The Anthem Demo Retrospective

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Edited by Michael Darsch

I, as well as many of you participated in the Anthem VIP Demo and Open Demo over their respective weekends. This was the public’s first taste of Anthem on a large scale. I managed to play all four Javelins throughout my forty-two hours of demo playtime, ensuring to try as many builds as I possibly could. Below, we’ll cover the demo in its entirety, from its flaws, to its highlights. We’ll go over every Javelin, and all the content that was available in the demo, with FULL SPOILERS of what occurred. This is your spoiler warning, if you want to go into this game fresh, do not read past the technical difficulties section.

Before we move on, let’s set some baseline knowledge:

  1. The build we were given access to was cut from the main code branch 6 weeks prior to the release of the demo.
  2. This branch was missing several optimization and bug fixes the final game is said to have.
  3. This branch was also missing several features that the final game is said to have, such as the launch bay that was added relatively recently, and certain social features.
  4. In software development terms, 6 weeks is quite some time. With current industry trends of day one patches, which have been confirmed for the 15th and 22nd release dates, we’re looking at 9 to 10 weeks of work respectively being brought into the final product, if not more.

Alright, with that out of the way, let’s start with the bad news.

Technical Difficulties

On January 25th, the floodgates opened as millions of players tried to log into the VIP demo. There were a few issues that plagued the game over the course of the weekend. The more notable ones were the 95% loading screen bug, performance issues, and when the influx of Anthem users flooded EA’s Origin servers. Chad Robertson, in an official blog post, stated, “I want to dispel one comment we’ve seen: that we under-planned for server capacity. To ensure stability, we intended to manage our servers to match the player population as it grew. Overall, we had excess capacity prepared for population increases, and continue to do so.” BioWare harnesses the power of Amazon Web Services (AWS) to host their game servers, which while it scaled properly to handle the user numbers, EA’s authentication servers weren’t able to handle the same load. This was mostly resolved at the end of the first day, however other issues continued throughout the weekend.

The loading screen bug was something BioWare was aware of. In the same blog post, Chad stated, “We saw this only in isolated cases during internal testing and believed it was resolved. Unfortunately, the problem is exacerbated in the real-world where differences with player’s ISPs and home networks introduce new behavior.” This was a huge issue throughout the entirety of the first weekend that required a client side patch, meaning that it was required to go through certification from Sony and Microsoft to be applied to their systems. The turnaround time for testing by the console publishers can be relatively short, but they have a queue to work through as well, and it doesn’t come without a cost.

The final issue is regarding performance. On the PC, CPU utilization was through the roof, with many players reporting 90-100% CPU usage. Changing certain settings didn’t seem to affect this much unfortunately. For console users, it would frequently dip below 30 frames per second, leaving much to be desired in terms of smooth gameplay. Optimization is generally the last thing that comes in development, so while these weren’t surprising issues, they were still frustrating to players.

All in all, these issues hindered a lot of enjoyment for players, causing outcry across the subreddit and twitter social spheres. The BioWare team remained active on twitter throughout the weekend, giving an update after a rocky first day, as well as a weekend wrap up for the VIP demo. The open demo contained a fix for the 95% loading screen bug, but did manage to have some performance enhancing fixes. Though there were still crashes and issues that would occur, the weekend allowed many others to give the game a try.

Those who participated in the VIP demo were already promised one exclusive vinyl for the full game’s release, but due to the technical issues, they are being given a second vinyl for free, as outlined in the VIP demo update blog. Also, all four Javelins were unlocked for players to use between both demo weekends, if you participated in the VIP demo weekend.

The Missions

There were three side missions that we were introduced to in the main demo. These missions were later revealed by Mike Gamble to be part of six side missions that are contained within the critical path. This does not mean there are only six side missions in the entirety of the game. We have three factions, the Freelancers, Arcanists, and Sentinels, to work with that all have their own arc of missions.

These missions in the demo required us to work with Matthias Sumner, part of the Arcanist faction in Fort Tarsis, to retrieve a Shaper manifold, which he would use to boost the capabilities of our Javelin. Our enhanced Javelins would then be used to help us disable the Heart of Rage, a Shaper Storm caused by the Dominion, who was trying to control a Shaper Relic called the Cenotaph, ultimately leading to the destruction of the city of Freemark. The first mission was to retrieve said manifold.

Your first foray into the open world has you flying into an area called The Well. Unfortunately for you this is locked by a Dominion device. Nearby, you find a dead body of a Dominion soldier, which you use an item found on their person to track down nearby Dominion camps in hopes of retrieving the code to unlock the door to The Well. You find, and attack, the Dominion in their camps, managing to decrypt their codes to form a key. After that, you head back to The Well, open the door and find three Dominion Valkyries, soldiers in Storm Javelins, floating around a large room that looks like a…well it’s called The Well for a reason. After dispatching your foes, Faye, your Cypher, comments on how they seemed confused. Deciding to not worry about it for now, you find the manifold, protected by a barrier. This is where players are introduced to their first puzzle in game. I won’t go into how this is done, or spoil the solution, but know that it involves searching the environment for some simple clues on how to proceed. With the manifold in hand, you return to Fort Tarsis to get your upgrade.

