Better Late Than Early
HIGH Wallrunning and gliding undetected past laser security systems.
LOW Getting through the initial haze of learning all the ins and outs.
WTF Wait a minute, this red spot on my neck was not there yesterday…
Being a game reviewer these days is pretty damned tricky. Thanks to downloadable content, patches, design updates, balance updates, online connectivity, microtransactions and factoring in both ambient and active multiplayer, the days when a writer could sit down, put some time in, pass final judgment and move on are rapidly disappearing. Take Warframe, for example.
It was the first thing I downloaded to my PS4 back in 2013, and it wasn’t tough to sell me on the idea of biomechanical ninjas in space — the preview art looked amazing, I was wanting some co-op, and it seemed like the perfect thing to try on a brand-new console. I was in… And then I deleted it after about 45 minutes. It looked rough, the gameplay was ill-defined, and the controls were problematic. But to their credit, Digital Extremes kept at it, constantly improving and iterating. Every so often I’d hear that it got a big update and I’d check back in, but never found it up to snuff. All told, I think I downloaded and deleted it three or four times.
If I had reviewed Warframe during my previous attempts to get stuck in, my evaluation would have been negative and that would have been the end of it. However, thanks to the evolving nature of modern gaming, support from a strong fanbase and an unshakable dedication to the project, the only conclusion I can come to now is that Digital Extremes has turned their diamond in the rough into a brightly gleaming gem.
In its current incarnation, Warframe is a free-to-play third-person action title with some MMO elements, although it’s more of a Moderately Multiplayer Online affair since there are generally no more than four players in a mission at any time. Warframe does offer microtransactions, although the majority of things for sale are cosmetic, like pieces of armor or swirling capes that have no effect on play, and none are necessary to advance. For people who don’t want to put in a penny, it’s easy to make consistent progress without spending. I realize some players aren’t open to F2P games under any circumstance, but frankly, this aspect is inoffensive.
For those not immediately scared off by the F2P status, the biggest pill to swallow is that the first couple of hours are somewhat miserable. The tutorial doesn’t explain much past bare-bones basics, and there’s a lot going on. There are systems upon systems, constant jargon, tons of menus, and almost none is detailed in an easily-digestible fashion. To be fair, Warframe does offer codex-based info and certain elements are unrolled over time, but I suspect most newcomers will find the beginning to be murky, unfocused and often unfathomable.
Compounding this problem is that anyone (like me) who started a while ago and wants to come back will find there’s no way to replay the tutorial. I had forgotten everything since my last real session, and it was only thanks to constant Q&A with friends on Twitter that I was able to get over the learning curve. However, once I found my footing, I found the modern incarnation of Warframe to be a rich, detailed experience with an addicting gameplay loop and strong multiplayer.
While there’s an intricately-crafted sci-fi universe full of lore on offer, I’ll skip a synopsis since it’s too complicated get into. Suffice it to say that while it’s slow to unravel, there are many neat highlights in the plot, and that being a Giger-esque ninja in space is sufficiently badass. People who like to dig into a world and make narrative connections will be satisfied.
So, the gameplay. The titular warframes are suits out of space armor that come equipped with a main weapon, a sidearm, and a melee weapon. Players can switch between the frames in their possession between missions, and each one has their own unique set of four special abilities and one passive. Oberon can heal teammates, Nyx can turn enemies against each other, Rhino turns completely invulnerable, and more.
Every aspect of a frame can be leveled up, and as each piece levels, it gains ability slots. Players will pick up random ‘cards’ for these slots during play, and they contain various abilities — anything from increasing rifle damage, adding elemental effects, reducing the cost of casting ‘spells’ and more.
Between the large number of warframes and the massive number of weapons, cards and abilities, there’s a great deal of freedom to craft or build nearly any type of character desired, and as players leave the early game, it becomes important to balance team abilities. Using Frost’s force field to defend from projectiles is great, but it’s not going to hold back a swarm forever. If he’s running a mission with Excalibur and his energy sword or has crowd control from Nidus’ rampaging infestation abilities, the odds will swing in the player’s favor.
Combat is incredibly fast and all of the frames are nimble, capable of leaping immense distances, gliding, sliding, wallrunning, clinging to surfaces, and of course, it’s all capped off with good old-fashioned gunplay and sword swinging. Or nunchuk bashing. Or claw swiping. It feels fantastic to zip through a level, land for a heartbeat to take out a few grunts, and then disappear back into the sky before ever taking a point of damage.
While this quicksilver killing is at the core of almost every mission, there are a wide variety of objectives – straightforward slaughter, stealthy espionage, defense, space flight, and more. They’re all easy enough to solo at first, but the time will come when the assistance of others will be desired, and the multi in Warframe is great.
To its credit, the community is large and vibrant, even after four years. While there are dozens of missions available, Warframe does a good job highlighting the ones most active, and finding randoms to group with is painless — I’ve never been lacking partners when I wanted them, and it’s as simple as the push of a button. Voice chat can be disabled (it’s rarely necessary) and if the team fails, no one keeps any loot or EXP. As such, it’s in everyone’s best interest to work together, and in the 80-ish hours I’ve logged so far, bad behavior hasn’t been an issue.
Warframe is lightning-fast, it’s flashy, it’s great in short bursts or longer sessions, and once past the learning curve, I fell in love with this title that burned me so many times before — and it was only possible because today’s technology allows developers to keep iterating and improving until they get it right. Digital Extremes never gave up, and because of it, I was able to finally connect with one of the best experiences I’ve had all year. Being a reviewer in modern times brings new challenges, but it also brings new rewards.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Digital Extremes. It is currently available on PS4, Xbox One and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via free download and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 80 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode at the time of this review, and not all of the story-based quests were completed. Every part of the game can be played solo or multiplayer, and for the purposes of this review, approximately 75 hours were spent with at least one other person.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains Blood and Gore and Violence. If you ask me, the M is overkill. My young son plays it and I have no misgivings. I’d rate it as more of a T, but the official descriptor reads: This is a third-person shooter in which players control members of the Tenno, ancient warriors that battle enemy factions throughout the solar system. Players use machine guns, blades, throwing knives, and bows to kill robotic enemy creatures to complete mission objectives. Battles are accompanied by realistic gunfire, sword slashes, and screams of pain. Large blood-splatter effects occur when enemies are hit; blade attacks can sometimes result in enemies being dismembered and/or cut in half.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: There are subtitles for all dialogue and visual cues for all audio components, but be aware that characters often pop up and share information while a mission is in progress. Sometimes it’s play-relevant, sometimes not. However, there’s so much happening during play that it’s quite difficult to catch what’s being said, even for a person with normal hearing. Having to read that info in the middle of a firefight is a serious challenge.
Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.
Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.
Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway