Anthem mixes a bit of BioWare's signature storytelling with some familiar elements of shared-world shooters--and flying.
The best way to sum up Anthem, BioWare's online third-person shooter, is to call it a cross between Mass Effect 3 and The Division. On one hand, it's a lot like other, similar shooters: you'll team up with other players as you blast away at various creatures, causing numbers to fly off their bodies as you work to take them down, hoping to get newer, better guns for your powered Javelin mech suits. On the other hand, Anthem is definitely a BioWare game, even if it's a pared-back version of the more complex and story-heavy RPGs the developer is known for. Anthem hits a middle ground that can make it feel very similar to the games its competing against, while providing some things that are wholly its own.
BioWare recently gave GameSpot a chance to play the first few hours of Anthem at its studio in Austin, Texas, starting from the game's opening missions, as well as some late-game content. That gave us a pretty solid cross-section of what Anthem offers--from its team-based gameplay that feels a lot like the multiplayer of Mass Effect 3, to the way the game delivers story through conversations with its various characters, much like in BioWare RPGs of the past. We got the best sense we've had yet of what it'll be like to play Anthem, at least through the main story campaign.
Becoming A Freelancer
Here's how missions and activities go in Anthem. Starting in your home base of Fort Tarsis, you pick your Javelin, one of the four Iron Man-like mech suits at the center of the game's combat. Most missions start with you traveling to wherever the action is, guided by your Cipher Owen, a partner back at Tarsis who provides you with intel about the situation at hand. Javelins can fly thanks to their rocket boosters, although not indefinitely; eventually your suit will overheat, forcing you to wait for them to cool down. Strategically dipping through waterfalls and lakes, or diving straight down to increase airflow through your jets, can cool the suit down. Exploring Anthem is almost as much a part of the game as fighting in it, and there are lore drops to find and ruins and other secrets to discover out in the world.
Each Javelin type has its own strengths and weaknesses and work together in different ways. The Ranger is the middle-of-the-road class that specializes in single, high-power weapons like grenades and missiles, while the Interceptor is a faster, more agile Javelin that's good for close-range and melee attacks. The Colossus is a tank that lacks the recharging energy shield of other Javelin classes, which means it requires aggressively play and constantly grabbing health packs in order to be effective. Finally, the Storm generally floats above the battle, using elemental attacks to debuff enemies and aid other teammates.
All the Javelins also can carry two weapons, and you can equip a variety guns, from assault rifles to shotguns, rail guns, sniper rifles, pistols, and beyond. But in Anthem, shooting takes a bit of a back seat; using your Javelin's on-board abilities in smart ways is what combat is really all about.
In fact, the shooting portion of Anthem was sometimes a bit underwhelming, as the guns feel like generic shooter fare and never hit especially hard. Anthem's enemies are the sort of bullet-sponges that can make guns feel weak and ineffectual. It's clear that combining your different abilities together intelligently with other players is where BioWare wants you to put your effort in combat, and pulling off strategic moves with teammates to dominate the battlefield or escape a tough scrape is the best part of any fight.
Each Javelin has two abilities (on a controller, each is tied to a bumper button) that can be changed based on what you equip in your Javelin's four component slots. Grenades, missiles, and various other attacks can inflict status effects like freezing enemies or setting them on fire, and those effects can set up combos. Hitting an enemy "primed" by a freeze grenade with a missile, for instance, will "detonate" them, which can do bonus damage or pass the freeze status effect to other enemies.
The early part of the game demonstrated only easiest opportunities for combos, and they weren't especially exciting. As time goes on and you learn the strengths and weaknesses of each Javelin, though, the strategy of comboing looks to become a much bigger part of the game--it mattered a lot more, and was a lot more satisfying, in the high-level content BioWare demonstrated than the early stuff. BioWare told us a lot more about how progression and teamwork will come together in Anthem, especially late in the game.
The other thing Anthem's combat has going for it is its sheer speed and fluidity. At any given moment, you can hop into the air and activate your jets to go flying away from a losing situation, find a shady spot to recover your shields, or get a better angle on enemy weak points. Much has been made about Anthem's verticality in exploration, but flying is also a huge part of combat and what makes it feel fresh. For instance, a Storm Javelin will mostly hover over a battle, somewhat out of harm's way, to rain down elemental attacks on groups of enemies and help control the battlefield. At the same time, an Interceptor can dart in and out of combat, inflicting heavy damage and bugging out before things get to hot. In all cases, using flight effectively and strategically is essential to winning fights and staying alive.
We faced several different missions during our time in Anthem. Some concerned Shaper Relics--powerful alien technology left behind by the race that created the world of Anthem, but has since disappeared. Those missions usually included the kind of sub-objectives familiar from other shooters, like defending a fixed position while a timer ticks down, or gathering items and bringing them back to a specific location--all of which were fairly generic activities you're used to seeing in shooters like this. The fact that you can fly around huge arenas helps break things up, but apart from the underlying combat and flight capabilities, most of Anthem's missions are the kinds of activities players will be very familiar with completing by now.
