Anthem Open Demo Notes

2,134 words.

First! Wait, what? Other people have written about Anthem too? Oh. Oh well. I guess here’s another.

Roger basically wrote the exact same post that I did. In fact, I dare say most every reaction to Anthem I’ve seen from newcomers to the free demo weekend is basically the same: “It’s okay if you like that sort of thing, but it’s not for me.” That’s what this post is, so buckle up.

First I’d like to thank all the paying customers who tested the demo last weekend and worked out all the bugs so that I could play it with no problems for free *this* weekend. It seems entirely backwards that the diehard pre-ordering fans beta test the launch for the freeloaders, but I’m on the beneficial side of this equation so I’m not complaining too much. In fact I’m sort of chuckling about it. It’s just another reason why nobody should ever pre-order a game ever, especially AAA games.

I’d also like to thank BioWare for calling it a “demo” and not a “beta.” Nobody believes anymore that an “open beta” is actually intended as a last-minute chance to fix bugs before the game release. There might have been a time when that was true, decades ago, but now we all know from repeated experience of seeing studios utterly ignore all of our bug reports from the open beta (*cough* RIFT *cough* Elder Scrolls Online *cough*) that it’s really a load test run for the network engineers, but mostly a marketing opportunity to increase sales. BioWare is now admitting that’s exactly what it is, and I salute them for it.

Anyway, this peek at the free demo continues my tradition of trying the latest, greatest hotness that all the cool MMO kids are playing, even though I’m pretty sure I have a good idea of what kind of game it is already and little intention of buying it, and in fact had already declared it mostly dead to me. Previously I did this with Overwatch (still waiting for that sale), The Division, and Destiny 2 (which I still haven’t played a second time even though I downloaded the free giveaway).

Pre-Demo Thoughts

This a little bit about what I expect from Anthem before I actually download and play the demo (I haven’t yet read anyone else’s reviews of the VIP demo, by the way): I expect a beautiful environment with beautiful models and animations, so screenshots and videos will be gorgeous. I expect combat that feels nearly identical to what we saw in Mass Effect Andromeda, because I imagine it’s the same code base (I enjoyed ME:A combat so this is a plus). I expect an entirely superfluous story that doesn’t matter in the slightest. I expect boring gameplay that is recycled from Destiny, Defiance, The Division, and every other game that starts with a “D” out there. I expect not to be impressed in the slightest. I expect the most fun component of the gameplay will be the social fun of spending time with friends, which will conveniently hide the faults in the game itself.

Post-Demo Impressions

My expectations were largely met. Anthem is okay. It’s the kind of game you play with muscle memory and reflexes. It’s the game you play after a hard day when you just want to hang out with friends and don’t want to think anymore. It’s a summer blockbuster popcorn game. There’s a huge market for that kind of game, but I personally got bored in about an hour.

What follows is a random series of observations, mostly for posterity. I’m sure you’ve heard all of this before. But I tried to be specific with these observations.

Most modern games can’t seem to figure out the optimal way to run on my system. They start in a window, or they start in some weird resolution. Anthem was no different. It chose to start by running on my second monitor instead of my main monitor. Bravo. Great first impression.

The combat is nearly identical in look and feel to Mass Effect: Andromeda, which is not surprising since I believe it’s the same game engine. I liked ME:A combat better though, because it had a really cool cover mechanic. There is none in Anthem that I saw.

Flying controls are incredibly weird with mouse and keyboard. It’s a two-key combo to get into the air, which is more complicated than I expected, and does not follow previous jumpjet traditions. Moving around in the air felt bizarre. I pretty much pile-drove myself straight down into the ground almost every time. (Which fortunately doesn’t hurt, go figure.) I imagine most of the learning curve in Anthem will be learning how to fly straight, and that will be what separates newbs from veterans (and probably what separates people who like to play from people who don’t).

Most of my flying experience looked like this.

Besides the weird flying, the overall game felt sluggish to me. I was running at 2560×1440 with “high” quality, which could very well have been more than my PC can handle for this game. The motion blur looked extreme, which usually indicates it’s struggling to keep up. If I were trying to play it competitively, I probably would have backed it down to 1920×1080 and Medium quality. (My graphics card is a GeForce 1070.)

I didn’t play with anyone else and didn’t even see anyone else in the game. It was great. Unfortunately the game seemed balanced to be played with a squad of four. Playing through the content by myself was pretty tedious. I played the Triple Threat mission on Normal difficulty and got killed toward what I assume was the end, and that’s when I stopped playing. I felt no desire to try again. I didn’t know why I was even doing the mission, or what I would get at the end. (Even though I died and abandoned the mission, I still got rewards for some reason. Then I accidentally salvaged the cool new gun they tried to give me.)

