There’s no denying it: From what has been shown of Anthem – the upcoming third-person open world Looter Shooter in development by Bioware and published by EA – looks nothing short of visually stunning. Every single bit of gameplay that has been shown by Bioware so far has left large swaths of gamers struggling to pick their jaws off the floor. Not only are there high-fidelity textures left and right, but the game moves like an absolute dream – trees sway and bob in the wind, flying insects buzz in circles, and the character and NPC animations are fantastical beyond compare.
In a recently released gameplay demo backed by developer commentary, the player is shown controlling a Titan – one of the four playable classes, and the tankiest and heaviest of the bunch. The game does a fantastic job of conveying just how heavy this mech-like suit of armor is with its sprint animation: Rather than simply running forward, plates of armor shift and spin to reveal a jet engine on the back of the suit, which fires up as the player takes large hefty steps forward.
That animation alone – the flame effects for the jet engine and animations of small shifts in the armor – must have taken Bioware’s design team at least three times as long to perfect as a standard spring animation would have. But they did it anyway.
If one allows themselves to be taken by the flow and pull of the game’s graphical mastery, it’s an enjoyable ride for sure. Flying looks great, the environment is interesting and creative, and the sound design is top – notch as well. But as soon as one begins to imagine themselves playing the game, and imagines themselves at a point where the graphical brilliance has turned from jaw-dropping to background noise, which might be one or two or four weeks into owning it… Some problematic questions start to arise.
I started to come to this realization while watching the aforementioned gameplay footage, which offers a long enough chunk of unedited video that users can probably get a reasonable feel for what the game will play like. And as I watched the footage for the third time, and started to look past the graphics, hunting for gameplay mechanics and details, I realized that Anthem’s actual gameplay seems…slow. Mind-numbingly slow.
There are a few factors that contribute to this feeling. The first is Anthem’s use of a free flight mechanic for world traversal. Many great open-world titles of the past have strayed away from giving players the option to fly, instead opting for pseudo-flight such as the glide / dive bomb system of the Batman: Arkham titles, the electric glide in Infamous, the jump-glide in Prototype, and the wingsuit flight of Just Cause and recent Far Cry games.
Aside from the obvious “Batman Can’t Fly” explanation, there’s a reason why many open world titles stray away from free flight: It’s not interesting. While your character soars across open grasslands, imagine a controller overlay in the lower-right side of the screen. The player is just holding forward. While it might look nice from a visual standpoint, it’s one of the more boring movement options available.
Then comes the gunplay, which also seems crazy simplistic. At no point in the video does the player character even attempt to take cover behind any sort of obstacle, nor can you see any of the other co-op partners tactically dashing around from behind objects. For the most part, they’re perfectly content standing in front of the enemies and trading damage values until one of them falls over. Compared to previous Bioware titles like Bioshock: Infinite, this gunplay can’t help but seem a bit outdated, almost like it’d be more fitting for an MMO than for a single-player RPG.
The boss battle is the best example of this. The gameplay demo cuts off halfway through this battle to make it seem like the boss was very threatening and very close to winning, but nothing we had seen during gameplay told us this. The boss was losing the whole time, and didn’t seem to come close to downing even one of the players, reducing the encounter to a bullet-sponge waiting game as all eyes drifted towards the big yellow boss health bar that was slowly trickling down. Geez.
Despite my pessimism, it is true that this gameplay demo was from the perspective of the Titan, the game’s tankiest – and slowest – class. It’s possible that the gameplay differences are huge enough between classes to drastically change up the pace of the game, and maybe the best parts of Anthem are still hidden away in there. There’s still a lot we haven’t seen.