and halfway through this second mag the shield goes down, which means those headshots start doing extra damage. I change mags again, and finally finish him off.
Is this the intended experience? Three full mags and dozens of headshots to bring down ONE REGULAR GUY? I realize this is a looter game and so you need to feel a little weak so you can work towards being more powerful, but this is ridiculous.
And this was on normal difficulty!
I know there’s some silly level scaling going on under the hood, but without any way to know what it is or how it works, it just makes things a chore. You can’t see the relative levelSome foes do have a skull next to their name. This probably means they’re above you. How far above you? Who knows! between you and a foe, so you can’t get the thrill of taking down someone far above you. You don’t think, “Man this guy is strong” you think, “Am I firing blanks?”
The thing is, the level scaling is so strong that it makes things confusing. I fought the skorpion boss and every critical was doing just over 100 damage. Then I fought it again at the same level and with the same gear, but I’d been matched with a different group of players. This time criticals were doing ~800 damage. Then on a later run, I was doing ~350. Without proper context, the numbers don’t mean anything.
And ANOTHER Thing…
The mouse-based flight controls are abominable. Swimming is a crime against usability and creates horrible delays for the group while newbies learn to swim in black underwater caves where they lose all sense of direction and their character suddenly steers like a barge. The entire menu system has a horrible case of consolitis and the menus provide a pretty good game of “How many usability mistakes can you find on this screen?” The loading screens are brutal. The HUD doesn’t show your teammates, which means you can’t tell if they become incapacitated or leave the match.
The whole thing feels like it’s at odds with itself. BioWare refuses to accept their fate and become the shooter mill EA wants them to be, but they no longer have the talent or resources to tell a proper story or create interesting characters. Yes, I’m sure the disconnects and bugs will get fixed, but there are high-level design decision here that make no sense. Like Andromeda, it feels like they were trying to make more than one game here and they never stopped to resolve their creative differences.
This could turn out to be a solid looter-shooter, but it’s not the BioWare game fans might have been hoping for. Maybe such a thing isn’t even possible at this point. At any rate, I’d suggest giving this a few weeks to get the bugs ironed out before you put your money down.
 I was held back by health problems that kept me away from the computer for a lot of the time. Pardon if this entry feels a bit dashed-off, I’m just getting back to work now and wrote this in a hurry.
 It’s an Iron Man suit with chicken legs, basically.”
 Eh. Is it, though?
 Like a World of Warcraft dungeon.
 Who he didn’t personally know, since this was their first time speaking.
 Some foes do have a skull next to their name. This probably means they’re above you. How far above you? Who knows!
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