Anthem Review: An Early Access Title in AAA Clothes

Make no mistake, Anthem is an Early Access title. The publisher approved term here is ‘Game as a Service’ (GaaS) and sure, it’s that too. But if you’re buying Anthem now, you’re likely buying into the promise of what it is to become. You’re likely buying it because you want to support the developers in their efforts to bring their vision to life, because that vision is something you want in your life.

This isn’t a new concept, but it’s a creeping trend in the AAA space. And in my view it is every bit the gamble that Early Access is with a relatively unknown Indie developer.

Sure, developing new titles is expensive — building the minimum acceptable product cuts those upfront costs down, brings in revenue early, and most importantly (and where our risk comes in) allows a more sensible commercial decision to be made on to what extent the studio will continue to support the title post-launch.

With this being the case, the review conclusion comes down to a statement you’ve likely seen in countless Steam reviews for other Early Access products.

“Only buy this if you’re happy with it the way it is right now or you’re wanting to support the Devs.”

— Countless Steam reviews for Early Access products.

There is an argument to be made that it isn’t entirely fair for AAA publishers to expect to be allowed to play on the same level as an independent developer in this way. It might even be an argument I would agree with.

But for the purposes of this review, here and now, it’s an argument I’m not going to get into. Also? We’re getting way ahead of ourselves.

So:

Is the Current State of Anthem Fun?

Before I answer that, a note:

I’m not an EA Game Changer and I have no personal ties into EA or BioWare. Not so much as a Twitter follower from these companies.1 Further, unlike many of the YouTubers cashing in on the entertainment value of negative reviews, I have no monetisation on the line for this in any form.

That out of the way?

Yes. Unreservedly, yes.

Anthem is fun, right now, in it’s current state. Going right back to my Anthem VIP Demo Impressions I made the following statement:

The foundational elements of Anthem are strong, and will support the load of long term play from its player base if allowed to. If BioWare can deliver a meaningful endgame with a good pacing on content releases the future for Anthem is bright.

– Naithin (2019), Anthem VIP Demo Impressions

Not counting however many hours I spent with the demos, over both that weekend and the following weekend, I now have 50 hours with the Feb 15th launched version of Anthem.

In that time, I’ve completed the Main Story Quest, the Agent Missions, dozens of contracts, started pushing into the Grand Master difficulties, taken on Legendary Contracts and battled through the Strongholds.

I can still 100% stand behind that statement. The Javelin gameplay is incredibly satisfying, with the freedom of flight and aerial combat simply not seen in its genre competitors2. The gun play is solid, with a wide variety of weapon types — further diversified by several sub-types existing in each ‘main’ category, each with their own twist on firing style.

Sure, guns are good — but the abilities are better. Your abilities are there to be used and generally have quite a short cooldown or recharge. Each Javelin (Ranger, Colossus, Storm and Interceptor) not only has a unique set of these abilities provided through Gear slots, but also very different handling characteristics.

Fifty hours in, and I’m still not feeling ‘done’ with the game’s launch content either.

So sure, Anthem is fun. Not only is it fun, there is a fair chunk of content even from just the base game’s inclusion, Early Access or not.

But (yep, we’re into the ‘buts’ now) this fun is to be had in despite a number of issues, some stemming from the very fact that we’re being passed an Early Access title by stealth.

Key Issues

For better or worse, it is typical for an Early Access title to launch to the world with issues. Some of the issues with Anthem fall into this type, I think. Things that can be solved with time and effort on BioWare’s part.

Others (like the loading) I’m more worried about the ability of the engine to handle any better than it currently does. On that…

Please wait… Loading

I feel like the Loading issues are well documented, but if you’re unaware… An SSD should be listed as a mandatory system requirement for the game. If you must install Anthem to a standard HDD, prepare for a bad time when it comes to loading missions.

In fact, for story missions (Main, and Agent) if you’re having to load from a standard drive and you can’t play with only friends who will wait — set the game to private and solo.

