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.

Survived the First Month!

I figured I’d better take a look, as I had an inkling that the first month’s anniversary of this place would be up soon. I thought it was a bit later in the month, but nope. Today. (Good thing I looked.)

Out of morbid curiosity, I also took a look at what the average life-expectancy of a ‘new blog’ is. The general answer I found is 100 days. I couldn’t see any sort of data to back that assertion and my own estimate would’ve put it at around 180 days. Either way, it’s not long.

My prior experience lasted multiple years, tis true. But that was also over several different blogging projects. One post when I’d made a return from an unscheduled hiatus on ‘Fun in Games’ (September 2011) had the following line in it:

My last post was back in May. My last regular post was from April. The last post of mine I actually liked was somewhere back in March.

Naithin on Fun in Games — now surviving via the Web Archive Project — Scroll down to ‘I’ll be Back’ post.

As great as the Web Archive Project is, it isn’t infallible (especially for smaller sites) so I can’t go back and see what post from March I would’ve been talking about. ‘Older Posts’ does go to a record of page 2, but it’s an older one, skipping March and going to February.

But it sounds like I’d lost the drive somewhere along the way, likely as a result of quitting WoW again. Despite nominally being a more general gaming blog, WoW was certainly at the centre of my posting there. I didn’t really break away from that until my last blog project, Modicum of Gaming1.

In any case — I want to beat the 100 day timeline. I want to beat the 365 day timeline. Longer. Maybe one day, even be grown-up enough in blogging (2+ years) to mentor new up and comers in a future Blaugust!

I don’t want to fade off again.

Planning for Success

Uh, right. This would be the part where, if I knew what I was doing, I’d outline the plans I have to ensure continued success. (Success at this point being defined simply as: Not stopping.)

Current Plans:

  • Post Schedule: Often..ish…? Oh, like days? … Yes.
  • Post Content: Also yes. Definitely need some of this. Loot…games?

OK, truth be told — it boils down to ‘wing it’. I’ve always been more of a discovery person than a planner person anyway.

Circling back to post-content again, and revisiting some of my old blogs thanks to the magic of the internet, I see I used to veer wildly off-topic. Well; at least from the ‘core’ topic of the games themselves.

There were community posts, various bloggerly type ideas and more. Some of those might even have been amongst my favourite content. So without going nuts on it (before I eventually created a more ‘IRL’ blog for writing, book reviews, etc) I think I’ll loosen the reigns a little bit on what I’ll ‘let’ myself cover here.

I found those posts to give me the best freedom of expression and ultimately the ability to find my own ‘voice’ in blogging. Something I’ve certainly struggled with since making a return, something I was discussing with Scopique from Levelcapped just earlier today.


Examining the Motives

I’d be lying if I even tried to claim I’m not interested in a readership. Of course I am. But if there is one piece of advice I feel confident in sharing to anyone planning to embark on the path of blogging, that is not to put this front and centre of your motivations — especially while starting out.

You need to be OK essentially just writing into the void to start with, building up content and readers slowly.

I’m good with this, and something that really stuck with me to help through this phase came from Wilhelm of The Ancient Gaming Noob, if you look at his About page, you’ll see the main expressed reason for writing is as a journal of gaming events, a personal history.

This resonates strongly with me and something I want to be able to do in the years to come. I cannot say how often I’ve attempted to go back and find old forum posts, to find old conversations and even try recall what my reasoning was for a given position on something.

Well, here we go. :)

That Said, How Did Month 1 Go?

1) What to Expect When You’re Expecting… (an Anthem Demo)
2) The Division 2 Private Beta – Early Impressions of Early Game
3) We Lost the Battle on Microtransactions
4) Seach Engine traffic ramps up — these must still be far, faaar beyond page 1 clicks, but it’s gone from at best 1-2 a day through to 12 three days ago, and 19 yesterday. The screenshot was taken earlier today, but I expect today’s overall traffic to end up somewhere similar to yesterday.

It has been an interesting month to be sure. Not shown on that chart is the day or two prior where I’d written the about page and the ‘Hello!‘ post, but had not yet so much as tweeted the existence of this place.

I’ve changed the theme no less than three times, the header banner no less than twice. And the thrust of the blog? Now once, given my interest in pursuing a wider array of topics than I was perhaps allowing myself to before.

In terms of posting, I joked about this in the prior section, but this will be post 25 in a bit over 30 days. Is that a pace I can maintain? Uncertain. I used to average around 2 posts a week, but I have felt no ill effects of the current pace.

