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Touching the Sky: My Weekend with the Anthem VIP Demo

So BioWare’s new game “Anthem” is right around the corner.  By that I mean releasing at the end of the next month, but hey, I just got done waiting thirteen years to fight a cranky old man along side Mickey Mouse, so what’s a month?  Originally, I was very much in the ‘wait and see’ camp on Anthem.  It was one of those concepts that easily could be plagued by excessive and near predatory microstransactions (still could honestly given that the demo priced everything at 25 coins – the in-game currency – and the recent habit of patching in microtransactions after the metacritic reviews are in) or honestly it could have just gone the way of Fallout 76 and been a confusing mess of lack of content.  Trust me, I love Minecraft, I get the ‘Make Your Own Fun’ concept, but I only have so many hours in the day to play a game and so many games to play.

However, all that changed when @Naithin on Twitter hit me up after a conversation about the game and offered me one of his Friend Passes to the recent VIP Demo of the game.  Well, how was I going to say no to THAT?

After some finagling with the weird fact that after SWTOR merged their accounts with EA Accounts, I have two different ones (pain in the butt process made simple by just moving around some email addresses it turned out), I was able to get into the Demo and give it a whirl.  I tried everything I could – all four javelins (the robot suits), all types of content, and just generally messed around a bit.  But first of all, let’s talk about the elephant in the room:

Yes, the demo had issues.  I don’t know the full extent of them, but on the PS4 I ran into the Infinite Loading Screen where the game just stops loading at 95%, I had the sound cut out to my entire PS4 at one point until I closed the game entirely, a few random disconnects where I was kicked out of whatever content I was doing and back to Fort Tarsis – the main single player hub area, and my favorite one: Opening the map while respawning that made it so I couldn’t close the map.  That one was just funny.  And no, I didn’t rage over any of these. Even the Infinite Loading glitch. My own personal views going into this demo is that this was very much a “Soft Opening” for the game.  Open things up, let people play some, figure out what major quirks pop up so you can address them before the REAL opening and let the world in.  So I expected issues.  I got issues.  Now if these same issues crop up on launch day at the end of February?  Then you might see some rage.  Or at least a few snarky comments.

But you don’t want to hear about the problems with running the game.  That’s all anyone has talked about since and during the demo.  How WAS it?  Well, let’s break it down shall we?

Story

There wasn’t much of it in the demo sad to say.  Mostly just one short mission chain where you find a “Shaper Relic” and it leads to hijinks splitting the local scientist into three aspects of himself with different personalities (Am I the only one who thought this was a Power Rangers Zeo call back?  Trey from Triforia?  No one?) and you have to help solve it before they melt into goo.  It’s a fun little story and the writing is really entertaining.  While there wasn’t a lot of lore or indication of what the overall plot of the game will be, it does highlight that Bioware still very much has the touch when it comes to fantastic, fun, and engrossing character dialogue.  In these short little bursts of story, I felt like I really got to know these people and actually liked listening to them chat and chime in during the missions.

Missions

The story sends you on on these missions to do specific things in specific places.  There’s usually 2-3 different areas you’ll go, usually flying between them in your Javelin, and then there’s some manner of combat or a puzzle to solve.  Now, I found most of these pretty fun.  But there is seriously a wide range of difficulty within the mission itself.  The game gives you the option of six different difficulties of play – 3 are locked until you reach max level which is apparently 30.  But even then, the story missions would wildly swing from easy going fun to tedious uphill battle where you are constantly repairing allies and facing down small armies of spawned enemies.  Ultimately with one, I gave up on fighting the constantly spawning waves and flew up to a pillar of rock where I just sniped the boss over and over until it dropped and ignored all the enemies.  But that isn’t always an option.  But it might have been a level issue, a gearing issue, the fact that all four of us (the game just automatically matchmakes you with a group. I couldn’t find a ‘solo’ option anywhere.) where using the Ranger javelin with more or less common quality gear.  Who knows.  It honestly felt like with one mission, the big bad was supposed to spawn X number of adds after losing Y% health.  So if you pop your ultimate ability and drop him say… 4 times Y%, it would just spawn four waves at once.  But that was just my in-the-heat-of-battle observation.  Or my waiting to respawn observations.

Oh yea.  There are Respawn restricted areas, where the only way to respawn is to be repaired by an ally or the whole group to wipe.  The only indication of this is a small flashing pop up when you enter the area for like 2 seconds.  Other than that, nothing.  Even worse, if you die, it still shows the RESPAWNING IN 5… 4… 3… 2… 1…  And then it just stops.  Until someone repairs you.  I thought it was a bug like the loading thing at first.  But no, apparently it was working fine with just a really obtuse UI.