If you don’t, you may load into a mission 30-60 seconds after everyone who has put it on their SSD does. By then they will have flown off and started things.

Worse, Missions have a very tight distance tether. So, what happens when you’ve loaded in, to find your teammates most of the way to the first objective?

The game helpfully teleports you to them. Via a load screen. A load screen almost as long as the first one. If you’re really unlucky, this can become a chain.

The patch coming on February 22nd has some further optimisations for loading from a HDD, but the speed is only part of the issue. The sheer frequency of the load screen triggers is intense, even getting into managing your loadout or appearance, for example? Load screen.

Mechanics Worn on Sleeve

If you apply a reductive mindset, you can break down any of the Looter Shooter games to a small set of very simple mechanics. Get to a place, kill a thing, maybe move one thing to another thing, etc.

We don’t fault those games for these simple mechanics typically, because they wrap them in story. We’re not just standing around fighting waves in a room, no, we’re buying time for civilians to escape out behind us!

Anthem’s missions aren’t necessarily mechanically any worse than these other games — but there is no meaningful effort to dress them up or immerse you in story reasons for why you’re doing it.

This might sound like a small thing and I suppose in some ways it is. But when you ask someone who has played this, and say The Division which hides the mechanics much better behind the story, which game has the more satisfying mission mechanics? Even though The Division is not objectively any better in this regard, they will tell you that it is.

This impression matters and makes it much harder to invest in what you’re doing.

The Story

The story is not up to BioWare standard. It’s perfectly serviceable, if not actually good so far as looter-shooters go. I didn’t hate it by any stretch, and unlike many I found the character conversations to be interesting.

But as interesting as they are, there is not much in the way of consequence or change as a result of what you say or do. It is this element in particular I miss from the usual BioWare formula. You can affect some very tiny changes to your personal version of Tarsis, just… Not much.

The story also feels like (because it is) just an Act 1 to the overall story. Sure, we get an ending of sorts. But it’s poorly paced and the ending we get doesn’t feel at all deserved.

BioWare plans to extend this story out overtime through free content/story updates, which is something I applaud. Also I admit to being extremely keen to find out where the post-credit teaser revelation takes us in the coming months.

But the story issues also extend to the implementation. Outside of some cutscenes, all your story beats occur back in Ft Tarsis, completely segregated from the actual ‘game’ of Anthem. This is a Singleplayer only area to protect your experience with the story.

But if you’re attempting to play with friends, you’ll have up to 15-20 minutes at a time talking your way through Tarsis to contend with. If some of your group are interested in the story and some aren’t no-one is going to feel very happy about this.

The Tombs

I mentioned story pacing, right?

This right here was one of (but certainly not the only) culprit in this arena. With the 15th Feb launch, this mandatory-to-proceed ‘story’ quest required players to run through a set of ‘challenges’ such as open 15 chests, get 10 collectibles, get 50 melee kills, etc.

Adding insult to injury, the 15 chests required each individual to open their own set of 15. Being in a squad standing right by the chest being opened was not enough.

Two fixes for this are coming, but too late to benefit me. ;)

  1. (Already implemented) Tracking of the quest objectives start from Level 3 (down from level 10 previously), such that by the time you GET to this quest, it’ll be quite likely you have much of it done.
  2. Chest opening credit will apply to squads, so just 15 chests will be needed, rather than having to hunt down up to 60 for a full squad.

This whole quest though is nothing more than an attempt to pad out the game time. … Or at least I thought so until right this moment. It just occurred to me that possibly it’s rooted in the same issue as I outlined with Mechanics, where Anthem just has absolutely no creative spark when it comes to hiding or at least wrapping what it’s asking you to do in a better story context.

Others?

The Menu and UI setup remains high on my list of bugbears. Both for how it does work and for what it is missing.

The pain of using the Menu’s I outlined in the Anthem Open Demo Impressions still holds fairly true. We have had some improvements in being able to click through to the next layer down, but it still has a long way to go.

