Warframe [official site] is a free-to-play third person online shooter/stabber, in which you customise and upgrade a sort of spiritual robo-guy and battle hordes of AI-controlled foes, usually with the help of other players, and always in the pursuit of more loot. Yes, much like Destiny, although Warframe was released some 18 months earlier. This is my first time with it, and I was curious as to its ongoing popularity.
“Just let me die,” he called forlornly, as he was swamped for the third consecutive time by a horde of silent, rectangular-helmeted evildoers. Hey buddy, I thought, I feel dirty for spending so much time jogging on this infinite loot wheel too, but it’s not that bad, is it?
Turns out my team-mate was bugged, stuck in place thanks to one of Warframe’s many physics glitches, and his dutiful squad’s constant attempts to resurrect him were confounding his plan to respawn elsewhere. This is Warframe in a nutshell: a game of huge ambition and some frankly eerie similarities to the mega-budget Destiny despite pre-dating it by over a year, but it can’t quite keep all its plates spinning.
So I let him die, like the hero I am. He respawned elsewhere, free once more to be showered in a dozen different varieties of loot. He seemed happy. Was I?
This fleeting moment of twisted humanity, almost a cinematic mercy kill, had engaged me more than any other aspect of Warframe. Sure, that’s the inherent beauty of online games for you: unexpected unison or enmity with strangers, working together to best or stretch the game. Yet it also speaks to how hollow Warframe is. I do not consider it ‘bad’, but simply hollow. Hollow is what many folk want, of course.
There are so many things to upgrade, and so many ways to do it. A titular Warframe, for instance, is the mech-shell your character inhabits, and you choose/buy which of several dozens types to use.
Then you choose cosmetic tweaks for it – helmets, arms, legs, chestpiece add-ons, regalia, cloaks, colours for each. Each of these has a price, which requires either completing/repeating tons of missions and/or trading the rewards gained from them, or choosing to stump up real cash to shortcut. On top of that you’ve got Mods, an enormous array of very specific upgrades, such as shield strength or movement speed or crit chance, and which are available in various strengths and rarities. On top of that, they can be crafted into more powerful forms, or have their polarities reversed to unlock new combinations or… Well, you take my point. And this is just the armour. The weapons have most of the same options and systems too, plus you can have a friendly combat drone which has its own upgrades and mods.
The rabbit hole is deep, and post-mission re-upping is extensive. This is the real game of Warframe, and the frantic shooty-stabby combat of its looping, austere missions is merely the conduit to doing more of it.
It’s as hollow as coin-collecting, yes, but similarly there’s a pleasure to it too. Building the character you want. Someone built for tricks and speed, for stealth and range, for tanking and firearms: it’s your call, rather than specific classes. Hell, simply painting my giant Anubis-bot Warframe in a colour scheme that vaguely resembles Ultra Magnus is a good time, even though it requires buying paint colours.
I can do the same with the exterior and interior of my ship too – the ship being essentially a crafting menu incarnate, but as a result it’s where I spend most of my time. I’d play Starship Home Improvement happily enough, but I’m not sure I’ll stick with the shooting game it’s wrapped around for long.
The combat itself has meat to it: there’s a constant and pleasurable choice between ranged and melee available, both suitably crunchy-feeling, and with MMO-style super-abilities in the mix too, but I’ve found the structure of the few dozen levels and the missions I’ve played tiresome. Sprawling mazes in frequently indistinguishable locations, chains of doors and static scenery, enemy hordes who do little more than rush-attack, tedious objectives such as kill every one of 93 foes or defend five pylons twice each.
Sure, there’s a variety of mission types, plus randos like Just Let Me Die enhance any experience, but there isn’t much flow to it. Destiny (I know the comparison is somewhat unfair given that Warframe is by far the earlier game, but the similarities are striking; whether coincidental, homage on Bungie’s part or the result of later Warframe updates I cannot say) is a no less looping experience, but it does fold escalation and visual drama into its non-patrol missions.
Warframe’s tasks so far have tended to be ‘go in, keep doing thing until it ends’, and I’m rarely left with a sense of triumph at the end. Granted, it’s only had a day and half of my time and no doubt stiffer challenges await, but trouble is it hasn’t thrown any thrilling situations at me during that time. Hence, I feel little pull to go back, beyond a dim nag to stick some better mods on my cyber-crossbow. Destiny’s lustre wore off too and I have no desire to ever return to that game, but at least it took a while before the inherent repetition was unavoidable.
I do like the weapons, I must say. Many different styles have been thrown into a tombola: throwing knives and dual pistols, machine guns and bow and arrows, Bōs and flaming cyber-gloves. In terms of selling a clear theme it’s all over the place, but in terms of picking the toys that you most get a kick out of, it’s definitely onto something.
I’m robo-Anubis with a poison mech-bow, a spiky staff and throwing knives, and that does tickle me. I wish I got to be that guy in a more interesting game, and one more willing to acknowledge the rich silly streak of the character and weapon designs. As for plotting and dialogue, well, Warframe makes me pine for Wizards On The Moon guff. Not that anyone’s playing Warframe for that stuff, but it’s a shame it has to be quite as turgid as it is.
Factor in a smattering of obvious bugs, be it Mr Let Me Die’s problem, a mission stuck forever on the loading screen or innumerable physics glitches that saw foes stuck in trees, enemy corpses thrown across the landscape or still standing after death, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that Warframe just doesn’t quite match up the high-gloss presentation. It’s not unattractive, and again some of the Warframe armour designs are pleasing, but muted, washed-out colours and too many differing styles blends it all into visual soup. I’m not 100% confident I could pick out Warframe from a gallery of sci-fi shooters 2012-2016.
As a free game, you can get some hours out of it but will almost certainly spend money if you want to achieve any meaningful upgrades without putting vast amount of time into repeating missions and selling loot gained from them on the in-game trade network. It’s Warframe’s right to make money of course, but trouble is that, if you want to maintain that sense of progression, you’re likely to keep spending cash, and psychologically that’s a trickier prospect than “I bought the whole game, let’s have fun.”
I feel that I’m going to suffer from “is that it?” buyer’s remorse most every time I choose to chuck some pounds at Warframe. Of course, some players are going to have friends and clans in here and thus be more inherently committed to long-term Warframing, and those who are willing and able to put huge amounts of time in every week will be be able to generate or trade sufficient in-game resources themselves, so please don’t take my response as universal. I do feel, though, that playing with randoms or semi-solo for only bursts of time rather than a long haul is likely to go the way it did for me.
There are two games in Warframe, the character designer and the combat missions, neither bad but neither wonderful, and most of all they don’t quite gel with each other. I enjoy hanging around designing my character until I run into cash-blocks and so decide to go into the field again, then I’m happy shooting cool guns and swinging my cool staff, but this wears thin from repetition and a lack of tangible escalation.
As with Destiny, playing with a regular group and learning to master high-end missions would make a world of difference, but crucially I’ve not felt the pull to do that, or a compelling reason beyond stat-chasing to stick with it for the long term. Warframe’s serviceable enough, but doesn’t have enough character to mask how brazen a hamster wheel it is.