About six hours into my time with Anthem, I was given a quest to explore the four tombs of the Legionnaires of Dawn, mythical ancient Javelin pilots whose bravery inspired those who survived them to name their great city “Fort Tarsis” after Legionnaire Helena Tarsis. It’s the kind of good backstory you expect from Bioware, tinged with a mysterious past and interwoven with technology and supernatural forces.
The tombs themselves are not hard to find, exactly—they’ll show up on your world map just like any other objective—but each requires completing a “trial of the Legionnaire” to enter, which generally has to do with completing a number of actions in the Freeplay open-world: open 15 treasure chests, eliminate 50 enemies with an ultimate ability, strike 15 weak points, et cetera. There are fifteen of these checkpoint goals in total, with three or four in each Tomb.
This quest is a pain. It’s an infamous pain—the number of complaints about it if you do a quick search for “Anthem Tombs” should give you a quick idea. It’s also indicative of exactly what makes Anthem such a confused mess of a game, a clumsy middle-point between traditional Bioware storytelling and design-for-infinite-playtime AAA tenets.
The land surrounding Fort Tarsis, the space that you as a player have come to know in your first few hours as “where missions take place”, is also home to Anthem’s Freeplay mode, where you can fly around in your rocket-suit Javelin and handle whatever random encounters or treasure hunts you wish, as three other random players inhabit the vast area with you.
I say “inhabit” here because you, and the three other players, are really the only inhabitants of the land outside of Fort Tarsis. Unlike the much-derided Fallout 76 before it, Anthem does offer the slightest hints of life in its colorful, jungled wastelands, but they are primarily just that: hints.
A squadron of Sentinels (essentially the security forces of Fort Tarsis) might need reviving after they are pinned down by outlaws, or perhaps the rare Arcanist has fled the libraries of the Fort in search of greater treasure but requires help dealing with a monstrous Titan. There are hints of life out here, yes. There are hints of life in Anthem.
The game is a visual triumph, with the world surrounding Tarsis colored in vibrant greens and the grey-white of towering cliffs and ancient architecture. A special note should be made of the game’s score, primarily composed by Sarah Schachner, for being one of the game’s more masterful design choices, a slick blend of electronic and traditional orchestra sounds, the perfect companion to the “castles & rocket-suits” aesthetic of Anthem.
Javelins are similarly notable, with a healthy variety of visual designs between the bulky Colossus, the all-arounder Ranger, the elemental Storm, and the agile Interceptor. As was heavily touted in pre-release materials, Javelins can be heavily customized, both in loadout and appearance, and it’s hard not to feel some joy in playing dress-up with your robot suit. Even without spending some money in the Anthem store, plenty of options are available at start, with even more as you level up.
Anthem is fundamentally two games: There is a game that you play with your friends, where you fly around in your Javelin and shoot enemies and/or shoot the shit, the game that seemingly every part of Anthem wants to route you toward, as evidenced by the Legionnaires’ Tombs questline; and then there is the other Anthem, the Anthem that exists in the shadow of the shooter-looter extravaganza Anthem. This Anthem has characters, has story, has some genuinely well-written twists and turns.
This second Anthem is the Anthem I wanted to play since I first heard of the game. It’s likely the Anthem that most Bioware fans were looking forward to. And after playing a couple dozen hours of this game called Anthem, I have come to the small, slightly depressing conclusion that this game is not that game.
Anthem has an interesting story, but it also desperately wants you to play with people, to accrue a small gang of friends with whom you can play regularly. These goals are fundamentally in conflict: story is delivered about half-and-half through in-mission dialogue (which you will likely be talking over if playing with friends) or inside Fort Tarsis (which is a single-player only area, and thus requires disengagement with your voice chat buddies when exploring).
The endpoint of this design is that I ended up playing with random players when I wanted to progress story missions (and thus removing the need to talk over microphone), and only grouping up with friends or talking over mic in the (inconsequential) open world missions or Stronghold raids. Adding to this perplexing choice is the lack of any text chat options, as well as no pings, no signaling, no communication in-game whatsoever outside of microphone audio chat and a pitiful spread of character emotes.
Anthem is a poster child for jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none design. There is Bioware storytelling and dialogue writing, yes, but there aren’t any significant dialogue trees or choice that gives you, the player, any real agency in any decisions. There is a beautiful open world, but it’s not terribly large and the actual things you can do in it are limited in order to facilitate a balanced multiplayer environment. There are well-acted and voiced characters, but no romance routes. There are customizable Javelin loadouts with slots for guns, abilities, components, and a limited crafting system, but a limited variety of weapons and a terrible inventory management UI. The list could go on.
I couldn’t help feeling, while playing Anthem, that I was playing a game that could have been so much better were it not shackled to a specific type of multiplayer design. Fort Tarsis is a fascinating place, but a slog to traverse with little incentive to do so other than inconsequential dialogue bits that I, as a player, can’t even contribute to beyond the occasional binary conversation switch. The world of Anthem feels genuinely fascinating, with a rich history and occasional moments of brilliant worldbuilding (I still think the concept of all magic being driven by a great Anthem, a metaphysical sound that by its own existence can warp reality, is fascinating), but I never felt like I could engage with it, or that the game even wanted me to—what the game wanted me to do is trick out my Javelin and grind for good loot with my buds.
The fact of the matter is that Anthem is not (and perhaps never was) the game for me, the Mass Effect fan longing for another sprawling story-driven epic. There are things that I inarguably love about Anthem, and there is a possibility that future patches could solve some of my minor annoyances with quest flow and story progress. But some design problems with Anthem are bigger than a patch.
It is one thing to change the requirements for an annoying questline. It is another to try and reroute an entire game’s driving design away from being a loot-driven team shooter with a clumsy method of engaging with its own story. The former is doable, the latter would be a betrayal of the things that Anthem is designed to do.
I like Anthem, but. I hate Anthem, but. Anthem is not “for me”, yet Anthem is trying desperately to be “for everyone.” It is a slow, sometimes terribly frustrating game with nonetheless incredible flying mechanics and adequate shooting. It is the future of videogames, built to be played forever and yet somehow forgettable—the sustenance meal of the online shooter-looter genre, inexplicably buoyed by a company known for legendarily good writing forced to hide its own characters behind mission talk-overs and loot notifications.
What it stands for is worrying. What it is is passable.
Anthem was developed by Bioware and published by Electronic Arts. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
Dante Douglas is a writer, poet and game developer. You can find him on Twitter at @videodante.