I also noted in the Anthem VIP Demo Impressions that there was no possible way to view your overall Javelin stats and bonuses. Or even basic information such as what your base shield/armor values are. That’s still true, and in my view needs addressing. It is a fairly core component of the ARPG and Looter Shooter genre.

Although also of note is that there is no way to tell what some of the really quite cryptic modifiers on gear even do. Even testing isn’t reliable right now since we know that some modifiers don’t work right now. (Due to be fixed in the Feb 22nd patch)

Then there is the matter of variety — in creatures, enemy factions and biomes in particular. That last has been quite a deal breaker for some already. The continuous sea of jungle with no respite is just too much. Personally? I prefer this over abrupt borders of desert to snow that some open world games provide, but even I must admit… I’m really hanging out for some new land masses to be added.

There is also no questioning that the end-game content is a little light at this point. e.g., there are only three strongholds (full-sized dungeons) and then the open-world content such as Freeplay, Contracts and Legendary Contracts on Grand Master difficulties.

These also all add up to the feel that Anthem is currently an Early Access title. Sure — it is one with promise, but certainly not one ready for a descriptor of ‘Fully Launched Title’.

Conclusion

Anthem is flawed. Beyond any shadow of a doubt. I’ve outlined what I see to be the worst features of the game in its current state, but also how despite them there is an exceedingly fun time to be had with Anthem.

The question then becomes, as alluded to right at the beginning: Do you think that you, personally, could enjoy the game in its current state despite the issues mentioned?

And if not, do you at least believe that Anthem will continue to deliver sufficient post-launch content and is this a vision you want to support and buy into? I do. The developers at BioWare have gone to great lengths to be transparent about the goings on, what is in, what is out, what is coming down the pipeline for later.

My only niggle of reservation is whether, if sales are not immediately ‘awesome’, will EA continue to support BioWare in getting Anthem to where it needs to be? This is the ‘gambling’ aspect of it, I think.

For what it’s worth, I can only imagine that releasing in this early state is an intentional and calculated move on their part. One they’ve done before with Battlefield V, and that title is still seeing content updates to flesh out what was missing at launch.

So for all this, I think there is no harm in considering Anthem again in a few months time after it’s had some time to settle some of the bigger issues. Especially if one of the other big releases this month is vying for your dollars.

Otherwise, don’t be afraid to give Anthem a go for yourself and just form your own opinion. Consider trying it out even through Origin Premier Access with just a month’s subscription perhaps. Within a month you will well and truly know whether Anthem is for you and how you feel about the cadence of updates.

Should you enjoy what you’re playing then you can buy the game with the benefit of 10% off if you do it before the subscription entirely expires, or you can part ways without having had to part with a larger chunk of your hard earned money.

For what it’s worth, I feel I’ve already extracted value for money out of what was present just in the Feb 15th launch content. I could comfortably put it aside and not regret my purchase.

But that’s not why I bought Anthem. I want more. The Story of Anthem was a bit of a let down when held up to typical BioWare fare, sure, but the world building? That was top-notch. There are so many places I want to go see in this world that has been created. So many things referenced in lore that I want to get to know about first hand.

There is more to Anthem’s world and story to be had; let’s just hope it doesn’t take too long to get it to us. ;D

For now, I’ll leave you with some of the tasty, tasty loot I’ve obtained over the past few days. :)

Postscript on Microtransactions

You might have noticed I didn’t list the MTX as an issue. I guess the short of it is, with current implementation — I’m not worried. At all.

Should legendary grade armor, emotes, etc, come out at some truly ridiculous price point (in either coin or shards!) then I’ll update accordingly.

But my belief is that the coin income has held up into the end-game very well. It is going to take a very long time for the one-time challenges to dry up when you consider that they exist for every weapon, for every gear piece of every Javelin, for exploration of every area and more challenges besides.

Then there are the constantly ongoing set of 3 dailies, weeklies and monthlies for additional income. There is more than what is shown via the table in the Freelancer Barracks, make sure to always be checking out your challenge entries in your Journal / Cortex as well.

