Six things we learned from Anthem’s VIP Demo weekend

Six things we learned from Anthem’s VIP Demo weekend

BioWare’s upcoming addition to the growing shared-world shooter, Anthem, hosted a VIP demo available to everyone who pre-ordered the game or had subscribed to Origin/EA Access.

Keen to see what the fuss was all about, I bought a month’s subscription to Origin Access and jumped into my own flying mech (javelin) on PC to provide you with the details.

A LOT of people wanted to play Anthem’s VIP Demo

As is widely known, Anthem’s VIP demo encountered a myriad of technical difficulties over the weekend due to the phenomenal number of players trying to log in and play. Especially day one of the demo, many players attempted to get their Anthem fix but were greeted with server error issues, preventing entry into the game. This also means players were unable to explore Fort Tarsis, the single-player base of operations for freelancers where you chat with characters and pick up quests.

Six things we learned from Anthem’s VIP Demo weekend

Many social media users were quick to criticise BioWare and EA’s lack of server preparation prior to the demo, a claim that BioWare’s Head of Live Service, Chad Robertson, disputed. One Twitter user wrote an interesting thread about their server infrastructure experience that documents some potential reasons for not only Anthem’s initial issues but also issues encountered by other online-based games.

To put things into perspective, Robertson stated in a post on BioWare’s blog that Anthem peaked at over 300,000 concurrent viewers on Twitch, showing that a huge amount of people were watching and trying to play Anthem on day one of the demo.

Six things we learned from Anthem’s VIP Demo weekend

Another common issue that I also encountered multiple times was the dreaded “95% load hang”, where after launching into an expedition (for missions, Strongholds, or freeplay), the loading screen would get stuck on approximately 95% and make no further progress. Executive Producer of Anthem, Mark Darrah, suggested an interim workaround of closing the game, where reopening the game would pop you right back into the expedition you tried to launch earlier. I found this worked a large percentage of the time – it was annoying, but I imagine this will be solved on launch.

Following the issues plaguing Anthem’s VIP demo, BioWare will be rewarding players’ patience by giving all participants a new vinyl to adorn their javelins with at launch, in addition to the vinyl already promised for VIP demo player. Additionally, all VIP demo participants will be able to access all four javelin types in this week’s open demo, instead of the limit of two previously applied.

Piloting a javelin feels exhilarating

I spent my entire time in the demo piloting the Ranger javelin, which is billed as the all-around mix of offence and defence, so I can’t speak for the other three models. What I can say that piloting a Ranger is one hell of a thrill. Each javelin has thrusters that allow them to hover and fly for limited bursts at a time. A meter in the bottom-third of the screen measures how close you are to overheating which will cause the thrusters to cut out. It’s best to disengage the thrusters before overheating, as they will cool down quicker and let you get back to roleplaying as Tony Stark in his Iron Man suit.

Six things we learned from Anthem’s VIP Demo weekend

Similar to how it is in superhero origin stories, your first time attempting to fly is an exciting yet clumsy time. My first attempt saw me jump off the cliff outside Fort Tarsis and boost away erratically, eventually crashing into a wall due to my lack of coordination – crashing doesn’t damage you, per se, but you certainly feel the heavy crunch of metal against rock. The Ranger javelin feels satisfyingly weighty and moves with considered purpose sprinting along the ground, and invokes a powerful presence in the air. Dan Lowe from fellow EA team Motive Studios tweeted a thread about how the flight transition animation in Anthem makes javelins look so incredible as their thrusters kick in.

As I was playing on PC, I attempted to use the keyboard and mouse controls, but I found plugging in the Xbox One controller to be much more intuitive in this console-native’s sweaty hands. Once I spent some time with controller in hand, I smiled to myself as I spied cliff edges to sprint towards and leap seamlessly into precise flying manoeuvres.

Mastering your javelin’s mobility is essential to surviving in combat, as Anthem’s enemies and locales instil a great sense of verticality. Looking left and right won’t cut it, you’ll need to look up above as well to ensure you don’t get flanked by flying foes. There’s also the constant delicate dance of hovering and flying around to flank targets without overheating your thrusters; overheating equals death in a precariously placed firefight.