Unfortunately, not all goes according to plan. Matthias uses the tried and true method of slamming the manifold against a hard surface to get it to work. This, unfortunately, creates three of him. With three Matthiases, each encompassing a piece of the original’s personality, things become a bit more complicated. It’s time to investigate how to fix this.

In your second mission, you return to the Well. However, the well is now infested with Skorpions, which you must dispatch of before conducting your investigation. Once you’ve finished your clean sweep of these enemies you discover not the bodies of the Dominion soldiers, but instead a pile of goop where their remains should have been. You take samples, and are told by Matti, Erryl, and Sumner, the new names for each of the Matthiases, to find Aruna Kaule. She is another Arcanist that is currently working out in the field, so you head out to her location.

In true Murphy’s Law fashion, you discover that the Sentinels escorting Aruna are under attack by the Scar, short for Escari, a race of highly intelligent insects that swarm to take the shape of the dominant species of the planet. In this case, they are taking humanoid form, with the sole purpose of consuming everything they can. You arrive just in time to save the Sentinels from the Escari, only to learn that Aruna was kidnapped in the attack. The Sentinels notify you of where she was taken, and you rush off to find her.

Aruna and other Arcanists are trapped in cages in an Escari camp. You slay your enemies, recover the key and get them out of there. Haluk figures while you’re here, you should investigate the Escari that is kidnapping people, as it tends to be bad news. You fly towards the location given, only to see an Escari manning a four-legged walker bot. This may seem somewhat similar, but smaller, than the Destiny Fallen Walker tank, but it is much more mobile. You must work together with your friends, or alone if you prefered, to not only clear additional enemies, but also this mech enemy. I won’t spoil the fight, because honestly, it was some of the most fun I had in the demo, even if it wasn’t a fully fledged boss fight

Back in Fort Tarsis, you meet up with Aruna Kaule. She states that whatever remains you found had to do with Reality Decay, and after being told that the same triplet split happened to Matthias, you leave to go warn them and try to hatch a plan to fix the issue. You arrive to find,  Matti and Erryl, but Sumner is missing. Notifying them of their situation, they send you around Tarsis, leading you to the conclusion that Sumner stole a Javelin suit and went off on his own with the manifold to test a theory. You give chase.

You find Sumner’s broken Javelin shortly after fighting back some Scar. He contacts you via….radio? Telepathy? Point is, he contacts you and said he escaped into a nearby cave system. You pursue him, defeating the elementals that guard the entrance of the caves. Inside, you find more elementals, before reaching Sumner, who is surrounded by some sort of shield. Before you’re able to leave, three Lesser Ash Titans spawn, another creation of the manifold. You, and your team if you have one, take down these creatures and return to Tarsis with little more information than you had before. With the fate of the Matthiases up in the air, you go back to check on the trio. Matti is on the brink, with Sumner and Erryl at his side. His dying words trigger a thought to allow the manifold to complete the process and stop the decay, at the risk of remaining as triplets. Deemed an acceptable risk, Erryl goes to continue the process the Manifold started. Slamming the object against their workspace once again causes the same phenomenon as before, but Mattias, feeling reinvigorated, gathers with his newfound personality brothers as they begin to acclimate to their split, working together to boost your Javelin’s performance.

The Stronghold

Strongholds are Anthem’s version of dungeons. They are NOT raids. The equivalent from Destiny would be a Strike, but longer. There are relatively simple objectives to complete throughout the Stronghold, followed by a large boss encounter at the end.

In the demo, we got to play the Tyrant Mine, formerly known as Scars and Villainy from the E3 2017 gameplay. Your overall goal is to stop the Scar from having a supply of acidic weapons that have recently been attacking supply caravans. Working with Faye, your Cypher, and Sev, a Corvus agent, you head in.

There are three main parts to this mission, each rewarding your team with a chest of loot. First, silence two Shaper Relics that the Scar are trying to seize. Second, enter a series of nearby tunnels and investigate the acidic eggs that the Scar seem to have been harvesting. Lastly, find the source of the eggs, and exterminate it.

I won’t go in depth as to how all of these objectives work, but rather give a simple overview of the major mechanics.

The first area is simple, gather all of the echoes and bring them back to the relic. Do this twice while fighting through Escari turrets and soldiers. During the second phase of this, there will be a Gatekeeper enemy that you must defeat to unlock the cages some of the echoes reside in. Once defeated, pick up the key from its body, and grab the echoes to complete your task.

