Our in-depth analysis of the tech behind Anthem, including performance tests and comparison with E3 2017 demo.
Bioware’s Anthem is finally here and what a massive disappointment it has turned out to be. For more on why it was such a big let-down, we encourage you to check out our review. However, if there is anything that shines in Anthem it has to be its grand ambition with its in-game visuals and the technology behind rendering its world. Anthem uses the FrostBite engine, the very same one you saw being used in the likes of Mass Effect Andromeda and Battlefield 5, and as expected Anthem manages to deliver state of the art visuals with some bumps along the way.
Anthem is one of the most technically and visually ambitious multiplayer shooters we have played this generation (quite a statement, right? Given how it’s one of the most underwhelming ones from a gameplay perspective). Large maps rendered in top notch detail and a world which is dense with flora and fauna, are some of the biggest technical highlights of Anthem. And these features become even more prominent due to the Javelin which allows players to fly around like Iron Man and just experience the visuals on offer. The game’s world doesn’t shy away from using plenty of volumetric effects like smoke and fire to enhance the world’s look and feel which is further enhanced by the game’s use of weather systems. Anthem has a dynamic weather system so it may rain in one multiplayer session or it may be clear day in the same map in another session. FrostBite engine is a monster at delivering enhanced volumetric and weather effects and although Anthem’s map scale doesn’t allow it to reach the impressive levels that we saw in Battlefield 5, the existing effects still manage to gel with the game’s world extremely well.
Another noticeable achievement by Anthem is its abundant use of high resolution textures across the board. Obviously the quality will decrease as we go from a maxed out PC version to the Xbox One X and PS4 Pro versions. But generally speaking texture resolution across various world assets like foliage, mountains and several architectures are of high quality. The world assets streaming renderer does a great job of rendering most of the details in one go but we encountered noticeable pop-in issues while you are traversing at high speeds, across the PS4 Pro, Xbox One X and PC builds.
The lighting model for the most part is impeccable and it helps a great deal in making Anthem’s world more colourful. Each map is a combination of open world elements along with in-door linear levels; however the structuring design is very inconsistent. The map in Anthem is a combination of different areas; with each of them separated by a loading screen. Unfortunately, these loading screens totally break the immersion the world is trying to build, not to mention the fact several gameplay elements like changing your Loadout requires a loading screen. Bioware released a day one patch but unfortunately, most of the issues related to loading still exist and it’s sad to see that these maps which are an indication of something wonderful and ambitious are all interrupted by regular loading screens.
In short, Anthem’s ambitions to deliver a truly seamless multiplayer experience across a massive map have been unsuccessful. Now this could be due to a number of reasons but we think this is down to the current hardware restrictions which has impacted FrostBite’s capabilities to render everything in one go. The PS4 Pro and Xbox One X, although pretty capable machines in their own right, lack the muscle power to render such massive levels in one go. The current design methodologies to break the map into different areas separated by loading screens only make sense in a single player but for Anthem, a game which emphasizes co-op experience; this kind of design methodology doesn’t make any sense.
Regardless, when seen from a top level perspective, Anthem is still a visual masterpiece. There is no denying the fact that the developers had sky high ambitions with this game and this is reflected in the its world, the lighting model and the various post processing effects involved. But does this tech showcase for the Frostbite Engine reach the level of visual fidelity that the E3 2017 gameplay demo promised?
Now, before we move ahead, let’s reiterate one more time. Anthem, as it stands right now, looks amazing on all three leading platforms, including the Xbox One X. Anthem’s vertical slice was shown at E3 2017 and it was mentioned that the code was running on the Xbox One X. But there is noticeable difference between the E3 build and the final Xbox One X version. The very first thing you will notice is that Fort Tarsis doesn’t look as dense or as detailed as the one we saw in the E3 footage. The final build also doesn’t use the complex volumetric lighting effect and neither the facial animation is as good, not to mention that faces don’t feature the complex skin shaders we see in the demo. The weather and lighting model along with the draw distance have been scaled back as well, and this especially noticeable in the gameplay sequence.
