Have you ever dreamed of zipping up a space ninja suit, pulling out a machine gun, then running up some walls while shooting robots? This is the promise of Warframe, a third-person freerunning shooter developed by Digital Extremes. The game has an excellent pedigree in the shooter genre: Digital Extremes had a hand with Epic Games in developing the venerable Unreal series of FPS games. With Warframe, they’ve added some MMO-style looting, crafting and social mechanics to the mix to create a sense of community and progression. The game is currently listed as being in open beta, a status it’s been in for almost a year. Since they’ve updated the game twelve times and feel comfortable asking for the price of a AAA boxed product through their cash shop, we thought it might be time to take a look and see if they are delivering the alien ninja goods.
The art design in the game is stylish and refreshing. There are, currently, eighteen different warframes listed on the website. Each one has their own look and feel, with a variety of powers, cosmetic options and weapons that players can equip to make their in-game avatar unique. The enemies in the early levels of the game, called the Grineer, have a creepy cyborg cosmetic that looks like garbagey robots with human faces fastened to the fronts of their heads. To get some idea of what it looks like, think of the creepy baby doll masks the torturers wore in the movie Brazil.
While the character models and animations are very impressive, the environments that players fight through become repetitive. As play progresses through the solar system (you start at Mercury and work your way to Pluto and beyond) the environments open up a little bit, especially with some of the recently introduced jungle levels on Earth. A lot of the action is confined to industrial hallways, however, and those hallways start looking the same after a while, especially since there is a bit of repetition built in to the gameplay.
The sound design is top notch. The guns all have great audio feedback which make them feel substantial but also distinct. The strange pseudo-language spoken by the Grineer sounds like some kind of menacing mock Russian gibberish from Cold War propaganda. It is a nice touch which is enough to present a convincing world where these weird cyborg creatures have an existence outside of lining up to be shot down by space ninjas.
The co-op shooting, which makes up the bulk of the game, feels fluid and flashy. Players take on the role of Tennos, an ancient race of interplanetary warriors waking up from cryogenic sleep with a bad case of amnesia and a strong desire to kill. After picking your Tenno warframe, which dictates the role you play in combat, you get guns. You start equipped with a primary weapon, a secondary weapon, a melee weapon and a selection of suit-specific powers which you can customize and upgrade as you play.
The Tenno are very nimble fighters. While running, it's possible to flip through the air, vault over obstacles, run along walls in areas where the floor has fallen out, and take zip lines, shooting and firing off special abilities to rack up kills the whole time. These moves all feel amazing when they execute flawlessly, but frequently they don't work all that well. For example, sometimes there are obvious passages at the top of a wall, but trying to run up the wall only works on the fourth or fifth try. Especially in circumstances where it's very clear that's the only way you're meant to be going, it seems like a missed opportunity to create a feeling of effortless agility.
Apart from the pew pew pew, the rest of the game is made up of managing inventory and socializing. The inventory management includes tools for crafting items out of materials that can be bought or dropped during gameplay, and upgrading items that already exist using the mods system. The mods are a neat way to organize and customize the powers and equipment upgrades: they appear as a sheet of cards each with its own rating and rarity. You can combine cards to create better cards, and use fusion cores which are dropped during play to upgrade the rating on the different abilities. It is a rich system which offers a lot of opportunity for experimentation and customization, and it's fun to dive into the inventory after a few runs to find out what new abilities and upgrades have dropped.
The crafting side of things is less engaging. The system itself is fairly standard: as you play through different planets in the solar system you gather materials that allow you to craft new armor and weapons. The process in Warframe is frustrating because the recipes for crafting are multi tiered and require materials from levels that seem dauntingly far off, so crafting even the simplest item feels like a grindy chore. You might buy a blueprint for a cool new warframe, for example, only to discover that the recipe for creating it requires that you find three component parts. The blueprints for these parts drop from specific boss fights and the pieces you need to craft them are rare drops scattered throughout the solar system so you’d better be ready to run the same zones and kill the same bosses a few times. Understandably it’s important to provide motivation to keep running the levels, but the fun of loot drop systems comes from finding something new and shiny that makes your avatar look cool; instead Warframe gives you another crafting component.