Spaceships, and “ninjas”, and loot! Oh my!
I have a love/hate relationship with grind and for better or worse: Warframe relies on grind. Generally, grind can be satisfying: a steady drip of XP as you slaughter cannon fodder feeling like a badass as you work to upgrade and unlock equipment. When done right, it feels like you’re being rewarded for playing well and it feels good. Conversely, grind can be infuriating if XP drips slowly or if there’s no imagination in the way you acquire it. The process can feel like a chore, akin to being a worker drone collecting pollen but never getting a real taste of the honey. That doesn’t feel good, at all.
Warframe is a free-to-play model that is supported by a cash store full of items that mostly negate grind, this is a tricky balance to maintain at the best of times. Is the game itself slick enough for the actual process of that grind to feel like enjoyable badass progress rather than frustrating worker drone tedium?
The sci-fi action game begins with a brief explanation of lore and setting, and a tutorial covering the very basics of movement and combat. Both feel like placeholders for something more, aside from a few tiny cinematic sequences of ships docking at stations and snippets of audio dialogue, there’s not much in the way of story yet. The style’s bleak, slightly dystopian, and has the interesting spin of Earth being the home to the primary antagonists, so there’s potential here for story to be developed into something satisfying.
You control a Tenno, you pilot the titular Warframe, an ancient device that appears to be more advanced than contemporary technology. These armoured suits come across like a mash-up of pop-culture ninjas and Metal Gear style cyborg soldiers. That kind of robot death dealing warrior in space is that pure geek fantasy realised. Warframes are cool!
There are three enemy factions, each with different strategies for attack. The militant Grineer tend to favour a tight formation, cover-based approach; the Corpus use robots and drones to shield and disrupt; the Infected rely on numbers, sending out waves of enemies to swamp into submission. Each feels significantly different to the other, and certain weapons and frames are more/less effective against certain factions.
You can tackle each mission alone or with up to four friends to tackle objectives that range from retrieving data packages to killing everything on board. These can be dynamic, too, with focus shifting halfway through a mission. For instance: your initial goal could be to destroy a reactor and escape the ship before meltdown, but when the countdown starts you’re informed a prisoner is on board that requires rescuing. It’s not perfect yet, (at times the countdown can be too short for the distance needed to even reach your new objective), but once the creases are ironed the system could add a randomness and variety that make missions tense and urgent.
There are currently two level types on offer: Corpus ship and Grineer base, (with infected variants of each) and they're in pretty stark contrast. The Corpus levels are sleek, hi-tech, claustrophobic containers with the occasional larger sprawling hanger type areas, while the Grineer reside in dilapidated, low-tech, steam punk style caverns. While the currently limited to the two, the devs promise more levels will be added. In the meantime, the procedurally generated style keeps exploration feeling fresh.
The combat is simple: primary weapon (assault rifle, shotgun, sniper), secondary (pistol, smg), melee (sword, axe, gauntlets, etc...). You can switch between your guns at will while your melee weapon is held in reserve ready to be drawn and sheathed at the press of a button. Death comes thick and fast, and it's angry and explosive. Blood splatters, limbs fly, heads explode. It's grim in all the ways it needs to be.
The guns can feel underwhelming to fire at times and they rarely feel like they're making damaging impact. While they're fun to use in terms of mechanics, the sound and feel of them isn't always in keeping with the damage being dealt. Not all guns suffer like this and the sci-fi fizz and crackle works well for some, but guns such as the sniper rifle just don't feel weighty enough.
Melee, on the other hand, feels brutal, like contact hurts. Melee weapons can be swung quickly as your frame steps forward, conducting fluid combinations, or charged and released to cleave wounded enemies in two. The problem with melee combat is inversed to those of gunplay: it feels just right, but it’s not very efficient. So, if guns are (in general) very effective yet slightly unsatisfying to fire, melee can seem a little underpowered even though contact is vicious. Additionally, the combo system is pretty limited, with each weapon limited with a single series of combinations activated by tapping the melee button, and if close-combat is going to be anything more than a backup mechanic, it’s going to need expanding upon. Luckily, the developers have confirmed this is being looked at.
There are a variety of Warframes on offer. Each has its own role to play, such as tank, caster, stealth, etc, which is defined by the four powers it has access to. The Rhino Frame, for example, is a heavy frame with a more defensive style armed with area-of-effect powers that reflect its stature, whereas the cloaking Loki frame is more covert in nature with skills that focus on stealth and distraction. Powers are supplied by an energy pool, filled by collecting enemy-dropped or hidden orbs, and each costs a different amount depending on its level of output.
Items are acquired by either purchasing them from the store for real money invested or by hunting blueprints and materials in game. Each item levels independently, and upgrades are installed using a node system a la Dead Space 2. Nodes offers different benefits and can be fitted with mods that have been dropped by enemies, which is where the real customisation for each item happens. But as mods are found via random drops, you’re limited to outfitting your gear in whatever way the game has chosen for you. It can be a little frustrating when you want to spec your set-up for a certain type of output but if you enjoy the random loot dispenser style of games like Diablo and Borderlands, this isn’t far off. It’ll leave some cold, but cause frenzied addiction in others. You’ll soon find out where your preferences lie after levelling a few items.
Each item can be levelled to 15, at this point you require access to an item - known in the community as a “super-charger” - to unlock the remaining 15 levels. This, of course, can be purchased for real money, or you can hunt for blueprints and mats to build them. This is one aspect of the game that feels like a wall for its non-paying players. This formerly pay-for only item was added into the free-to-play game in reaction to fans objections, but it’s still too rare that it begs for further tweaking. The rest of the free-to-play content is very easy to acquire.
Yes, It’s grind, but that’s a necessary evil of the free-to-play model, the trick is making the grind long enough for the store purchased short cuts to seem appealing without frustrating players. I’ve played the game both ways: purchasing gear and grinding for it the free- way and I found I had to spend very little. The game feels very fair to its free players, with the inevitable grind being acceptable and everything but a few cosmetic options being available to find without a penny needing to be spent.
Overall the game is quite impressive. It looks great, the graphics are crisp and artful, with a proprietary engine powering it all that hums along slickly. The amount of content on offer may be limited currently, but it’s varied, interesting and being updated regularly. The foundation of combat and movement is hinting at something in-depth that will offer both ease of access but a high skill ceiling and has a lot of potential to be expanded upon. The acquisition of gear is fair to those who choose not to pay, and most short-cuts feel well priced. What issues it has can be forgiven due its stage in the development process, and developer interaction has been frequent and responsive to fans. So far, this particular frame feels sturdy enough to build a universe on, time will tell whether the cracks on show are simply joins waiting to be fused or weakness in the structure that'll prevent it towering to its full potential. So far Warframe's future looks bright, and tall, and very violent.