Monday, March 11, 2019

Microreview [video game]: Anthem by Bioware (developer)

Out of Tune

Anthem is a mess. There's no nicer way of putting it. I can't recommend it in any form today. The good(?) news is that it's essentially unfinished but it's a part of EA's games-as-a-service strategy. Like so many other games-as-a-service shlooters (that's loot-shooters, games like Destiny and The Division), it's being patched frequently with new features, quality of life improvements, and bug fixes. The outstanding questions are can they fix this game post-release and do they have the will to keep working on this game?

You play as a freelancer, someone who has a Iron Man-esque suit of armor and a partner to guide you through your contract missions. Beyond the usual wildlife threatening Fort Tarsis, an enemy nation is seeking to take control of the "anthem of creation", the source of all life. You have to stop them and confront the deadly events that lead to the downfall of the freelancers.

This is a wild oversimplification of an overly-complex plot. In Bioware fashion, they've crafted a world and breathed life into it but this may be one of the clumsiest introductions they've ever done. This is, above all, an action game and you are thrust into the action first. All of the shapers, relics, anthem of creation, javelins, and other such periphery is either spouted by non-player characters that stand around in the hub world between missions or, more frequently, dumped into an in-game encyclopedia for you to read at your leisure. It's all fluff but it makes the missions you go on really nonsensical. They throw all the lore and technobabble at you while you're elbow deep in enemies and none of it informs your actions. It can all be ignored so you can safely enjoy the action game without thought. It's really odd that Bioware, a company that built a reputation on its writing and characters, has made an action game that doesn't need any of that.

The game itself is serviceable at the very best. The open word is big and you get to fly around it like Iron Man and that's pretty cool. But the shooting doesn't feel particularly great and the world itself would be extremely difficult to navigate if it weren't for the objective markers. It all really looks the same. The missions themselves aren't that different from other shlooters, but they lack flavor. I know when I land at an objective, I'm going to defend a spot, look for slightly hidden items, or just kill a few waves of enemies. There's a distinct lack of compelling antagonists, so everything feels less like heroism and more like routine pest control. All of this is preceded and proceeded by terribly long load times. The load times so long that you can put down your controller and play with your phone for a minute.

Alright so there's no flavor in the gameplay and the game world is both incomprehensible and utterly optional, but the game is also plagued with bugs. When I started this game (on Xbox One, on retail release day) I spent the whole series of opening cutscenes staring not at what was happening but at a tiny aiming reticle and a HUD compass that were obviously misplaced. The day after, I couldn't login for a couple hours because they pushed out a patch that made it appear to many people as if they were banned from the game. That was fun to sort out on my own. Throughout the game, in the opening mission that was strictly single player and in routine coop multiplayer, I've experienced a lot of movement stuttering and rollback because the networking code can't keep up with the action. I've started missions to find I've been added to someone else's mission in progress, so I don't even get a chance to listen to the briefing dialog, and the game is very aggressive about not letting anyone stray too far from the group. Fall behind for any reason (like picking up collectables or harvesting crafting materials) and it'll give you 10 seconds to catch up before warping you to where everyone else is. I've even been dumped out to the start screen from the single player hub world for no obvious reason.

I've finished Anthem's main mission branch and I don't feel like I need to see much more for the purpose of this review. Anthem, at best, is a functioning video game and too frequently it isn't. Other shlooters have improved over time, and sometimes made radical changes to address problems. I don't know if Bioware can turn this game around. They've communicated a roadmap that extends to May and beyond but it's all new missions, items, and features to be added. Recall that Mass Effect: Andromeda also released in a disaster state with a slate of paid addons planned, and those plans were canceled. They made the game work and dropped everything else to do it. Anthem may never significantly improve on what they published on day one.

What they've released is a mess. I'm a glutton for punishment and I will be keeping tabs on Anthem's progress. I expect to come back in a year and revisit this review. Today, no one should waste their time with this game. I don't hate Anthem or EA but I'm terribly disappointed that this was pushed out in the state it arrived. It feels like it needs another year in the oven to get to an acceptable state.

If you still think you want to brave Anthem's current state, here's a selection of images and videos I've captured to highlight some of the bugs I've seen.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 5/10

Bonuses: +1 Nails the flying around in a suit of mech armor aspect

Penalties: -1 vestigial plot, -1 riddled with bugs, -1 barely fun

Nerd Coefficient: 3/10 (just bad)


POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014

Reference: Bioware (developer). Anthem (Electronic Arts, 2019)