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Warframe: now a game of music-making as well as action

Digital Extremes explain Octavia's Anthem

"I never thought I’d be doing this in Warframe," says George Spanos, audio director on Digital Extreme's free to play online third-person shooter. All of a sudden, a shooting game is a music game too - a music game in which you create your own soundtrack, then use it as a weapon. The game's Octavia's Anthem update, which adds essentially a bard class to the game, is out today and very different to anything they've done with it before.

He's been showing me the latest of the game's titular Warframes (biomechanical suits that players can switch between in order to access a growing range of abilities) and though Octavia, as it/she is known, retains the shoot'n'stab combat that is the game's essence, she also introduces music-making to the game. The ever-dancing Octavia uses music to kill - but first the player has to create that music.

In order to achieve this, Warframe update 20 [official site], aka Octavia’s Anthem, introduces a bespoke sequencer tool along with Octavia herself. Both can be unlocked for free by playing through a new questline, or you can pay to shortcut straight to unlocking her if so you choose. As you can see, Octavia's always dancing ("we mo-capped a dancer on the team") which gives her an immediate charisma advantage over every preceding Warframe:

Watch on YouTube

To dance, she needs music, naturally. This music is, for each player, a bespoke combination of percussion, bass and melody, each of which is tied to Octavia's powers and has different effects upon the game. Percussion augments damage, the bassline creates a Pied Piper effect which enemies will follow so you can thin the herd, and melody element conjures buffs for you and your team.

As you play, your music plays - and so too does a visual representation of it, in psychedelic shapes generated around you that look, for all the world, like Winamp vizualisers made 3D and transposed into a sci-fi environment. It's a pleasantly surreal visual remix of a game that can otherwise be quite a muted affair.

While to some extent using this stuff is a familiar combo of passive and hotbar skills, there is a far more active element you can choose to deploy. You can, for instance, crouch rhythmically in time with the melody as you move, which, if pulled off correctly, will drop you into invisi-stealth mode. Or you can trigger melee attacks in time with the percussion to boost damage.

Of course, if you're going to be doing such things, you'll want to be doing it to a song that makes you feel good. And that onus is entirely on you.

"Not only is [Octavia] a cool frame, you can use also use the composition tool,” Spanos tells me, describing it as “another game within the game." Though apparently complex at first sight, the idea behind the sequencer is that it's entirely straightforward for those who don't know music theory to use, whereas those who do dig in deep can wring far more out of it. "It's very intuitive," claims Spanos. Here's a look at how creating percussion works:

Watch on YouTube

And here's the same track with other layers added onto it:

Watch on YouTube

The key signature and tempo is fixed, which in theory prevents even the most tone-deaf player from creating something truly horrific, while there's also a maximum of 16 beats per bar (raised to 24 for the percussion element), so audio trolls can't make everyone else's game nightmarish by spamming everything all at once. Because, yes, co-op players will hear - and be aided by - your music. If there are multiple Octavias, the idea is their songs will naturally complement each other, rather than become discordant, so your team gets its own unique - and listenable - soundtrack.

Here's what the track we saw being created above looks and sounds like when Octavia's using it in-game:

Watch on YouTube

Definitely adds a rythmic feel to the combat, and I dig the Winampy effects the little robo-buddy chucks out.

The track there is fairly dancy as you can hear, but the type of music you can make is defined by what genre packs you own. One, orchestral ("we went to a local art school and got the students to play the parts, recording strings, brass, woodwind...") is provided with the Warframe/sequencer pack, but others, including the likes of rock and EDM, need to be bought with in-game currency Platinum. If Octavia and the sequencer prove popular, expect the tool to evolve over time. “That’s the cool thing, we can just keep making packs and expanding on them."

You can freely mix and match packs within a song, by the way - at one point I'm played a creation that pairs orchestral instruments with Japanese Taiko drums (themselves something of a signature sound for Warframe, I'm told). Hopefully those who know what they're doing can really burrow in and come up with distinctive tracks of their own, while philistines like me cobble a basic beat together and go have fun.

Tracks can be freely traded and shared by players, though there's a five song limit on how many players can store at any given time. Expect recreations of pop songs to spread like wildfire, though the fixed key and tempo obviously places restrictions on making exact remakes. For instance, "you could replicate Star Wars, more or less. It's in a D minor pentatonic, so you can look up on the web what's possible."

As for Octavia herself, you gain access to her by completing a new chain of Syndicate quests in the game. Syndicates are six neutral factions in the Warframe universe, and the devs have been gradually giving each of them their own questline over time, which generally gifts you with a new Waframe at the end of it.

The new chain this time around is handed out by Cephalon Suda, an apparently emotionless AI with a vaguely Tronish light cube motif and with a particular interest in humanity. Apparently Suda's quests "touch on really human themes," and are particularly interested in the question of why an AI would be at all interested in music - probably some clues there to the origins of the Octavia Warframe, I imagine.

Syndicate quests have apparently been particularly well-received by those players who enjoy Warframe's lore as well as its action, so this update seems to be an important triple-threat addition for the game - new Warframe, new story and entirely new mechanics. How, how quickly can someone knock up a passable rendition of Suspicious Minds for me to kill dudes in time to?

Warframe update 20: Octavia's Anthem is out today. The game and the bulk of the update is free to play, but you can pay for add-ons if you so wish.

Correction: This article originally stated that tracks would be sellable, which is no longer the case - they are freely shareable.

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