Other missions had us facing off against the Scars, an insect-like race of angry aliens with whom humans share the world of Anthem. The more interesting enemies were the Dominion, Anthem's main antagonists. These guys are human soldiers led by a big scary Javelin pilot called the Monitor, and they include fighters who are more comparable to the player, with Javelins that let them fly and some of the elemental powers that you can use. Their goal: grab Shaper Relics and try to control the Anthem of Creation for their own ends. They're ruthless and well-armed with powerful technology, and stopping their ambitions is what most of the story in Anthem seems to be about. (We've got a lot more information on Anthem's story here.)
Fort Tarsis: Your Story Hub
When you're not fighting weird creatures or the Monitor and his minions in your Javelin, you're hanging out at Fort Tarsis, the frontier town you call home. Tarsis serves the usual functions of a post-mission hub, allowing you to talk with faction leaders to accept missions or work on your Javelin at a station called The Forge.
You also pick up new missions from people in the town, including your contacts in the game's various factions, like Brin, one of the Javelin-wearing town guards called Sentinels, or Matthias, a member of the Shaper scholars known as the Arcanists. Both will give you missions that allow you to increase your standing with their organizations, which lead to more missions and better rewards.
The town is more than a compendium of shops and quest-givers, though. It sports a number of characters with whom you can hold lengthier conversations of the sort that feel akin to BioWare's traditional RPG titles. Some of these are just rundowns of what's going on before your next mission, but a few let you get to know the characters of Anthem a little better. Conversations all include a few choices, too, which allow you to shape your responses and your Freelancer's personality, at least somewhat.
Spending time talking to Owen, the Cipher character, revealed some of the strongest writing in what we saw of Anthem, as we dug into his past and revealed more of his character. Owen's funny, amiable, and pretty complex--the kind of character BioWare fans will expect to see--and is likely destined to become a fan-favorite akin to the companions of the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series. But even talking to quest-givers gives Anthem a chance to expand on their characters and make them a little more interesting and relevant than the next contract they hand over.
Wandering around Fort Tarsis and engaging in some of these deeper, more involved conversations felt like Anthem's answer to Mass Effect's Normandy: it's a place where you hang out between missions and learn about the other character with whom you share Anthem. While you won't engage in anything like the deep conversations that make up other BioWare games, Fort Tarsis changes the feel of Anthem compared to games like The Division or Destiny 2 by making the story and its characters feel a lot more close and personal.
Gussying Up Your Javelin
Working through missions will earn you better gear for your Javelin, and as you reach the higher levels, you'll start to find guns and Javelin pieces that have special properties and change your loadouts. Bringing loot you find in the game back to the Forge in Fort Tarsis allows you to check it out and equip it, or salvage it for crafting.
You can play Anthem solo, but it's obviously built for teamwork. Combat incentivizes working together and bringing a variety of Javelins into any given situation, and there's also the Alliance system, which rewards you for playing with others. Whenever you play with other people, whether they're friends or randoms you group up with as you work through the game, the Alliance system passively awards you and anyone you play with Alliance experience points. Those points get tallied at the end of the week and converted into Anthem's in-game currency, Coin--so playing with more people earns you, and them, more money.
There's also a surprisingly large amount of customization possible when it comes to Javelins. You start the game with a variety of paint options you can apply to your Javelins that can make it look pretty slick and unique, and there are more customization options you can purchase in Fort Tarsis as well. Anthem will also include a premium currency you can purchase with real money, and that currency can be used on additional customization options. But BioWare has previously said that premium currency will only be for purchasing cosmetic upgrades, and that you'll never buy things like blind loot boxes--you'll always know exactly what you're getting when you spend real money.
Early play in Anthem was fun, if a little similar in some respects to a lot of what's already available in shooters like it, specifically in areas like mission objectives and gunplay. It's the late-game and endgame content that's the real question at this point. Our chance to play the high-level Stronghold BioWare showed off at E3 2018 suggested what Anthem can do when it really pushes players to work together and coordinate. But BioWare hasn't revealed much in the way of details about endgame or live content yet, and if there's one big concern about shared-world shooters, it's how well they'll be able to keep players engaged once the story campaign wraps up.
What we've seen of Anthem so far shows that BioWare's online shooter is pretty familiar, but the elements it adds to the formula might be enough to make it stand apart. Verticality and speed from flight in particular make combat feel different from many of the things that are out there right now, and it's more character-focused approach to storytelling has the potential to make its world much more engaging than lore entries in an in-game codex--although Anthem has those, too. Our time with Anthem shows that BioWare has the moment-to-moment gameplay down pretty well in the early going, and there are a lot of good ideas in the game that might be enough to let it carve out a space in a genre of persistent shooters--as long as it can keep people playing long-term.
Editor's Note: Electronic Arts provided GameSpot with travel and accommodations for its preview event.