Everyone’s already been talking about the demo for a while, but I’d like to throw my opinions into the mix.
Because here’s the big question: is it safe to make assumptions about the quality of the final product based on the VIP demo of the previous weekend (at the time of this writing)? And the answer is …
I don’t bloody know
Here’s the thing. There’s no denying that it was a mess. Players couldn’t get in. Those that did couldn’t get past loading screens. Those that did manage to play had fun but … enemies were disappearing. Players’ heads were disappearing. The demo – which Bioware did say was a six-week old build in the third week of January – was bug-riddled, but Bioware has also said that a lot of the fixes made in that six week period weren’t actually in the demo that people played. If we assume that Bioware isn’t lying through their teeth (safe to do, I’d say), it means that someone, somewhere, made a decision that – bugs aside – this was a slice of Anthem that reasonably represented the gameplay quality of the final product. So either that person is a blithering idiot, or they were right.
And to understand that properly, I’d like to talk briefly about the gameplay elements of the demo. It featured most of the big things that Anthem has promised till date – flying, shooting, story (albeit a small snippet of it), dialogue, the open world (though not all of it), a glimpse of the inventory and customization systems, levelling and progression, mission structure and matchmaking capabilities. And when I ignore the bugginess of the experience (which ideally should not be ignored) and think about what Anthem has promised and then delivered in the demo, there are still problems that need to be talked about.
Let’s start with the good stuff
Goddamn, flying is glorious. I enjoy Destiny’s movement systems, limited to jumps and sparrows though they may be. I enjoy Warframe’s hyperagility and mobility-on-crack because space ninjas are the best. But nothing, nothing I have every played prepared me for the tremendous sense of freedom that Anthem’s ability to fly offers. Going from walking to running to flying to hovering to crashing down into combat is so incredibly seamless and natural. In minutes, all of Anthem’s movement capabilities quickly became second-nature – there was no trial period, no acclimatisation, I did not have to walk before I could fly. It’s such an integral part of the experience – for repositioning in combat, for moving around the world, for slamming into walls just to see whether the face of my Colossus is stronger than a boulder – that I now want every game to do flying and do it well.
(It’s worth noting here that I played on the Xbox One X; flying on PC sounds like it was much less enjoyable. I have a friend who played on both platforms and while we were doing co-op on the Xbox, he commented on how flying feels tuned for a controller rather than a mouse and how much more he was enjoying it on console.)
Anthem’s gunplay isn’t dramatically different from a third-person shooter so I have nothing especially flattering to say about it. For the first hour or two, nothing really stood out to me as being exemplary about the experience – but then I found myself a gun that was a cross between a sniper rifle and an assault rifle. Full auto, nine in the mag (I think), and fifteen in reserves (I think). I forget what the thing was called but it. was. hysterical. When paired with a machine pistol, that was the most fun I found myself having with gunplay in the demo. The sniper was specifically for those damn Scar scouts that hit like trucks and stagger violently because it shreds shields; the machine pistol was for pretty much everything else. Those two weapons, more than any other guns I played with in the demo, actually made me feel terrifically, unstoppably powerful.
Th3Jez once called Destiny ‘Ability Spam Simulator the Game’. I want him to play Anthem. Anthem is ability spam simulator the game, cleverly so, especially since Destiny 2 spent the whole of its first year making players feel offensively weak. Anthem has very, very short cooldowns and incredibly flashy abilities for the most part. The theme of damn near every offensive ability in the game seems to be about making things explode and it’s safe to say that Anthem does explosions really well.
There’s also a fairly decent variety of abilities on offer, from the schools of fire, ice, lightning, and poison, and the ability to mix and match loadouts is very welcome. It’s certainly a step up from the 3 grenades, 2 melees, 2 supers (per subclass) of Destiny; and 4 abilities per suit that Warframe offers. It’s also extremely important for me to state that Anthem’s Javelin has a bubble ability (I forget what it’s called) and it feels so much more useful than Ward of Dawn on Destiny 2’s Titan. (Like, c’mon, Bungie – fix your shit. Make bubble great again.)
I’ve been playing Destiny since The Taken King came out. Being able to hear dialogue written by people who actually know how to write dialogue is a genuine treat. I had forgotten how good it feels.
I made myself a garish pink and yellow Colossus. It was hideously beautiful. I’m glad I can do that. A randomize option is very much necessary, though. Individually customizing the material and colour of different parts of a Javelin – while extremely involved and flexible – doesn’t feel very conducive to experimentation. I would like the ability to quickly turn myself into something unsightly between missions and right now I have to spend far too much time to do that.
