Anthem full review

It’s been a long wait since Anthem was first teased by EA at E3 2017, but we're finally playing our way through the intense campaign to see if it lives up to the hype. Offering a blend of Destiny 2, The Division and a handful of other popular online games, can Anthem offer the ultimate online action RPG?

Here's our full Anthem review, giving fans an idea of what to expect ahead of general release later this week. For more on Anthem, take a look at the best Javelin you can use, how to clean your Javelin and how you can track the tomb challenges too. 

Anthem release date and platforms

First up, Anthem is out on 22 February 2019, and will hit PS4, Xbox One, and PC.

Anyone who pre-orders the game will get a few special goodies, including an in-game Founder banner, a legendary weapon, and the Legion of Dawn Ranger Javelin armour. If that’s up your alley, you can pre-order Anthem from Amazon (£54.99) and GAME (£54.99) in the UK, along with GameStop ($59.99) in the US.

Plump up for the Legion of Dawn edition of the game, and you’ll get even more: all of the above, plus a digital soundtrack, a full Legion of Dawn armour set for all Javelin types, a Ranger Javelin gear attachment and access to the game right now. It’s more expensive at £79.99/$79.99, but some fans will be able to justify it.

If that reads like a string of nonsense words, then read on and hopefully it will all soon make sense…

Anthem review

Anthem is the first major online multiplayer game from studio BioWare, of Mass Effect and Dragon Age fame, a shooter that falls roughly in the vein of The Division and Destiny. Set in a sci-fi world overrun with alien monsters, you’ll play as a Freelancer, teaming up with other players and fighting to keep humanity safe in a Javelin armour suit.

Smooth combat and movement

BioWare is a studio best known for thoughtful, character-driven single-player RPGs, and its storytelling chops have rarely been in doubt (well, up until the poorly received Mass Effect: Andromeda at least), but the studio’s games have rarely been sold on the strength of their combat.

Up until now.

From the off, it’s clear that Anthem is all about the combat, the powers, the movement: how the game feels to play, rather than the story-focused campaigns that BioWare might normally develop.

And after sitting down with the game ourselves it’s easy to see why. At first, it feels like a pretty basic third-person shooter. You aim with left trigger, and fire with right. The shoulder bumpers fire off special abilities - a frost grenade and pulse blast in the Ranger - and if you build up enough energy you can fire off an ultimate attack - a rocket salvo in this case. There are four styles of Javelin to choose from - Ranger, Storm, Colossus and Interceptor - all with varying strengths, weaknesses and special abilities. 

So far, so standard. But it’s the moment you first move that Anthem comes thuddingly into its own. With every step, your Javelin suit has impact, weight, and there’s an immediate sense of your presence in this world.

That’s even more obvious when you get off the ground. Jump into the air, click the right stick and you’ll hover, while clicking the left stick will put you into full flight mode. The controls are flawlessly fluid, and you can feel yourself buffeted by wind every time you jolt to a stop as you switch to a hover or spiral out to the side in a barrel roll.

It is, in a word, fun.

Flying fits fluidly into combat too, of course. Hovering lets you turn yourself into a mobile weapons platform, especially as the Storm with the longest hover time of all Javelins, while triggering a melee attack in mid-air lets you ground slam into any foes foolish enough to stand below you.

It’s in the air that you can really take in the stunning scenery of Bastion, from mysterious ruins to temples and odd relics left by Shapers trying to utilise the power of the Anthem. The game is gorgeous, there’s no doubt about that. The world feels alive, full of weird and wonderful creatures that may or may not attack, enhanced by stunning lighting effects. We ran the game with Ultra settings enabled on an Nvidia RTX 2060-powered PC and the texture quality, lighting, shadows and just about everything else looked incredible. The best part is that we’ve not experienced the slightest bit of lag, even during the most intense battles with thunder crashing, explosions and gunfire happening around us.  

Enemies galore

We’ve fought against a variety of enemy types during our time with Anthem. Armed scavengers included a variety of regular ground troops, including heavy units and snipers, along with heavy armoured turrets placed at key positions. We also raided a spider lair, working our way through a variety of angry arachnids before meeting a colossal boss, and have also gone head-to-head with the elemental-infused Dominion.

It feels telling that Anthem fits in almost as much enemy variation as Destiny has managed in two games and six expansions, and it should reward the sort of tactical play the game is clearly going for.

Ahead of one big fight, we got the chance to pause on a cliff top overlooking our opponents and plan out our encounter, looking for weak points and discussing a battle plan. Teamwork is also encouraged by the combo system: landing a pulse shot or melee attack on enemies hit by a frost grenade yields massive extra damage, so it pays to coordinate attacks.

On the plus side, you can trigger the combos on your own too, so solo players don’t have to miss out entirely - although the game is certainly designed to be played with others. We'd argue that the normal difficulty is a little too easy, especially for a four-person squad, so we've been playing through the campaign and contracts on hard to provide more of a challenge - and that it does. 

