Previews

High speed, low drag — Hands-on with Anthem at E3 2018

You know how game trailers say things like “Game Engine Footage” or similar statements, and you have that feeling in your gut that a game simply won’t look as good as whatever they are showing you. I felt that way about Anthem’s E3 2018 CGI trailer…until I played it.

Diving headfirst into a vastly-expanded version of the short demo put on at EA Play, I strapped into a Ranger Javelin (the powered armor exosuits that make up the ‘classes’ in the game) and immediately felt the rush of excitement, as well a sense of surprise at just how well a game house built on RPGs had done in creating what is, at its core, a very impressive third person shooter.

I was happy to see this game up and running at 4K resolution on a PC running a 1080TI graphics card. Better still, it seemed to be connecting to a live server already handling the heavy lifting for the game’s online services. With two developers in tow, myself and another journalist set off for about 45 minutes of hands-on time with the game.

From the word go, I couldn’t believe just how beautiful this game really looks. Trailers and on-screen demos don’t do the game justice, but sitting in front of a crisp monitor on a high-end PC showcased all of the incredible detail we’ve come to expect from Bioware Edmonton. From the moment I stepped foot on our Strider — a forward mobile base from which to launch missions (Fort Tarsis serves as a central hub in the game, though the team was tight lipped on whether there will be more), it was clear that the team was putting every ounce of energy into making this game the most beautiful game they’ve ever created. Of note, I found it funny that there were framerate hitches in the pre-recorded demo of the game, but there were none here — this game is already running smooth as glass.  Allow me to demonstrate…

Naturally, as this is a Bioware title, Lead Writer Cathleen Rootsaert and her team have built a living, breathing world for players to inhabit. While details are still admittedly brief, the long and short of it is that, in the very distant past, Gods called “Shapers” used an ancient technology to take control of the Anthem of Creation — a powerful device that allows its user to make entire worlds. For reasons unknown, the Shapers left the world unfinished, abandoned the Anthem of Creation, and disappeared. Living on this hostile world has been difficult, but salvaging Shaper tech has allowed the creation of the Javelin. Unfortunately, a group called The Dominion has nefarious plans for the Shaper’s tech, and between them and the indigenous life on this planet, there’s plenty of flora and fauna just waiting to tear you limb from limb.

From the second I left the platform, I jammed on the left thumbstick and took flight. What happened after that was the fastest 30 minutes ever. The team was very insistent that there are no ‘classes’ in the game — that is to say, you are not your suit. You are free to pick any of the four Javelins as the mission requires.

The four javelin varieties for launch.

Before I dove into the fray, I got a good look at the four Javelins and an idea of what role they fill. The Ranger is built as a versatile Javelin, created for up close and personal combat, with a great deal of agility and flexibility. A shoulder-mounted mini-rocket salvo capable of targeting multiple enemies serves as the Javelin’s Ultimate dishes out a tremendous amount of damage on a large variety of targets. The Frost Grenade freezes enemies in place, and when combined with the mini-rockets, additional damage is inflicted. I was also able to do a ground-smash with an electrically-charged stock stick of some sort, in true superhero fashion. The Ranger can also perform a dash move, as well as a ricochet shot, though I can’t say I had an opportunity to use the latter. The Colossus can carry a massive shield, deploy heavy weapons like the multi-mortar and railgun, and is generally devastating, but at a severe reduction in its overall mobility and speed. The Storm could be described as a multi-purpose support Javelin, able to not only cloak and teleport, but even use elemental attacks — you might even call it a mage class, though I’m not sure that’s accurate. The Interceptor is the fastest of the four Javelin suits, capable of flying and dodging at incredible speeds. I didn’t get a look at this class, other than in the trailer, but it looks like a bit of a glass cannon, relying more on its mobility than armor.

