If the game has anything to say about it, in the future we’ll all be freelancers — gun-toting, assignment-chasing warriors. In “Anthem,” Freelancers are contracted by different people living in fortified human settlements to lead expeditions into a dangerous frontierland. Scattered about the world, which is largely a mystery to its human inhabitants, are the artifacts from a long vanished, advanced civilization speculatively called the Shapers. Shaper artifacts can tap into a source of world-altering energy known as The Anthem of Creation. The baddies want to gain control of the Anthem so they can become overseers of life and death, invention and annihilation — you know, the usual stakes for a big budget sci-fi game.
It was with Shaper technology that people created Javelins — armored exosuits which freelancers use to explore the untamed frontier. Javelins come in four varieties: The Colossus, Ranger, Storm and Interceptor. They can fly until their engines overheat and require time on the ground or immersion in water to cool off. Each of them has distinct qualities. The Colossus is heavily armored but slow, the Storm and the Interceptor are fast and lightly armored, and the Ranger strikes a balance between toughness and maneuverability. Though I found each of the classes fun to play, I particularly enjoyed how the Colossus’s handheld shield made it great for venturing into hairy situations to revive fallen comrades, and the Storm’s ability to hover in the air for lengthy periods was well-suited to sniping.
Expeditions take place over a verdantly terraced landscape filled with waterfalls, caverns, crags and valleys. Threading one’s way through a network of geological curiosities should be an unmitigated delight owing to “Anthem’s” snappy flight mechanics. Yet all too often, while running missions with other players, I’d find myself waiting for my character to re-spawn to a different point on the map because I’d edged outside of where I was supposed to be. Of course, in an open-world game you don’t want players to become too separated from each other, but in “Anthem” your co-op partner can just about turn a corner right in front of you and the next moment you’d be staring blankly at a loadscreen.
“Anthem,” like “Destiny,” from which it borrows heavily, has been designed to keep players engaged over an extended period of time. There are daily, weekly, and monthly challenges based around different activities and perks that only unlock after one has sufficiently leveled up, such as the ability to play through missions at higher difficulty levels to obtain prized items.
When one is not running missions with other people or exploring the frontier in freeplay mode, a player can wander around Fort Tarsis. In this human settlement you can talk to people, look for new contracts (or missions), and upgrade and switch between Javelins via a station called the Forge. (If you’re like me, you’ll come to loathe the loadscreens entering and exiting it.) In Fort Tarsis one can access the game’s store and spend real money on cosmetic upgrades for Javelins. In fact, among the first people you see after exiting a Javelin into Fort Tarsis are merchant NPCs standing next to stores which can lead you down the path of microtransactions.
“Anthem’s” most serious problem is that its multiplayer component is at odds with its narrative presentation. For a game designed around co-op missions, it does an awful job of considering how people take in information. To gain contracts and advance the story, players must chat with NPCs in Fort Tarsis. However, Fort Tarsis is not a shared space, so a group of people playing together won’t know what’s happening in other’s Fort Tarsis. In a game like “Destiny,” where the hub world is shared, you can see your friend talking to an NPC or you can arrange to meet back at a spot after you’ve taken care of your chores. Because “Anthem” opts to put a huge chunk of its narrative into an asynchronous hub area, playing it with other people can be awkward.
“Sorry man, I’m in a conversation,” just about developed into a meme for me and the friend with whom I played much of the game. Playing “Anthem” with a friend, I felt a natural pressure to hurry through the narrative moments so I could stop saying when I could and couldn’t talk. Playing it solo was very different. As a solo player I was able to appreciate the little quirks of the characters and the exuberant voice acting. I can’t help but feel that “Anthem” wants me to play Fort Tarsis alone and the rest of the game with my friends.
It is not a game that provides a holistic experience. It is a game that provides flashes of high quality action but, at present, is so hobbled by flaws that one can only hope it will be patched into a better state in the coming months.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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