On paper, Anthem sounds incredible.
Take the endlessly moreish shoot-and-loot loop of a game like Destiny, put it in the hands of a developer with the narrative chops of BioWare, throw in some mates, and you’re surely onto a winner.
Oh yeah, and there’s jetpacks.
And yet, for some reason Anthem has sort of slipped off Stuff’s radar, perhaps because despite it being announced nearly two years ago, we haven’t managed to our hands on the game.
That all changed this week when we were lucky enough to be invited along to a preview event in London, just ahead of the demo that lands this weekend. And while we barely scratched the surface of what is already an enormously complex game, we saw enough to suggest that it’s going give Destiny 2 and every MMO on the market a bit of a scare. Because, you know, jetpacks…
The Anthem of Creation
As with any shared world online multiplayer shooter, Anthem is primarily about jumping into a team and unloading on everything that moves.
But when it’s BioWare of Mass Effect and Dragon Age fame at the helm, there’s a level of expectation about the story they’re going to tell. Though players shouldn’t go into the game anticipating the plot complexity you’d get in a traditional BioWare RPG, we’re already surprisingly invested in the lore it has created.
What you need to know is this: Anthem takes place on a planet created by a number of gods known as The Shapers. But in a predicament with which anyone who’s had kitchen renovations done will no doubt sympathise, The Shapers packed up and left before they’d finished the job, leaving behind their magical and dangerously powerful tools.
Unable to contain the struggle between the ‘Anthem of Creation’ and the instruments the gods used to create it, humankind now hides from occasional monster invasions and cataclysms in the walled off Fort Tarsis.
Nobody can go beyond these walls, save for the Freelancers, who essentially turn into variations of Iron Man when they don exosuits called Javelins. You play as one of them.
Can’t get the work these days
Not as sought after as they once were, Freelancers spend their days picking up contracts as and when they can in an effort to rebuild their collective reputation.
We spent some time in Anthem’s hub world, a sort of marketplace hideout where you take on various missions, buy upgrades, craft new items and sink your teeth into the frankly dizzying customisation options for your character’s appearance and abilities.
The dialogue system is nowhere near as deep as it is in Mass Effect games; as far as we could tell you choose from only two responses in a conversation. But getting to know the various citizens of Fort Tarsis was a more interesting distraction from all the shooting than we’d expected it to be.
Eventually, though, it’s time to trigger the very cool getting-into-your-Javelin animation and take on a mission.
Perhaps it’s a bit reductive to call Anthem ‘Destiny with flying mechs’, but the tech’d out Javelin suits are undoubtedly the game’s USP.
Soaring above the jungle ruins, muddy swamps and rocky canyons that make up the world is as great as it looked in those initial trailers. Giving the player fully 3D movement can be a nightmare if the controls aren’t up to scratch, but BioWare has done an excellent job. You’ll be barrell rolling with the best of them in no time.
I did find that the Javelins overheat pretty quickly, though. Diving and flying through waterfalls cools your suit, but in the early stages of the game at least, it’s a mechanic you’re having to manage constantly if you don’t want to drop straight out of the sky.
As well as making exploration way more fun than it would be on the ground, the souped up super suits add an entirely different dimension to combat. For example, defeating certain enemy types requires you to target weak spots on their backs, which can be more effectively achieved by flying over them.
You’ll spend as much time hovering above the battlefield as you will on it, especially when up against the beefier Scars who take a lot longer to go down.
Crucial to your enjoyment of Anthem, we reckon, is getting the right balance of Javelins in your squad.
There are four classes to choose from before each battle: Storm, Ranger, Colossus and Interceptor, and you’re going to be a lot more deadly as a collective if each Javelin is represented.
Ranger is your classic all-rounder, unspectacular but pretty good at everything. Let’s call it James Milner. Storm is essentially a helmeted wizard, able to hover for longer and rain down devastating elemental attacks from above. Colossus is the heavy class (the only one we didn’t test out), and completing the quartet is the Interceptor, a lightning fast melee specialist.
The latter was probably my favourite. The pistol it uses wasn’t much cop, but its special move, which gradually recharges after each use, lets you dart between Scars in a combo of unstoppable, ninja-like attacks. And if you press the melee button while in the air, it spin-stomps onto enemies like a lethal mechanical ballerina.
Problem was, in one assignment I ended up on a two-man team comprised of two Interceptors. Without the necessary steel behind us, we were pretty useless.
The different classes compliment each other, so getting the most out of the game is going to depend on having three friends to play with. In an ideal world you’d have an Interceptor dodging and slashing its way through scraps, a Colossus launching missiles, and a levitating Storm lobbing fireballs.
The guns, a pretty standard selection of shotguns, pistols, LMGs and assault rifles, all feel great to use, if not quite as honed as the arsenal in Destiny. You can switch between two weapons, and there are numerous grenades and throwing stars to experiment with, as well as shield attacks that can protect the whole alliance when used properly.
Easy to get to grips with but deeper than Alan Sugar’s suit trouser pockets, we can’t see anyone being disappointed with the combat. Less interesting were some of the early mission objectives. In one, we had to collect glowing orbs and return them to a plinth, in between dealing with waves of alien scorpions.
Fear of repetition might be an issue, were it not for the shimmering piles of juicy loot left behind after each fight. That’s how it hooks you.
Hey big spender
At the end of each expedition, each player is awarded XP and you get a breakdown of everything you’ve managed to scavenge. Keep it, or scrap it for crafting something better when you have the required blueprints.
Components are split into six cagtegories: Common, Uncommon, Rare, Epic, Masterwork, and Legendary. As you progress and take on tougher missions, you’ll get your hands on better gear.
At first it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the myriad menus and customisation screens, but the most pressing concern is going to be gradually upgrading your Javelin by spending whatever you find in the world.
Happily, BioWare insists that real money can only be used for cosmetics, so there’s no fear of a pay-to-win scenario.
Anthem initial verdict
Anthem is already shaping up to be a stonkingly enormous game, and it’ll only evolve with time.
The Javelins make playing the game a genuinely thrilling experience, and it really needs to be if it’s going to prize people away from the already established games in the genre. It’s nice to see BioWare really investing time in the game’s story, too. We just hope the missions are interesting enough to make all the grinding worthwhile.
If you’ve got a group of friends looking for a new online shooter to sink hundreds of hours into, you should probably start talking classes. Not long to go now.