I don’t play much in the way of video games; I just play Warframe.
That’s mostly why I haven’t written about it. I write a lot about Star Wars because I’m very well-read in Star Wars and I can tell good Star Wars from bad, so I can review it with some degree of authority. The same goes for pens. I don’t write a ton about pens, mostly because there’s only so much to say, but what I do have to say, I feel is informed by something. But I’m unsure how to go about reviewing anything out of the video games space, since I don’t play the things. I’ve tried before: back when a bunch of Star Wars mobile games got released all at once a few years ago, I looked at a couple of those. I didn’t care much for either of them, but what good is that as an opinion coming from me? I don’t play video games.
But I do play Warframe.
A big reason I’m not into video games is that it’s kind of an expensive hobby, and I’m already into drawing, where 20 sheets of good paper cost almost a whole $10 not on sale. It’s not just the games themselves that are expensive, but all the top-of-the-line computer gear that seems necessary to get them to run their best, too. But Warframe is free, operating on the premium currency model favored by a lot of phone games, though with a twist I’ll get to later which has enabled me to play it to the fullest without ever spending any money. It’s also fairly well optimized, not needing an external, water-cooled graphics card to run on. So the usual cost barrier isn’t here. But there are plenty of free games, really. It’s just that most aren’t very good. Warframe is good.
At least, I think it’s good.
Oh well, I’m getting ahead of myself. I should probably get into what Warframe is.
Warframe is described by its developer as a “space ninja” game. Their advertising tagline is “Ninjas Play Free”, telling both of the pricing and the gameplay. Kind of. The idea of a ninja game evokes ideas of a stealth-focused combat system. Warframe missions are sometimes stealth-ible, but I wouldn’t call it stealth-focused, generally. What ninja-like qualities you have as a character are an adeptness in both ranged and melee combat and the ability to prevail despite being outnumbered.
Warframe has a story. It’s pretty well done, actually, but it’s really best experienced for yourself, and it’s not the main focus of the game anyway, so I’m really going to avoid spoilers, and just refer to the player’s character progression obliquely. What matters most, in terms of describing the game, is the world Warframe is set in.
The game is a space fantasy, set in the far future, after the collapse of the Orokin empire, a decadent society of functionally immortal post-humans who had ruled the solar system (called the Origin System in the game), radically modifying it. For instance, they turned Venus from a volcanic hellscape into a world of snowy mountains. Eventually discontent with the Origin System, the Orokin sought to expand to the neighboring Tau system. To that end, they created the Sentients, a robotic race tasked with traveling to Tau and preparing it for habitation. The Sentients turned on the Orokin, who responded by creating the Tenno, an order of skilled warriors led by a matriarchal entity known as the Lotus.
The Tenno, armed with advanced weapons and with warframes, armors with strange, powerful abilities, are able to repel the invasion by the Sentients, though they themselves would rebel against the Orokin, bringing their empire down entirely. Shortly after, the Lotus put the Tenno in cryosleep.
At the start of the game, the player character, a Tenno equipped with one of three starter warframes, is awakened by the Lotus. In the absence of the Orokin, other factions have arisen to fill the power vacuum, most notably the Corpus, a merchant cult bent on accumulating the Orokin’s lost wealth and knowledge, and the Grineer, a collectivist army of clones seeking total rule over the Origin System. Either side is a threat to the countless independent communities throughout the system, and thus the Lotus has elected to revive the Tenno, sending them forth as humanity’s champions once more.
As a Tenno, the player works to fight back against the expansionist agendas of the Grineer and Corpus, as well as the assimilating hives of the Infestation, and, eventually, the resurgent threat of the Sentients. Allied with the Tenno are various syndicates, not all aligned with one another but all seeking peace in the Origin System. Along the way, they piece together the lost history of the Orokin, their warframes, and themselves.
Warframe is full of weird terms. If you see a word in bold, jump back here to find out what it means.
- Affinity — The score earned by performing actions in missions. Affinity goes toward leveling warframes and weapons, allowing for greater mod capacity.
- Arbitration — Special, high-difficulty missions made available once a player has completed every mission on the Star Chart. Each arbitration lasts a limited time, gives bonus power to a random warframe and weapon, and gives valuable rewards.
- Archwing — A winged harness that a Warframe can equip to fly about in a space mission or an open world map. Different archwings have different stats and abilities, similar to warframes.
