The high-flying action game is a diversion for the studio that delivered the critically-acclaimed “Dragon Age: Inquisition.” It’s the latest entry in the shared-world shooter genre that includes Ubisoft’s “The Division” and Bungie’s “Destiny.” The specter of the latter has followed BioWare, as critics and consumers alike have drawn parallels between the two games and left publisher EA in a challenging spot.
“Anthem” looks like it’s cut from the same cloth as “Destiny.” On the surface, the simple act of being able to fly doesn’t look like it would have a significant impact on gameplay. But the feel of maneuvering the robotic Javelin exosuits in three dimensions for traversal and to gain an advantage in combat drives home just what makes ‘Anthem’ stand apart.
“Flight changes the entire game,” says executive producer Mark Darrah. “It’s not just a way to get to combat. It’s something you do in combat. It changes the actual experience of that second-to-second gameplay in a way I don’t think people can see. They have to feel it, which is unfortunate.”
Each of the four Javelin types feels entirely different, pushing players to think about combat in different ways. This comes down to more than the basic ways players often look at choices. Yes, speed and armor are considerations, but the approach to weapon loadouts diverges greatly across Javelins.
For instance, the Ranger has a grenade ability. The elemental-powered Storm might instead call down lightning or snap freeze an area. The differences are driven home even through nomenclature. The speedy Interceptor has customizable gear slots for an assault system and strike system. The Storm installs a focus seal and a blast seal.
Unlike “Destiny,” which standardizes core combat mechanics like grenades and powered melee attacks, “Anthem” manages to truly differentiate across its four Javelin types. BioWare also circumvented Bungie’s class system. Instead of tying players to one Javelin type, players can wear any of the four exosuits without having to start from the beginning. They can be unlocked in any order, with the first opening up after the tutorial at level two. Additional Javelin types become available at levels eight, sixteen, and twenty-six (close to the level cap of thirty).
“Anthem” slowly doles out its customization options. Players need to earn a second weapon, more ability slots, and up to six stat-boosting passive gear pieces (you only start with one). New gear drops quickly, ensuring players will have new options at the end of every mission. The pacing feels well balanced, with higher tiers becoming available at a steady pace on the way to masterwork and legendary gear.
Blueprints can give players access to new and better weapons, provided the materials are available. A crafting shop does sell materials for what seems like a reasonable amount of coin (the earned currency). There will be a real-world currency, shards, but BioWare is taking a measured approach.
There are no items, including cosmetics and emotes, that are only available for purchase with shards. Everything is either available for coin only or has a dual price, giving players the option of saving up their coin or dropping real money on shards for an emote or skin. The shop only sells cosmetics and not weapons, and there are no loot boxes.
According to a preview build, cosmetic customization is fully available from the start. The full color palette is unlocked, as are a number of different material textures. A Javelin made of hardened plastic looks much different than one built from pitted metal, leather, and cloth. More material textures will be available from the cosmetic store. Outlandish color combinations are likely to pop up as often as Iron Man-inspired red-and-gold Javelins.
Once you’re done kitting out your Javelin and deploy into a mission, “Anthem” begins to diverge from other games in its genre. Mobility plays a huge roll in combat, creating spectacle while serving a practical purpose. Seeing an Interceptor trigger its ultimate ability and go zipping around the battlefield slicing with its sword while a Storm calls down lightning, ice, and a meteor on another group of enemies is almost too much visual stimulus.
The Javelins feel exceptionally powerful, and that feeling splashes over even when watching a teammate tear through enemies. Gear seems to recharge quite quickly, giving players frequent access to more than their firearms.
The balance in the preview build still needs work, though. The Storm feels like it outclasses the other three types, especially the slow, tanky Colossus. Even on the harder difficulty setting, at-level missions didn’t pose a threat to a two-person team piloting a Storm and an Interceptor.
Missions play out in linear fashion. There is a freeplay mode for craft material harvesting and grinding (though at the preview build’s pacing, there doesn’t seem to be a need for the latter), but the missions are instanced affairs. Main story quests pop up on the map when unlocked and disappear after completion. Contracts, which are pulled from job boards, can often be repeated.
Story missions are where the grand narrative beats happen. There, “Anthem” introduces us to its foes, like the savage Scar, outlaw bandits, mutated beasts, and the game’s primary antagonistic force, The Dominion. Each of these groups has a number of enemy types, different tactics, and varying motivations.
