Anthem still has a path to greatness despite early reviews

Commentary: As the tepid reviews rolled in after launch, I understood where people were coming from, but I couldn't square them with my experience.

Jason Parker Senior Editor / Reviews - Software
Jason Parker has been at CNET for nearly 15 years. He is the senior editor in charge of iOS software and has become an expert reviewer of the software that runs on each new Apple device. He now spends most of his time covering Apple iOS releases and third-party apps.
Jason Parker
4 min read
Jason Parker/CNET

When Anthem was first announced at E3 in 2017 BioWare fans were keen to see what was next. I was right there with them. Seeing Iron Man-esque robots fly into a lush landscape definitely had my attention. Could this be the next generation of action RPG/loot shooters fans had been waiting for, one that could compete with  Destiny ?

After spending time with the game since its Feb. 22 launch, the answer isn't yes and it isn't no. But Anthem certainly isn't in as dire of a situation as early reviews indicate.

For a number of reasons, I think they've sold the game short.

Jason Parker/CNET

The critical consensus isn't wrong

To be clear, I have no argument with the complaints sites like GameSpot have about Anthem. The long load screens (and sheer volume of them) are indeed a pain. The hierarchical menu system is confusing and seems half-baked at best. The multiplayer aspects of the game clash with its single-player focus, long NPC conversations interrupt your party's momentum, and then there are the crashes, the bugs, the disappearing loot issues. Each and every one of these complaints are valid.

The problem is that all these issues overshadow something great beneath Anthem's surface. The core gameplay is extremely enjoyable, even at this early stage, and with the right fixes over time, Anthem could be a game we'll all be playing in the future.

Combos are one of the keys that make things interesting

Just about every review agrees: launching into the air and flying around is indeed a lot of fun. For Kotaku it's Anthem's only redeeming quality: "Anthem's core idea of 'jetpacks plus guns' works excellently on its own, but nothing else in the game quite lives up to it."

They also agree the different Javelins (robot suits) have a distinct feel and are fun to use. GameInformer said: "The javelins are Anthem's biggest triumph, making almost every little action feel like you are controlling a superhero capable of unleashing hell."

There's more to it, though. The abilities for each Javelin also have a unique one-two punch system where you can set up what's called a primer and a detonation. For example, you might have an ice shards primer that freezes enemies, then a lightning-strike detonator that sets up a combo that hits for bigger damage. It's an interesting idea not found in other games of this type and it's fun to figure out which abilities work together to make the biggest impact.

Jason Parker/CNET

The map has more to offer than you think

Anthem is quite large. It also features enormous vertical spaces to account for the game's flying mechanics. There are numerous points of interest to discover, challenges to complete, mysterious tombs to unlock and huge, well-designed dungeons and caves to explore.

My group found a giant cave (that's likely part of a later mission) with enormous gears from a seemingly long-dead machine. As we made our way through, blasting away at various enemies, collecting glowing sigils, and flying up to otherwise hidden areas to explore, we were blown away by how epic it all looked and felt.

You can gather resources in one valley, fly up to a high waterfall that opens into another area, then drop down through a cave on a high cliff to a world event seamlessly over long distances. While in the air, you might see a point of interest you want to explore and drop in on a whim. There is an exploration aspect to the game you can't really find in other games -- especially when traversing the landscape in a mech that's armed to the teeth.

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Crafting is simple and satisfying

In many action MMOs you'll have to gather materials, bring them back to a forge and craft an item using a recipe. Anthem is no different, but it streamlines the process. Increasing your reputation (by completing challenges) with various factions lets you level up in that faction, unlocking blueprints to make new and better items for your Javelin.

Actual crafting all takes place in a couple of screens, allowing you to use materials you've gathered to make a new weapon or other item quickly.

Like most MMOs there's a grinding aspect to completing challenges and unlocking higher-tiered items, but the crafting happens in one place. You're not running around forging steel in one location, refining minerals in another, then going to a workbench in a third location.

It's not great that the low drop rate for legendary loot means people with maxed out levels can only hope for good items, but we're going to find out more soon according to BioWare's Ben Irving.

Anthem's true test comes in six months, not now

Critics are absolutely right to expect that when people spend $60 on a game, it should be a complete and polished experience, not a work in progress. But I also think reviews aren't telling you the whole story.

When Destiny was released we heard the same critiques. Poor story. Weak endgame. Bugs and glitches galore. The next year, Bungie pulled it all together with The Taken King. Then it all happened again with Destiny 2 and once more, in the following year, its Forsaken sequel made it the game most players wanted from the beginning.

Anthem is not a great $60 game. But it could be a decent $30 pickup. Or a redemption story in 2020. But as of now, its fundamentals, open world and enjoyable co-op loop are enough to save it from the eternal damnation that it's being condemned to by many across the internet. It has its problems for sure, but don't let that make you count it out just yet.

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