All of this is even without mentioning the powerful weapons at your disposal. You can swap your loadout at the Forge in Fort Tarsis, where I equipped a fairly standard assault rifle as my go-to gun. Picking off enemies feels fantastic, with the weapons I used all generating a sense of genuine stopping power due to a combination of the booming sound they create, the recoil animations, and the way bullets slam into opponents. I noticed that severely damaged enemies showed signs of weakness, such as smouldering mechanical parts, damaged armour, and a heightened sense of panic in their actions. These small details add up to make you and your javelin feel empowered – don’t mistake that for Anthem being easy, though.

I loved piloting my beautiful green boy. I can’t wait to dive in again next week and fly around.

Six things we learned from Anthem’s VIP Demo weekend

The missions sure do feel Destiny-like in structure

Everyone in Anthem’s VIP demo was given access to three different activities; a story mission called Triple Threat, a Stronghold, and free play where you could explore outside Fort Tarsis at your leisure.

I played a fair bit of the original Destiny, including most of its DLC, plus a little bit of Destiny 2. What Anthem showed in the demo in Triple Threat reminded me of the mission structures seen in Destiny; travel to a point to unlock or discover a foreign object, fight some waves of enemies, move to the next objective. Rinse, cycle, repeat.

Six things we learned from Anthem’s VIP Demo weekend

Triple Threat first tasked you with exploring and retrieving an artefact known as the Manifold. Finding this artefact largely consisted of the structure listed above, but there was a nice little curve-ball to conclude with. The Manifold was shielded by an impenetrable orb of energy. However, there were three large portal-like structures at opposite ends of the room displaying different symbols, which were clearly related to the task at hand. These portals could be interacted with to change them to display one of four different symbols. After several minutes of fumbling around trying to figure it out blindly, and the squadmates I had been matchmade with were no help, I realised that near each portal structure was a hidden drawing with the correct symbol. Once I figured this out, I flew around and changed each display to the correct symbol, triggering the end of the first part of the mission and transporting everyone back to their own Fort Tarsis. No one else in the squad had any idea, so if I hadn’t figured out the puzzle, we could’ve been waiting a while! Upon returning to Fort Tarsis, I returned to the quest-giver, where a cutscene ensued. I’ll delve into the story side of things further down, but after the cutscene, I headed out on some more expeditions back and forth before the mission drew to a close.

Anthem’s Stronghold activity, Tyrant Mine, felt similar to what Destiny refers to as Strikes, which serve as mini-raids of sorts. Here, the Stronghold saw you team up with three other players to take down enemies en route to a big bad boss at the end. Following each checkpoint – where respawns are disabled and squadmate revives are the only method of recovering from health hitting zero – you’re rewarded with a chest of varying rarity loot.

Six things we learned from Anthem’s VIP Demo weekend

These missions don’t fill me with excitement, as I couldn’t tell you of any missions from Destiny I remember, but I’ve lost count of how many points I’ve defended while a tech uploads some things into another bit of tech. I’m not one driven by loot pickups and seeing arbitrary numbers creep up when equipping new stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I like shiny things just as much as anyone else, I just get a hollow sense from playing games where that feels like the only drawcard.

Fortunately, Anthem appears to have a few more things going for it than random shiny loot drops.

Anthem’s visuals are absolutely stunning

I don’t need to waste many words here – Anthem looks amazing. Fortunately, my PC was capable of running the demo on high with a few things bumped up to ultra, and the end result showed an immense level of detail from BioWare, especially in the bustling mecca of Fort Tarsis, and the lush environmental details in the lands outside.

Six things we learned from Anthem’s VIP Demo weekend

Six things we learned from Anthem’s VIP Demo weekend

Six things we learned from Anthem’s VIP Demo weekend

Six things we learned from Anthem’s VIP Demo weekend

Six things we learned from Anthem’s VIP Demo weekend

Six things we learned from Anthem’s VIP Demo weekend

Anthem doesn’t pull any difficulty punches

As is widely known by now, Anthem is meant to be played with others, and the game’s difficulty accounts for that. Yes, you can change your squad settings to private so you don’t enter matchmaking with others for story missions, but I think this would lock you out of squad-based modes such as the Strongholds. When accessing the slick expedition menu, you can choose via the map what activity you want to do, followed by the difficulty setting you want to play on. I recall reading a while ago that you could theoretically dial the settings down to easy and solo the story missions, but you wouldn’t be getting the best experience. I played on the default difficulty of normal and was not prepared for how tough some of the encounters would be. As I mentioned earlier, you need to use every ability at your javelin’s disposal to stand a chance against the Scar, otherwise they’ll quickly tear you a new one.

