Last Updated on July 13, 2019
The weekend of January 25, 2019-January 27, 2019 saw the much-anticipated launch of the Anthem VIP Demo, so-called because it was only open to those who pre-ordered the game and anyone who received a code from either a content creator or a friend who had pre-ordered the game.
The weekend of February 1, 2019-February 3, 2019 saw the Anthem Open Demo released to all who were interested in checking out BioWare’s first attempt at a live service looter-shooter before its launch on February 22, 2019.
While the experience of playing the game during the Open Demo was much improved, what happened during the VIP Demo was either a huge surprise or tragically expected, depending on one’s own personal level of anticipation for the looter-shooter and one’s faith in the studio that developed it: the sheer volume of interested players combined with some seriously questionable coding lead to the weekend being marred by some crippling technical problems.
Despite these technical hiccups, when both demos worked, Anthem was an incredibly encouraging showcase for the potential it clearly possesses.
To get the most obvious complaint out of the way first: the game’s log-in issues during the VIP Demo were both annoying and apparently completely avoidable. A strange coding quirk allegedly led to the game flooding EA’s servers with attempts to reconnect should the first attempt have been unsuccessful, leading EA’s newest release to unwittingly DDoS its own servers.
What this translated to was long loading times upon initially starting the demo and what has been dubbed an “infinite loading screen” bug when players tried to launch missions; the infinite loading screen problem essentially required a hard reset of the application to have a chance of resolving.
Not exactly the best of first impressions. During the Open Demo, however, I did not experience this problem at all. Hopefully it has been fully addressed and will not be reappearing when the full game launches later this month.
Upon loading the demo, players found themselves awakening in Fort Tarsis, Anthem’s hub for character interactions, quest-getting, and inventory management. Inside of Fort Tarsis during both the VIP Demo and the Open Demo, the player was locked into a first-person perspective and moved at an incredibly slow pace with no option to sprint. BioWare has since confirmed that the ability to sprint will be added into Fort Tarsis in the final game, though. While the detail bursting out of every inch of Fort Tarsis is impressive, navigating around the space can be disorienting at first and the in-game map is not particularly helpful.
Nevertheless, the space is interesting and will serve as the player’s base of operations during Anthem’s campaign and into its endgame. One interesting detail is that, unlike in a game such as Destiny 2, Fort Tarsis is a single-player instanced space where no player interactions will occur. Instead, players will interact with various colorful NPC’s, engage in rudimentary dialogue trees, and make choices that will have some as-yet-unknown effect on the game’s narrative direction.
BioWare did recently announce that, due to player feedback, the final game will have a separate space called the Launch Bay, where players can interact with each in third person and engage in the kind of social activity found in other persistent-universe games of this type.
Most of the conversation options in the demo were essentially context-free as they take place at some point past the opening of the game, so it was tough to gauge how strong the characters or narrative will be with such a short taste. In addition, most of the full game’s features within Fort Tarsis, such as the bounty board and the shop, were disabled for the demo.
Customization and Gear
One feature that was decidedly not missing from the demo was the Forge, the computer screen near Fort Tarsis’ exit that players will use to customize their loadouts and the appearance of their Iron Man-esque flying suits armor called Javelins. The Forge’s menu system is admittedly not the most user-friendly and the demo did not explain most of the finer points of how to navigate it. But the overall experience of customizing loadouts and physical appearance was immensely satisfying.
Turning first to the cosmetic customization, the demo contained an impressive array of options for personalizing each Javelin. Textures and coloring may be minutely tailored to the player’s preferences, and each individual piece of the Javelin (helmet, arms, chest, and boots) may be freely swapped out without affecting the player’s stats whatsoever.
Some players may lament the lack of randomly rolled stats tied to armor, but the trade-off is that players can customize their physical appearance to look as cool as possible without having to feel penalized for the decision. Each Javelin also has a set number of slots for weapons and special abilities. Every weapon and piece of gear here has an item level and stats tied to it, which all add up to the player’s overall item level while wearing that Javelin.
Overall, the Forge gets high marks for customization and the concept of the loadout system is strong. But the experience of actually using the Forge can be tedious due to the user interface and the loading screens required upon accessing and leaving it.
Still, the slice of customization options found in the demo was very impressive, and I look forward to sinking a large amount of time investing in Anthem’s fashion endgame.
Each of the four Javelins – the Ranger, the Colossus, the Storm, and the Interceptor – is eventually unlockable by all players and function as Anthem’s de facto class system. In that vein, each Javelin can equip different kinds of gear and each Javelin has its own item level tied to it.
