Anthem Review: Not as harmonious as it sounds
Anthem's gorgeous visuals and tight gunplay are outweighed by a litany of bad design decisions.
Whoever named Anthem miscategorised it as a song of celebration. It's not a bold, rousing strain that's purpose-written to uplift a specific subset of people (in this case shared-world shooter fans who digged on Destiny). If anything, repeating the mistakes of that game makes Anthem an off-key performance for that audience. Anthem could well have be named to Dirge instead – it's a mournful composition that makes one lament upon opportunities lost.
Let's get one thing straight before we begin. Before BioWare released the disappointment that was Mass Effect Andromeda, I was a huge fan of this developer. The dream result with Anthem was that it'd be a new beginning for this talented team. Admittedly, what's been delivered isn't a dog's breakfast on par with 2017's Andromeda, but there have still been some boneheaded decisions that derail a title that could have cornered the market.
You sure can't fault the visuals and the gunplay side of things, though. Anthem takes place on a lush, alien planet that gives Pandora (of Jim Cameron's Avatar fame) a run for its money in the beauty stakes. It's a shame, then, how so much of this setting and its interwoven lore comes across as Destiny déjà vu.
Once again, our almost extinct species has been pushed back to the last bastion Tower (read: Fort Tarsis). Once again we're asked to pick a class and suit up as a super soldier reclaiming what was lost (while being charged a premium on the guns and equipment by the tightfisted jerks in the city we're protecting).
To BioWare's credit, they've pulled out the stops to make their "Tower" look and feel more lived in – thanks to way more intricately detailed and NPC populated interiors. If you're a stop and smell the roses type there's plenty to sniff. If you aren't, well, that will all translate into a bunch of thorns to catch on. Expect exposition scenes aplenty and needlessly long first-person walks to mission start points and merchants.
Worse, your binary dialogue choices with these denizens are a shadow of the fate-steering Mass Effect system. You're either Sarcastic Good Hero or Snarky Jaded Hero. Yes, this is a human settlement filled with competing factions and in-fighting intrigue, but when the conversations are this redundant, don't expect to attach to the people of this world like you did the crew of the SSV Normandy.
Once you've finally slogged your way through Tarsis and slipped into a Javelin suit, Anthem proceeds to look gorgeous in breakneck motion as well (and in all directions, no less). Gun battles are dizzying affairs that mix high-mobility third-person shooting with flashy free-flight and even the odd bit of underwater cave diving. No matter which Javelin you're piloting (think: a jetpack-having exosuit with weird goat legs) you can be guaranteed that your ultimate attacks shall deliver the sort of pyrotechnics reserved for a major city's NYE party.
There are four classes / Javelins to choose from and finding the one that suits your particular approach to violence is immensely satisfying. Boring types will go with the jack-of-all-Javelins that is the Ranger. There's not much it can't do (exception: it can't equip Heavy weapons) and its two cool-down governed Gear slots are typically homing missile/grenade affairs. Folks who want to wade in like a man-tank will go with the Colossus, a lumbering artillery piece that is highly reminiscent of Destiny's enemy-line-breaking Striker class. The latter Javelin delivers a bigger close-quarters punch than the former, but prepare to be irked by the fact that hitting things resides on the triangle button and is neutered by a mini-cooldown of its own.
Alternatively, folks who like dishing out retina-destroying elemental attacks that stack (as you perpetually hover about) should gravitate to the Storm class. To say it conjures visions of Destiny's Warlock class would be an understatement. Personally, I fell in love with the Hunter-esque Interceptor, a glass cannon ninja on red cordial who's blade obsessed and wears armour made out of balsa wood.
Though they're derivative, Anthem's classes feel unique in the context of one another and are tons of fun to experiment with. That said, growing in power doesn't exactly transmogrify your chosen Javelin into something worthy of envy. In Destiny, you'll secure exotic chunks of armour that'll cosmetically make you look like you're wearing something futuristic, or an ensemble from the Lord Sauron Spring Collection. Aside from some paint jobs and different materials, it's tough to differentiate a rookie Javelin in this game from an uber-piloted one. That's a big problem for a looter shooter.
And that issue gets worse, so much worse, when it comes to collecting boomsticks. Once again, the concept ought to be: make the player hunger for guns that look amazing and can end worlds with a pull of the trigger. Unfortunately, BioWare's hamstrung that potentially addictive loop.
Loot acquired in the field is still too scare (even after a patch) and you can't equip stuff instantly to take a test-drive and see what works. You need to return to Tarsis and wade through load screen after load-screen to alter your loadout, then you'll make the same journey in reverse to see if said gun and/or Gear ability gels in the field. Even worse, it's been revealed that some default, bog-standard starter guns radically outperform the epic-level gats you're grinding hours to earn. That's ridiculous.
It's such a shame because once you've suited up and flown out into the jungle, the monster blasting on offer is amazing with a fireteam of four other players. There's plenty of mission variety, too, as the bulk of the Anthem experience is divided up into Expeditions (read: 20 minute jaunts that auto-draw in three other players or squaddies), Strongholds (harder end-game affairs that are like Destiny's Strikes) and you can also go off script and explore in Free Play.
The first two variants offer action that's quite decent. It's a pleasure to roll deep with a decent squad -- calling out threats, scrambling for makeshift cover, adapting tactics for boss fights and solving the odd environmental puzzle. Initially, I detested the free-flight controls, but a bit of practice worked wonders.
Mind you, I do take issue with Anthem's incessant need to auto-catch up anybody straggling to the next objective. If you want to drink in the world, you'd best have a crew of fellow dawdlers. Otherwise, you'll be grabbed by the scruff of the neck and load-screened dragged to the next fight.
Fortunately for all of us (and especially BioWare), Anthem is a piece of entertainment that's in a constant state of evolution. There's plenty of time, money and resources for EA to course correct and polish this very rough diamond. A lot of elbow grease is needed, though. I enjoy the core, shooty-shoot of this game but it's mired by far too many bad decisions that grind the fun to a halt.
What we have now is a race against time. Anthem sure sold well, but player-bases are fickle and fleeting things, especially in this post-Destiny 2 world. Gamers simply won't stand for these sort of rookie antics, plus The Division 2 is right there waiting to fill the void for them. Without a series of sweeping changes delivered in large patches, Anthem is in serious danger of becoming a sequel-less swansong.
Anthem was reviewed on PlayStation 4 with a copy provided by the publisher.
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