Scars and Villainy

The mission we undertook in our hands-on demo a group called the Scars have put together an acid-based super weapon, and our team is charged with going and breaking it into tiny pieces. The Scar camp is a massive base, mostly built ringing trees. What the Scars lack in technology, they make up for with ferocity. The gunplay in this mission felt right. Better still, despite the agency of motion, including free flight, the movement in the game felt right. I don’t know how many iterations of control schemes they had to run through, but it’s rare to pick up a game with this much freedom of movement and have the hang of it in a matter of minutes.

Following the acid trail lead us through rudimentary camps, modern ruins, and lush jungles. The verticality in the game made flight not only possible, but very necessary. It’s clear that flight wasn’t an afterthought. The Javelin has a certain amount of heat generated during flight and maneuvers, but a quick dip in the water kept me flying in my Ranger, raining hellfire as support for the Colossus below. Breaking through the treeline, I saw the first World Event — a titan who, on a single hit of a lobbed flaming boulder, nearly downed me. I took cover, but it was clear that, even with four of us, this guy was too much for our current level and gear.

While his minions are weak, this guy can take a lot of punishment.

Zipping into a nearby tunnel to escape the titan put all four of us into the water, our Javelins easily adapting to the underwater locomotion. Emerging from the water into an underground area, we found that the area was peppered with landmines. Naturally, we could simply fly over them, or we could have the Colossus run through them with the shield deployed. With ammo being somewhat plentiful, I donated a round to each mine and let them harmlessly explode.

Pushing deeper into the cavern, we finally find the Shaper relic — it looks like a giant speaker of some kind, and it is seemingly active, emanating echos from the Anthem of Creation — we’ll want to silence it. We make light work of the Scar presence, getting to see more of the possible weapon and power combinations that result in additional damage or secondary effects. Dispatching the Scar yields the Echo fragments, which we quickly gather up and deposit in a small relief at the base of the Relic. With a tremendous sonic boom, the Shaper relic is powered down, but it has also upset whatever creature lies beneath it — the likely source of all of the eggs we saw on the way into this cave. Continuing to follow the acid trail, we make our way into a nearby cave where a massive bug creature awaits. It turns out that the Scar weapon was not technological, but biological. Using every bit of skill I’d managed to learn in the last 30 minutes of gameplay, I raced ahead and peppered the beast (and any hatchlings) with rockets, grenades, and machine gun fire. With just a quarter of its health whittled away, the dreaded “Thank you for playing” screen signaled the end of my time. Nearly an hour of gameplay had flown by in the blink of an eye — the sign of a truly immersive and addictive experience that awaits all of us.

These are the guys desperately in need of your bullets directly to the face.

So what about loot and loot boxes?

Much and more has been said about loot boxes and their place in the gaming landscape. EA and Bioware have announced, and then confirmed once again at E3 that, while there will be lots of loot in the game, there will be no loot boxes that affect gameplay. They will stick to entirely cosmetic options, this time around. We didn’t get to customize our Javelins during our demo, so I can’t speak to the rarity of cosmetic drops, or how complex or detailed those cosmetic options are, but I did pick up a few random cosmetic items and weapons through my play time, for whatever that’s worth.

There will be plenty of loot, but no loot box gambling.

In my opinion, this changes the transaction from loot boxes to cosmetic and purchases. Since you know what you’ll be buying, there is no ‘gambling’ aspect to the transaction — a more fair approach. What these transactions will fuel (beyond the story mode, and whatever open world elements ship with the game) is the ongoing development of the title. Since EA and Bioware view this as an ongoing service (not unlike Sea of Thieves, as one example), they are promising updates for “years to come”. It’s very easy to see new Javelins, storylines, and world events being added fairly seamlessly based on what I played.

Despite coming in with some reservations, I came away genuinely impressed with the world Bioware has built. The combat felt visceral, and I’ve never felt more like I’m piloting a powered exosuit than I did playing Anthem. It snapped up a Best of E3 2018 nomination from Gaming Trend, and I am very excited to jump into this world with all of you so you can see why I’m so excited.

High speed, low drag — Hands-on with Anthem at E3 2018
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