- Baro Ki’Teer — An NPC vendor who exchanges rare goods for special, farmed currency.
- Cephalon — A computerized intelligence. Several cephalons are characters in the game.
- Clan — An organization of players in the game. Clans can compete in certain gameplay events. Every clan has a dojo, a special map with rooms for researching weapons and gear, trading with other players, configuring and launching railjacks, or free-form decorating.
- Conclave — An organization run by the ancient Tenno ally Teshin, which rewards Tenno based on their performance in competition with each other. Conclave matches comprise the little-used Player vs. Player elements of the game.
- Corpus — A merchant cult that controls much of the trade in the Origin System. Their research into lost Orokin technologies and plots to take over the Origin System entirely frequently bring them into conflict with the Tenno as well as with the Grineer. Their shielded security forces utilize advanced energy weapons and robots in combat. Some more altruistic members of the Corpus have splintered away and found allies among the Tenno.
- Corrupted — A collective term for those who have been taken by the computerized defense systems of old Orokin structures lost in the Void. When running missions in the lost Orokin spacecraft found in the Void, Tenno will encounter Corrupted versions of their typical enemies, which sport golden filigree and enhanced stats.
- Credits — A general-use currency, commonly dropped from fallen enemies. Used to buy most everything not sold directly for platinum.
- Damage Types — There are three physical, four primary elemental, and six secondary elemental types in the game.
Each damage type has an associated status effect, which harm enemies in some way beyond the straight damage dealt by a Tenno’s weapons
- Dax — The old Orokin warrior caste. Few Dax remain by the game’s time, though those left are key figures in the game’s story
- DE — Digital Extremes, the game studio that makes Warframe
- Endo — A resource used to improve the effectiveness of mods.
- Energy — A stat for Warframes and archwings. Using abilities generally depletes energy, which must be restored, usually by in-level pickups, before abilities can be used again.
- Foundry — An item aboard the Tenno’s orbiting home-ships capable of turning raw resources and blueprints into useful gear. A player wishing to obtain items in-game will mostly have to farm these resources and build their equipment in the foundry.
- Grineer — Formerly the working caste of Orokin society, the Grineer are an expansionist military power made up of increasingly genetically diseased clones. Their armored soldiers utilize chemical weapons and hitscan firearms in combat. Some “defective” pacifist clones have found refuge in allying with the Tenno.
- Infestation, Infested — The fruits of a horrible, body-twisting and mind-enslaving disease. Infested beings are generally beastial combatants, relying on fast movement, deadly melee attacks, and sheer numbers to make up for a lack of shields or armor. Misguided Corpus experimentation has lead to the proliferation of half-infested robots, which are generally more skilled at range. Extermination of all infestation is considered a priority to every faction in the game, though a certain strain of the disease is crucial to certain Tenno technologies.
- Kavats — A feline species, naturally a predator of and immune to the infestation. Tenno are known to keep kavats as pets, bringing the powerful cats alongside them into battle.
- Kubrows — bat-nosed wolves, kept as war-hounds by the Orokin elite, and, now, by the Tenno.
- Lotus — The entity that guides the Tenno. The Lotus’s instructions are voiced by DE Community Director Rebecca Ford, and comprise much of the voiced lines in the game. The Lotus and Ford share the nickname “Space Mom”.
- Lunaro — A lacrosse-like sport played by the Tenno in Conclave. At time of writing, I have never successfully matched with another player wishing to play Lunaro at that time, though it seems like it might be quite fun.
- Mastery Rank — A numerical representation of how much of the game a player has completed. The vast majority of available Mastery Rank (MR) is earned by ranking up warframes and weapons. Certain elements of the game, such as new planets full of levels, better weapons, and the ability to trade or complete new quests are locked behind the lower levels of MR. To rank up, a player must complete a new challenge for each rank. Currently, Mastery seems to have 30 ranks, though there is, at present, only enough content to complete in-game to achieve MR 29. What might wait at MR 30 is a matter of increasing speculation among the Warframe community, as it is expected that this final rank will soon be within reach of the oldest veteran players as new content is added to the game.
- Mod — An item, typically dropped by fallen enemies, that can be equipped on Tenno gear to greatly boost its stats. Modding gear well is a core part of the meta-game of Warframe
- Orbiter — the large spaceship from which a Tenno operates. The orbiter houses a Tenno’s warframes, gear, and loot, as well as the Foundry and operations relays. Orbiters can travel on the solar rails, and can cloak themselves in orbit over a planet to hide from enemies. Within the game context, the Orbiter is essentially a walkable main menu.
