During yesterday's EA’s press conference for E3 (which seemed at times like an hour-long apology for microtransactions) we saw a bit more of Anthem, the upcoming shooter from BioWare. The sliced-together footage followed a multiplayer run through the jungles and rock-pools of the world, ending when the four "freelancers" in robot suits encountered a large insect who eats cameras. But I’ve been braving the LA sunshine and got to see an unedited (or rather, less-edited) version of the same level. I didn’t get to play it, sadly. But I did get to see what happened to that big insect after the camera cut out. They shot it. A lot.
Yes, the bullet-sponginess and number-hosing of Destiny is strong with this one, or seems to be. Much of the “hands-off demo” I saw only confirmed that Anthem is closely following the template set by Bungie’s shared-world shooter. Drop into a fantastical universe and get suited, booted and shooted with friends, all while a story happens in the periphery. During EA’s press conference, the developers enthused that story was more important to Anthem than simply offering background to a series of dungeons. But the dialogue of the cutscenes and chatter during the mission itself suggests that it again follows Destiny, right down to the impenetrable lore nonsense and silly nomenclature. It’s still not clear what an “Anthem” is.
The cast features Stompy, Stormy, Nippy and Ordinary. Okay okay, Colossus, Storm, Interceptor and Ranger. These are four classes of exosuit, or ‘Javelin’ in the game’s parlance, each with different abilities. Stompy can use a big shield for cover, or charge through mines with the shield up to avoid damage, while Stormy harnesses extra-powerful blasts of electrical damage in exchange for a weak suit (the gang’s “glass cannon”, says our demo's commentator, who explains the stuff happening on-screen and encourages the four EA employees hidden in shadows with controllers). Meanwhile, Ordinary the Ranger can use cryo grenades to freeze enemies, and Nippy’s speciality hasn’t yet been fully explained. She didn’t feature in the demo at all but she looks fast and she’s called “Interceptor”, so it’s not hard to imagine the possibilities. You can swap suits and aren't stuck with one class for the whole game.
The demo was about 80% identical to that of the press conference, but it included more moment-to-moment gunning, along with some explanation. This mission (to disable a warbling relic of the dead gods) was chosen from a map menu, accessed aboard a giant walking robot, called a Strider. For a moment it looked like this Strider might be a place where you can walk around and chat to people in first-person. But it’s unclear if this is BioWare’s plan. For now, it’s a prepping zone. A fancy submarine on legs in which to customise your power armour and see the zoomed-in faces of story characters as they deliver foggy exposition. I can remember very little about the exchange of Proper Nouns between the playable character and her mate, but he smiled and walked with a cane and had a charismatic laugh, which I liked. Perhaps being thrown into an AT-AT and told to go kill some spikey monsters called “Scars” isn’t the best introduction to a fictional universe. So I’ll withhold judgement until I see how we’re properly introduced to this dishevelled, jargon-spouting but good-looking crew.
After that, it was out to trot around the jungle. We were shown how flying overheats your suit, but you can fly through waterfalls or dive into water to cool it down (although they don’t show what happens when you do overheat). In this way, you can fly for longer, Robert Stark-ing your way between cascades. The world that blurs past is a pretty, shining spectacle. Probably the most intriguing thing about the mission were its environments. Subaquatic caverns, towering slum-like structures, lush canyons. But even these remind me of Destiny and its careful positioning of stunning skyboxes, the wide-open level design, the tunnels full of gunk.
At one point we’re introduced to a fourth player (only three people have been playing so far). It’s an aside meant to demonstrate that even though this Stormy is far below the other players in level, she can still play with her higher-level pals without hindrance. According to BioWare, they’ve engineered it so players of any level can group together with nobody being “carried”. New players can team up with veterans, and they'll appear to do the same amount of damage.
With the full team now jet-setting through the wilderness, we got to see how you can do mega-damage when combining attacks with team mates. A bunch of baddies frozen by a cryo grenade are vulnerable to a mortar barrage, for example. Likewise, an electroshocked gang of enemies make good bullet receptacles. But then again, everything does, and we are rewarded with huge bouncing numbers pouring out of whatever creature your besuited heroes are busy killing. I’m not sure where this trend came from (Borderlands?) but it seems a bit pointless when every alien crabman already has a visible health bar, not to mention that it crowds an otherwise fetching world of monsters and waterfalls with clusters of large, ugly digits.
The Destiny vibe grows ever louder with each new feature we see. It follows the exosuits everywhere. When one of them collects a bit of lore from a nearby glyph on a cavern wall, when they shoulder their “legendary” weapons, when they pick up glowing loot from felled enemies, when they do silly emotes to one another on the rim of a gaping void, and especially when they enter that deep hole and get into a final fight with a bulbous health bar of a boss.
The big insect has weak points, and is quickly set on fire by a Stompy of the squad, one of the four hired hands intrepid enough to carry a flamethrower. But big insect no like fire. It scurries away and summons a mob of lesser spiders, who rush in and nearly overpower the Javelinists. Or, it probably just seems that way. The commentator is very animated and concerned that the lead player we're watching might die, and indeed the life bar of our hero soon flashed “low”.
But then she was struck several times in this state without dying, so I suspect this moment of danger was faked for our benefit. Faux demonstrations like this only make me cringe. Far from being a let-down, it would have been helpful to see what happens when a player is killed, since that is such a common occurrence for players. Do they have to wait for a respawn? Can they be revived? Do they lose anything apart from time? As it stands, we were just shown our hero healing herself in the nick of time, which involves picking up red-coloured health packs. No recharging health bar here.
Finally, the big creepy crawlie reappeared and the team whipped out their big guns and started blasting it in earnest, our hero finishing the demo with a massive volley from a powerful cannon – the ultimate move of her Stompy suit. The other suits have their own ultimates, but we didn’t get to see what they involved. In any case, the creeper was dead, and the demo was over.
Overall, it was a flashy demonstration of firepower that I felt I’d seen before (and not just because I'd basically seen the highlights, thirty minutes prior). As an aside, BioWare’s shift from a developer that exclusively tackles ‘guns and conversation’ to one making a ‘shared-world shooter’ seems to have been so strenuous that it has changed their logo. But judging from this show of force and jargon, it might also have changed the company’s internal organs, the BioWare you know for its alien dating sims seems further and further gone the more we learn of Anthem. But it might also just be a change of font. Fonts change, you know.
The demo was carefully choreographed, as these things often are, and importantly I didn’t get to feel the weight, speed or responsiveness of the robolancers for myself, a feeling which will ultimately determine whether or not fighting giant spiders as a mini-mech is any fun or not. Ardent fans of Destiny will often admit that they glaze over the game’s shallowness because “it feels good”. And I suspect that if the jetpacking and Scar-blasting feels good here then many will forgive Anthem’s apparent derivativeness. I’m less certain they’ll forgive its tale-telling. But this is BioWare. Not BioWare.
Anthem is scheduled for release on February 22, 2019. Not satisfied with this preview? Here's everything we know about Anthem so far