Warframe is the frequently updated, lovingly supported, free-to-play outing from Digital Extremes, the team that brought you 2008′s mutagen-filled Dark Sector. In fact, Warframe is the not-so-direct sequel to Dark Sector in that it takes place a good handful of millennia after the conclusion of its predecessor. But don’t worry about plot, because Warframe‘s story is thinner than water. You’re a “Tenno,” a humanoid being descended from the protagonist of Dark Sector. Revived by the Lotus, a mysterious entity who seeks to bring balance to the Milky Way, you’re sent out to do battle with space marines, space zombies, and space corporates (seriously) with your space ninja superpowers, provided (in part) by your Warframe, a bio-organic suit of armor created by a virus that has begun to infest the entire star system.
Warframe is an oddball of a game to classify. It’s part MMO, part Monster Hunter, part Mass Effect 3 co-op, part Vanquish, and then some. The game is so hard to describe, in fact, that I’ve coined a new genre for it: “space-ninja simulator” (okay, it’s a third-person action shooter MMO, but shut up). When you first begin, you’ll be dropped into a tutorial that teaches you simple movement tricks like jogging and sprinting, firing your weapons, and hacking things apart with your sword. Immediately following this, you’re dropped into the general UI and shown a big galaxy map (think Mass Effect‘s galaxy map), an inventory screen, a foundry (where you’ll craft things), a store, and some other options.
Here is where Warframe‘s biggest folly lies: not once are you ever told how these work. Some of these elements are pretty easy to pick up on (click a planet on the map to bring up nodes; these represent missions, which unlock branching paths when you play them), but others are more complicated (How do I make weapons? How do I get more Warframes? What’s an “Orokin Catalyst”?), and will require alternative methods to learn about and utilize. Thankfully, Warframe has a big community, so it’s not hard to pull up a Google search and find a half-dozen listings for why Excalibur is the best starting frame and why all the gear you’re given to start with isn’t going to hold up.
If you’ve ever played Vanquish for any length of time, then you already have a fairly good grasp on how Warframe works. While you won’t be slowing time down, virtually anything you can pull off in Platinum Games’ underrated 2011 shooter can be done here. However, there isn’t a single bit of hand-holding, which, as previously mentioned, is the biggest issue with the game. Tricks like sliding on your knees to move rapidly while unloading rounds on your foes, running up a wall to reach a better vantage point, and zipping through the air with your feet outstretched to kick enemies to the ground are all things you must find out through experimentation or word of mouth. While it’s a cool idea to keep these as “things to find out on your own,” the acrobatics of Warframe are a huge portion of what makes it unique. There’s nothing quite like running along a wall while laying down a hail of gunfire on unfortunately located foes below.
Warframe‘s unique blend of gunplay and melee is an unconventional approach to the shooting genre. While melee is almost always an option, it’s rarely given the same level of importance as the firearms you wield. Not so here – you’re actively encouraged to take advantage of the many stunts your melee weapon of choice grants you. While straight up punching at the faces of your foes isn’t the most viable option, leaping into the air and slamming a massive blade into the air to trip over your foes, giving some poor sod on the floor a flurry of punches to the face from a pair of gauntlets, or bisecting a mob of degenerating clones with an electric whip are just a few of the choices you’re given when it comes to hacking enemies apart. Not all weapons are the same, however, so while the Obex fisticuffs look cool (they taze and they punch!), they’re not going to be nearly as practical as the Scindo battleaxe. Thankfully, there’s a lot of gear to choose from, and the frequency of updates from Digital Extremes will see to it that you never run out of options.
There is no “overworld” in Warframe to speak of. The entire game consists of instances (organized by nodes on a web map), with missions that vary in faction, objective, potential loot, and tile set. Each faction is a completely different force to compete against, as the Grineer utilize overwhelming numbers and heavy armor, while the Corpus defend themselves with shields and robots that act as cannon fodder. Lastly, the Infested are a race that does what the name implies: over time, planets containing nodes that denote specific missions will become infested, and you will temporarily ally with that node’s faction to repel the infestation. Once the infestation meter for that planet is reduced to zero, the original faction will move back in, and the conflict resumes once again.
An interesting feature of Warframe is the previously mentioned tile set. Tile sets are different, grid-based chunks of a level that are randomly selected before every mission begins to make a completely unique level to explore and do battle in (much like TimeSplitters, though you’re not the one making the maps). The open-ended nature of tile sets means that you can end up in an expansive or linear map, making some missions lengthy and full of loot to find and use for crafting new gear, or others short and sweet to make boss runs that much shorter. While some may be irked by the idea of layouts not set in stone, the idea of never running into the exact same map twice is a refreshing take on the co-op shooter.
One of Warframe‘s biggest draws is the flashy, non-competitive gameplay you can enjoy with friends for the low price of free. However, the label of “free” is all too obvious, with all weapons, Warframes, and other gear being objects you can purchase right out of the box (albeit at inflated prices easily circumvented by farming for the parts needed to make these frames). While many items (such as the coveted, raid-exclusive Prime equipment) require that players achieve them instead of pulling out the wallet, the idea of being able to buy the newest gun the moment it’s released is quite odd. However, not one item that affects your ability to perform the game is behind a pay wall; all non-cosmetic items (and even then, some cosmetics) can be obtained with the simple concept of invested time. This is where the Monster Hunter comparisons come into play: if you want to get a new Latron rifle, you’ll have to purchase the blueprint with credits (earned through regular play) and construct it in the foundry using materials found during different missions. Once you’ve begun construction, timers come into play.
This is another aspect of Wareframe‘s free-to-play status. If you’re patient, your new gun will be ready within the next 12-24 hours. If you want your fancy new rifle now, however, you’ll need to drop a small amount of money to “rush” the build to completion. While it’s not going to impede your ability to participate normally, it wouldn’t be a surprise if this turned many away from the idea of playing the game. However, the nature of the game is the grind. You can always be better, and thus, you’ll almost always be looking for the next big thing to find, as there are no real goals set for you (outside of big events) besides the ones you want to achieve. Thus, you may love Warframe, or you may actively despise it.
Digital Extremes is a rare breed of company. Since they’re their own publisher and developer, they’re not hindered by a giant hand of enforcement (not naming any names). This means that they’re making the game they want to make, and they’re making it for the fans. The forums for Warframe are full of suggestions that the developers take extremely seriously, with new fan-conceived Warframes and weapons coming out at an impressive pace (a small update every 2-3 weeks, with major updates every one to two months). They’re also not afraid to completely rework the game from the ground up. The Warframe released in January of 2013 is very different from the Warframe you can play now, one year later. As this is being written, Digital Extremes has been showing plans to completely redo the game’s UI and introduce a totally new melee combat system. This is the kind of fan-to-developer involvement that comes around once in a blue moon, and it’s incredible to be a part of.