Questionable campaign and design decisions

But while the combat is phenomenal, the story leaves much to be desired – and that’s a surprise, considering BioWare’s past.

There’s no denying that the premise of Anthem is interesting, and there are glimpses of great storytelling throughout the campaign, but it’s lost amongst grindy quests, padding and a slightly confusing storyline.

One mission in particular stands out in our mind; the Tombs of the Legionnaires. It’s a mission you’ll encounter a few hours into the game, and is essentially a roadblock to the rest of the campaign. To continue you must complete 15 challenges that range from harvesting 25 materials to performing 50 melee kills, and it takes quite a bit of time to achieve. It’s such a weird decision from BioWare, and feels like a misguided attempt to extend the overall length of the campaign.

There are other examples of this sprinkled throughout the campaign and we can’t help but ask why? BioWare has a strong background in storytelling, creating amazingly detailed worlds with consequences to your actions and engaging campaigns, but that isn’t really present here.

There are also half-baked features that don’t really provide anything to the overall experience, and feels more like a box-ticking exercise for BioWare.

Take the ability to choose how to respond to NPCs in conversation as an example; it’s a system BioWare has successfully used in the Mass Effect series, offering different outcomes to conversations (and even the campaign) based on your conversational decisions. This is present in a basic form in Anthem, as you can chat to fellow Freelancers and other faction members in the game’s hub, Fort Tarsis. At various points during these conversations you’ll be faced with two choices, and you choose how you want your Freelancer to respond.

So far, so good.

The issue is that your selection has no effect on the overall outcome of the conversation, your standing with the NPCs faction or just about anything else in the game, so what is the point? We’ve now got to the point in conversations where we simply spam RT every time because we know our choice doesn’t matter, and that’s just a little bit disappointing.

End-game content

While the campaign is a bit hit-and-miss, Anthem really comes into its own once you’ve worked your way through the story. That’s right – end game content is where it’s at with Anthem, with a selection of Strongholds and Legendary Contracts available at launch for players to take on, and much more planned for the coming weeks and months.

Legendary Contracts are intense, challenging missions that you’ll get from time to time from the various factions based in Fort Tarsis, your home base. These contracts provide something more story-based, like rescuing a downed Javelin pilot, unlike Strongholds, which are comparable to dungeons you find in most RPG games.

Stronghold attacks are mainly comprised of fighting through seemingly endless waves of Scars, destroying hives and navigating intricately designed environments until you reach the most challenging part of the mission; the boss fight. Each boss has different characteristics, and it’s not always a case of simply dealing damage to the enemy; in one playthrough, we had to destroy generators powering shields before we could inflict any damage.

Nothing is highlighted to players, so it’s up to you to use your initiative and figure out the best way to bring down the boss.  

And believe us when we say that even with incredibly powerful abilities and weaponry equipped, the Strongholds – and particularly the boss fights – are very difficult.

It’s crucial that you and your team work together as one to take on the enemy forces, utilising the unique abilities of each Javelin in, arguably, a more meaningful way than during campaign missions, whether that’s directing all enemy attacks at an Ash Titan while reviving a downed teammates or using Storm’s elemental abilities to inflict huge area damage on a group of newly-spawned enemies.

Once you succeed in taking down the boss and defeating the Stronghold, you’re rewarded with epic, masterwork and legendary gear. This is the rarest gear available in Anthem, offering the best properties to enhance your Javelin.

That can be further improved by replaying each Stronghold and Legendary Contract in three higher difficulty modes that unlock when you hit level 30, the game’s current level cap. Dubbed Grandmaster 1, 2 and 3 respectively, these significantly up the difficulty, but also provide improved loot drops once completed.

We’ve had a taste of what Anthem’s end-game has to offer, and we can’t wait to see what else the developer has in store for players in forthcoming free updates.

Verdict

Anthem is the complete opposite of a traditional BioWare game; it boasts a flawless combat and movement systems, but lacks in the story department. The world of Anthem is intriguing and there’s a lot that the developers can do in future content updates, but the base story didn’t really resonate with us as much as we’d expected.

But as mentioned, the combat and movement systems make this game an absolute joy to play; the novelty of flying around the battlefield conjuring thunder strikes and raining down artillery on swathes of enemies below hasn’t worn off yet, and we don’t see it doing so for some time. There’s so much more that BioWare can do with it too – and we expect it to be further enhanced over the coming weeks and months.

It’s a similar story with end-game content; there’s a good base to work with, and although the content is a little light at the moment, EA has big plans for the future of Anthem and has committed to free content updates for the foreseeable future.

So, in summary, it’s a fun online shooter that is a little rough around the edges, but we’re confident that future content updates will flesh out the foundations of the Anthem experience.