Developer: Digital Extremes
"Free-to-play cooperative space ninjas."
I could probably end the review right there, to be honest. Since its PC release, Warframe has boasted what's probably the most kickass high concept on the market; a F2P yet massively expanded take on Mass Effect 3's cooperative multiplayer, which casts us as ancient spacefaring ninjas free to bring death to power-armoured marines, robots and zombies with outlandish guns and Sci-Fi samurai gear. It's a game in which you can throw down on a spider tank with an electric katana, breed a mutant dog to bring into combat, enhance your equipment with collectible cards and even find yourself abducted by a cyborg Frankenwolf in the middle of a match because you insulted one of the factions.
It's also shonky, unpolished, grindy, hinges around a bizarre economy and throws in a huge number of overlapping gameplay systems without worrying about whether they all work properly. Warframe is too crazy to live. And I love it.
If you haven't jumped into Destiny yet, I'd highly recommend giving Warframe a whirl, especially now it's out on Xbox One. And free. It might just be the cure for your Science Fiction slaughterfest bug.
Warframe's premise feels like the polar opposite of most clichéd Sci-Fi titles. Several factions vie for control of a dark future solar system, torn apart through centuries of war, but an ancient menace is re-emerging. The Tenno, bio-engineered weapons of the Old War (and a hilarious reference to Dark Sector, Digital Extreme's long-forgotten console shooter), are reanimating and embarking on a mysterious deadly agenda of their own. So far, so conventional, except that we play as that ancient menace and exist solely to slaughter the militarised survivors of the apocalypse. Basically, we're the Reapers.
Apart from the tragic miscasting of community manager Rebecca Ford as your main contact (whose disinterested Canadian monotone makes no sense in the Eastern-infused setting), the lived-in universe feels rich and leaves much to the imagination or Codex lore hunters; teasing in a way that reminds me strongly of Panzer Dragoon. The art direction is sumptuous; imagining the Tenno as literally faceless assassins sculpted out of metal and ceramic, whereas each enemy faction looks unique, functional, authentic and deeply consistent. Despite lacking the ridiculous PhysX support of the PC version, the PS4 and Xbox One versions acquit themselves well. It looks like nothing else out there, and sounds distinctive too, powered by Japanese Taiko drums rather than rock or dubstep.
We're here for the action, though, which as mentioned plays out much like Mass Effect 3's multiplayer suite. After a new expanded tutorial quest chain -- an interesting and canonical diversion that vastly improves the new player experience -- you'll settle into a routine of picking missions from a massive list of different planets from your space ship hub, at which point you'll be grouped together with three fellow Tenno and sent into battle. Initially it feels like a traditional third-person shooter as you shoot and slice your way through legions of cyborg marines and hulking boss monstrosities with assault rifles and melee weapons, spilling over your foes like a tidal wave. Unlike traditional MMOs, the tight four-player focus allows for competent AI (shock horror!) and a stiff challenge.
Continued play reveals some ridiculous depths, however. Each Warframe -- your Tenno's battlesuit -- functions like a class, boasting unique action skills that can inflict radial damage or trigger wild effects at the cost of limited energy. Personally, I favour the healing-centric Trinity frame, but it's just one of a handful of suits that I slip into to match the situation, including a magnetic-themed frame that channels Magneto's darker moments and a deadly melee-based Valkyrie. Mobility is much faster and more pronounced than most shooters, due to the ability to wall-run, climb and flip, while a ridiculously in-depth melee system lets you take full control of your blade, axe or staff with numerous combos, blocks and attacks.
There's a lot to take in here and much of it is unpolished, since Digital Extremes just threw everything they could at Warframe without really scrutinising the result. Aim sensitivity is all over the shop unless you deactivate aim assist, wall running activates inconsistently, the map can be rather confusing and tutorials barely explain the numerous damage types or how to effectively use the melee system. On board your ship, your friendly AI's dialogue obscures important menus, while the font size is horribly small. The Xbox One version isn't compatible with resume game functionality, leading to unsightly crashes when you first boot it up. There's a lot to be said for a game doing its own thing, damn the criticism, though criticise I must.
