My squad mates and I are fighting through the Temple of the Scar, a treacherous dungeon full of skittering bug-men armed with frightening weapons. Wearing a well-armored Javelin — a suit of Iron Man-style armor — I put myself in the line of fire, protecting my friends as they lay down a return volley. I run forward, my shield equipped, and knock down our foes while a teammate flies through the air throwing shards of ice and calling down lightning.
My blood pumps as our coordinated attack makes short work of our enemies. Momentum on our side, we enter the dungeon’s last chamber to face its final boss, Scelos, a massive living tank. He defeats us on our first try, but we decide to give it another go. As my friends fall, I run to resurrect them. But the game breaks. My friends are dead, I can’t help them any longer, and there’s no way for us to finish. Those savage bug-men we had come to kill didn’t end our quest — software bugs did instead.
This is Anthem, BioWare’s new looter-shooter game for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC in which players take control of a mech called a “Javelin” and fly around shooting enemies and looting their gear.
From a gameplay perspective, it’s hard to mess up zipping around in a militarized mech suit, and Anthem nails it. The scenery, sound design, and core gameplay all click to deliver a pleasurable experience wherein you and your friends—or a group of random people—go on missions or explore a beautiful open world. The freedom of soaring through BioWare’s creation is thrilling. Players pick from one of four Javelins, each with a distinct play style: the jack-of-all-trades Ranger, the tanky Colossus, the ninja-like Interceptor, or the spell-casting Storm—and group up with three other people to kill enemies and achieve objectives. As you level up, you can upgrade your Javelin’s weapons, gear, and appearance and take on stronger enemies. It’s like Destiny 2 or Diablo 3 with flying mech suits.
But Anthem’s bursts of fun come in 15 minute chunks interrupted by bugs and bad design. Something as simple as changing weapons (an action that takes literally seconds in competitor Destiny 2) can take upwards of five minutes and several loading screens to accomplish in Anthem. And while BioWare’s storylines have historically been a highlight of the company’s games, Anthem’s narrative constantly interrupts the action. Dragon Age and Mass Effect are remembered fondly because of their stories. Anthem’s plot, a mismash of Star Wars and Dune, falls flat by comparison. In brief: You play as a “Freelancer” tasked with returning the Heart of Rage to stop the Monitor (an agent of The Dominion) from acquiring the Cenotaph and harnessing the power of the Anthem of Creation. If that seems like a lot of nonsensical proper nouns delivered without context, you’re not wrong.
Anthem dropped me into this lore soup in its opening moments, and never let me come up for air. It would be fine if I didn’t have to interact with it so much. Missions, especially early in the game, are brief, often ending in 15 minutes. Once they finish, I’d return to Fort Tarsis—Anthem’s hub—to spend 30 minutes talking to non-player characters, or NPCs. This meant wandering around and chatting when I’d rather be flying around doing battle. I could skip these conversations, but that meant missing in-game rewards and the chance to unlock extra missions. This was doubly frustrating when playing with friends. We’d do a mission, then spend half an hour in silence as we individually wandered Fort Tarsis talking to people. Long sessions of forced downtime is not what I’m looking for in a game that’s fundamentally about flying around in fancy suits and shooting space bugs. That might not be the most heady fare, but it’s what many players likely want from a game like Anthem.
Then there’s the matter of those software bugs. Over the course of 20 hours, the sound cut out five times, requiring me to restart the game. One friend spawned in a dungeon and got stuck behind an invisible door. He was unable to join us for the fight and dropped out of the game for the evening. Twice my friends disconnected from the game and logged back in to find they lost experience and gear.
BioWare, which promised to fix many of Anthem’s bugs, recently released a patch intended to do exactly that. After downloading it, a friend and I jumped into the game and played for a few hours, but stopped when a mission, the second in a three-part quest, failed to register as complete. We returned to Fort Tarsis and my teammate had to sit through yet more conversations and cutscenes. He decided to quit for the night. That’s how most of my Anthem sessions end, and it made it hard to have any fun with the game.
BioWare can, and will, fix Anthem’s bugs. But I don’t know if it can fix Anthem itself. Rocky launches are common — Destiny 2 arrived with game-breaking bugs, and some players spent the opening hours of Diablo III unable to log in. Six months after release, both of those games were in better shape, but they had a better core than Anthem. There’s a hint of a great game here. But even with more stable gameplay, it may prove tough to sing Anthem’s praises.