- Origin System — the star Sol and the celestial bodies that orbit it, including Earth. This was the seat of the Orokin Empire.
- Orokin — a human race that ruled the Origin System long ago. They were the first to discover/use the Void. The Orokin were able to transfer to new bodies to evade death. The Orokin created the Grineer, the Sentients, the Cephalons, the Dax, and the Tenno. Few Orokin remain after a revolt by the Tenno destroyed their empire.
- Platinum — the premium currency in Warframe. Platinum can be bought from Digital Extremes for cash, or obtained through trades with other players. Built items, cosmetic items, and gear slots can all be obtained with platinum
- Prime — Prime warframes and prime weapons are older, more ornate and more powerful versions of existing warframes and weapons, made in the manner of the Orokin. Typically, prime items are released in Prime Access Packs, bundle deals of a new prime warframe, new prime weapons, new prime cosmetic items, and platinum sold by Digital Extremes for limited windows of time. Prime warframes and weapons are aquirable in-game, though the cosmetic items are exclusive to the prime access bundles.
Only certain prime items are available in-game at a given time, with each new prime release seeing the oldest still available be vaulted. Vaulted prime sets are occasionally re-released in pairs, to give new players a chance to obtain them. The only permanently vaulted prime items are the Excalibur Prime warframe, the Lato Prime pistol, and the Skana Prime sword, which were sold as “Founder pack” exclusives to Warframe’s early funders.
- Railjack — A multi-crewed Dax ship designed for space combat, recently revived and used by the Tenno. Railjack missions are a recent addition to the game, with much anticipated additional content likely coming in the future.
- Relic — an item containing components used to construct various prime items
- Resources — Various items dropped throughout levels consumed when constructing items in the Foundry.
- Sanctuary — A virtual reality presided over by the Cephalon Simaris, in which Tenno can face wave after wave of enemies in exchange for rewards. Comes in regular and elite varieties.
- Sentients — a robotic race sent by the Orokin to terraform the worlds of the Tau Ceti system. The Sentients later revolted against the Orokin and were able to turn their other technologies against them. They were driven back to Tau by the Tenno.
- Sentinel — small, helpful floating robots, allied with and kept as companions by the Tenno.
- Star Chart — the game’s representation of the Origin System as an unlocking series of missions. Working their way through the star chart is the primary task of new players.
- Sugatra — Tenno term for any small ornament decorating a melee weapon.
- Syandana — Tenno term for any scarf, cape, cloak, or the like worn by a Warframe.
- Syndicates — Groups that Tenno can ally themselves with for access to special rewards. Six regular syndicates exist in the game, each allied with one and opposed to one of the other five. Additionally, each open world has two of its own local syndicates, which are not a part of the main alliance scheme.
- Tau System — the star Tau Ceti and the celestial bodies that orbit it. The Sentients were sent to make it hospitable by the Orokin Empire, and have remained there since being driven back during the Old War.
- Tenno — the game’s player faction. “Warriors of blade and gun; masters of the Warframe armor.”
- Tile Sets — Sets of rooms that are arranged somewhat randomly to construct a level map. Different enemy factions are found in different tilesets. A given planet will generally have levels drawing from only one or two tilesets.
- Void — An extradimensional space through which faster-than-light travel is possible. The Orokin used it to expand their empire, but found strange, dangerous things occurred to people exposed to the Void for too long. Sentients are even more rapidly harmed by the Void. The Tenno draw their power from the Void. The full nature of the Void has not been explored directly in-game, though announced future developments point to more answers.
- Warframe — A biomechanical armor that the Tenno use to focus and shape their power. Warframes are resilient, agile in combat, and capable of seemingly magical feats. Each warframe is unique in its abilities and performance.
Warframe is, at its core, a PvE looter-shooter. There are other things in the game, everything from obstacle courses to scavenger hunts to Guitar Hero-style rhythm games to hunting & fishing to lacrosse-esque sport matches to architecture & sculpture, but these are mostly ancillary things that have been added over the years for fun. To be good at Warframe is to be good at shooting, melee, objective defense, as well as to be good at navigating the game’s economy.
