Anthem Review – Two Halves
Anthem Review – Two Halves. Launching upward off a jungle floor and bursting through a thick canopy of trees, bobbing and weaving your way under a waterfall as you take in the lush landscape below you, is one of the highlights of Anthem. Flight, in these moments, is freeing, serene and exhilarating all at once. But you will eventually have to come back down to earth. When you don’t have a means to cool down in the air, you have to interrupt your flight to cool off on the ground–or else your suit will overheat and send you careening downward much more violently. This is what Anthem is like as a whole: a game where promising moments are bookended by frustration, where good ideas are undone before they can be fully realized.
It can take a while to warm up to Anthem in the first place. In its intro mission, you are a rookie Freelancer–a hero type who battles threats to humanity in mechanized combat suits called javelins. But that brief mission ends in failure, and after a two-year time skip, you’re now an experienced Freelancer. As a result, everyone talks to you as if you know everything about the world, even though much of the game’s space-fantasy jargon is explained only in codex entries. “Shapers,” “Arcanists,” to “silence” this or that “relic”–all the dialogue is structured as if you already know what all these things are, so there’s not even an element of mystery to it. It’s just hard to follow.
The story and overall worldbuilding do a great disservice to the characters, which have elements of what you might think of as BioWare’s pedigree. The main cast is well-acted and genuine, with complicated emotions and motivations that might have been interesting had they been given time to grow. Two characters are mad at you for the events of the tutorial, even though it’s never quite clear why; that bad blood spills over into your relationship with your current partner-in-Freelancing, Owen, and there’s enough believable awkwardness there to make you almost feel bad for him. But because the narrative is so poorly set up, the drama feels unearned, the “emotional” reveals robbed of their impact, and any connection you might have had to the characters just out of reach.
Exacerbating all of this is Anthem’s loot game core, which is simple on paper. After every mission, you return to your base of operations, Fort Tarsis, to talk to people, get new missions, and tinker with your javelins using the loot you picked up from the previous mission. Missions themselves almost universally involve some quick narrative setup followed by flying, completing routine tasks, and plenty of combat (with more brief plot-related stuff thrown in via radio chatter).
But this general structure doesn’t work well in practice. You’re told up front that playing Anthem with others is the best way to play and that you’ll get better rewards in a group, but this means asking your friends to be quiet every few minutes so you can hear a bit of dialogue or to wait patiently while you tweak your loadout. Playing solo is better if you want to take your time and talk to different characters, but doing so can make missions more difficult or tedious. Matchmaking with random people is the best option, since you’ll have people with you for grindy parts but will leave you alone for the story–but even then, it’s easy to lose track of what’s going on, especially if someone in your team is ahead of you and triggering dialogue early.
And no matter what, you’ll have to return to Fort Tarsis after each expedition, which makes for choppy pacing in both the story and the gameplay. There’s no way to change your loadout on the go and no way to just continue on to another mission right away, and there are currently a number of loading screens in between leaving and returning to Fort Tarsis. It’s hard to really get into any kind of flow.
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