A loud screech erupts from the caves nearby, signaling you to investigate. Upon entering the system through a sealed door, you fight your way inside through a bed of Skorpions and the like. The route leads you to an open chamber where you discover three smaller Shaper Relics. You and your team are tasked with silencing these relics by recovering their fragments. While carrying fragments, you cannot fly, so it is good to work together in retrieving them. Once all six fragments are recovered, you must hold your position against waves of Skorpions swarming the platform you are defending. This takes some time, and while fending off the enemies, the relics behind you are spawning auras that shock you with lightning, causing you to overheat. You can combat these by shooting the sphere at their center. Once the task is complete, you move ahead to the final encounter.

Once again fighting through Skorpions, you clear the way to the final chamber. A large, bulbous spider queen skitters down from a large cylindrical tube. You know the drill, kill the big, ugly thing! There are phases to this fight that involve the Queen running away and summoning a group of adds. While you wouldn’t think ground based Skorpions would be an issue since you can fly, when you get webbed, grounded, and swarmed by a nest of them, they can be quite the nuisance. You can dispatch them by working closely with your fellow Freelancers to keep the add count low, and rid the Scar of their acid production source.

Oh did I mention there may be a side room somewhere in the Stronghold that contains a bit of lore? Hmmm…

Freeplay

This part of Anthem is relatively simple, but will be something that groups and solo players alike can spend a lot of time on. The demo gave us a small portion of the map close to Tarsis to explore. Freeplay is an activity that must be set to public and instances you with 3 other Freelancers. You are not bound by a group as you would be on missions, but instead are in free roam to complete public events, explore the world’s secrets, and harvest materials. Some public events are rather simple, requiring you to silence a Shaper Relic by collecting echoes, or open an Arcanist Vault by defending a point and decrypting it. Others, however, are much more detailed. One of the world events required us to enter a cave system near a large Escari tower. A Corvus Agent had gone to investigate this area, but the team lost contact with them. You find their remains and are tasked with completing their sweep of the area. There are multiple objectives you have to complete, like defeating key targets, defending an area, and then defeating a boss at the end of the cave area. It was an interesting world event compared to the rest, and it’ll be interesting to see others like it for other factions in the full release.

The Forge

Players were given full access to The Forge during the demo period, allowing them to personalize and customize their Javelins to their liking.  Several different types of materials were included, as well as the players being given 100 Coin, in game currency, to buy new armors, materials, or emotes. Not much has changed here from the time we were shown The Forge with Darrin and Ben, but it was nice to be able to tinker around with it. I suggest giving r/Fashionlancers a look over to see other player’s fashion game! Here is an example from @Gentleman_Tyr on Twitter, who so kindly offered the picture up.

Surprises

The final day of the open demo was hyped up with a surprise event that was teased to be a sneak peek at the endgame of Anthem. People speculated that we were going to be able to partake in a Shaper storm, but it turns out, it was just the rumblings of one. A large, fiery swirl appeared in the sky, and there were small changes to the open world, with enemies spawning in different locations as well as an Ancient Ash Titan appearing for Freelancers to tackle. The mechanics for the Titan were much different than that of its Lesser variety, but a well coordinated team could take it down with relative ease. When near death, the enemy goes into death throes, violently firing its chest beam to and fro before exploding in agony. It was a sight to behold, and there was loot to compensate you for your troubles. While we didn’t have much else aside from the sky falling around us and these Titans roaming the land, one would wonder what else awaits us when we have the full map to explore? This was just the beginning of a Cataclysm, which grows and becomes worse as the event goes on. There will be Shaper Storms that form, mysterious that will need to be solved, and tough enemies to overcome. We’ll see more of that near the end of Act 1 of the roadmap.

Conclusion

I had started this retrospective in the hopes of being able to go over each Javelin in depth. Unfortunately, due to time, work, and a loss of screenshots, I was unable to do so without having it feel more rushed than the rest of the retrospective feels. I wanted to talk about how awesome it felt to control the elements as the Storm and decimate hordes of enemies. I wanted to talk about how great it felt to drop an acid bomb in the middle of a pack of Escari as an Interceptor, then fly out and shoot them with the Devastator, a sniper rifle that fired explosive rounds, to kill them all in a blazing inferno. It would have been great to write about the Ranger and finding the right loadout to maximize my team play, whether it be removing shields with Spark Beam or priming enemies with my Inferno Grenades. Of course, I don’t want to leave out my favorite, the Colossus. Going berserk with the flamethrower and melee in the middle of enemies is some of the most fun I had. Sure there was a bug that reduced your health at random times, but with smart use of toggling your shield, you could survive the worst of them.

The weekend demos were rough, but fun when they worked. There were a lot of issues that we are told are cleared up for the full release, but I am sure there will be some more to come as we head into the open live service. It’s important to come at the game with patience and work with the developers as much as we can to ensure we can curate the game we all enjoy to fit the community’s needs. I am excited to explore Bastion, learn about the land and the history that comes with it. I am excited to see everyone’s Javelins in the Launch Bay and out in the field. Most of all, I am excited to experience a new story from BioWare, and be able to share that with all of you.

See you soon Freelancers.

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