'Anthem' Is a Hot Mess

Three big reasons why BioWare's online mech shooter still feels like it's fighting the player just days before its February 22 wide release.
February 19, 2019, 9:17pm
BioWare's new game Anthem from publisher EA
Image: EA

BioWare’s online mech shooter Anthem is barrelling towards its February 22 wide release date with all the energy of an 18-wheeler on fire.

The warily-anticipated game, in which players squad up and pilot flying mechs called Javelins, had a frustrating series of demos last month that were plagued with technical issues, which is to be expected from beta tests.

Undaunted by these troubles, and drawn in by the promise of aerial mech ballet, we at Motherboard put some more time in with Anthem this past weekend. What we found, with only days to go before its console release (Origin Access Premier subscribers can play it now on PC), is a game that still feels like a hot mess, even when the servers are working perfectly.

There are some bright spots, to be sure—Javelins are fearsome and appealing, and little touches like waterfalls cooling your suit while in the air evoke some fresh sci-fi vibes—but frustrations abound. Technical roadblocks, some baffling design choices, and an impressive array of bugs and glitches make Anthem a tough sell, and often a chore.

Publisher Electronic Arts said that a day-one patch will address some of the game’s most urgent problems—primarily, loading times—but right now Anthem doesn’t feel fit for public consumption.

Here are three of the biggest problems with Anthem right now that make it feel it's fighting you when you just want to give it a hug and tell it it’s going to be okay.

Loading screens, loading screens, and more loading screens

A loading screen

You will be looking at this a lot. Screengrab: Anthem/Emanuel Maiberg

When Anthem is letting us indulge in its defining power fantasy—flying through a gorgeous alien jungle like Iron Man and shooting everything that moves—it feels pretty damn good.

But getting to those moments is way more annoying than it should be because of the frequency and length of loading screens. For example, it took us 3 minutes and 30 seconds to go from launching the game to being in control of the mech in the game's "Freeplay" mode. In Destiny 2, arguably the closest competitor to Anthem, it took us 1 minute and 50 seconds to go from launch to play.

Three-and-a-half minutes might not seem like a long time on paper, but the sheer number of loading screens that break up Anthem make it an unbearable wait. The inconvenience is enough to make a player hold off on one of the game’s core undertakings: upgrading your Javelin’s weapons and armor.

Let's say that a player kills a huge, alien scorpion that drops a rare assault rifle. Naturally, the first thing a player wants to do when they get a new weapon is try it out. Does it look sweet? How much more damage does it do?

In games like Diablo III and Destiny 2, the player can almost always immediately equip the new item and see what kind of difference it makes. To do this in Anthem, players have to end freeplay (loading screen), enter the "Forge," where they can change loadouts (loading screen), warp back into the main hub (loading screen) and then go back out in the field to actually test the new equipment (another loading screen). We timed it, and that process takes about 2 minutes and 50 seconds. If you don't like your new gear and want to switch your loadout, you have to repeat the entire process. It's a pain.

The planned day-one patch is set to improve load times, but that doesn’t change the sheer number of loading screens that interrupt the action.

Loading screens butcher the player’s introduction to Anthem, making it feel disjointed. Loading screens break up portions of the map, making the open world feel less fluid than it should. Most missions seem to last anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes, which isn’t a problem in and of itself, but what it amounts to is yet more loading screens breaking up precious little play time.

Game-breaking bugs

Right now, there are too many bugs to count in Anthem, some of which make it literally unplayable.

Occasionally, players may load into a Stronghold mission much later than squadmates, missing the opening and possibly getting locked behind critical doors that make progression impossible. This was an issue during the demos, too. Some have speculated the bug occurs with players using a physical hard drive versus a solid state drive, and an EA spokesperson told Motherboard it’s down to hardware.

“It’s due to a difference between hardware profiles,” an EA spokesperson told Motherboard in an email, “and we've fixed some of the more egregious cases like the stronghold in Tyrant Mine and we will continue to make the experience better.”