Anthem Early Access is Live — Experience So Far

The land of Bastion is ours to explore at last.

Actually it has been live for about 14 hours now. Of which I’ve been able to spend a good number playing. It has been glorious. Don’t ask me for a review or anything terribly coherent right now, as I have no doubt that the honeymoon effect is in full force.

What I can say though, is that asides from the first 40 minutes or so of the game being live where everyone was trying to flood in at the same time, it has been incredibly stable — both server and client.

You might also recall that in my VIP demo impressions, I became quite adjusted to the mouse controls and was worried at the changes coming for live. Well, I shouldn’t have worried. Yes — it feels quite different, but undeniably for the better. The automatic centering of the flight reticle in particular was a change I thought I’d be turning off immediately, but it feels great.

So if you didn’t get on with the M+KB controls during the demos and had resigned yourself to (at least flying with) a controller; give them a go again and you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised.

Microtransactions

Origin will sell the shards in your local currency if it is a currency they normally support, but in US Dollars1 the pricing of Shards are as follows:

  • 500 Shards – $4.99
  • 1050 Shards – $9.99
  • 2200 Shards – $19.99
  • 4600 Shards – $39.99

Note that if you have an Origin subscription, you will get 10% off those listed prices.

If you saw the earlier MTX leak, you’ll recognise the items for sale, if not the pricing.

Depending on the size of the pack you buy, the price of the Epic Armor Sets (incl. helm, chest, arms and legs) will cost between $7.39 to $8.48 each.

The Rare materials and Uncommon graphics cost between $2.61 to $2.99 each, and an Epic emote will cost between $3.48 to $3.99 each.

What is the Coin income like, if I’d like to not spend real money?

Early impressions are positive. In my time today I’ve made almost 12k 24k coin2 just by playing, on top of the 40k coin you start with. However, that is with the benefit of completing the daily challenges and the weekly challenge in amongst that which would have bolstered my early rates.

On the other hand, I believe that in the end game when you get Masterworks or Legendary drops (not positive on Epic) you also get a coin drop alongside.

It’s quite something being here ‘in person’ after seeing this mission in so many pre-release videos.

So be sure — I’ll come back to this later with a better view of how things stack up with the challenges completed and a view of what a typical coin income might look like.

As noted above though – early impressions are very positive. It appears to me that even starting from a 0 coin base, you could grind out the coins you needed to buy even an expensive armor set you wanted before the featured items cycled around to something else without throwing money into the game.

I believe this to be true with the 10+ day cycle we’re seeing, which would allow for 10 sets of dailies, 2 sets of weeklies, 2 sets of alliance coin incomes all on top of your normal play income. Depending on where you were with your monthlies, possibly a set of those as well.

Back into the Fray!

And with that, I’m back into it! My intent is to have a complete review out on or before the time the full-launch comes about on the 22nd Feb, so keep an eye out for that. :)

Over that time I should be able to complete the main story and get a fair taste for the end game, see what the final impressions of coin income is like, how much interest the loot and gear holds (already feels quite promising though, relative to the demos) and that sort of thing.

If there are any burning questions in your mind though, feel free to drop a comment or message me on Twitter. :)

We Lost the Battle on Microtransactions

We’ve lost the battle on MTX. Outrage for horse armor has been replaced with joy on the Carleton dance. Most people are OK with cosmetics in the store, it’s simply the price point that is debate point. 

Asmiroth (2019), Dark Clouds at Acti-Bliz (Leo’s Life)

Asmiroth’s post as you may have gathered by the title focused most on the rumoured impending lay-offs at Activision Blizzard. I replied with a comment before I left for work, but the above quote has stuck with me through the day.

Did we actually lose?

And was it ever even a battle?

Now, I’m not experienced in the games industry. I have no insider contacts. For all I know, they’re every bit as evil as we’d sometimes like to believe.

But I doubt it. I don’t have experience inside the games industry, but I do have strong parallel experience from working in product and propositions for a corporate in another industry that people love to hate. We sometimes have to make decisions that make media in less than positive ways.

