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Anthem Hands-On Preview: Plenty of Polish with Sky-High Potential

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Even though there's just several weeks left to go before Anthem officially releases to the public, there's a good chance that many players may not know just what to expect once it goes live. Luckily, we here at Game Rant were recently given the chance to go hands-on with a lengthy preview of the title during a press event at EA headquarters, and the experience afforded us with a better understanding of the action-RPG's core mechanics, its hub world, the kinds of missions players will take on, and much more.

On a cursory level, Anthem can be described as a shared-world shooter in the vein of Destiny or The Division, as it allows one to team up with other players to obtain loot and get better gear by blasting and bombing enemies with the use of different Freelancer character loadouts. Those who delve into it a little deeper, though, should find that BioWare's ability to craft beautiful fantasy and sci-fi environments still exists, as does the developer's propensity to deliver solid story elements and world-building, albeit in truncated and jumbled forms. With this in mind, Anthem is usually able to walk the line between familiarity and uniqueness, which ought to help it find an audience all its own, and perhaps even woo longtime players of its competitors.

Run and Gun, Fly So High

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The most important aspect of any game is how it plays, and BioWare has managed to nail Anthem's most-used mechanics of traversal and combat–particularly when it comes to flying–as the core action elements feel great overall. Running, dashing, dodging, and jumping are all present, and the flight controls are incredibly intuitive, with players being able to take to them with relative ease, as soaring through the open world in the game's Javelin suits will become second nature in no time. What's more is that there's actually a skill component involved with flying, as using the Javelin's jet pack propulsion system for too long will cause the suit to overheat and drop players to the ground like a sackful of dumbbells. In order to counteract this, a deft mixture of diving and swooping upward, along with flying through waterfalls will cool the suit down and keep it running in tip-top shape.

Gunplay also performs well for the most part, with Anthem offering players a veritable armory of weapons, be it pistols, rifles, machine guns, and grenade launchers. While there's not a lot of nuance to be found in the way the firing feels between a gun type's variants–we typically found ourselves opting for the gun with the biggest overall value number attached to it, anyhow–each of the firearms available tend to deliver sound, satisfying shooting. On top of this, the game's four Javelin classes–that is, the more rounded Ranger, the quick and ninja-like Interceptor, the elemental magic-wielding Storm, and the heavy-duty wrecking ball Colossus–all are fun to experience, and each stand out in their own way with things such as distinctive grenades, missiles, and class abilities. Also, the Javelins can each equip special gear that lets them dish out more powerful attacks or retain better defensive specs, and doing battle builds up a unique Ultimate Ability for each class that can clear a huge wave of baddies and decimate most enemies in an instant. It definitely seems as if BioWare has given a lot of thought to each of the Javelin designs in order to provide a slew of ways in which players can master them.

Missions, Side Quests, and Freeplay

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During our preview with Anthem, we tried out a few story missions, completed Contract side quests, and dove into Freeplay action. Before taking these on, players will start out at the home base of Fort Tarsis, pick their unlocked Javelin of choice, and then select the activity of their choosing prior to launching into the expedition. Throughout these endeavors, Freelancers will be guided by their buddy named Owen Corley, a cypher and crew member who provides various levels of charm, wit, and intel for the situation at hand.

Some of Anthem's early missions were somewhat repetitive, as they required the following of map markers for the retrieval of an item, the protection of a certain object or area, or the saving of an important person, all while clearing out lots of samey bad guys throughout the process. For instance, The Lost Arcanist mission tasks players with rescuing Matthias, a researcher of Shaper relics and artifacts, and throughout the undertaking, it became a routine cycle of taking out Scar enemies and finding a clue to the next destination, with there being a rinse-and-repeat rhythm until the end. This is to be expected from a game of the looter-shooter variety, so thankfully, BioWare has peppered the title with different modes. Freeplay, on the other hand, doesn't offer any mission markers and just lets one roam the the open world and take on enemies to their heart's content, which provides a decent way to break up the occasional monotony of grinding out missions and Contracts.

Gimme the Loot, Gimme the Loot

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At the end of each mission in Anthem, players are given XP for their efforts, with the points being doled out based on one's performance, be it through efficacy in combat or by knocking out different mission beats such as finding a hidden artifact, solving a puzzle, unlocking a doorway needed to move into the next area, etc. The differences in XP are often slight, though, so there's rarely a competition between players to be top dog. Also, all loot is personal, so players don't have to worry about grabbing it before anyone else when it drops. More often than not, though, we wound up garnering lots of low-tier levels of gear that had already been acquired previously, so there's a chance for disappointment on that front. Even so, unwanted items can always be scrapped for resources.