Players will have to gear each Javelin individually for each Javelin to be viable in the endgame. This could be tedious to some players, but I’m excited by the chance to grind out perfect loadouts for each Javelin in due time.
Players who do not wish to grind all four Javelins can still focus on the one or two Javelins that they enjoy most and will likely be just as satisfied with their experience.
In addition to each Javelin’s item level, players (known as “Freelancers” in the game) will have a Freelancer level determined by experience points gained through questing and defeating enemies, which is separate and apart from their Javelins’ item level.
Players in both the Anthem VIP Demo and the Open Demo began at Freelancer Level 10, with the ability to level up to 15. During the VIP Demo, players could unlock a second Javelin for use upon reaching level 12. I selected the Interceptor, a speedy and melee-focused Javelin that felt very different from the Ranger.
During the Open Demo, BioWare added in the option to unlock all Javelins for players to test out.
While my time playing the Interceptor was mostly enjoyable, I felt that I had a much better time playing the Ranger, and so I focused on that Javelin for the rest of my time with the demo. While I did not try the Storm or Colossus Javelins myself, through conversations with friends who played those Javelins, and from reading the reactions of other players online, I came to understand that the Storm was a fun and powerful glass cannon-type javelin, while the supposed tanking ability of the Colossus was essentially neutralized by the fact that it is the only Javelin without access to a rechargeable over shield. What motivated this design decision, I haven’t the faintest idea.
Luckily, BioWare has indicated that they have received players’ feedback regarding the Colossus’ survivability and are currently looking into tweaks for the final game.
Once players are ready to leave Fort Tarsis, they approach their Javelin on its launch platform and enter the mission select screen. From there, players can either participate in campaign missions, side missions, Free Play, or various endgame activities once they have reached that point.
In addition to selecting their activity, players can select from one of various Diablo-esque difficulty settings (with better loot drops the higher players go), and invite other players to join them in a squad of up to four Freelancers. Again, the mission select screen suffers from serious UI clutter, but the content options available to players appears to be decently varied for now.
Once selecting and launching an activity, however, the player is treated to yet another loading screen. In my experience during the VIP Demo, I encountered the infinite loading screen bug nearly every single time I tried to load out into a mission or Free Play, sometimes two or three times in a row, requiring more than one hard reset of the application before I was finally able to play.
Sometimes, the game gives players the option to resume their previously-launched activity, which is admirable, but even when selecting this option I was often hit with infinite loading screens.
During the Open Demo, I did not experience the infinite loading screen bug once. In fact, it appeared as though the entire experience was smoothed out greatly in just the one week between demo sessions. What made this even more remarkable was that the Open Demo was the exact same build of the game as the VIP Demo.
BioWare clearly put in a long week of hard work to ensure the problems that plagued the VIP Demo were not repeated in the Open Demo.
Once actually out in the game’s play space, the camera perspective shifts to third-person and the player is wearing their equipped Javelin. Looking out over the precipice players find themselves on when launching from the Fort Tarsis spawn point, the vista that greets players is impressive and daunting in its scope.
Lush vegetation litters the landscape, with distant alien creatures appearing as ants on the ground below.
Fort Tarsis is situated on a high clifftop, and without any kind of elevator or staircase to the ground below, players have only one option to begin playing the game: jump.
The initial rush of adrenaline I felt as I jumped off that ledge for the first time is difficult to convey. After falling for a brief moment, the ground rushing up from below me, I tap the left stick and engage my Javelin’s flight jets. For most of my play time, I used the Ranger Javelin, which is the Javelin ostensibly designed for the most balanced experience between firepower and survivability.
My Javelin seamlessly enters flight and I point myself toward the ground, only pulling up at the last possible second and taking in the view of this initial play space from the sky. Anthem’s alien world is extremely pleasing to the eyes, even in the relatively unstable demo build, and I relished in the freedom that my Javelin’s flight capabilities afforded me.
That initial burst of euphoria was tempered somewhat by my Javelin’s heat meter, which steadily increases as I remain in the air and will send me crashing to the ground if I don’t land before it fills.
The only way to decrease the heat meter is to land or fly through/into water, which imbues the Javelin with a brief buff that prevents the heat meter from increasing momentarily. I understand why BioWare decided to prevent players from flying indefinitely, but it does take the wind out of the game’s sails a bit.