Free Play

The second option for game play is the aptly named “Free Play” where you just go out into the world and run around. From here you can find collectibles, crafting materials, and various lore bits, but mostly Free Play is there for doing the “World Events” where something pops up with an objective to complete and you rewarded with a chest of randomized goodies for your effort.  It was probably the best way in the demo to gear up.  The Demo only had a few areas open to players on the world map, but it was still fairly diverse from marshes to mountains to underground caverns to fight off baddies.  The problem with the World Events that I had was just that they were too sparse, too few, and too small.  By small I mean in terms of visibility.  There are no indications on the map where a world event might be happening, and it will only pop up on the UI when you are relatively close or within the exact same subzone as the event.  This makes getting backup from the handful of other players in your public game next to impossible since just because you are doing an event doesn’t mean other people will even see the event happening.

Other than that complaint though, I had a ton of fun in free play.  A bunch of us would stumble upon a base taken over by the enemy and then clear it out, gather stuff up, and then go exploring and blowing things up.  Just kind of a fun way to kill time really.

Stronghold

I’ll be honest.  I didn’t complete the one stronghold – Anthem’s equivalent of dungeons – that was available during the demo: Tyrant Mines.  Between frequent disconnects, various bugs that I wouldn’t be surprised were related to those disconnects (it seemed that if someone was carrying one of the turn-in objects when they disconnected, the object just vanishes with them and the objective becomes impossible to complete.) I just had a hell of a time with this one.  I did make it to the final boss where we wiped twice and then…  I don’t know. The group dissolved?  I was kicked back to Fort Tarsis with no explanation so maybe that was it.

But for what I was able to accomplish how was it?  Long.  Like some WoW Vanilla dungeons long.  Multiple large areas with massive amounts of powerful enemies that get reinforcements part way through and a final boss that pretty much one shot each of us – and that was on EASY difficulty. You’ll probably want to set aside an hour or two just to do a single Stronghold.  More if you aren’t sure that you can keep a consistent group.  Which reminds me: The matchmaking only works in certain spots.  If you are already engaged in a “scene” (anyone one of the objective/combat areas) it seems to pause the matchmaking.  Meaning if people drop out mid-fight, you won’t get another party member until you finish the area, or wipe.  Which makes these strongholds – which are specifically balanced for 4 people – even harder.

Javelins

Finally, we have the core of the game.  The heart of everything.  The Javelins.  Your fancy suits that give you robot super powers.  For some reason, I was unable to unlock all four during the demo despite everything I read indicating that I would just get a second one at level 12 (the demo starts at level 10) but I won’t look a gift mouse in the horth because now I can tell you about all of them!

Your default suit is the Ranger (or the Iron Man suit – their words not mine) and it has a fairly well rounded tool set of ranged explosives, customizable attacks, and support capabilities.

The first of the more specialized suits is the Colossus (Hulk) that specializes in tanking somewhat.  You have a ton of health, a collapsible shield that works somewhat like Reinhardt’s shield in Overwatch, and it starts with an area taunt that would be very familiar to Dragon Age Inquisition players.

Next up is the Interceptor, which is basically a robot ninja.  You get triple jumps, triple dashes, throwing stars that just dice enemies to pieces, and are just generally very fast.  Their drawback is that they have little health and are very melee range focused. In fact their ultimate ability is melee-only.  So you gotta get close but not take a lot of hits.

Finally is the Storm, or your wizard character.  They gain the ability to hover a lot longer in midair and can throw a ton of elemental attacks at enemies.  They can also spawn long distance shields to protect people.  Much like the Interceptor, they have crap all for defense though.  I had a hell of a time doing anything solo as a Storm in Free Play since there was little to nothing keeping the enemies away from me.

My personal favorites were the Ranger and the Interceptor, with the Colossus being a distant third.  Don’t think I’d focus much on the Storm when the game comes out.  You might notice that I didn’t mention anything about healing in there.  There doesn’t appear to be any healing abilities from what I could find in the demo aside from replenishing shields or providing covering shields.  Healing comes from picking up health drops that enemies leave behind sometimes.  There’s also a auto-regenerate feature that will restore your shields and your health up to 25% if you are below that when you duck out behind something for a bit.  It seems you do replenish your health when you exit a “scene” entirely however, but that’s based on just random observations and I cannot confirm that 100%.

Final Impressions

I know I talked about a lot of issues in this post, but I want you to know that this was about the worst I could say about the game.  It really was fun to play.  The characters were enjoyable to interact with.  Flying around is fun once you get the hang of it.  I just had a good time with it.  Definitely more fun that I had with Destiny 2, which always felt kind of like a slog.  I dunno if I’m going to pick this one up on the release day, but it’s definitely on the list for picking up based on even my flawed experiences here with the demo.

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