It's worth noting that players won't know what kind of gear they picked up in Anthem until a given activity is completed, as it will just be labeled "Uncommon" or "Rare" before then. This type of rarity system for gear will be applied to weapons and armor boosts, as well as suit abilities and modifications, but one must wait until they're in The Forge to be able to equip any of it. Unfortunately, players can't customize or re-equip their Javelin suits with items while in Freeplay or on a mission, requiring one to commit to a certain class build prior to embarking on a journey. As previously mentioned, though, there's a wide range of modifiers to choose from and apply to slots of a given suit, which provides a lot more freedom for class builds that games like Destiny don't offer. And speaking of customization, players can also personalize their Javelins with a swathe of different color palettes and texture overlays. In fact, many people at the event were able to turn some of the Javelins into convincing replications of Marvel's Iron Man and War Machine suits with the tools given.

So the Story Goes

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While completing missions, finishing Contracts, and gathering loot are fine experiences in most cases, the overall structure of Anthem and its narrative is disjointed. Fort Tarsis will be the primary area in which players receive the majority of the game's story content, but there's a limited number of storefronts and quest-holders who offer the chance for interactivity and campaign plot points. In fact, a lot of the deeper, and more interesting tales take place in decentralized spots of the hub world, with players needing to seek out different NPCs asynchronously placed on the outskirts of the map to receive a high-quality dose of BioWare's penchant for world class character-driven story content. Alas, the conversation system is lacking in that it only offers players two choices for dialogue options, and the branching dialogue paths given are often superficial.

With the main thrust of Anthem's story being accessible in seemingly random spurts, it's difficult to determine exactly how one should approach the campaign in order to get the clearest picture of what exactly is going on in the game's world. Not to mention, a lot of what is supposed to be important story beats gets lost in unintelligible jargon, with characters who harbor key plot points often talking at the player instead of to them. Generally speaking, conversations with NPCs have a tendency to cause one's eyes to glaze over and have players hitting the skip button, while most of the cutscenes are treated like glorified info-dumps. There are codex pieces littered around Fort Tarsis to fill in story gaps and help shape the universe with additional lore, but these will likely be appreciated by only the most dedicated lore nerds. BioWare has promised that the game has been designed so that story content will be added for years to come, so one can only hope if the main campaign isn't fully fleshed out at launch that DLC will supply a more comprehensible idea of the narrative.

Presentation Is Key

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Beyond its playable elements, the game itself looks absolutely gorgeous, with the build we played having an output of smooth, stable frame rates to boot. Plus, it appears as if BioWare has learned its lesson from Mass Effect: Andromeda's janky facial animations, with Anthem's characters speaking and reacting realistically, and moving fluidly like an actual person should. The sound effects and musical compositions all sounded crisp, clear, and enjoyable for the most part, too, save for the one instance of audio cutting out completely in our headsets for a brief period. Granted, everything was running on a high-end PC, so those on PS4 and Xbox One will likely end up receiving differing degrees of graphical and audible fidelity.

Sadly, there were still some bugs and glitches, with various enemies occasionally remaining on-screen and gliding around for a short time after being defeated. On top of that, there was one instance where we spawned into a mission without the ability to equip a gun, which obviously made combat a less than stellar experience. Nevertheless, it's safe to presume that BioWare will be putting in a lot of extra effort to squash as many remaining bugs as possible before release, so the issues we encountered may be nonexistent come launch day.

The Bottom Line

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Based on what we played during the preview event, there's no doubt that Anthem has loads of potential, and could very well draw in a devoted core audience rivaling that of Destiny's, especially if BioWare is somehow able to imbue the title with a slobber-knocker of a story on par with some of its previous efforts and have meaningful endgame content. There's plenty to admire in Anthem at this point, but there's always the possibility that the end product falls short of player expectations and the studio's ambitions.

All things considered, anyone who is even the slightest bit interested in Anthem would do well to give the game's forthcoming open demo a try once it goes live next month. Those who pre-ordered will be able to play the VIP Demo this weekend, so make sure keep those ears open and eyes peeled to see how the Anthem community as a whole reacts to what BioWare has cooked up with its latest project.

Anthem is scheduled to release on February 22, 2019 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

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