A standard player loadout is a warframe, a primary weapon, a secondary weapon, and a melee weapon, as well as an assortment of non-combat gear such as scanners and tools. Players can form squads of up to 4 to play a mission together.
There are currently 43 unique warframes available in the game, the latest being Protea, a gadget-themed frame. Each warframe has four active and one passive ability, each built around some theme. Abilities can boost allies, harm enemies, and reshape the environment in various ways. Each warframe also has a set of stats: armor, shields, health, energy (which powers abilities), sprint speed, ability strength, ability range, ability duration, and energy efficiency.
Primary weapons and secondary weapons are both drawn from the same general pool of types: bows, shotguns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, and rocket launchers/grenade throwers. Secondary weapons also may be thrown darts or cast grenades. Generally, primary weapons are more powerful than secondary weapons, but that isn’t to say that secondary weapons are incapable of carrying a mission. If a player is downed, only their secondary weapon will be available to them. Melee weapons come in various types as well: swords, staves, daggers, throwing glaives, polearms, etc. Weapons also have stats governing their performance: fire rate, range, strike speed, damage, damage type, etc.
Both warframes and weapons can have their stats radically altered through the use of mods, which I’ll leave until the Economy section of this piece to delve into.
Missions in Warframe are of myriad type, but generally involve a combination of four things: attacking enemies, defending allies/things, traversing the map, and carrying things through it. Occasionally, mainly in boss fights, the game shakes this formula up a bit, but for the most part, those four things are the components of Warframe’s core gameplay loop. It’s a simple game to play for the most part; the most difficult missions are the ones that have vaults that demand to be traversed a specific, often hidden, way, sometimes within a time limit.
As a Tenno, the player is unmatched in terms of mobility and damage output, though they are generally well outmatched in terms of pure, tanky survivability, as well as numbers. To paraphrase Richard Adams, you are a Tenno with a thousand enemies, and if they hit you (more than a few times, at higher levels) they will kill you. But first, they must hit you. This is no realistic, cover-based shooter; it is a frenetically paced affair of leaping through rooms, blasting enemies as you close the distance between yourself and them, then finishing them off with a flurry of melee strikes.
The movement system of Warframe is somewhat absurd in comparison to its action-shooter peers, having more in common with the backflips and dropkicks of an arcade fighting game. This came about mostly by accident; in the old days of the game, before I had heard of it, the movement was more conventional, but players discovered an exploit in the strike animation of a certain pair of hand-axes, the Dual Zoren, allowed them to fling themselves all about the map.
The technique was known as “Zorencoptering”, and it made the Dual Zoren the only melee weapon really worth using, since it so rapidly sped up the time taken to complete most missions. Indeed, to this day one true marker of a veteran player is the Dual Zoren marked as their most-used melee weapon in their profile stats. Anyway, the developers took note of this, and, as they patched the Zorencoptering exploit, they replaced it with a more intentionally built system of rolls, jumps, slides, wall runs, and glides that, while a bit unorthodox for such a game, are generally masterable and very satisfying to pull off.
Note: the “stamina” mechanic mentioned in the videos, which limited the number of gymnastic maneuvers a player could execute in quick succession, has since been removed from the game.
Progressing in the game involves, initially, traversing the Star Chart. This is the map screen showing the different missions on the different planets. You start on Earth, and play through to the other planets. As you do this, you’ll gain Mastery Rank, which will unlock further things, such as quest lines and better weapons. Using warframes and weapons will level them up, from rank 0 to rank 30. Leveling up your gear will also gain you mastery.
Typically, levels in Warframe are built from tilesets. These are sets of rooms and corridors which are generated somewhat randomly (a spawn room at one end, an extract room at the other, and other tiles in between). This means that each run of a level will be a bit different, but not so different that a player will get lost, or so randomly generated that levels lack distinct personality. Beside the tilesets, there are two “open-world” style maps, with a third currently in development. These are not randomly generated, and have points of interests scattered throughout.
Not all gameplay in Warframe takes place on the ground. Special levels utilize archwings, flying harnesses that warframes can use to fly through sky and space (and underwater, in a system unique to certain deep-sea tilesets affectionately known as “sharkwing”). These levels were the first foray into the developers making their vision of Warframe as equal parts ground and space combat, though the missions were generally not well loved.