We understand why game publishers and developers show off these vertical slices. But this generation has already been marred by the likes of The Division 2 and Watch Dogs 2’s so called demonstrations and it really doesn’t help anyone by having more of these misleading vertical slices. Now to answer the question whether Anthem was downgraded; the answer is that it retains many elements from that E3 build, but it comes eerily close to misleading players with enhanced effects that are not present in the final version. We would appreciate if developers and publishers show off a build that closely resembles the final product as that will help to set expectations accordingly.
Now, let us take a look at how the game performs on the PC, Xbox One X and PS4 Pro. As always, let us take a look at the PC build. The developer recommends an Intel Core i7-4790 3.6GHz or AMD Ryzen 3 1300X 3.5 GHz, 16GB of Memory and NVIDIA GTX 1060 or RTX 2060 or AMD RX 480. Our test PC includes a GTX 1080Ti, 16GB of GDDR4 memory and Ryzen 1700 CPU. The graphical settings include Anti-Aliasing, Ambient Occlusion, Texture Quality, Texture Filtering, Mesh Quality, Lighting Quality, Effects Quality, Post Processing Effects Terrain Quality, Vegetation Quality and others. As you can probably see the developers have tried to deliver a scaleable PC build so this is something we appreciate.
Now on the performance front, we experienced more than 60 frames per second in almost all our sample scenes. Even in the open world areas where the player is flying across the map, the frame rate manages to hold up quite nicely. However, during sequences where there were a ton of alpha effects like explosions or in the Fort Tarsis area, we experience random frame rate drops. The drop in performance in the Fort Tarsis is interesting because it’s a pretty quiet area in the sense that there isn’t much happening here in terms of alpha and particle effects. It may be down to the game’s shift from third person to first person but this is a mere assumption on our part as there is no way to verify it at this moment.
In our PC test, we found Anthem to be a decently polished game, well, except the horrendous loading times. But there is one issue that we need to talk about. During our time with the PC version, the audio is just got cut off. We are not sure the cause for this as it was completely random. But overall, the FrostBite Engine has delivered yet again on PC and that makes it the best place to play Anthem, provided you have the hardware.
On the console front, we analysed the game’s performance by taking some sample scenes from the game and running it through trdrop, an open source software. Note that this tool gives us a mere demonstration of the game’s performance, because an exact 1:1 representation of performance can only be provided by the developers themselves since they have access to vast of array of tools and profilers. Let’s take the PS4 Pro version first. As you can see, the PS4 Pro version runs at solid 30 frames per second and this hold up during combat where there is a fair amount of alpha effects going on. Even during the traversal sequences where the Frostbite Engine is rendering a ton of world assets, performance is pretty much locked at 30 fps without any noticeable screen tearing. On the resolution front, the game is running at 1800p similar to what we saw in Mass Effect Andromeda.
Now this is where things get a bit interesting if you are an Xbox One X owner. To begin with Anthem runs at native 4K resolution on Xbox One X, something the developers confirmed a few days ago, which is simply an impressive achievement when viewed on its own. On the performance front, we were not able to see a solid 30 fps across the board as it seems to drop a bit during combat sequences where there are a ton of alpha effects. This is not to say that this is always the case, as the game manages to run at a steady frame rate during other sequences. Furthermore, the tool indicated screen tearing and we were able to verify this by running the footage at one fourth of its original speed, and indeed there seems to be some screen tearing happening at times.
On the visual front, Anthem seems to be using the same core assets structure across both the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X. It’s indeed a pretty close match with similar post processing effects, draw distance, level of detail and reflections quality. However, you may find some differences in texture quality given the Xbox One X’s higher operating resolution. Compared to the PC version, the difference becomes rather apparent. Other than the ability to support higher frame rates, the PC version clearly takes the lead here with better mesh quality, texture filtering, higher quality reflections and draw distance.
In conclusion, the PC version takes the lead with better visuals and overall performance provided you have the hardware. Between the console versions, it’s a rather hard choice. The Xbox One X quite clearly has the advantage in terms of better image quality, but the PS4 Pro provides a better stable frame rate in the samples we tested. Regardless of the version this game runs on, Anthem needs a lot of work from a gameplay perspective. Whether it can be salvaged is something that remains to be seen, but for now it provides an experience which is flawed to the core.