In terms of combat, the game feels like a natural evolution of what BioWare’s Montreal studio did in the much-maligned Mass Effect: Andromeda. While that may initially sound like a knock against the game, I really enjoyed the combat in Andromeda, especially the jump jets and air dashing abilities, so having that same freedom of movement in addition to flight and the ability to freely hover around at the same altitude feels great.
I spent barely any time acclimating myself to the controls before I was jumping and dashing around the battlefield, firing my weapons with the game’s over-the-shoulder camera and using abilities with ease. The abilities and gear equipped to each Javelin are on very short cooldowns, demonstrating that the developers intend players to use them as much as possible, and I loved living out this power fantasy. The combat was one of my favorite aspects of the demo.
As for the missions themselves, the two demos contained the same three campaign missions. Much like the dialogue options available in Fort Tarsis, it was tough to judge these missions in terms of their overall significance without context. While not mind-blowing, they were enjoyable due to the combat and movement mechanics.
The campaign missions were where the most apparent comparisons to Destiny arose for me. As a longtime Destiny player, I could not help but feel a twinge of recognition at how many of the tropes found in Destiny’s story missions made their way over into Anthem’s. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on the player’s tolerance for those tropes; as someone who enjoys Destiny quite a bit, I personally did not mind it.
Sadly, my experience playing both the second and third missions during the VIP Demo was negatively impacted by a glitch that caused the game to not register my character’s actions, leading to invincible enemies and perhaps the worst rubber-banding I have experienced in an online-only game. Even after restarting the application and attempting the missions again, I still encountered the problem and had to reset a second time.
In the Open Demo, I did not have the same issues myself, however I am unaware of whether or not that means they were completely fixed by that time. When the missions worked properly, they were good enough and I looked forward to being able to experience them in the context of the game’s plot.
Free Play was a different experience entirely from the campaign missions. In this mode, players are essentially free to roam the open world at will, while random missions sometimes spawn that can be completed for loot drops and experience points.
I was not a fan of the fact that these missions were randomly-generated without the ability of players to trigger them at will, as it lead to plenty of time spent aimlessly flying around and waiting for something to do.
Sure, Free Play is also a great way to explore for hidden lore collectibles and to harvest resources. But the marquee feature of the mode for me was the ability to turn up the difficulty and complete missions for loot and XP.
As it stands, the excessive downtime was a negative mark against the otherwise-fun mode that allowed me to see every corner of the world at my own pace.
Surprisingly, once I was actually able to load in to Free Play during the VIP Demo, I did not experience nearly as many technical problems as I did in the loading screens and during the campaign missions.
In the Open Demo, again, the technical hiccups were far less noticeable all around, and that included during Free Play.
One final piece of content that I was unable to experience in either the VIP Demo or the Open Demo was the Stronghold.
Strongholds are essentially Anthem’s equivalent of World of Warcraft’s dungeons, four-player endgame-level activities that require communication and coordination to complete.
Squad composition and builds are very important here, as a given weapon or gear piece’s (randomly-rolled) stat bonuses could make the difference between life and death.
I’ve seen footage of the Stronghold that was on offer during both demos, and it is very clearly a teamwork-intensive activity that will offer a serious challenge in exchange for desirable rewards.
My time with the two Anthem demos was a mixed bag of the highest highs mixed with the most frustrating lows. While I understand that these are merely demos, and clearly intended as initial stress tests of the servers, I have no problem saying the VIP Demo was one of the buggiest and most technically-imperfect pre-launch demos I have played.
Of course, the state of this early build is nowhere near reflective of how the final game will perform, I’m merely reporting my experience as it occurred.
BioWare’s ability to quickly respond to the problems in the VIP Demo in less than a week, leading to a much improved experience in the Open Demo, is also very encouraging.
My hope is that this portends a future where BioWare is able to respond to problems with its first live service game with speed and efficiency, as the time between when an issue is identified and when it finally gets fixed can often be excruciating in games of this sort.
I am still immensely excited for the final game and plan to spend a fair amount of time getting lost in this world.
Even in the face of all the problems this demo had, I still managed to see the bright potential of Anthem shining through. In that sense, the demos accomplished what they set out to do.
*VIP Demo played on the Playstation 4 Pro.
Anthony is a lifelong gamer who has player on nearly every console and handheld since the NES and original Game Boy. His favorite genres include: RPG, FPS, turn-based strategy, platformer, action-adventure, and puzzle. He wishes he had time to play more games but is tragically addicted to Destiny 2 and plays it almost every night.
Anthony lives in New Jersey with his wife and morkie.