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Anthem is fascinating and flawed

Impressions from the first 10 hours of play.

Timing is everything. Anthem comes at the end of a scrabble of releases as the fiscal year ticks over, though it's the most high-profile of the lot; a vast, expensive pivot from a much-loved studio that's been under scrutiny in recent years, it's the epitome of AAA game production. There's loot and there's shooting and there are cosmetic microtransactions and a big day one patch that may well serve to smooth over the many rough edges of a game that's just enjoyed the earliest of its many release dates.

Beneath all that, there's the unmistakable shadow of another game. Even after the first ten hours, Anthem can't shake off comparisons to Destiny: there's the same loose set-up - a small group of elite agents holed up in a fort, teaming up to head out to the beyonds for adventures in pursuit of loot so that they might become more elite yet - and the same gloriously painterly sci-fi aesthetic. There's the same loop of missions that involve an awful lot of shooting, punctuated by downtime in a hub world where much of the story is doled out.

When you're not looking at loading screens, Anthem can look sublime.

Anthem does have its own personality, though. Its world has character and context, two things that Destiny lacked upon its own launch. Walk the streets of the strangely muted hub of Fort Tarsis and there are snippets of conversation to dip into, characters to chat to and catch up with via lightly branching conversations (where, it's worth pointing out, your choices seem to have no impact on the action, unlike in BioWare's previous games). Here, I understand what's going on, who the key players are and what's at stake - even if none of it is particularly interesting. The backstory has none of the nuance or drive of a Dragon Age or a Mass Effect, but it does have the benefit of clarity.

Beyond the walls of Fort Tarsis things get a little fuzzier, though it's still infused with its own sense of itself. The world you explore is achingly gorgeous, as if the impossible geology of Guilin has been transposed and amplified on some exotic off-world. Caves give out to outcrops and jutting rock-faces, all complete with a sense of verticality that is entirely Anthem's own. Piecing that together are Anthem's Javelins, the suits of armour that act as an analogue for an RPG class system, that you don before you leave Fort Tarsis, and that are gifted with the power of flight.

The RPG stuff in Fort Tarsis is kept very light and doesn't seem to have much impact - the reminder of BioWare games past might sadden as much as it placates older fans, though.

And what a power it is, told with grace and beauty. Getting around the world of Anthem is just as stirring as taking in its splendorous sights, a jet-boosted jump segueing into gloriously weighted gliding. It makes exploration a pleasure, and reinforces a sense of connection and wonder with your own Javelin - even if they're not the prettiest of creations, their design more B&Q tool-shop than fantastical sci-fi. Still, kitting them out is just as much of a joy, the sense of connection you have with your suit and its loot reinforced by the third-person view employed out in the field.

The act of shooting things is slightly less convincing, though it has a chaos that's charming in its own way. Firefights are explosions of colour, sparks and multi-coloured storms, a difficult-to-parse noise tied together with the idea of combos, borrowed from Mass Effect and boosted to a ludicrous degree here. There's a rhythm to be found in activating the right primers and detonators, and an enjoyable amount of alchemy in team and loadout optimisation to make sure they're at the most effective, and it's there that the heart of Anthem's combat lies. A small shame, then, that its weaponry feels mostly anaemic and, more damingly in a loot-focussed game, anonymous, with the verticality that defines the exploration not convincingly making its way over to the gunplay.

Missions, too, can feel anonymous, with not much by way of variety or imagination - in the first ten hours, at least. Strongholds - longer missions which serve as Anthem's variant on Destiny's Strikes - do provide more of a draw and sustain the multiple playthroughs they're designed for, but there's not quite the spice to enemy design to make it all truly interesting, and if anything it's the moments in-between the fighting, when you're soaring through the air, that provide the main pull.

Combat is a mess, but an enjoyable one.

Running through all that is the nagging feeling that this is a style of game that's already been played out. Anthem's development began only a couple of years after Bungie began to map out its own shared world shooter, though it feels like it took shape during that heady year when Destiny was the triple-A behemoth that seemed to rule the world, and looked every part the future. Now, well over four years later, the turbulence that seems inevitable as part of a game as a service has ensured that Destiny 2 has been decoupled from Activision and is now an indie, while BioWare is saddled with a style of game that feels deeply unfashionable, especially in light of stablemate Respawn's recent success with the de rigueur battle royale, Apex Legends.

Anthem's cause isn't helped by a litany of bugs and flaws that feel inexcusable for a title that's coming this late to the game. Preferences aren't saved, requiring a trip to the in-game menus on each new play, rewards bug out at the end of punishing missions demanding replays to grab new loot, or sometimes progress simply isn't recognised, putting impossible roadblocks in the way of players. It seems sadly typical of a game on EA's in-house engine Frostbite to launch in such a troubled state, and the defence of the true release date not coming until later this week doesn't wash, putting too much weight on an inbound day one patch to do the impossible.

Yet still beneath all that there is the spark of something in Anthem - a glimmer in its Rocketeer-like jetpacks, or in the dazzle of its chaotic combat. As ever with a game designed to monopolise your free time, Anthem's real merits won't come into focus for weeks, when it becomes clear how quickly EA and BioWare can fight fires while catering to players' demands. Then there's the question of whether BioWare has enough to time to do justice to a fascinating, deeply flawed game.