In Anthem, the new game from legendary RPG studio BioWare (Mass Effect and Dragon Age), you play as a mercenary/pest exterminator called a Freelancer in a world that has been ravaged by powerful ancient artifacts. These items, supposedly left behind when the gods who created this world disappeared, are able to alter the very fabric of reality by tapping into what’s called “The Anthem Of Creation” and doing weird stuff like creating monsters out of thin air or reversing the laws of gravity. In practice, though, the most important thing about being a Freelancer is that you get a goddamn Iron Man suit that lets you fly around like a rocket with the push of a button.
Launching yourself into the sky and navigating Anthem’s lush, beautiful world is consistently the most entertaining part of the game (and if last year’s Spider-Man hadn’t come out, it would easily be the most intuitive and satisfying system for 3D movement in decades), but the downside is that everything you do when you’re not flying around is significantly less engaging. We’ve only put a handful of hours into the game at this point, but in its early stages, the combat is fine (if a little simplistic), and the story is reasonably entertaining. Anthem is a multiplayer-focused game, and nearly every mission is either played with friends or an automatically assembled crew of other human players, but the issue is that you can either play for the story or play for the multiplayer camaraderie. You simply cannot do both, making this a game where characters are constantly talking directly to you and where you’re constantly flanked by three other Freelancers, and yet you often feel like you’re completely alone.
As far as the story in Anthem is concerned, you are the Freelancer. You’re the one who survived a failed mission in the prologue, you’re the one who everyone brings their most dangerous jobs to, and you’re the one who interacts with the extremely Darth Vader-esque villain who shows up from time to time. It’s not necessarily fair to compare Anthem to Destiny, but at least Destiny provides an in-universe explanation for why you’re going on adventures with other people. Hell, Destiny 2’s initial installation screen featured a highlight reel of everything you accomplished in the first game and who you accomplished it with. In Anthem, the fact that you’re going on missions with other people is never really acknowledged, at least in the first several missions (but they absolutely make an effort to establish a lore justification for the guy who sells you things for real-world money). It gives off the impression that you are the only person that matters, which is an odd feeling in a game where you’re paired up with other players so often.
In fact, the way the story is presented even fails to take into account that you might ever be with other people. During a mission, your character regularly radios in to your support team for updates and advice, meaning other characters are frequently talking to you about what’s happening and explaining what you should do next while you’re in the middle of flying or shooting. In order to pay attention to that stuff, you pretty much need to either play this multiplayer game by yourself or tell anyone you might be playing with to be quiet for a second. You’ll also occasionally find lore pop-ups throughout the world while on a mission, and reading them will require you to stop and sit for a moment while your teammates fight around you or fly on to the next area (often resulting in a very disruptive prompt about how you’ll be automatically teleported to where your team is if you don’t join back up with them, which would initiate one of the game’s many, very long loading screens).
Then there’s Fort Tarsis, the home base for your Freelancer and where most of the story movement actually happens. Unlike Destiny’s Tower, Tarsis is a single-player-only zone, preventing Anthem from further mucking up the already-mucked-up notion that this is your story. Also unlike Destiny’s Tower, Tarsis has other people in it who you can talk to and have meaningful-ish conversations with, as opposed to the other game’s personified vending machines. If you’re playing with random strangers in the missions (“randos” is the preferred term), then there’s no problem. You can do your Tarsis stuff at your leisure and then go back into the field with new strangers. If you’re with friends, though, everyone has to complete their own Tarsis errands on their own, which again turns a multiplayer game into a lonely experience. If the Tarsis stuff were awful or extraneous, it would be easy to recommend skipping every line of dialogue so you can get back to flying around as soon as possible, but the bastards at BioWare have done what they always do and filled the world with fairly interesting people who are actually kind of fun to talk to—even without the branching dialogue options that were once a BioWare staple.
The writing in BioWare games is often the highlight, and while none of the characters you meet in your first hours at Fort Tarsis are as intriguing as, say, Mass Effect’s Tali’Zorah, they still have more charm than the average non-player character in a shooting game. There’s the owner of what is apparently a cursed bar, the mechanic for your battle suit who seems to know just as much about witty banter as she does about weaponry, and a thumbs-up-loving sidekick-type who dreams of being a Freelancer like you, even though everyone else seems to recognize that he’s kind of a weirdo who could never make it. Talking to them means not talking to whoever you’re playing Anthem with, and vice versa, because Anthem never takes into account whether you’re truly by yourself or playing with people you want to play with.
The only obvious alternative would be something like the story in Destiny, which often requires the player to do their own legwork to read little blurbs in the menus or accept that the characters rarely have anything interesting to say. That system is far from ideal, though, and what Anthem does do is at least better suited to BioWare’s talents, but what’s here still doesn’t allow either the story or the fun of flying with friends to get their due. Perhaps the best way to experience Anthem is to mainline the story and then dip back into the non-story-centric missions with friends, but it remains to be seen just how viable even that will be. Unfortunately, as it stands now, Anthem seems like an online multiplayer game that can’t help but feel like a solo experience.