Anthem is something of a quandary for me. There’s a lot to love about this game, published by Electronic Arts and available for PS4, Windows, and Xbox One. But there are aspects of the experience that are, frankly, frustrating.
Developed by Edmonton’s BioWare and under the guidance of Casey Hudson, Anthem was always going to have a lot to live up to. After all, this is the studio that has given us some of the best storytelling and role-playing experiences with games like Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age, and Mass Effect, and the first Mass Effect trilogy was a success, in part, because of Hudson’s vision.
When it comes to those aspects, Anthem is outstanding. The world that BioWare has created is unique, distinct, and compelling. The anthem in question is actually the “Anthem of Creation”, a relic of an earlier time, and it has the power to shape and shift life itself. The setup here contains lots of myth and mystery and high stakes.
The characters are similarly diverse and interesting, and the writing that pulls it all together is excellent. Again, this is what we expect from Bioware.
Players become Freelancers, once-respected explorers and protectors that kept the chaotic forces of the Anthem at bay but now are eking out an existence on the frontier, where human settlements are still under threat. They are still explorers and protectors, but they just don’t have the same elevated status.
To complete the contracts that sustain them, Freelancers pilot Javelins, suits of powerful, mechanized armour. Freelancers become more powerful and capable by improving the Javelins that are available to them and changing out the weapons and appliances equipped. What this means is that with one character, you can effectively switch from a heavy fighter to a fast-moving scout to a support instead of being locked into a character class for the entire game.
There are familiar elements, here, but with science-fiction games that make heroes out of players, they are expected and allowed.
Despite the narrative excellence, though, Anthem fails because it forces multiplayer on gamers.
The missions that give players a chance to develop their skills and follow the narrative require four players to complete. If you don’t have friends to play with, the game matches you up with others.
Knowing that not everyone wants to interact with strangers, Anthem doesn’t ask you to. But there is no opportunity for the story to be delivered asynchronously, so if I get twisted around a bit trying to find the next waypoint while the others get there quickly, or if I want to take my time getting over there because I see a crafting item I can collect, I miss out on everything that happens. I miss out on the battle, I miss out on the collection of loot and experience, and I miss out on getting an understanding of the story.
So while I’m not forced to interact with other players, my progress and experience of the game is completely entwined with them. There’s no opportunity for me to play the story on my own. In attempting to create a new approach to cooperative multiplayer, BioWare has effectively eliminated the single-player experience.
Anthem is a game with incredible potential that is thwarted by insisting on telling me how to play.