Particularly the Stronghold, my squad made slow, but steady, progress towards the end, before we got utterly obliterated by what I assumed was the final boss – some giant, beastly scarab-looking thing. Up to that point, I thought we were playing well! It really affirmed to me that having command of the air and knowing where your nearest cover is yields a significantly better result than running in all guns blazing.

Six things we learned from Anthem’s VIP Demo weekend

In light of this, I believe the challenge to be fair, and a product of the clever enemy design and strategic battle locations that give your opponents the best tactical positions – not the mission structure I claimed to have issues with earlier.

To illustrate this, I experienced one of the most thrilling battles I’ve ever been a part of online. Midway through the Stronghold, our squad was bunkered down in a valley, with several Scar snipers and turret embankments laying down hellfire, while their grunts smartly flanked us to flush us out of what little cover we had. Within an instant, all three of my squadmates had been downed and in need of revival. Going all-in against the gauntlet of turret fire, I sprinted out of cover, jumped and activated my javelin’s flight module. I quickly gained ground towards my nearest squadmate before the Scar turrets sliced through my shields and jammed my thrusters. I lost control as my javelin violently arced towards the ground, careening off the deck with an unholy screeching of metal. With a sliver of health left, I somehow managed to dash behind a rock formation for cover, allowing my shields to regenerate. Sprinting out of my only refuge in plain sight of a turret, I slammed down a dome shield which bought just enough time to revive and retreat back to cover. Wordlessly, we cooperated to revive the other teammates, as I provided cover fire and diverted the Scar’s attention while the others were revived. We then went on to wipe out the Scar forces.

I’ll remember this moment for some time; a combination of intelligent enemy placement and just enough cover for risk and reward gunplay made for a tense firefight. The moment where I lost all control of the javelin was heart-in-mouth stuff, as I was certain I was going to get wiped out along with the squad.

Anthem giveth and taketh away with your awesome flight capabilities – flying around is a vital component of combat, but it is not limitless and can be halted after sustaining too much damage. This is great though because it makes you really appreciate what you’ve got, and it generates significant tension waiting for your thrusters to kick in after overheating, which is often the difference between doom and salvation in Anthem’s satisfying battles.

BioWare still has a penchant for story

Although Anthem won’t have the BioWare-famous romances (at launch) of Dragon Age and Mass Effect, the demo did show some vignettes of character interaction that you’ll be able to have on Fort Tarsis. What will be most fascinating is how much impact your interactions and story missions will have on Fort Tarsis, or whether they will exist more so as colour to flesh out the world that Anthem’s shooty-bangs occur in.

Specifically looking at the Triple Threat mission, you return from your first expedition with the mysterious Manifold artefact and give it to Matthias, a character on Fort Tarsis who appears to fulfil some sort of science and research role. After tinkering with the Manifold, Matthias is astonishingly split into three copies of himself, with each copy manifesting different aspects of Matthias’ personality. You quickly learn that the Manifold’s effects are highly dangerous and the rest of the quest charges you with understanding the artefact’s full impact before it’s too late. Even as a standalone vignette, I found Triple Threat to present an engaging story and interesting lore implications for the Anthem universe. If Triple Threat is an indication of the sort of stories told within Anthem, I’m very keen to dive into more and see how the wider narrative is presented.

Six things we learned from Anthem’s VIP Demo weekend

Outside of the structured missions, the characters I spoke with were brimming with personality, top-notch voice acting, and much more polished animations than what Andromeda had on release. One character I spoke with included a young bartender who kept finding himself in compromising situations with women. Seeking advice from you, he asked what to do in his various predicaments, where you were then able to respond with one of two dialogue options. Upon returning to Fort Tarsis after an expedition, you could then check up on how the bartender went, where he would regale you with a tale of what happened. These conversations felt smartly scripted and quite natural as if you were genuinely catching up with someone after a time away. What I don’t know is whether these character interactions will eventually lead to anything tangible, or maybe if there are certain other decisions you will make that could impact Fort Tarsis. I hope there are at least some important decisions along the way – the fact that Fort Tarsis represents solely your journey, I’m optimistic there will be some BioWare narrative magic along the way.

Anthem’s public demo will go live on all platforms during the weekend beginning February 1. The full game will be released on Friday, 22 February 2019.

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