More recently, in the Empyrean Expansion released late last year, the game has seen the introduction of Railjacks, Tenno spaceships crewed by squads of players. Railjack missions are almost a new game in and of themselves, much more ambitious in their design than the old archwing missions. From their railjack, Tenno can fire on other ships, repel boarders, take flight outside with their archwings, repair damage, etc. I won’t comment too much on this, since it’s fairly new and clearly not in its final form yet.
Like a lot of free-to-play games, Warframe has a two-tiered system of currency: credits, which you get in-game, and platinum, which costs actual money. Usually, this is where free-to-play games get you. But in the case of Warframe, there exists an ability for players to trade certain things between each other. Platinum is one of those things. The developers don’t really care who buys plat, so long as someone does. And when someone does, it disperses through the game, to people like me, who don’t buy plat. I’ve accumulated something like $50 worth of plat in the past few months, and I’m not a particularly aggressive trader.
I say $50 worth. Plat can be bought at discount in Prime Access packs, which give the buyer plat as well as Prime warframes and weapons (boosted-stat items which can be bought or farmed for in-game) and Prime accessories (cosmetic items which can only be bought). These packs, which are released with new Prime offerings every few months, are the source of much of Digital Extreme’s revenue, and of much of the plat in the game’s economy.
Once you get some plat, you’ll be able to buy all sorts of things in the in-game market. Don’t, generally, do this. Don’t buy weapons and warframes for plat. I mean, you can, but if you’re me, and you aren’t buying any plat up front, you want the plat you trade for to be worth as much as possible. I generally only buy things I can’t farm for. Warframes and weapons all can be farmed, that is, you can, by playing certain missions in the game, collect the parts and resources needed to build the item from blueprints which can be bought in the in-game market for credits, which, again, are earned for nearly everything done in the game. For all but a few items, you can obtain everything you need to get your desired item cooking in your foundry within as little as an hour of gameplay, starting from zero. In reality, you will be accumulating resources as you play, and will probably have most of what you need as soon as you get the blueprint.
So what do you buy with plat? Slots and cosmetics, mostly. Slots are a thing that establishes how many of something you can have at once. Warframes have slots, weapons have slots, companions have slots, and archwings/archweapons have slots. Slots are cheap in terms of how much plat they cost, but they do cost plat, and you can’t really farm them. Cosmetics (skins, armor sets, syandanas, and color palettes) are completely unnecessary for gameplay but they’re cool, and once you’ve established yourself in the game, you’ll be able to get enough plat to afford to splurge once in a while.
If this all seems complicated…it is, but it’s something you ease into. When you first play the game, you won’t have anything to sell, but you also won’t have much to buy. You’re given 50 plat to start, which is enough to buy a warframe slot and four weapon slots, which is the usual advice for new players. That’ll leave you with 3 warframe slots, and enough weapon slots to have a selection of good gear as you make your way through the star chart. Once you’ve unlocked all the missions, you’ll be able to start really farming for things.
One more thing I should mention: mods. These are drops from enemies that you can install on your gear to upgrade/change your stats. Explaining the entirety of this system to someone who doesn’t know anything about it is hard to do concisely, but to sum it up, mods, and the gear builds they take part in, form the backbone of game progression. As you level up your gear, you don’t actually improve it directly; you improve your mod capacity, allowing you to install more mods on it. Mods can be installed and uninstalled freely and can be installed on more than one thing at once. It’s a very fluid system that allows a lot of versatility and difference in play style, and, as daunting as it is when a player first encounters it, it is one of the highlights of the game.
Mods affect numerous aspects of gear performance. Warframe mods can boost the warframe’s health, shields, or armor, can improve its mobility, or can adjust its ability stats. Weapon mods can boost damage, attack speed, range, or change the damage type. Damage in warframe comes in several different types:
- Blast (equip a heat mod and a cold mod)
- Radiation (heat+electric)
- Gas (heat+toxin)
- Magnetic (cold+electric)
- Viral (cold+toxin)
- Corrosive (electric+toxin)
Different damage types are more or less effective against different enemies. Effective modding of gear is essential for succeeding in mid-to-high level content.
Mods are another thing that can be traded. Most are common enough to be essentially worthless for trades, but certain rarer ones can be farmed and sold for a steady income of plat in-game.
