To say there’s a lot riding on Anthem would be a bit of an understatement. Developed by the once untouchable studio behind Mass Effect and Dragon Age, BioWare, this once golden developer recently failed to meet fan expectation. With last year’s Mass Effect: Andromeda disappointing fans and critics alike, this upcoming shiny sci-fi epic is the studio’s chance to redeem themselves.
Yet, Anthem isn’t the single-player epic you’d expect – it’s actually something far more ambitious. Revealed back at E3 2017, Anthem looked a lot like a BioWare take on Destiny. Touted as a bold and futuristic blend of RPG and online shooter, we all thought we knew what to expect from the 2019 game.
We were wrong. Despite all the buzzwords surrounding its reveal, it was never really explained how this mashup of online RPG and traditional BioWare storytelling would actually work.
Today we finally got our answer.
Now that we know more, we find ourselves surprised by Anthem once again. First things first, this isn’t a quasi MMO at all – EA’s big new franchise is actually a compelling mix of co-op shooter and traditional BioWare RPG.
Meching Something New
Before you get too upset though, based on what we’ve seen, this smaller scale approach looks like it’s paid off. Unlike the player-populated hub worlds and empty environments that defined Destiny, Anthem’s blend of single player story and four player questing looks to have birthed a far more detailed and sprawling world.
Set in a dystopian planet ravaged by danger and natural disasters, players are put in the shoes of fearless scavengers known only as freelancers. Donning Iron Man-esque mecha suits called Javelins, these are the brave few who dare to venture into the world and take foes head-on.
With four different classes of Javelin available to pilot and three additional player slots for your squad, these potential synergies are where the co-op questing comes in. Yet, it’s what happens before you embark on each quest that really piqued our interest.
Individual Stories, Shared World
Prior to heading out on a mission with your pals, each player gets the opportunity to speak to various NPCs at their very own hangar. Interestingly, it’s here where freelancers get to be immersed in their own single-player story. As with traditional BioWare games, the studio promises that dialogue choices are present. With the developer renowned for telling complex and personal stories, it’s interesting to see how BioWare has managed to craft a single player component for what is, at its core, a co-op shooter.
As well as chatting to NPCs and advancing your story, the hangar lets you customise your Javelin, tweak your gear and even swap out your mecha suit entirely. Before we can see much more of that though, the real mission gets underway. Selecting a quest called Scars and Villainy, our demo sees the player piloting the hulking Colossus class Javelin.
Shooting up and out of the hangar, a cool animation then depicts the three squad mates joining the beefy javelin before the quartet soars its way towards their destination.
An Immersive World
Set in a luscious but dangerous looking locale, the four Javelins cruise through the sky at great speed, revealing a surprisingly sprawling world below them. Tasked with taking out the game’s primary enemy – a race of humanoid enemies known as Scars – the four different Javelins soon spy their foe and descend on them.
Here, combat is very much like your standard third-person shooter — but with a class-based twist. Armed with two main weapons, a melee attack, and two abilities, the Colossus comes smashing into its foes with a devastating ground pound.
Flanked by a floating, mage-like Javelin called the Storm class, the Colossus unloads its machine gun clips into the unsuspecting Scars as the Storm Javelin zaps the group from above with lightning-based attacks. With the foes swiftly defeated and their loot gathered, the group flies off in pursuit of their objective.
The core system for the battles and looting looks undeniably Destiny. Yet, thanks to the variety in Javelin skillsets and how quickly each battle is won, combat scenarios in Anthem still manage to look like their own beast.
Continuing on to their quest marker, the group soars past a wide range of different locales. In this demo at least, there’s a pleasing attention to detail that helps bring Anthem’s world to life. As the group flies overhead, they witness a few battles between AI beasts adorning ancient ruins on the landscape below. Before we have time to take it all in though, we spy a bustling Scar watchtower.
Landing amidst a rocky cliff face with corpses strewn across the cliffside, the Colossus player pulls out his secondary weapon, a rocket launcher, and launches a rocket straight at the Scar tower. Pleasingly, the top of the tower explodes in a beautiful burst of light, sending pieces of its roof flying in all directions, leaving a sea of flames to spread across the surface of the unsuspecting Scars.
Given the lack of environmental destruction in most shared-world games, watching this structure crumble was a very welcome sight. As the team advances further into the world, they fly past a screen-filling enemy that is far too high level for the team. Avoiding a massive laser beam coming out of his chest, the group dives underwater, speeding their way through schools of fish until they surface at the bottom of an open-air cavern.
Interestingly, the screen-filling enemy the team avoided isn’t actually a scripted part of this mission. Instead, he represents one of Anthem’s many emergent world events. These ever-changing additions to the landscape mean that every time you go out into the world you will have a different experience, hopefully adding longevity to the game and keeping missions unpredictable on second plays.
As they enter the cavern, the ground is littered with glowing mines. This is where the different Javelins’ abilities come in handy. The Colossus’ shield makes him the group’s go-to for clearing the path. Raising his shield and charging straight through the mines, the oval-shaped bombs explode around him — the shield deflecting the bomb’s debris. It’s a nice distraction from the combat-heavy approach we see in the rest of the demo. Let’s hope other missions feature more class-specific obstacles.
Continuing on to their main objective, the next location we saw showed off Anthem‘s larger battlefields. Flying out, they soon see that the valley below them is crawling with enemies. Faced with a wall of turrets, shield-wielding grunts on one side, snipers on the other, and a few fearsome-looking enemies in the middle, this larger area shows that tactics are crucial to succeeding.
As the squad carries out its attack, an interesting little battle system is revealed – combo chaining. Like in a fighting game, groups will do more damage if they manage to chain together the right attacks in the right order. It’s a tactic that sees the team through a tough battle, with the group eventually obliterating all the enemies in the valley.
Like in Destiny, after racking up enough kills, each Javelin can unleash its own unique super attack. It’s a move that was used to devastating effect against a huge boss at the end of the demo.
How is Anthem Shaping Up?
While we only saw a highly scripted slice of Anthem, it was hard not to be impressed. Thanks to its impeccable visuals and an intriguing blend of singleplayer story and co-op grinding, it’s hard to fault BioWare’s latest on ambition. Yet, despite this being the game’s second showing, it still feels like there are many questions about the game that remain unanswered.
Aside from having conversations in your hangar, it remains to be seen how the larger story will be told in the game. The missions we saw showed an interesting-looking world with a lore that is begging to be explored and last year’s Xbox conference showing hinted at story sections set in a wider world. Combat looks fast-paced and fun, and the emphasis on teamwork and combo chaining looks to set it apart from the crowd.
It’s still too early to tell whether Anthem will live up to BioWare’s incredibly lofty ambitions, but with Destiny 2 massively missing the mark, we’re more than ready to embrace a brand new online sci-fi RPG.