Welcome to… planet. What planet? Dunno. If it’s got a name, I missed it, but whatever, it’s home. For now, maybe. Because this planet isn’t just home to us, the intrepid human colonists of Fort Tarsis, but also home to the Anthem of Creation, a sort of alien energy source that, in some bygone once-upon-a-time, was controlled by the Shapers, a race of ancestral superbeings, using esoteric technology to accomplish their inscrutable purposes, and subsequently discarded for new inscrutable purposes elsewhere between the stars, and is now being disrupted by The Monitor, boss of the imperialist Dominion faction, who wants it for his own inscrutable purposes. As a Freelancer, your job is to stop The Monitor, save the Anthem, and get back to choosing new paint colours for your Javelin.
Simple enough? You’d think so, but I had to look up a plot synopsis because in the game, Anthem’s narrative exposition is a clumsy, incoherent mess that opens on ambiguous pretexts and ends abruptly in an anti-climax, with a lot of talking about this, that, and the Cenotaph in between. I’m still not entirely sure what the Cenotaph is, but it was obviously very important, and the game’s failure to properly explain this and almost everything else is the first, and perhaps most egregious, of its mistakes. That, and the incomprehensible series of menus. And th-
-e repetitive missions. And the boring loot. And the interaction button and the weapon swap button that are the same button, so when you interact with a thing, you also swap weapons. And not being able to change up your loadout in the middle of a mission, so if you hate the new gun you equipped before starting out, you have to quit the mission.
Skip the mission stats and return to base.
Open the Forge so you can equip a different gun.
Equip a different gun, and exit the Forge.
Restart the mission.
Aaaaand you hate this gun too, but you can keep it or endure 10 more minutes of load screens, and it’s not like this gun is even that different to the others.
And it’s a shame, because besides the disorganised story, obtuse design decisions, and much too frequent load screens, Anthem is a lot of fun to play at times. I realise that seems counter-intuitive, but moment to moment, the gameplay is an exhilarating, delirious power fantasy mix of firefights and explosions, supported by the unique manoeuvrability of your Javelin exosuit and practical if somewhat derivative class skills and ultimate abilities. The tactical Ranger class, for example, features specialised grenades, a deflector bubble, and a multi-target missile system, and the space wizard Storm class employs a variety of elemental spells – and playing in co-op, the synergies between classes can be used to set up combos for maximum obliteration. In comparison with the Mass Effect games (and most other third-person shooters, for that matter) the controls in Anthem are responsive and precise, with a distinctive kinetic pop.
Anthem’s NPC cast is a charismatic lot, each one with an almost real personality. I guess that’s BioWare’s thing, but even so, the character writing and dialogue is consistently compelling, their interactions with each other are occasionally hilarious, and Faye fucking rules. I want Faye in every game.
And wowzers, is Anthem gorgeous. Its exotic world is a vivid extravagance of jungles, waterfalls, and elegantly decrepit architecture, sprawling between the crags and precipices of some primordial tumult. And hanging out in Freeplay mode, you can explore every destination top to bottom, transitioning from East Gate to the Emerald Abyss to Monument Watch without inconvenient interruptions about the stupid Cenotaph – but avoiding those responsibilities is as much a testament to the game’s distracting beauty as it is a problem with the game’s inadequacy to provide meaningful alternatives.
A frustrating mashup of questionable construction and spectacular presentation, Anthem trips over its own potential. The game is fun for about 20 hours or so, but the premise of Destiny-but-with-jetpacks is unsustainable when BioWare is making the same mistakes in 2019 that Bungie made in 2014.