This bug is in addition to a raft of other quest-specific bugs that can prevent players from making progress in the game, several of which will be fixed with the day-one patch.

Other, less impactful (but still annoying) bugs abound. Subtitles from conversations will stay stuck on screen long after the conversation is over. Enemies disappear or are otherwise invisible. The player’s mech at Fort Tarsis has visual glitches. Players can fall through the world. We've had trouble getting voice chat to work, which is a big problem because at the moment Anthem doesn't have any kind of text chat. On more than one occasion, the sound completely cut off during a mission.

Perhaps not a bug, but still very annoying: The game often prompts you to join up with your squad while out on a mission, even if you can see your teammates flying right in front of you, which triggers a loading screen. The day-one patch will make the “gather party” mechanic “more lenient.”

EA says that some of these bugs—such as falling through the floor on a particular mission—will be fixed with the day-one patch, but as we've recently seen with Fallout 76, fixing some bugs causes others, so if you want a stable experience it's better to wait a few days after the patch hits to see what state the game is really in before you buy it.

Everything is a grind

anthem loot screen

Image: Anthem/Emanuel Maiberg

Loot-based video games like Diablo III, Destiny 2, and Anthem are a grind by design. You kill aliens to get loot that makes it easier to kill more aliens that drop more loot. Some, like game designer Jonathan Blow, have gone so far as to call this kind of loot grind "unethical" because it hooks players while providing little of substance in return.

However, the digital Skinner box only works if it's providing rewards at a balanced, satisfying pace. At the moment, Anthem is not doing that at all. Every aspect of it is an endless, joyless grind.

The biggest problem for the combat grind is that the loot is just not that interesting. It's hard to tell how a level 10 assault rifle is different than a level 11 assault rifle. It doesn't look any cooler, and while its stats might be incrementally better, we've rarely equipped a new item, went out to fight enemies, and felt like we were more powerful than we were with our old gear.

Ideally, getting an improved item in a game like Anthem should feel like a treat that all of a sudden makes the player feel overpowered. James Davenport, an editor at PC Gamer, had the perfect example of how that feeling is deflated in Anthem:

Most tragically, the endless grind extends to the game's worldbuilding, something that developer BioWare previously excelled at with games like Mass Effect. Whereas Mass Effect was known for its intricate dialogue trees, loyalty systems, and branching story paths, characters and worldbuilding in Anthem are just another hamster wheel.

Interacting with key non-playable characters, for example, is incentivized with “rep” points—which can also be gained by completing missions—that allow you to unlock items and crafting blueprints.

Introducing a points grind to an area that BioWare has traditionally excelled at (engaging conversations with NPCs) is a strange decision. One imagines it’s there to nudge you towards talking to NPCs when you otherwise wouldn't, because your conversations have little to no impact on gameplay whatsoever. Many previous BioWare games engage the player in NPC conversations by forcing decisions that have weighty in-game impacts, rather than giving them a little drip of “rep.”

In Anthem, the player squares up in front of a character, that character monologues at them for a minute or two, and the interaction is over with no real impact on the world except a few more “rep” points.

It doesn’t help that plotting in Anthem seems to mostly consist of throwing proper nouns at the player and expecting they’ll care that the Monitor wants to steal the Cenotaph from Freemark, which was destroyed by the Heart of Rage, to control the Anthem of Creation. It’s long on shiny objects and short on themes.

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Video games are hard to make, even when they have a big budget, and loot-based video games especially are notoriously difficult to balance.

Destiny 2 had a rocky launch, but is constantly evolving aspects of its design to keep players happy. Diablo III had to remove a feature because developer Blizzard failed to predict how players would abuse it. It is entirely possible that Anthem will find its footing eventually. We sincerely hope that's the case because, at its core, it's a game about fucking shit up in a flying mech suit, and that's cool as hell. But there's little reason to pay $60 for it until EA can get there.

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