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Now that the Anthem VIP demo weekend has wrapped and we’ve all had a moment to decompress, it’s time to dig into what BioWare nailed, what needs some attention and what the game might look like down the road.
As a reminder, we’re talking about a demo for an online, multiplayer game, so all of the pros and cons discussed here should be taken with an appropriately-sized grain of salt. BioWare actually set the expectations a couple of days before the demo launched, letting everyone know that the build included in the demo was six weeks behind in bug fixes and boasting completely different balance in both combat and commerce from the launch version of the game. In other words, it’s entirely possible the things I didn’t like during my time with the demo may be changed when the game launches on Feb. 22. Heck, they might even alter something I liked by then so, again, nothing here should be considered set in stone.
As a final reminder, there’s still another demo for Anthem just over the horizon. While the VIP demo was limited to folks who pre-ordered the game or are members of EA or Origin Access, the next demo is going to be totally open to the public. You can actually download the demo client right now, just so you’re ready to roll first thing on Friday, Feb. 1, when the final demo goes live.
I actually plan on diving into this second demo just to see if any adjustments have been made following the VIP run. There were definitely some technical issues in need of attention (more on that later), so whether or not BioWare is able to tackle those concerns between demos could provide a glimpse into how things will run once the final version of Anthem goes live.
It’s always hard to get a full read on a game based on just a demo but, if there’s one thing I walked away from Anthem feeling pretty positive about, it’s the moment to moment gameplay out on the open map.
Anthem just feels right. From the flying to the shooting, the game is a joy to play. You know how everyone was praising Spider-Man last year for making you really feel like the web-slinging Marvel superhero? Well, the same can be said for Anthem, only you need to replace Spidey with Iron-Man. Heck, half of the people I ran into while exploring the missions and free roam areas had their Javelins decorated like either Iron-Man or War Machine, and that includes a Hulkbuster design for the Colossus Javelin.
I’m not going to get too deep into the controls, but BioWare clearly spent a lot of time making sure the game controlled well. Similar to how teams like Bungie and Infinity Ward have basically perfected the feel of first-person shooting, BioWare has absolutely nailed down explosive action from a third-person perspective. With a little practice, you’ll be moving from flight, to ground combat, back to flight like a mechanized murder ballerina, triggering some flashy and fun abilities along the way.
Those abilities are another strong suit for Anthem, with experimentation proving that some really fun synergies can be pulled off on the fly. And that works between classes, too, which probably explains why BioWare is stressing that Anthem will be more rewarding when played as a team.
And while this one is definitely a personal preference, I appreciate the fact that Anthem features plenty of creepy-crawlies. Human and robotic enemies are fine and all, but there’s something about finding yourself in a nest of massive bugs that look like they crawled out of Starship Troopers that really gets my gears turning. Game designers seem to get more creative with those types of enemies, too, so it’s nice to see the landscape crawling with hostile alien life.
Customization was another check in the “Good” column in Anthem, as the demo let players pretty much run wild with their own creativity. From a purely visual standpoint, players can swap out various components of their Javelin to create a more unique look. From there, you’ve got collectible vinyls to create different looks on your exoskeleton, all of which have half a dozen segments to customize with your colors of choice. You can even customize the material that portion of the Javelin is made of and, to top it all off, give it a more rugged appearance with some wear and tear.
On a more practical level, it looks like Anthem is going to offer quite a bit of loot to collect and, like all of the best loot-driven games, said gear is going to have a real impact on how you play the game. There were a bunch of guns available in the demo, and you could find more rare (and therefor more powerful) versions of that gear out in the wild. The same goes for your Javelin’s grenades, abilities, Ultimate and the like. While there are four classes to choose from, it looks like there will be plenty of room to make your version of, say, the Ranger play totally different from the Ranger crafted by a pal.
As BioWare has already admitted, Anthem had something of a rocky VIP weekend on the technical side. On day one, plenty of folks simply had trouble getting logged into the game. From there, the most persistent issue was one that saw the game stuck on a perpetual loading screen. That issue actually plagued me through the entire weekend, which certainly put a damper on my initial experience. But again, this is an earlier build of a totally online game we’re talking about, so I’m not going to just start raving about “my concerns” just yet. The team is already working on the known issues, so hopefully they won’t even be a concern once the open demo rolls around.
But outside of the technical issues, I still left the VIP demo feeling a bit lukewarm.
For starters, the game forces you to explore the central hub from the first-person perspective at a pace that is so slow I was convinced I was doing something wrong. The vast majority of NPCs were not available for dialogue in the demo, so I couldn’t really get a good feel for the world in Anthem or the people who inhabit it. The few story beats on offer were intriguing but, again, it’s hard to care about a “super important mission” if I don’t fully understand why it’s important or why I should care.
My biggest gripe, though, was that even though this was a new setting with fresh enemies and all that jazz, I couldn’t help but feel like I’ve been here before. This might not be an issue for folks who don’t play the types of games I play, but I had a hard time feeling compelled to keep exploring beyond the basics of the demo due to the fact I’ve already kind of burned out on these types of games.
It feels kind of hacky just making a bunch of comparisons, but I would argue that it’s not exactly my fault if Anthem feels like an amalgam of so many other games that have come before it. Outside of the flying, exploring the map in Anthem feels almost identical to exploring the various regions of Monster Hunter World or Destiny 2. You run around collecting resources and shooting predictable bands of baddies, you occasionally take part in a live event to grab some fresh loot and you maybe drop into a cavern you hadn’t noticed before in order to do some exploring. The problem is that nothing here feels different from the games as service titles I’ve been plowing through for the past several years outside of the fact that dropping into another area occasionally comes with a lengthy load screen.
Also, Anthem does this weird thing where, if you decide to drop into a live event, it automatically teams you up with nearby players. Maybe there’s an option I missed but, otherwise, it was infuriating to get bored with an event and try to leave only to have the game tell me I was abandoning my team and cut to a load screen to drop me back into the fray.
And yes, I got a bit bored while playing Anthem, even though we’re only talking about a three-day demo. The frequent load freezes likely had a role in this, though, so I’m trying not to hold it against the game too strongly just yet. But while Anthem nails the moment to moment gameplay, it turns out I’ve simply become weary of that very specific gameplay. I’ve been doing this for years in games like Warframe and Diablo, and I’m not sure I’m looking forward to doing it all over again.
The Road Ahead
After spending a few days with Anthem, it’s clear that BioWare has put in the effort to make this a big, bombastic game that piles rewards onto the player and encourages everyone to team up with a bunch of friends and go exploring. Whether or not you’re ready for another game like that is obviously going to be up to you. I’ve seen plenty of people raving about how much fun they had in the VIP demo and I can absolutely understand why that is. For me, though, it felt like I was playing yet another looter shooter that, at least in the demo, didn’t have much “new” to offer.
I can’t help but feel from this limited experience that BioWare got caught up chasing the Destiny formula. The problem is that it took them like five years to build their own genre entry and, in that time, the market has become flooded with these types of games. Heck, The Division 2 is another game that falls squarely in this corner of the games market and it launches just a month after Anthem.
But that’s not to say I’m totally off the Anthem hype train. Outside of the technical glitches, the VIP demo hinted at a shooter that’s as big as it is deep, so hopefully that’s exactly what BioWare is able to deliver. The team has also teased more dynamic DLC, with stories that actually impact the game world rather than simply taking place within it. And outside of the campaign, it sounds like players have all sorts of live activities, seasonal events and the like to look forward to.
After playing the VIP demo, I have little doubt that Anthem is going to be a solid game. I’m just not sure it’s the type of game I feel like playing anymore.