Warframe is the magnum opus of Digital Extremes, a Canadian games studio founded in 1993. Their early work, the Unreal franchise of first-person shooters, was made in partnership with Epic Games, the studio which would go on to create the Gen-Z cultural titan Fortnite. The 2000s saw the studio mostly doing contract work, developing console ports and multiplayer systems for other studios. A single in-house IP, Dark Sector, was released in 2008. Originally intended to be a multiplayer sci-fi adventure set in space, with a main character wearing a mechanical suit, it changed over its development into a more realistic, largely single-player game about Hayden Tenno, a CIA operative investigating a techno-organic viral weapon in eastern Europe.
Dark Sector, despite being banned in the famously violence-averse Australian market, did okay, but Digital Extremes still struggled to survive in the rapidly-changing industry of action games. DE Creative Director Steve Sinclair, who had made the setting changes to Dark Sector in response to publisher demands, had seen those creative compromises go mostly unrewarded. Concerned that the studio was slowly dying, Sinclair and studio founder James Schmalz decided to go for broke, re-doing the original concept for Dark Sector, this time self-publishing as a free-to-play game, supported by a microtransaction system rather than an up-front sticker price. In March of 2013, after several months in closed beta, Warframe was released. Within a month, Digital Extremes’ last consistent source of outside income, the movie tie-in Star Trek, was released, to poor reception and worse sales. That left Warframe, a small-scope, low-budget bit of freeware, as the Studio’s last hope.
Warframe was not an instant hit, but it did well enough to keep Digital Extremes going without the mass-layoffs typical of work-for-hire studios. The Founder’s Program, a sort of in-house crowdfunding system made available to early adopters, provided an infusion of cash, but the big break came from word-of-mouth from the community of video-game YouTubers, which helped attract more new players. Once the game was released on the preeminent PC games marketplace, Steam, the revenue was enough for the game to support itself and the studio.
As I’ve alluded to, Warframe has gotten regular updates and expansions since it’s release. At current, there have been 28 major “mainline” updates to the game, as well as many minor “hotfix” updates in between. That averages to four major updates each year of the game’s 7-year existence. From the game’s infancy as a simple spaceship-raiding action, more and more new content has been added: open-world maps, new mod systems, new combat mechanics, new weapons, new warframes, new missions, new planets, new enemies, new stories, new cosmetics, new pets, new player interactions, new <spoilers>. Today, it is a truly massive, sprawling game, with enough different offerings to support the wants of many kinds of player.
These updates are a mix of fixes and changes requested by the existing community of players and big, new, exciting things designed to expand the game’s scope and attract new players. Either way, fast, frequent updates are crucial to Warframe’s, and Digital Extremes’, success.
When they realized that they would be producing an MMO in-house, Digital Extremes built a community support infrastructure. The first part of this team was Rebecca Ford, who had hired on to the studio as a college intern. Ford became the public face of the company, both in-game as the voice actress for guide NPC the Lotus, and out-of-game as the Warframe Community Director. Beyond acting as a simple spokesperson, Ford and her team has built a robust two-way conversation between Digital Extremes and Warframe’s playerbase. Notable facets of this include weekly livestreams featuring gameplay and fan art, regular video broadcasts from Ford and top devs concerning the game’s future, and contests to produce community designed weapons and even warframes. The first community warframe contest resulted in Nova, an antimatter manipulating frame. The second, conducted earlier this year, will produce an as-yet-unnamed patchwork frame.
As I’ve mentioned a few times, community feedback has proven key to guiding the game’s development. Beyond that, the community has built much of the “missing half” of the game. Fan-made resources like the Warframe Wiki, warframe.market, Semlar’s trackers, and others are indispensable to the millions of dedicated Warframe players. One could argue, quite rightly, that these resources should be in the game itself. But I think something would be lost, in certain ways, in removing the need for players to cooperate.
The cooperative nature of Warframe is the foundation of its generally welcoming and friendly community. The game is not competitive; outside of dedicated player-v-player systems, one player’s win is never another’s loss. As a player, your enemy is the game, either the AI enemies you hack and shoot your way through, or the somewhat arcane systems of gear, mods, and resources you must master to prepare for the next mission. In either case, the Tenno depend on one another to succeed.
So now that I’ve given a basic view of what Warframe is and how it came to be, what do I think of it?
Warframe is not a perfect game. I’m not even sure if it’s a good game; like I said, I don’t play many video games, so I don’t know how Warframe compares to other titles in its niche, like Destiny and Anthem. What I can say for certain is that I have a lot of fun playing it, but I could have just tweeted that and saved us all a lot of time. What else is there to it? It’s hard to fully describe this game. I described it for ten pages worth of Google Doc, and there’s still a lot I didn’t touch on. Since it’s so hard to describe, it’s hard to appraise.
