BioWare, the developer responsible for Mass Effect and Dragon Age, has returned with its first new series in over a decade, Anthem. It’s a pretty big departure for the RPG-heavy studio: a jetpack-fueled, action-first online “looter-shooter.” And after a disastrous demo launched weeks ago, we wondered whether we’d even get a playable game.
The good news is that we did, and at its best, Anthem feels brilliant, beautiful, and thrilling. At its worst, though, this is a stuttering, confusing, heartfelt mess of an action game.
The good stuff Anthem ultimately offers—artistic design, BioWare-caliber plot, and that freakin’ Iron Man feeling—fails to coalesce. Players are expected to log in again and again for missions with friends in true “online shared shooter” style (à la Destiny and Warframe), but the game’s inherent structure makes this basic loop difficult to pull off.
Perhaps any disappointment we have stems from the fact Anthem often feels like a classic BioWare single-player quest wedged awkwardly into an always-online hole. And this game doesn’t always seem comfortable in that modern reality.
A bird? A plane? Even better!
Anthem comes complete with its own sci-fi universe, one with no apparent ties to previous BioWare series. In this one, you control a “freelancer,” a class of bounty-hunting soldier, decked out in a robo-armor suit called a “javelin.” You learn exactly what happened to your dwindling ranks in an opening mission that sees you and teammates contend with unbeatable odds and a tragic aftermath.
This booming intro mission hits all of the beats of what you might hope for in a BioWare-ized action game: solid voice acting, killer vistas, soaring music, and epic strange-planet combat. In this first mission, your AI allies are old pros and do a good job immediately establishing a rapport while you start wielding firepower (in third-person perspective). One button fires an equipped military-grade gun; four other buttons are dedicated to special attacks like fireballs and temporary shields.
And one important button sends you into the air, careening in any direction you wish as a jetpack-flying super-soldier. I call this the “WHOOSH” button.
Almost everything about Anthem‘s flight system is awesome. The sheer act of lifting off looks, sounds, and feels great, no matter how many times you do it. There’s a timing chain for the required jump-then-boost combo, coupled with a light-and-sound reaction of blasting off. The combined effect implies enough torque to make your real-life head rock back instinctually. Once you’re airborne, the default speed is slow-and-maneuverable for newbies (aided all the more by a useful “hover in place” button), while pressing “forward” delivers a juicy amount of controllable velocity.
I initially recoiled at how this system worked with mouse-and-keyboard controls, but the default sensitivity now feels better than in demo tests, and it comes with a handy, on-screen orientation guide. Plus, the demo’s issues with rock walls collisions have been touched up so that your javelin suit can often bounce off and maintain momentum. (Either way, it works better with a gamepad, but I’m proof positive that mouse-and-keyboard is doable for PC diehards.)
As the above gallery illustrates, there’s a lot of beauty to fly through in Anthem. I can only speak to the game’s PC version, which I tested on a beefy system, but I have managed to find the right combination of effects toggles to keep the game at or near 60fps at 1440p resolution. That was certainly not the case when using the same PC to test the game’s woeful demo version.
My only complaint at this point is that these suits overheat when flying for too long. In combat, that trade-off is understandable. Outside of combat (and there’s a lot of non-combat time during missions), I’d rather not stop flying. Anthem‘s flight system is right up there with the tortoise-shell skateboarding of Super Mario 64 and the dash-jumping of Celeste. It’s the game’s purest, most crystallized gem of joy-in-movement, and one that I’m glad I get to do again and again.