ANTHEM feels like a beta. Despite featuring a full story campaign, the game as a whole feels stunted and unfinished. It feels tired, incohesive, and troubled. We can only assume that something went horribly wrong during its development, because it has all the hallmarks of a project that was gutted before being reworked and badly stitched back together. It's not looking good for the once great BioWare.
If ANTHEM had launched back in 2014 alongside the original Destiny, you could probably excuse a lot more of its faults. But here in 2019, it's five years late to the games as a service party, and it really shows. It repeats so many of Destiny's mistakes, from its monotonous mission design to its severely lacking endgame content. The real kicker, though, is that ANTHEM has barely any of the polish or confidence that Bungie's shooter had, even back then.
In ANTHEM, you play as a nameless Freelancer -- a mercenary of sorts -- who takes up contracts put forth by the inhabitants of a fortified base situated in a dense jungle. That jungle functions as the game's sole open world map, where all of your missions take place. It's big and often beautiful, but aside from a few key landmarks and some impressive ruins, each region is just... Jungle. After a few hours of exploration, it all starts to feel very samey.
And yes, you read that right: all of your missions take place on or within this one map. Almost every quest, whether it's an optional contract or a main story mission, sees you plopped into the wilderness before flying off to the nearest objective marker. If the open world was way more dynamic, full of random events and weird wildlife, returning to it over and over again wouldn't be so bad, but it's just so empty and boring. Aside from some fantastic weather effects, it's static and lifeless.
It certainly doesn't help that the majority of missions are mind-numbingly uninteresting. At least in games like Destiny you're always in the action -- there's always something to shoot. In ANTHEM, there are entire sections of missions that have you do nothing but follow a radar to objects that you hold down square to interact with -- and that's literally it. No combat, no danger, just you, clumsily wandering around a barren area looking for a number of sci-fi doohickeys. These missions are so unbelievably bad that they make Destiny's "shoot the enemies while I hack the thing" objectives seem masterfully designed.
To be blunt, ANTHEM loves wasting your time. When it's not sending you off on hot-or-cold treasure hunts, it's bombarding you with ridiculous load screens. Much has already been made of these hellish interruptions across the internet, but it's difficult to understand just how dreadful they are without having experienced them yourself. Lengthy and far too frequent, the load times consistently put a dampener on any momentum that ANTHEM may have been building. They're simply unacceptable.
The load screens also do no favours for ANTHEM's already cumbersome structure. In between missions, you slowly stroll around Fort Tarsis, engaging in conversation with a diverse cast of characters and picking up new quests. In true BioWare style, each character has a place or two where they like to hang out, and over time, you get to know them better. As you'd expect of the studio, there are some decent personalities on display here, complemented by some sharp writing, but all too often, characters crutch on obnoxious gimmicks. Whether it's a try-hard phrase that they keep repeating after every line of dialogue or a tedious backstory that they hammer home with every single sentence, you may find yourself skipping through conversations or avoiding them altogether.
It goes without saying that this isn't the BioWare that we once held so dear. As was the case in Mass Effect: Andromeda, too much of ANTHEM's writing comes across as forced, as if it's desperately trying to emulate the natural flow of conversation that the developer's older games championed so well. It also makes the frustrating mistake of confusing good storytelling and world building with having an in-game encyclopedia. Characters will reference events and in-universe terms that won't mean much if you haven't bothered to trawl the title's many codex entries.
Aside from a few well acted cutscenes and a couple of cool twists, ANTHEM's story is largely forgettable. BioWare's overarching plots have never been all that complex or original, but they've almost always been carried by brilliant characters. Being a co-op based game, ANTHEM can't rely on well crafted personalities who fight alongside you, and so the story falls flat very quickly. Sci-fi MacGuffins whenever something needs to be conveniently explained? Check. Characters who make nonsensical decisions so that the plot can keep moving forward? Check. Staring slack-jawed at the screen as supposedly important plot details peppered with dumb names like "the Cataclysm" and "the Monitor" fail to register on any level? Check.
But we played ANTHEM for over 40 hours before penning this review -- there must be something to it, surely? Well, yes, there actually is. The one aspect of the game that kept us hooked from start to finish was the combat. ANTHEM's core action is an evolution of Mass Effect's ability-infused shooting, and for the most part it works wonderfully. Firing off flashy attacks that quickly recharge brings a Diablo-like feel to each encounter as you cycle through your available options moment-to-moment. In between bursts of gunfire you're unleashing death drenched in particle effects. It all looks amazing, and blowing your foes away with a well timed bolt of lightning or mortar strike never outstays its welcome.
The movement, too, is spot on. There's a great sense of weight to each Javelin -- the mechanical suit that you pilot out in the wilds -- and they all promote different play styles. Indeed, one thing ANTHEM definitely does better than its immediate competition is how each "class" feels unique. The hulking Colossus crushes enemies with its sheer mass and smashes grunts aside like they're nothing, while the silky Storm glides across the ground and hovers elegantly in the air as it rains down elemental fury. Impressive animations are the icing on the cake.
When you're in the heat of battle, standing side by side with co-op buddies and holding off waves of undesirables, ANTHEM is at its very best. The game's combat is easily its greatest achievement, and although it can be a little janky at times -- the incoming damage feedback, for example, really needs to be refined -- it's good enough to cover for many of ANTHEM's frustrations. It's just a terrible shame that everything surrounding the combat is either half-baked, poorly implemented, dreadfully boring, or any combination of the three.
And yes, that applies to the loot. One of the core pillars of any game where you're grinding out the same missions or scenarios in order to improve your character, loot needs to be desirable -- a carrot on a stick that you're happy to chase. The loot in ANTHEM is shockingly bare-bones, a lot of it amounting to nothing but icons on a menu screen that, when equipped, make numbers increase. There's no sense of progression because you're obtaining the same set of abilities and the same handful of weapons over and over again, just with marginally better stats each time. But hey, at least the Javelin paint customisation is in-depth.
The loot system, like just about everything else in ANTHEM, feels like it wasn't given the time to be properly developed. There's potential in all of the game's shortcomings, but none of it is realised.
Given time, ANTHEM could slowly start to bloom into a much more cohesive experience, but the worry is that it won't be given a chance. There's a good game in here somewhere, but only the flashy, satisfying combat stands out amongst a background mess of shockingly bad design decisions and woefully undercooked systems. ANTHEM feels unfinished and, frankly, undeserving of your time when there are much better live titles currently available on PS4. Check back in a year from now, and we might be onto something.