Warframe is like a city, an old one. There are tons of people in it, making it what it is. There are controversial new towers, beloved old neighborhoods, bustling marketplaces, abandoned blocks, major thoroughfares, and out-of-the-way enclaves. Dig a bit, and you’ll find the remains of an older city; some of the ruins have been repurposed, but most are buried and gone. Ask the old-timers what it was like, if you care to know. There are some redundant areas, some weirdly winding roads, and a few things, things that other cities have, seem to be missing. It wasn’t planned as a big city. It started as just an outpost for a few people to make a living at, but more people came and it got steadily built up into what it is today.
If you were to set out to build your own big city, you wouldn’t do it the same way. You’d plan it all out so that no space was wasted, so that everything worked together. You wouldn’t build anything that wouldn’t be used. And that city would, by many metrics, be the better city. But it wouldn’t have the old city’s history, and the people who lived there would be less of a community.
If I were a bit more HGTV than I am, I’d say Warframe has character and leave it at that. It’s a game that couldn’t be replicated, that probably shouldn’t be replicated in some respects. Playing Warframe is a singular experience. The work that has gone into Warframe’s aesthetic is something I really appreciate. I’ll admit that sometimes the terminology can get a bit jargony. For instance, the way that capes are called syandanas, for such a simple thing, can throw new players for a loop. But everything in the game feels very much like it’s part of a world apart from ours, which is impressive considering the sheer variety of different things in the game.
With so many warframes, everyone’s sure to have their favorites. Some are generally more popular than others, but I’d say each one is worth having, for its unique skills and role in gameplay. There are hundreds of weapons. Some of them are functionally interchangeable (the entire dual swords category of melee weapons are famously different mostly in looks) but even still, it’s not as if you can pick just one favorite primary, secondary, and melee weapon and see all the game has to offer. The variety DE has put into the loadout options in this game is truly impressive
The music and sound design of Warframe deserve praise as well. Especially in the case of the more recent releases, the sound effects accompanying those releases have all sounded really cool. Occasionally, DE will release something giving a behind-the-scenes look at their sound team at work. As is usually the case with sound design, I’ve been really impressed with the creativity there.
The music in typical missions is generally unobtrusive, setting the tone for the map but generally not being anything much to listen to on its own. Certain things, though, like “We All Lift Together”, a work shanty that plays when you first visit one of the open worlds, and “This Is What You Are”, a piece of story quest soundtrack which has come to serve as the game’s theme music, are real fan favorites.
The gameplay of Warframe has often been described as “power fantasy”. The supercharged movement and supercharged weapons at the player’s disposal do not really build to a very challenging game in many cases. It’s not an unskillful game; indeed, updates over the past year or so have introduced a lot more complexity, but it’s a lot more cathartic than stressful in its action. You’re not really scared of most of the enemies. I like this, but I understand that there is a market for really challenging combat in games. This isn’t that.
Speaking specifically as a PC player, there has been a rather distressing tendency for new updates to be shipped in a still rather broken state. Last year was something of a content drought, as DE worked hard on ambitious new systems. At the end of the year, when those systems released, they didn’t seem finished, or fully debugged. PC players get new content first since console updates tend to face more quality testing. This has its upsides and downsides, certainly. I understand that the way Warframe builds itself necessitates fast releases and flexibility in response to player feedback, and I appreciate that most of the failings I’ve seen have been due to over-ambition more so than simple incompetence, but it gets annoying playing new things when they’re still a bit broken and unbalanced.
At the end of the day, though, I’ve never, ever felt like DE didn’t care whether I and other players enjoy the game. They only make money on satisfied customers; there are no pre-orders, season passes, or money-gated progression systems in Warframe. In the words of Creative Director Steve Sinclair:
“The philosophy of Warframe is we want a lifetime value, and you don’t look at — like, most box products, how do I get that $79.99 right now from you? I will market and lie to you, or I will conceal flaws and embargo this or that to make sure I’ll get you on that day. And for me, what I want is a player to play for years.”
