This Friday, BioWare's Anthem finally has its full release. The game is currently available for players who are subscribers to EA Access on Xbox One, or Origin Access on PC. Those folks get 10 hours to experience everything Anthem has to offer, while Origin Access Premier subscribers can play the entire game. Anthem isn't even out yet, but some have already rolled credits on the main story campaign.
Anthem is a looter shooter, a specific style of online game with fast paced shooter combat, backed by a system of loot acquisition. You shoot things to get armor and weapons, then use those items to shoot other things better. Repeat. The genre includes Borderlands, Warframe, Destiny, and The Division. In terms of competition, things are stacked against Anthem, as the earliest game in that list had a release almost a decade ago in 2009. Warframe has been updated since its release in March 2013. Destiny 2 just saw the release of its Forsaken Annual Pass, which continues to build on everything learned since Destiny's launch in 2014. The upcoming Tom Clancy's The Division 2 likewise springs from lessons rooted in The Division's March 2016 release.
Anthem is coming from behind in the genre, but even on its own, the experience is lacking. The critical path of the story campaign is around 10-15 hours long, with around 2-3 hours of pure narrative content. Anthem's mission structure is pretty rote overall, and it's launching with three Strongholds, Anthem's version of dungeons. Two of these dungeons are existing missions, while one is awarded once you finish the story campaign. Anthem's loot system is also a bit obtuse, given that any weapon has a wide pool of bonus stats to pull from, and bosses don't necessarily have a unique loot table. And that's not counting all the bugs, glitches, and extensive loading screens that comprise the current game. We'll tackle more of this in our final review, but Anthem has some problems as it heads towards launch.
I've seen responses that compared Anthem's problems to the teething periods of the first Destiny and The Division. Both of those online games launched with severe issues, both in content and design. Both required their developers to knuckle down and improve them over time. In Destiny's case, not all those lessons made their way in Destiny 2, which caused more problems. For The Division 2, Ubisoft has promised that it's learned from the first game, a title that it whipped into solid shape, with an "endgame first" focus on the upcoming title. Anthem is in a better launch state, so it should be cut some slack, is part of the sentiment I'm seeing.
First, the assumption that Anthem is a better launch than close competitors Destiny, The Division, and Warframe, or other online games like World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy 14 is arguable. The truth is that it doesn't matter though, because Anthem isn't launching in 2013 next to the original Warframe, or 2016 next to the original The Division. It's launching in 2019, next to the current version of Warframe, Destiny 2 post-Forsaken, and alongside the upcoming The Division 2.
Context is key. When I review a game, it's taken on its own merits, but any game is also compared to what's around it. Anthem was developed with acknowledgement of previous games and competitors, and it's fighting for a similar audience. Strongholds are similar to dungeons in other games, for example. "Yeah, they're similar. The reason we didn't call them dungeons is because they're relatively big and have a lot of open space-they're outdoors," BioWare executive producer Mark Darrah told PCGamer.
Loot is similar to Diablo, according to Darrah. "It's designed to be a very long loot chase, much more like Diablo than like Destiny in terms of there's a little bit of randomness in there," he explained in the interview above. The team also looked at other loot-based games for its way forward on social systems. "We've tried to design the game that we felt we could get into [as single-player RPG players], we could take that extra step and say 'you know this is actually fun playing with someone else," Darrah told Gamasutra.
Anthem wasn't developed in a vacuum, it was made within the context of other games. BioWare developed it with those games in mind, attempting to improve upon them or differentiate Anthem significantly. The final result though is missing basic features. Trying to join up with friends required a good 20 minutes on PC before we realized you had to jump out to the Origin client to accept invites. Several loading screens break up the flow of play and combat, preventing solo players or a group from just doing mission after mission; instead, each completed mission sends you to a score screen, and then another area before you can launch the next mission. Its loot is too widely randomized—bosses and Strongholds don't have unique loot—leading to players farming chests in free play before BioWare fixed the exploit.And for a loot-based system, you can't really min-max your character, because there's no character stat page. Hell, some weapon states don't seem to mean anything to players yet, like "Support +23 percent Luck" or "Gear 15 percent speed".
Beyond all of that, Anthem is lacking in content. The missions overall fall into a few small categories: defend this space, collect these items and bring them back, kill this thing. Even Stronghold missions like the Heart of Rage, the central fearsome location of the game's story, aren't climatic enough. They lack unique hooks, like say Destiny 2's campaign finale race across the outside of a giant starship, avoiding the burning rays of the sun itself. And bosses, as you scale higher in difficulty, don't gain more interesting mechanics, they just become bigger bullet sponges. It gets to the point that you can spend 20-30 minutes fighting the same miniboss-level Titan; there's no tension, just a slow methodical pinging at its weak spots. And since they lack unique loot, players actually avoid these fights in Anthem's free-play.
Anthem doesn't get to ignore the context of its competitors. It should've been learning from their mistakes, in the same way that Destiny 2 should've learned from its first game. The community's time and money are finite. Frequently, they're choosing between different games to be the one they're playing for the next few months. Part of our recommendations involved seeing if a game measures up to its own aims, but also how it fares next to its current competitors. I find Anthem wanting in that comparison, and the fact that it might be better off than the launch state of a game released in 2013 isn't much comfort.
Yes, BioWare should have the chance to improve and iterate upon Anthem's current state. I hope it gets that chance. But that future potential does not blunt criticisms of it as it nears its "full" launch. There's problems here that BioWare isn't fixing with a "Day One" patch, anymore than Fallout 76's early patches fixed its problems. Maybe a year from now, Anthem will have its The Taken King (Destiny) or Patch 1.8 (The Division), fulfilling everything the game fans hoped it would be.
"It's better than Destiny at launch" isn't a response to criticisms for a game launching in 2019. Anthem has to be equal to or better than its current peers, not their past iterations. It's building on an existing foundation, an existing series of expectations for the genre. If Anthem is going to improve on that-see Apex Legends' ping system as a recent example of improving on standard battle royale mechanics-then it should be lauded. But likewise, falling short should be criticized. And right now, Anthem feels like it's falling short in a number of places.