Anthem Demo Impressions

Best known for making meaty single-player RPGs with a heavy emphasis on storytelling, BioWare is trying something different with Anthem. They don’t completely leave the RPG genre behind, but this is an action game to the core. So much so, that it’s heavily recommended you play the experience online with friends or strangers through matchmaking. Does BioWare have the chops to create a game this far out of their comfort zone? And for fans of their previous works, does Anthem provide enough reasons for you to join them on this journey? The full game isn’t out yet, but I tried out the demo to get a taste of what’s to come.

The demo consists of three main missions that tell one compact story arc, along with one side mission that’s on the higher end of the difficulty scale. In the main story, you’re introduced as a Javelin pilot (think Iron Man) who is hired to retrieve an artifact for someone. However, use of the artifact causes some unforeseen side effects to the quest giver. The remaining two missions outline the process you go through to fix the situation.

Knowing that this wasn’t going to be a traditional BioWare RPG, I was pleasantly surprised by the story being told between missions. Certainly not to the level of Mass Effect in terms of drama or complexity, but the narrative and performances by the characters between missions was nice to see. At the very least, it provides some context and colour to the mostly-straightforward action shown so far in the demo.

The final game will feature four unique Javelins to choose from, each with their own attributes, abilities, and weapons. However, the open demo only had two. I only got to play as the Ranger, which was the default suit in the demo. This one seemed to be the most all-around class, though it didn’t really have anything that made it stand out. You’re armed with an assault rifle, concussive missiles, a high-tech Molotov that causes fire damage, and an Ultimate ability that allows you to shoot multiple homing missiles at once. Felt like a very standard-issue loadout that was functional, but short on flash.

One of the other three suits was unlockable once you hit level 12, but a demo-breaking bug on the final boss of the side mission prevented me from cashing in the XP that would have pushed me over the cap. As such, I only played with the default suit. Hoping the other three classes have a bit more flavour to them than the Ranger.

Before you take off on a mission, you have the opportunity to create a party or join matchmaking. By default, the demo was set to run 4-player matchmaking. Didn’t think to check if I could play it solo until I had completed all of the main missions. Unfortunately, the side mission does not let you play it by yourself. The final game will let you play solo or in a private lobby any number of friends should you so choose. That said, BioWare has said that it won’t be as enjoyable alone as it would be with others. I tend to agree. More on that in a second.

Once the mission starts, you’re locked into a more straightforward action game. Granted, I appreciate the steady flow of pre-defined dialogue between your party members that is meant to better tie the events of the story to its action, but it’s not enough to mask the rigid mission structure and limited objective types. Over the course of the game’s three main missions and one side mission, you move from one area to the next, clearing out baddies while completing the objective. This usually involved opening doors, defeating bosses, or collecting items in the world. Really hoping that the final game has tasks that are a bit more specific to the story.

The real thrust of the game is its combat. Working as a team, you’re oftentimes faced with huge waves of enemies that vary in difficulty and tactics. Some are simple cannon fodder, while others will require a more tactical approach. One enemy type wields a shield, which protects it from direct fire. It’s at this point where your squad will perform much better as a coordinated unit. With at least one person in front to draw its attention, the others can flank the enemy and shoot it from behind. Blasting enemies with specific weapon combinations also triggered damage bonuses, giving you even more incentive to coordinate. As the enemy forces grow in scale and complexity, overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds through teamwork was the most satisfying aspect of the experience. With the right party, I could see myself having a lot of fun with the full game.

Sadly, I did not get to play this with friends. Instead, I relied on strangers in matchmaking to fill out my party. There were moments where rogue allies would deviate too far from the plan, but getting through the demo on normal difficulty didn’t prove to be an issue even without having direct communication to them. While one can play the final game solo, I do have concerns that the teamwork and coordination aspects would get lost along the way. Even with strangers who weren’t voice chatting, you could at least get a sense of what you should do in order for the team to succeed.

Based on what’s been shown so far, I don’t think these combat encounters would be compelling enough for solo pilot to power through the game alone or with AI buddies. Without that element of teamwork and coordination, I question whether the combat and enemy encounters would still be compelling if you just put fewer of them on the screen. Hoping BioWare has a better solution than that!

My biggest concern with Anthem heading into this home stretch is how the game runs on my standard PlayStation 4. The game’s visuals look amazing when standing still, but regular dips in frame rate were disappointing to see. It rarely impacted my ability to perform, but it can be jarring due to how frequently the game hitches up. While I can chalk up a few of the game-crashing bugs I ran into to the demo, my gut thinks that the game’s shaky frame rate will carry over to the final product.

Anthem isn’t trying to be Mass Effect and that’s okay. Just want to see it be the best Anthem it can be. It seems to be shaping up to be a solid action game, but there are a number of factors that could be points of concern going forward. Are the remaining three Javelin classes more fun to play and add more variety than the Ranger? Does the game add more varied and story-driven objective types to keep the game from feeling stale long-term? And does the game’s heavy reliance on teamwork leave solo players out in the cold? Fingers crossed that it all pans out, but we’ll find out soon enough when the game launches later this month.

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