DE have positioned themselves financially as dependent on a current Warframe player deciding to support them through a plat or prime access purchase. While caring about the customer’s experience really should be the baseline for any company in any industry, DE nonetheless stands out from the sea of casino tactics and quasi-fraudulent behavior that video games have become somewhat infamous for. While I’ve sometimes been disappointed in Warframe, I’ve never felt cheated.
So, as a game, Warframe is best in the way it fosters a long-term playerbase. Again, if you were to make your own game, you wouldn’t make it exactly like Warframe, but you should absolutely take note of how they’ve combined fun base gameplay, robust economy, varied experiences, steadily opening scope, and community engagement to keep players coming back for better than seven years now.
I’m not going to do my normal recommendation and rating, mostly because I don’t feel confident assigning one of my numeric scores, given my lack of expertise in video games. What I will say is that everyone should at least give Warframe a try. It’s free, it’s fun, and you might really get into it. I certainly have.
Earlier this year, Warframe had an Event. These happen from time to time; There’s a limited- time set of missions with special rewards. Sometimes they get repeated later, sometimes not. Anyway, earlier this year, there was an event called “Operation Scarlet Spear”, which was kind of a worst case scenario Warframe update. It was buggy, poorly-explained, and reliant on new game mechanics that had their own troubles. Compounding the difficulties was the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced Digital Extremes into a 100% work-from-home business model, an unplanned and cumbersome transition that occurred coinciding with Scarlet Spear’s release. In the words of Senior Designer Pablo Alonso, “Scarlet Spear was an absolute mess”.
Warframe’s players took part in Scarlet Spear in great numbers, but the overall bugginess generated much grumbling. The apparent fact that many of the bugs had gone unresolved in development because the test group had too few players to trigger them led many PC players to feel like they were being used as unpaid, indeed, often paying, game testers. It was mostly fixed within a week or so, and DE pledged to bring the event back regularly, after further troubleshooting, but the whole episode raised some uncomfortable questions about DE’s ability to keep this massive game going.
Personally, I think suggestions of Warframe’s impending demise are generally exaggerated. Obviously, I don’t think it’s going to go on forever, but the issues of the past several months have all pertained to new content, not old content, which doesn’t really indicate something collapsing under its own weight. DE is a big company for an indie developer, after all, and they have the people to keep things going, even if they are all stuck at home.
And they do have more playtesters now than when Scarlet Spear launched. An expanded “test cluster” was put together in late April in preparation for the first major revision to Railjack, the new space combat mode released late last year. Railjack is the biggest addition to the game in years, bringing to reality gameplay concepts present since the very start of the games development. Railjack incorporates the on-foot and the spaceflight mechanics already in the game alongside a new multi-crewed spaceship to make a hybrid space marine sort of combat loop. When it was first announced almost two years ago, the Warframe community was very excited. Once it was released, though, there wasn’t much to it. There was only one mission type, a “destroy X ships” with the possibility for secondary objectives involving boarding enemy ships. There was only one enemy faction, the Grineer. The new missions didn’t tie into the rest of the game in any meaningful way. Players, myself included, enjoyed the new content, but we soon returned to the main game.
The state of Railjack can feel disappointing when compared to the state of Warframe as a whole. But, as I reviewed the game’s history while writing this, I think that the better comparison might be to Warframe as it was, the storyless, single-mapset shooter that grew into the game it is today. Railjack is still being built, the way Warframe is still being built. And if Warframe is too large a pile of gameplay elements to be built up any higher, it makes sense for DE to build it out, instead.
Even as it stands, Railjack has made big strides in giving each player on the 4-player team something to do, which, once you’re at a high level, can be hard in the main game, where the one-objective-at-a-time level structure can leave slower players chasing faster ones through an already-cleared level. Railjack is a more true co-op experience, which I really appreciate.
Once the simple missions are better put together, I’d expect to see Railjack get the variety of mission types, enemy types, playstyles, etc. that the main game has. I don’t know how long that might take, but I know that the potential is there. And maybe, in a few years, Warframe players will find this review, and its discussion of Railjack as it was when it launched, and find it as bizarrely primitive as I find Zorencoptering guides. But it’s not all Railjack. Just recently the oldest tileset in the game was replaced by new maps, made to better reflect the movement systems. Reworks and remasterings are another thing that will be part of the game going forward. So will new warframes, weapons, questlines, game modes, etc. I couldn’t hope to accurately predict it all, but I continue to look forward to what’s next.
Digital Extremes had no idea I was writing this, much less paid me to.