The game’s world is also a threat, with the relics left behind by the mysterious Shaper Gods becoming active and tampering with the world. These can spawn a variety of enemies, which ultimately serve as a barrier players must overcome while “silencing” the relics. This often happens by collecting spark-like echoes and returning them to a set point or finding broken pieces of the relics and returning them. These tasks can sometimes feel rote depending on the environmental design and the enemies in the way.
They didn’t hit home quite as well in the repeatable contract missions. These essentially combine a number of smaller tasks into a brief chain, like freeing Arcanist researchers from skorpions, silencing a relic, and destroying an outlaw base.
When players load up “Anthem’s” demo (either during the VIP period from January 25 through 27 or the open demo from February 1 through 3), they’ll start at level 10. Three missions will be available, along with Javelin customization in all four classes. The narrative hub, Fort Tarsis, will also be available, and that’s where longtime BioWare fans may need to appropriately set their expectations.
“Anthem” isn’t your typical BioWare game
The big narrative beats in the mission setting feel like classic BioWare. There’s a 15-foot-tall masked aggressor, a variety of competing factions, and snappy writing that brings a touch of humor to serious moments.
Players won’t have agency here, though. There are no story decisions to make, no dialog choices, and no divergent quest paths. From a narrative perspective, your missions will begin and end the same as everyone else who plays the game.
That also means that the story-driven piece of the game that takes place in the town of Fort Tarsis also doesn’t have sweeping impact on the story. Darrah says that your decisions in conversation with other characters in Fort Tarsis is more about the relationships with those around you.
“The impact that you’re having in those interactions is really about them and their lives and the impact that has on Tarsis itself,” he says. “In terms of the overall story and stopping the Dominion, the choices are not impacting that. Because you’re playing with other people, we didn’t want your world to diverge from someone else’s world. That’s where the dangerous dichotomy and dissonance can come into multiplayer storytelling when our worlds have completely diverged from one another. What we do is keep the choices really more about the emotional impact and the impact on Fort Tarsis. Then the core throughline of the story is common for everybody.”
Dialog choices are presented differently than in other BioWare games. The conversation wheel doesn’t exist here. Instead, when players are prompted, there are two options.
“When we give you a choice, we always give you a binary choice,” Darrah explains. “It was a very conscious decision because we’re going to a new genre. For people who haven’t seen this kind of thing before, we wanted to keep it relatively simple. Now, those branches can kind of complicated over time as you go deeper down the trees, but each individual choice is an A/B choice.”
The result is that “Anthem’s” narrative agency is inward-facing. It’s all about how you interact with fellow Freelancers, Fort Tarsis’ Sentinel guards, and other key characters. The decisions you’ll make parallel those made in “Dragon Age: Origin’s” camp scene or discussions aboard “Mass Effect’s” Normandy.
The one place there is interaction is in faction loyalty. The Arcanists, Sentinels, and Freelancers all recognize different actions you take in the field. These are accomplished through routine combat and pop up on the side of the screen. Accruing faction loyalty has some impact on Fort Tarsis. For example, reaching Arcanist level two sees a fountain in the town repaired and cleaned. In some ways, this part of the gameplay loop is reminiscent of “Assassin’s Creed II’s” Monteriggioni, a base that could be improved throughout the game.
Darrah is keenly aware how the divergence in narrative approach might be received by long-time BioWare fans. While some might see “Anthem” as EA’s answer to Bungie’s popular shooter franchise, Darrah wants people to know that this type of game is not BioWare’s destiny. EA has already announced that a new Dragon Age game is in development, and Darrah hints that it will more closely conform to BioWare’s narrative approach.
“‘Anthem’ is resonating with the broader public in a way that BioWare games really haven’t done in the past,” he says. “That’s great, but it also comes with risk. What we had for a long time is an unspoken agreement about what we were and what we would deliver. As long as we would stay in our lane, we got to do that. This game is not in that lane. A big risk for us has been to try to make sure that the people who have been with us for 20 years understand that, not because they are necessarily going to be happy about that, but I don’t want anyone to feel like we tricked them into buying a game they don’t necessarily want. For me, it’s about embracing these new people who are getting excited about ‘Anthem’ and not losing contact with people who have been with us all along. It’s not necessarily because they’ll buy this game, but because we’ll make games for them again—and we are.”