I didn’t like that the game yelled at me twice for trying to play a private mission by myself. “This game is better with people!” it tried to tell me. It implored and begged for me to open my mission up to a group, leaving out the part that their matchmaking system undoubtedly depends on public missions to more quickly and efficiently put people together, so nobody will complain about how slow the queues are. They didn’t say it outright, but it was strongly implied that everyone who plays private matches should be ashamed of themselves for hurting others. Whatever. If you don’t want solo players, don’t give me the option. Don’t yell at me for selecting an option that’s available in your game.

None of the NPCs jumped out at me as interesting characters. Dialog was boring, and dialog options were very limited. (I didn’t like having to *hold down* 1 and 2 to select the dialog option. It left long gaps of silence in every conversation, which would drive me insane if I were trying to *record* the game. NPC: “Hi! How are you doing?” *long silence* Me: “Fine! How about you?” NPC: “I’m great, say you want to do this mission?” *long silence* Me: “You know it! Let’s rock!”)

The story in this mission is basically, "Want to make your Javelin suit cooler?"

Certainly *my* character was not interesting, with his Generic Robotic Male Voiceover Voice #47. He didn’t say very much in my hour of gameplay. Presumably the real game will have a more coherent story, but nothing in this demo made me want to buy the game to see that story.

Weirdly, the first location I entered into the game was dead silent with no sounds whatsoever. No ambient sounds, no sound effects, no voices, nothing. I thought it was bugged until I started walking around a little bit and found people to talk to. It was pretty off-putting, because sounds are very important to me in a game. It turned out that *all* the sounds were pretty quiet, which is a trend in newer games. Mass Effect: Andromeda had the same issue. But most AAA games in the last three or four years tend to use a whole lot more dynamic range than before, unfortunately emulating movies where voices and speaking tend to be about the middle of the dynamic range, while the explosions max out the volume and explode your speakers.

Combat during the Triple Threat mission got boring. It’s just a shooting gallery. Enemies pop up, shoot them, run forward, more enemies pop up, a little stronger, shoot them, run forward, more enemies, even stronger weapons and shields, more shooting, over and over again, presumably until the end of the mission. You get the knack for dealing with each new type of enemy in about 10 seconds, and it never changes after that. As a solo player, it gets tedious and seems to go on forever. This is why it’s clear the game is balanced for group play: I imagine with a group of four players, that feeling would disappear as you can probably just mow down the enemies without even breaking stride, and that’s probably what the norm is meant to be. (Considering there’s no cover mechanic, you’re clearly not meant to stop at any point.)

As for the strategy and tactics of the combat, it’s all point-and-shoot. The enemies did not seem particularly smart or challenging to me. They were all faceless non-entities with no character. Occasionally guys would sneak around behind me. There was one jumpjet dude who hovered in the air and dodged to one side, that was it. The difficulty of the enemies seems to derive from the number of them, and the strength of their shields and weapons. There’s a fair bit of “bullet sponge” feel.

There was a lot of terrain and scenery in the map, but as seems to be the norm for all these newer games, none of it is interactive, and it might as well not be there. You can’t cut down trees, you can’t pick berries from bushes, you can’t pick up debris, all you can do is look at the high quality 3D model that some artist made, and wonder how much it’s dragging down your frame rate during the fighting. Since the scale of the map is fairly large, you have to run through a lot of that terrain, and it felt like long stretches of running through empty area to the next objective. It *looks* like it’s full, because of all the high-detail models stuffed in there, but it’s still basically empty territory. There’s no reason to stop and look at anything, is what I’m saying. I had the same feeling from The Division and Destiny 2 actually. Lots of detail, but no interactivity.

The jumping bugged me, just like it did in Mass Effect: Andromeda. There’s a very subtle “hitch.” You tap the spacebar, there’s a slight pause while an animation plays, then you jump. I feel like it’s there to try to keep people from bunny-hopping, which is a nice goal, but it’s annoying for people who like responsiveness.

None of these little nagging issues are apparent when you *watch* the game. It looks beautiful and perfect on playback, with no sign of sluggishness or delays when jumping. Undoubtedly this is a major goal of game studios now in the Twitch era. I imagine there are whole teams now in AAA studios who don’t even touch the code, whose only job is to simply sit in a room and watch what the game looks like on a screen, and send notes back to the development team. Personally I’m not a big fan of sacrificing the feel of the game controls for a visual aesthetic.

Oh, one last thing: I normally use a Motorola Bluetooth keyboard these days, because the keyboard action is really fast and light and easy on my delicate finger joints. Unfortunately it didn’t work very well with Anthem. There was a noticeable lag in responsiveness, which I’ve not experienced in any other game. I had to use my big wired USB Corsair gaming keyboard, which was a giant cheap plastic waste of money, but the keys worked. (Did I ever write about that keyboard? I don’t remember. It’s the K55. Don’t buy one. It’s very expensive for the same build quality as any cheap plastic off-brand keyboard.)

Overall, it was okay. Definitely not a must-buy for me and probably most solo players. It’s not a major leap forward in gaming, it’s basically a mod for Mass Effect: Andromeda. But if you’ve got a group of friends to play with and money to burn on cosmetics, it’s probably fine.

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