Anthem is, for better or for worse, going to be almost nothing like what BioWare has made before. As they stride into the arena alongside Destiny and The Division, they’re looking to bring some of their distinctive design and feel to the online co-op action RPG. We got to go hands-on with the game at Gamescom 2018 to see how it’s shaping up.
There’s a wonderful fluidity to just getting around and fighting in Anthem that really has to be felt in order to fully appreciate it. The Javelin exosuits offer you a lot of flexibility, shifting from exploring and running around on foot to flying or hovering a split second later. Just jump and click the left analogue stick to fly or the right stick to hover, it’s really as simple as that and you can switch back and forth to your heart’s content. Literally, the only thing to be wary of is the gradual buildup of heat in your suit which can see your Javelin’s jets cut out if it reaches its limits.
All of this freedom of movement comes into its own in the huge world that BioWare has created. Almost every area is multi-layered, giving you vantage points with sweeping vistas, enemy encampments that sprawl across a tiered valley, or platforms and ledges that will have you leaping and flying from one set to another. Even the heaviest Javelins take all of this in stride.
Who Are You Wearing?
Our Ranger’s loadout featured a fairly standard primary assault rifle. It was complemented by a charged-up pulse attack and a frost grenade to freezes enemies in place. Add to that the flurry of scan-lock rockets that its super can spit out, and it’s obviously more than capable in combat.
The Ranger’s the all-rounder, sandwiched between the Storm‘s mage-like energy attacks and the hulking, brutish heft of the Colossus — a fourth Interceptor Javelin has yet to be revealed in detail. They’re traditional archetypes, but how they work together in combat is a step beyond Anthem’s rivals. With the damage points pinging off enemies, and the elemental damage and status effects being thrown down, every once in a while “combo” pops up on screen as various complementary attack types combine. You can plan ahead once you know what you’re doing — one prime example is freezing enemies in place with the Ranger’s grenade and then performing a smash attack with the Colossus.
Game Director Jonathan Warner explained, “What we found is that when you’re playing with a full squad and everyone’s got a different suit, or everyone’s got a different loadout on the same suit, interesting combinations just kind of flow through as you naturally play the game. When the Storm is just hovering around using its ice attack, even when you’re not meaning to put a combination together, it still just kind of flows. It’s not just ice and smashing, there’s the other elemental status effects that very naturally just kind of happen. It’s a cool feeling!”
It adds an extra layer when deciding your loadouts and picking your Javelin for a mission. Who’s going to bring the acid attacks? Can you switch to electric attacks to amplify my fire damage? While that might be important to think about when taking on a high-level Stronghold dungeon with your friends, it shouldn’t be quite as vital when playing with randoms. You’ll see those combos popping up regardless.
Is Romance Dead?
If you’re the kind of player that just wants to romance your way through an entire cast of supporting characters and party members, you’ll be disappointed by Anthem. That doesn’t mean you can’t have your own individual journey and relationships in this world, they’ll just be purely platonic.
“There are relationships in the game, just not sexual or romantic, and honestly it was more about the theme and tone of the story we wanted to tell,” Jonathan said. “The way we think about it is we want the world to feel like it’s a real shared place where we go out together, and that’s why we do stuff like having world events, day-night cycles, and weather that’s all synced up, so that no matter where in the world you’re playing from, we each play and then the next day we can talk about things that happened and we had in common.
“That’s cool because it makes the world feel real, but we do want to still give you a great story that makes you feel like you’ve had some agency and choice. We wanted that to be personal to you and that’s why we based our story in your private space of Fort Tarsis. That’s a single player space and that’s where you can choose to spend lots of time talking to characters, or very little; it’s up to you!”
One of the big problems with telling a story in an online co-op game is that it can all too easily get lost behind a bit of banter with your mates. That’s bound to still happen when out in the game world, but in returning to Fort Tarsis you won’t have such distractions in what is a private part of the world. It’s here that BioWare’s flair for character creation can hopefully come to the fore, letting you build those relationships, make those choices, and weave a story that you can call your own, even if just a little bit.
More Stories to Tell
That story should continue to build and grow long after the release of the game, but try as I might, I couldn’t get Brad to reveal much of what they had planned.
Jonathan teased: “So right now we’re not talking about the details of our endgame, but philosophically I can say that we’re definitely thinking very heavily and planning and working on endgame content. And our philosophical approach is to not put all of our eggs in one basket of, ‘Here’s a new story that we’re going to tell.’ It is across an array of things: activities, repeatable events, new things that we can introduce into the world that change the kind of meta of the game. Hopefully, it’s that type of variety and a frequent cadence that will keep people happy and engaged.”
Whether that’s with seasons of content or story events fed out over weeks and months, we’ll have to see. But BioWare has had the time to see and learn from other companies and will, hopefully, not fall into the same traps.
It’s Still a Bit Destiny, Isn’t It?
The comparisons to other online looter shooters like Destiny and The Division are hard to overlook, and in bringing people together to take on missions, dungeons, and chase after good loot, it absolutely is the same kind of game. I personally see a lot more of Marvel Cinematic Universe‘s Iron Man in there, though. It can be found in the Jarvis-like AI, in the variety of Javelins — though the hover and flight animations are notably different — and in how the combat comes together in its various forms.
Most importantly, it just feels good to play and that’s made me much more interested in stepping into a Javelin when Anthem releases early next year.