The ANTHEM VIP Demo weekend was a train wreck. Any hype for the thing was quickly buried beneath a mountain of technical issues, from connection errors and constant lag to infinite loading screens and game-breaking bugs. That said, EA and BioWare had managed to straighten stuff out -- at least partially -- by Sunday, and so we were able to finally sink a number of consecutive hours into the demo.
But before we go any further, we need to remind everyone that this article is based solely on the VIP Demo, as if that wasn't already clear enough. Anything that you read here, be it praise or criticism, could be flipped on its head once the final game is out in February.
Now let's be honest, the ANTHEM "VIP Demo" wasn't really a demo, was it? Not in the traditional sense, anyway. If anything, it was a beta -- a clearly unfinished build of the game that crumbled within minutes of going live due to server stress. And even when it was working, our time with the "demo" was plagued by bouts of lag. Enemies would shoot at us and we'd only receive damage five seconds later. We'd watch as other players skated across the environment before teleporting into the air. There were even enemies that we simply couldn't kill because our attacks weren't registering.
We're going to give BioWare the benefit of the doubt here and say that the full release won't be as bad as this, but it's not just the technical failings of the demo that have us a little worried. There are structural elements to ANTHEM that have us scratching our heads, and design decisions that make us question its eventual quality.
First thing's first, we certainly don't think that ANTHEM's going to ship with the same level of polish as something like Destiny. You can say what you want about Bungie's loot shooter, but it's an immaculately presented game. By comparison, ANTHEM often feels janky, and it's awkward to look at. Enemies don't animate very well and you can sometimes find yourself getting caught on parts of the environment. The demo was noticeably rough around the edges, and truthfully, we don't see the finished product being a whole lot better.
There's also a real disconnect between what happens inside of Fort Tarsis (your hub area) and outside in the wilds. You experience the former in first person, and this is where you meet secondary characters. Being thrust into a different perspective once you're done with a mission is jarring enough, but Fort Tarsis feels so bland and weird. Most non-playable characters just stand around in the same spot -- there's no life to anything. You can engage specific characters in conversation and sometimes pick up new missions, but coming back to this eerily quiet hub after an action-packed outing is bizarre.
As for the conversations themselves, this is where BioWare attempts to cram some good old dialogue options into the equation. ANTHEM appears to be all action outside of Fort Tarsis, so this is where you're going to learn about your allies and supposedly shape your character's personality. However, the dialogue choices presented in the demo don't inspire much confidence. Most just seemed to be there for the sake of it, barely changing the outcome of the conversation, if at all. Maybe the full game will give you some options that carry weight, but we kind of doubt it. If anything, it seems like the dialogue choices are only in here so that ANTHEM has even a whiff of BioWare-style role-playing to it.
Speaking of BioWare, the Canadian developer has said numerous times that ANTHEM is playable solo, but it's always tempered that by reiterating that it's a co-op experience first and foremost. And yeah, it's a pretty accurate description based on what we've played. Going solo in ANTHEM is going to cause you headaches. Some enemies have shields or armour that make them an absolute pain to take down alone, often requiring a teammate to flank them if you're looking to fight efficiently. What's more, combos -- using special abilities to 'detonate' targets that are on fire, or poisoned, or electrocuted -- are obviously way more effective if you've got multiple allies firing off at the same time.
Fortunately for ANTHEM, this is where we start to talk about the things that we actually thought were pretty cool. The aforementioned combo system is fantastic fun, and watching all the pretty explosions is a treat. In fact, almost all of the visual effects in the demo looked especially impressive, even if they did make our PS4 Pro's fans kick into overdrive on occasion.
Gameplay-wise, it's easy to see ANTHEM's potential. It feels like BioWare has pulled the combat from Mass Effect: Andromeda (one of the most enjoyable parts of that game), tightened it up, and added a hefty dose of punch. Gunplay is surprisingly twitchy and satisfying, while special abilities recharge quickly, making it feel like you're constantly embedded in the action. Movement is great too, a mixture of weightiness and momentum-based agility that you'd expect when piloting a mechanical suit.
It's also impressive that you're able to call upon your ability to fly and hover at nearly any time, adding a unique feel to each encounter. Just having the option of leaping into the air and zooming away from danger is liberating, and levitating above creatures that primarily use their limbs to attack opens up a whole world of possibilities when it comes to combat tactics. All in all, it's damn good fun -- surprisingly damn good fun.
We've got mixed feelings on ANTHEM, then. The moment-to-moment gameplay shows clear promise, but it's everything surrounding it that's forcing us to be cautious. The hope right now is that the finished product, which launches in under a month, shows a dramatic improvement over what we've played. BioWare could well be onto something here, but it needs to be in a much, much better state come the 22nd February.
What did you think of the ANTHEM VIP Demo? Did you get to play much of it? What are your hopes for the game at launch? Hop in your Javelin and crash into the comments section below.