Thankfully, somehow, it all works.
This is partly down to Warframe's missions and structure. Though often boiling down to 'kill everyone' or 'kill everyone trying to destroy your precious McGuffin,' there's some interesting variety on show here, helped by some quirky map choices (such as fragile spaceship windows that can be shattered to vent atmosphere) and multi-levelled design. Bosses take some serious punishment and reveal their own twisted personalities, while little surprises are built into Warframe's DNA.
For example, some time-sensitive alerts can ping without warning in a particular planet, seeing Tenno flock to claim unique rewards against harder foes. Sometimes you can choose which faction to support in pitched battles.
Better yet, earning the ire of a specific faction can result in an assassin being deployed, who'll eventually catch up with you in the middle of a standard mission with almost no warning. Whether a team of murderous cyborgs, void-walking horror or a horrific robot quadruped stitched together out of harvested Tenno, these events can change a standard mission into a crazy improvised rout at a moment's notice as teams suddenly switch their focus to save their comrade from a fate worse than death.
No, seriously, worse than death. Sometimes you won't be killed outright...
The upshot is that there's a surprising variety of objectives on offer, which helps to stave off repetition for a time and factors neatly into the second major draw of Warframe: persistent progression. Each frame, weapon, sidearm and melee weapon (of which there are several dozens) earns its own experience, which allows you to equip a number of Mods -- collectible cards dropped from enemies or as completion rewards -- that upgrade countless parameters and can be further upgraded themselves. New frames can be crafted after collecting blueprints and components. Powers become more powerful, skills more skillful, and weapons more deadly. You can even create and breed an attack dog with various traits, should you want to. And all the while, you'll continually tweak your increasingly brutal space ninja to suit your playstyle.
Unfortunately the Free To Play economy makes a bit of a mess of things here. It's possible to construct every Warframe and most weapons without spending any real money (blueprints cost in-game credits), but doing so can be a drag as components are randomly dropped by specific bosses and crafting anything comes with a ridiculously long wait time (anywhere from 12 hours to more than a day -- real time).
Even though it's arguably fair, the economy feels like it's forcing us to pay to avoid waiting around. For the record, I was granted a sizeable amount of premium currency, but purposefully decided to craft myself a frame the old-fashioned way before spending any. It's easily doable -- I'm now the proud owner of a durable Rhino frame I made myself -- but only after several lengthy days of play, two days of literal waiting for fabrication and farming an early boss for many hours.
Digital Extremes needs to vary up the drops or decrease the wait time, quite frankly, seeing as other arbitrary limits (such as inventory restrictions and limited mid-mission revives that replenish every 24 hours) are also in place to compel real-life spend. But then again, you'll be able to kick a copious amount of cyborg posterior without spending even a single penny.
- Frenetic shoot-and-slash'em up space ninja action for four players
- Addictive progression, crafting and incentive to cooperate
- Cohesive and beautiful art direction, unique look, sound and feel
- Some varied missions and enjoyable surprises
- Still slightly unstable (and several update versions behind) on consoles
- Economy feels unfair due to long wait times and RNG drops, even though it's broadly okay
- Some seriously rough edges and oversights; weird sensitivity and wall-run behaviour
- Repetitious by design
The Short Version: I absolutely adore Warframe despite its rough edges and questionable economy. Since 'grind' is just another word for 'annihilating hordes of foes as an awesome space ninja,' featuring plentiful surprises, addictive progression, strong co-op, overlapping gameplay systems and gorgeous art design, I can forgive any number of niggling flaws.
Especially seeing as it's free. If you're not jumping into Destiny yet, this cooperative Sci-Fi romp won't cost you a penny.
NB: Warframe was extremely unstable at launch on Xbox One, though Digital Extremes have patched things up over the last few days.