Over the weekend EA and BioWare kicked off the Anthem VIP demo, where those that pre-ordered were given early access to the Anthem demo. The carefully selected slice of gameplay chosen to give players a glimpse at what the full game might be like. A demo that will become open to the public this upcoming weekend. No doubt with a few of the server issues resolved. Hopefully. For many, and for those curious to see the actual game in motion for an extended period, this was their first proper taste of Anthem -- us included.
As with a few high-profile online titles, this early demo of Anthem began not so much with a bang, but a slew of error messages. Along with annoying title screens that failed to transition or load into the game. According to EA and BioWare the issues surrounding the server problems were unrelated to ‘server load’ or the sheer number of players attempting to play the game. Although that’s somewhat vague, the issues were – for the most part – fixed before the second day of the demo began. A shame, but also the sort of thing we’ve seen before – and temporary to boot.
Even though connection issue error messages popped up constantly during the first several hours of the demo going live, once connected everything ran smoothly. Well, sort of. Which brings us to the first concern – that being performance across PC and console. PC naturally fares better, but those looking to run Anthem on Ultra-like settings with a high frame-rate will need a beast. To say the least. Of course, this will improve before launch, especially alongside new drivers that will boost Anthem performance.
On console though, namely the Xbox One X, Anthem needs work. As a fast-paced fly-around and shoot and aim abilities third person action-game, Anthem fails to maintain a stable frame-rate. Even though it’s pushing 4K output. Will things improve on console before launch? Here’s hoping. It kind of has to, otherwise the experience will feel clunky compared to contemporaries like Destiny and Warframe -– both titles that offer solid performance at 30 fps and 60 fps, respectively. If I had to choose I’d much rather see EA and BioWare target performance over resolution.
Okay, but how does Anthem play? Is it like Destiny? Or more like The Division? How does the main single-player town and hub feel compared to similar locations we’ve seen in previous BioWare role-playing games? The answer to all the above, in a good way, is that Anthem feels like its own thing. I’m still not sold on the mostly generic high-tech Earth-like art style, which never truly stands out, but the combat flow is, well, fine. Jumping up and firing off your Javelin’s rockets to fly towards your next destination is immensely satisfying across visuals, sound and controls. The star of the show, truth be told. Having to land or skirt over some water to cooldown is a well-executed mechanic that plays into the exploration side of Anthem. Being able to fly also leads to impressive vertical movement, where you can hover high up in the air or dive deep into an underground cave. Which plays into the combat too.
When combined with Javelin abilities this aspect of Anthem’s combat begins to reveal its subtleties. Even if the shooting is unimpressive. Not terrible or broken mind you, but with the same ballistic gang we’ve seen everywhere before (assault rifles, pistols, shotguns, sniper rifles, etc) it’s pretty stock standard. And lacks the feel or polish or punch of other shooters. It’s concerning because it means the weapon or gun feel is not up to par with the Javelin abilities at your disposal. As a small slice of gameplay, no doubt the final game could offer more when it comes to guns and their impressive shooty-ness. And if it does, where rare or special weapons can turn your Javelin into a sci-fi superhero –- then that will go a long way to fix what can currently feel a little bland. In that this is the sort of bullet-sponge shooting we’ve seen before.
As the demo included a few playable missions it was great to finally see how the overall structure works. With the first-person Fort Tarsis acting as the hub for all NPC interactions and the place you both obtain new missions and progress the cinematic story, Anthem is both impressive in its ambition but also a little bit like the original Destiny. In a bad way. Because having a single-player hub, an open-world area, and off-shoot locations –- this means that on average there were three lengthy (on console at least) loading screens to reach a certain objective. At the demo stage this isn’t a huge problem, but when viewed in the guise of a shared-world evolving universe -– a game that wants you to keep playing and keep coming back -- consistent loading can quickly become one.
In the end this means that even a few short hours with Anthem left a mixed impression. A lot of good and great things to admire like the movement of the Javelins, the differences between the classes, and the great combat feel when using various abilities. The visual customisation is wonderful offering up the chance to make your Javelin look unlike anyone else’s you might find out in the world. The soundtrack is great too. But then there are all the ‘buts’. Mission design is standard co-op shooter stuff, but with added flying. The guns and shooting are fine if a little average. The single-player Fort Tarsis looks great, but without your squad there is reliant on voice chat to figure out where everyone is at. How will that affect those dramatic story moments, experienced alone -- even when grouped up? Performance needs work too, especially on console.
And there are weird technical glitches and bugs like disappearing enemies to sort out before launch.
At this stage we’re keen to play more. But it’s hard to view Anthem as a must-play or long-term investment. A finite co-op BioWare action-RPG to play with friends? Definitely. And on that front, fingers crossed the story is as character-driven as the demo implies.