Okay, now let’s talk about the bad things
There isn’t one. Like, is this Bioware’s first RPG? Anthem practically throws gear at you that boosts health and shields and offensive abilities, increases specific types of elemental damage, adds to ammo reserves – and there’s no way in game to see what all your base stats are? The character screen doesn’t even need to be complicated. Warframe has a beautiful character summary that shows you all your stats and how equipping or removing a mod will affect them. It’s inexcusable for a character/stats screen to be missing, especially since Bioware’s been trumpeting their build variety and customization options for ages.
There isn’t one. This is just … offensively stupid. If you want to change gear in game, here’s what you need to do:
1. Be in Fort Tarsis
2. Walk to where your suit is parked (or run, in the full game, since apparently that’s going to be a thing)
3. Interact with a console that doesn’t look like a console which gives you access to the Forge
4. Endure the Forge loading screen
5. Navigate through poorly designed, diagonal-themed menus to equip items and customize your Javelin
6. Rage in frustration at how needlessly complicated the experience is and uninstall the game
This is looter shooter. Inventory management should not be garbage. I should not have to say this. If anything, Anthem needs to learn from Destiny 2 because, for all of their faults, Bungie does really simple, clean, efficient character and inventory screens.
The menu screens that do exist are really bad
Heavily nested, unfun to navigate through, largely unpleasant. I really, really dislike the Anthem UI because it feels terribly clunky.
Getting all loot at the end of a mission is not fun
I get a drop. It’s blue – a rare item. All my gear is lower quality. But I can’t use the damn thing because I don’t know what it is. I have to trudge along with my equipped gear, complete the mission, wait for the end of mission screen, load into Fort Tarsis, go to the Forge, equip the item, and then launch another mission or Freeplay if I want to try it out.
What. the. actual. fuck.
Let me see my loot immediately, let me switch to it on the battlefield if I want to, and let me try out weapons the moment I get them. Very simple. Is Bioware’s current system probably lore-friendly? I suppose. It is annoying from a gameplay perspective? Absolutely.
Not fun. Not even a little. I understand that there may be technological limitations that prevent seamless transitions from the overworld to the underworld, but then they should have been separated completely. The transition is so jarring that I’d prefer to do without it. Let me fly seamlessly from one end of the world to the other, and endure one single loading screen to do the same with the network of tunnels and whatnots that lie beneath the landscape. Make them two different ‘regions’ of the world, one above, one below. But having to sit through loading screens – especially in the demo when seeing a loading screen pop up meant having to force-quit the game and restart – is a very, very unpleasant experience.
While I appreciate that Bioware included matchmaking for everything, their method of addressing potential AFKers is very unpleasant for people (like me) who don’t necessarily want to speedrun missions. When in a party, if one person in the party enters a mission-critical area, the entire team will be teleported into that area. I understand why the system exists, I just don’t like the implementation. What it means for me personally is that, if I’m not playing on comms with a friend, the tether is going to be the reason I solo all of Anthem’s soloable content. I like to look around, gather stuff, and pace myself comfortably if I’m playing through missions. The tether makes it impossible for me to do that. It also forces me to sit through another loading screen, which – ugh.
Also, why can I not leave a mission area to find a slightly safer spot if I need to regenerate when I’m playing the game solo. During the mission in which I was required to attack two Dominion camps to get keys or something, I found that if I flew past a certain point to get somewhere safe to regenerate, the game would teleport me back in. Again, what the actual fuck. If I’m half dead but I can fly away to safety, let. me. fly. away.
Why do Titan fire rings ignore cover?
They pass through walls. Through rocks. Through metal pillars. What? Why? Yes, I’m fine with the game encouraging jumping and flying away because I’m in a mech suit with a jetpack. But if I’m behind a pillar larger than my damn Colossus, it needs to do something. Rings of fire should not be passing through solid objects. I shouldn’t even have to point this out.
There are a bunch of other issues that I had made notes about, but everything I’ve gone over here are the things that irritated and/or frustrated me the most. And since this article is already too close to 2000 words, I think I’ll wrap this up.
So, you see, my problem with the Anthem demo wasn’t really the bugs
Bugs can be fixed, but this stuff? These are things that should not be a problem in any looter shooter, let alone one made by the same studio that gave us Baldur’s Gate, Dragon Age, KOTOR, and Mass Effect. And this is what makes me feel like Anthem will be a decently fun game at launch, but not the masterpiece that many people are hoping it will be. The demo has made me reasonably confident that Bioware has made a good game. But it’s going to take a lot of work after launch to make it a great one.