We have people very focused on the business interests. The short term profitability, tactical decisions. But we also have people whose job it is to put the customer first and advocate for their needs. Long-term success requires a healthy tension between the two.

Decisions in favour of the business (e.g., microtransactions) are often the very things that allow for decisions in favour of the customer (e.g., Anthem giving story DLC to all players for free).

At the very least, consider this an alternate perspective.

First, Let’s Talk Money

In 2004, when Half-Life 2 launched the ‘Bronze’ edition (i.e., standard) cost US$49.95 ($US66.43 in 2019 money). It had a development budget of US$40m (US$53.2m 2019).

If the box-price of games followed in line with the growing costs of AAA development — we would be paying ~$US97.50 for a game’s standard edition.

Last year’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider cost $US59.99 to buy, and had a development budget of up to $US100m.1

In real dollar terms, that means we’ve had an almost 11% reduction in cost to purchase a day-1 title vs. an increase in cost to develop a modern AAA title by 46.8%.

If the box-price of games followed in line with the growing costs of AAA development — we would be paying ~$US97.50 for a game’s standard edition.

And Shadow of the Tomb Raider is not even a particularly exceptional example. Some titles have cost more, and the predictions indicate development costs for AAA titles will only continue to increase.

Of course it’s a little more complex than this. This doesn’t cover all the material factors. One could also consider the growing addressable base as more and more people accept gaming. The relative ease of cross-platform releases now compared to then. Or likely a dozen more factors I’m not presently thinking or even aware of being an outsider to the industry.

But the bottom line of it is, that MTX subsidise the increased costs of development where a box-price increase of the required magnitude could well price AAA games out of reach for many.

Test & Learn, Adapt

Sometimes, the money-people get a little too much power, or get to make one decision too many. This appears to be where Activision-Blizzard are at presently. It would have been the case in EA, when decisions on monetisation in Star Wars Battlefront II for launch were made.

To an extent it is their job, to push the envelope and find the edge of profitability, the edge of what consumers will bear.

But ideally the balance of power internally is not so far off that when it becomes exceedingly clear that edge has been found? Or even surpassed? That the customer-focused advocates in the business cannot pull things back.

There has been no indication as yet that Activision-Blizzard has found how to rebalance. EA by contrast does appear to be learning its lesson. Possibly out of fear, as I noted in an earlier post.

I think EA has been sufficiently frightened off being too obnoxious for a time by the fallout over lootboxes and the intense backlash they’ve received; not only by their customers but by legislators and as a result their shareholders.

Naithin (2019), Why Anthem? Why not The Division 2? (Time to Loot)

They appear to be in the ‘adapt’ phase, with full removal of paid loot boxes in current and upcoming titles such as Anthem, giving solemn promises not to introduce them after launch.

Anthem will have MTX for cosmetics, but real money will not be the only means of purchase. They will also be obtainable purely through ingame means. That neither the real world cost nor the time required to gain sufficient ingame currency has been revealed is certainly the cause of consternation in some quarters.

I might be crazy, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt in this until proven wrong. I feel not screwing over their player base on this to be inline with where they’re at on the corporate swing at the moment. Time to adapt.

It’s Not All Roses Though…

As you may have gathered throughout this piece (or from the original comment I left) I wouldn’t exactly jump with joy for a Carleton dance, I am fairly accepting of cosmetic MTX. At least when handled in a fair and reasonable manner.

In the transition to MTX, there have certainly been losses though. I want my expansions back, dangit. No — not little pieces of DLC with a few tidbits of story and maybe one or two no areas. I want the good stuff. The expansions that essentially came with all new campaigns, like Neverwinter Nights!

Sure, they still exist in pockets here and there. WoW is a pretty easy example to point at. But there was a time when it was essentially a given that any truly successful title would gain at least one full expansion.

I would happily pay for them. But they’re also a much greater risk to a company than the more bite-sized content. Perhaps a topic for another day. :)