I’ll take it as it comes, I think, with an expected minimum of one a week barring time away and that kind of thing.

Overall I’m happy. I’m still finding my feet again to be sure but it has been really great reacquainting myself with the blogger community new and old and in general discovering that blogging still has a place in the world.

I had started to fear that perhaps the likes of YouTube and Reddit even had fully consumed the niche blogging had in the world. Perhaps they have eaten blogging’s lunch a little, but it seems we have plenty of life to go on with yet. :)

Confronting Confirmation Bias and Echo Chambers

Anthem is the catalyst for this post, but the discussion could certainly be taken more broadly. Also, I want to make it very clear that I’m not excluding myself from this. No-one is free of bias, the best one can do is try to be aware of where your personal bias’ lie and take the necessary steps to mitigate them.

Whatever else you might think of Anthem; it can certainly look good.

My bias toward Anthem is something I first raised after exposure to the demo weekends, again while writing up my impressions of The Division 2 beta and most recently mentioned being in the ‘honey-moon period’ for my early impressions of the early-access launch.

This is all good and well, but I want to write a review that will be useful to people shortly. So at least for myself, I need to confront the assumptions and biases I’ve held to date, and break the echo chamber effect1 somewhat in order to do so.

What was my starting level of bias?

Well… I essentially came out of a 5+ year blogging hibernation for the express purpose of talking about Anthem.

That should put some context to it for you. At the time I made the decision to come back to blogging for it, there is very little I could have heard or seen that would have dissuaded me from the position I then held.

Nonetheless; over the course of this (admittedly so far short) stint at returning to blogging, I’d already started to self-moderate. I had seen signs I was being unreasonable in my expectations. I was shrugging off certain things that really do deserve constructive criticism.

Enjoying a thing is absolutely fine, good even. We are, for the most part, much too ready to jump down negatively on almost anything and everything. I know that my natural inclination is one of skepticism and disbelief. Before this, I would have told you that I’ve been around the pre-launch hype of too many games to be taken in again. Prove to me it’s worth the hype and then maybe, possibly, I’ll change my tune.

I couldn’t tell you what it was about Anthem that captured that remaining, ‘I want to believe’ spark left in my imagination, really. But capture it it had.

And Now?

I’m still enjoying the game. No-one (including myself) has been able to talk me out of having fun with Anthem.

This is not always a given, either. My Steam library is littered with titles of a more-easily-hyped-Naithin, and some of them to this day have not been loaded. Even once.

I have something like 35 hours into Anthem now and still hunger for more.

Be that as it may though, I think I have managed to gain a better perspective on where the troubles lie. The areas that are in need of improvement if not outright remedy. I can see that Anthem’s ‘Games as a Service’ model is more than anything else ‘Early Access’ for a AAA studio title. (This is a post for another day.)

To get there, to this more balanced position, has meant going out of my way to listen to dissenting opinions. Going willingly into the lion’s den of negative opinion about something I enjoy, and considering whether each individual complaint holds merit in as detached a manner as possible.

Review to Come Soon

So yes, the review will start rolling out soon. Depending on length I may section it off. In particular because I can write about story with some confidence in it not materially changing with the patch on the 22nd Feb.

But if you were hoping for a bit more guidance right now on where things sit with Anthem, I guess my conclusion is this:

Yes — Anthem has problems. The load screens being a big one (especially for those without the luxury of an SSD they can make space to fit the game on). There are other issues too in my opinion with how itemisation is handled and certain story decisions.

But equally, Yes — Anthem is fun despite these problems. Anyone telling you that you can’t have fun with the title in it’s current state is wrong. Now, whether you are willing (or able) to support a full-price game that is coming out with these issues is another matter, and a decision not to is certainly one I could respect.

I want to play Metro: Exodus so much, but I simply refuse to support Epic while their means of acquiring market-share is to introduce third-party exclusives to the PC market. I will wait a year for a Steam release rather than give them a cent of my money now. So I do get taking a stand.

Also, there are a lot of pretty good titles coming out right now besides.

If you’re on the fence, but interested, I think the best thing you can do for yourself (if you’re on PC) is to grab one month of the EA Premier access. This will give you a full month of unfettered access to try it out for yourself, and form your own opinions rather than take my word, or anyone else’s.

If at the end of the month you’re still invested, and/or the coming content drops sound interesting, you can then choose to invest (with 10% off the purchase price, if you do it before your month runs out).

Alternately, just wait for a few months for all the hype (both positive and negative) to die out, and see where things stand then. As I said, plenty of good titles to tide you over in the meantime. :)