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What's Up With Warframe?

Critical Ninja

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By which I mean: I’ve played Warframe over the past couple of weeks and will now write about it, for your possible edification.

Warframe is a sci-fi over-the-shoulder shooter where space ninjas have upgradeable sharkfin heads. Sadly that doesn’t quite clinch the deal, because the free-to-play beast of Digital Extremes has been in beta for a year now, and still hasn’t quite driven home the wakizashi of success. But has that journey delivered it from the hollow purgatory of its early release? Or will it determine to be a footnote in the history of free-to-play experimentation?

I donned my impossible fish helmet to find out.

There is a voice inside me. Somewhere deep down in the fossilising lobes of my brain resides an eager mouth that calls in from my past. It is a youthful me, filled with irrational exuberance. It looks at the art and sci-fi glamour-gloom of Warframe and says: “THIS IS THE STUFF!”

It’s a game of space grimdark the way I like it, with design that echoes the great space fantasies of Dune, with the less silly bits of 40K. Someone has been here and written some fabulous visuals with genuine talent, and the thrumming, arching levels are wonderfully threatening environments for combat.

Yes, Warframe looks like a game that some deeply-rooted part me of should (and sort of does) love unquestioningly: it is set in a world of space ninjas, and features 4-player co-op battles against hordes of grisly AI. As you play you upgrade through an exotic library of biomorphic armour, punchy assault rifles, Japanese swords, fancy space pistols and weird drone things. The movement is pacey (if bizarrely stamina-limited) and allows for leaping over stuff, sliding, and using special powers to zap into people with a sword flourish.

I love the lavish menus, and the way that the level selection progression system spills through a cool solar system space map thing. If I were making a game about space ninjas then I’d want it to look like this, except perhaps I’d add some big Japanese spaceships. Warframe has the look, and much of the genetics, that might give way to a genuinely entertaining game. Sure, people say the game’s under-fleshed and shadowy theme is generic, and it probably is, but that art style of grimdark and sharkhead ninjas speaks to me, and I am sorry about that.

The real problem, though, is not that both Warframe and I are in love with questionable sci-fi imagery, but that Warframe’s characters, equipment and setting seem to imply a sort of finesse of tactical combat game systems that it just doesn’t have. I’ll be a little unfair at this point and play armchair designer: what it needs something like.. oh, I don’t know: a suppression and flanking system a la Brothers In Arms. Your ninja chums could be laying down suppressing fire on the badguys while someone flanks and goes to work at close range on the distracted enemy with a sword. That sort of mechanic, set up and knocked over time after time, would probably have made this fairly engaging. I say probably because I am just guessing. I am grasping at some straws, and the straws are the possibility space of what might have this game interesting, instead of mildly stimulating, but ultimately vacuous.

Instead of any such framework enemies just run into the various arenas, occasionally lazily attach themselves to cover, and then you shoot them. Sometimes you sword them, and sometimes you even special-power them. If you and three mates manage to do that without taking too much damage from the marching, wave shooting enemies, then all’s well and it’s XP time. (It’s not even quite as good as the Mass Effect multiplayer, I don’t think, and it’s batting in a similar ballpark.)

I should mention at this point that there is something else going on: because you are space ninjas there’s an opportunity on every level to avoid things kicking off and sneak through undetected. If you kill dudes in the right sort of way you avoid bumping up the security level and so avoid the worst of the enemy spawns. Quite how or why this matters isn’t all that clear, and neither is the stealth mechanism itself. I should stress that there is no stealth per se, it’s just about how and when you kill certain dudes. It seems totally arbitrary, as if at some point someone said “hey, aren’t ninja men supposed to be stealthy?” The shrugged reponse to that question is the game systems we find in Warframe’s stealth aspect.

I sound disappointed, and even snarky, and that’s probably not fair. It’s true that I disappointed, but then I kept on playing Warframe for ages, even well after point when I realised that it wasn’t going to develop some deeper set of skills for me to master. I like the way it looks and feels, I enjoy the progression, and I’ve got a kick out of unlocking stuff, in that way that you do. It’s a fair slice of hectic Run ‘n Gun, which shouldn’t be sniffed at too hard. The freeness means it’s worth downloading and taking a look, even with the reservations that I lay out in here.

It helps, of course, that the game gets considerably tougher after its quiet opening levels. As you get deeper into the game you begin to need a well-equipped and clued-in group of players to take on the tougher waves of baddies. Failure becomes real, which I like. The fighting can often be pretty intense, even without that much tactical depth. There’s simply a lot going on, and a lot of dudes that need shooting. Sometimes that’s enough.

There is, however, a sort of critical linchpin in each and every F2P game review, and it’s the question of whether the game enticed me to spend money. Once again, it did not. Perhaps it’s was unknowable quality of what’s on offer: sure, that new Warframe seems better, but it doesn’t look that much better? Because in a game with stats and cosmetics in one bundle, I want both. Moreover: do I really want it when I could buy a whole other game for a few bucks? Has the game made me care enough?

It has not.

I am sure that one day a F2P game will make me slap down some real world spacebucks. But not this time.

Warframe is available now.

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Jim Rossignol

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