Anthem was first revealed during Microsoft's E3 2017 media briefing, a climactic showpiece that demonstrated EA's Frostbite engine taken to the next level, with a level of visual fidelity and density we'd never seen from this generation of consoles. We were told it was running in real-time, we were told it was running on Xbox One X, all of which has made the last couple of weekends playing the demo fascinating. To cut to the chase: was the demo an accurate representation of the actual product's visual credentials? No. Is it a beautiful current-gen game? Yes, but there is a price to pay.
Now isn't the time for a full-on deep dive into how actual code varies from Anthem's astonishing reveal - we may revisit this when we are in possession of the final product, as opposed to a limited demo. However, the core themes are all there - the multiple javelin exosuits, the benefits of co-op play, and the sheer height, width and depth of the play area. The reveal trailer and the materials that followed hinted at the symphony of destruction the demo delivers, but the feeling when playing can be extremely rewarding - yes, enemies are bullet sponges, but there is an immense feeling of satisfaction in juggling the recharge rates of your special weapons in piling on the damage, while the javelin flight mechanic works really nicely. And when your squad works side by side, maximising the destruction, tearing through the opposition is highly rewarding - it's a fun game overall, marred only by some lengthy and unfortunate mid-level loading.
The visual return from this game is often exceptional, further emphasised by the pyrotechnics on display. The Anthem experience isn't just about the beautifully realised environments: BioWare also doubles down on effects work during combat, both in terms of player weaponry and the enemies' response. The effect is amplified in scenes where the entity count continually ramps up where the title delivers absolute carnage. The developer aims to make the most of the decision to drop from the usual 60fps Frostbite formula down to 30fps and not just in terms of getting more on-screen. The Frostbite post-process pipeline is really put through its paces, from the high quality motion blur down to the voxelised volumetric lighting. The ambition is impressive, but as a result, there is a problem: performance.
The smoothest, most consistent ride I've had playing Anthem has been on PC with an RX Vega 56, where 1080p on ultra settings remains mostly at 60fps or higher (though even here, performance can drop beneath). And it stands to reason that what's going to be challenging for PC will be even more of a mountain to climb for the consoles. The worst performer of the bunch is, perhaps inevitably, the Xbox One S. The game renders at a native 900p and frame-rate fluctuates between the low 20s and 30fps. Its stablemate - Xbox One X - renders at full 4K, but also struggles. By and large, the performance delta is between 25 to 30fps under load, but again, it can drop lower.
On the PlayStation side of things, BioWare makes the curious decision to omit the 30fps cap found on the Microsoft platform, running the game unlocked, and introducing a lot of inconsistency in terms of frame-times, adding judder. The base PS4 runs at 1080p and spends much more time in the 30fps ballpark than its Microsoft equivalent, trading blows with the PlayStation 4 Pro's 4K output mode, which renders at 1800p. Across the run of play, the base model actually runs a touch faster overall, but the 'supercharged PS4' has a trick up its sleeve. Setting the console's video output mode to 1080p lowers the native rendering resolution to match, and running unlocked, Anthem almost always exceeds 35fps - often by quite some margin. Out of all the console iterations, this is the one I prefer most.
Yes, there's a big drop in resolution and given the choice, I'd take a 30fps lock using the overhead this mode offers (an option that would really benefit Anthem) but if your choice is between 20-30fps at 1800p, or 35-50fps to 1080p, it's a no-brainer - the game just works better at a higher frame-rate even if it still doesn't feel particularly smooth or consistent. The PS4 Pro's full HD output makes reading the most intense firefights a lot easier: you get more visual feedback and lower latency.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that in a world where Xbox One X has established itself in consistently delivering the preferred multi-platform experience, the Anthem demo delivers higher frame-rates on both PlayStation platforms. Yes, resolutions are lower and the PS4 consoles run unlocked with no 30fps cap, but regardless, the performance from X especially isn't where it should be. In terms of pure pixel output, Microsoft's enhanced machine is delivering 44 per cent more resolution than Pro, but on default settings with all post-processing features enabled, it's difficult to tell Pro and X apart. Only by disabling these features (a welcome option in the graphics menu) and by pixel-counting were we able to discern the difference in actual play. Disabling these features also seems to remove the curious stippling-like effect that did initially suggest that we were looking at a checkerboard-style presentation.
Performance is the biggest problem I have with Anthem - the Xbox code seems to be struggling, while PlayStation 4 running unlocked presents its own inconsistencies. The overall variability can be off-putting and it sits in stark contrast to the rock-solid 30fps performance of its nearest rival, Destiny. It's here where I think the game needs some work, or at the very least, more options for the player. The inclusion of frame-rate and resolution modes for PS4 Pro is welcome, but locking them to front-end menu options rather than having an in-game toggle is one of our bugbears with the Pro and it's disappointing to see it here. Meanwhile, Xbox One X owners don't have a high frame-rate option at all - a problem that would again be solved by offering a choice within the graphics menu. Based on the disappointing performance turn-out on Xbox One X under load, there's also a strong argument that native 4K rendering is just too taxing, and a lower resolution may be warranted.
All of which brings us to the PC version of the game, the platform where EA chose to showcase Anthem to press and public alike up until the release of the demo. It delivers the best version of the game visually and it's a real treat, but we have concerns about system requirements. Achieving a locked 1080p60 on mainstream GPU champions like the Radeon RX 580 and GTX 1060 proved impossible - even with the game cut back to its lowest settings, where Anthem loses a lot of its visual appeal. The move up to medium doesn't show a lot of improvement, while dropping from ultra to high doesn't do much to help performance. Right now, there's the sense that it's ultra or bust - something we really hope to see addressed in the final game.
The demo code also suggests that at the absolute top-end, Anthem cannot run at anything like a consistent 4K60 on the RTX 2080 Ti, managing around 45fps during combat. We'll be looking at this one in more depth once final, but certainly on the demo, getting a great experience does seem to come with a high barrier for entry - again, in stark contrast to Destiny, where a modern Pentium paired with a GTX 1050 and sensible settings gets a great 1080p60 experience. Maybe we'll get a better sense of where the sweet spot lies in terms of settings vs performance once we match up the PC game to its console equivalents on a per-preset basis.
In the meantime, we've enjoyed playing the Anthem demo and eagerly await the finished product. This is a stunning game that has much to offer, but it's difficult to escape the fact that delivering visuals of this standard seems to come at a cost - and sub-par performance is definitely an issue for a fast-paced shooter. Indeed, with Xbox frame-rates dropping to the mid to low 20s in some cases, I'm reminded of late last-gen titles like Far Cry 3, where developer ambitions outstripped the capabilities of the hardware. This time around, we have the enhanced consoles to deliver more horsepower, but in this case, there's the sense that a better balance of resolution and performance could genuinely improve the quality of the Anthem experience.