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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (461)

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Warframe   PC (Steam) 

Grindframe. Bugframe. Somehow Funframe?    3.5/5 stars

“Warframe” is the crowning achievement of Canadian development studio, Digital Extremes. Prior to bringing “Warframe” to open Beta testing in 2013, Digital Extremes was primarily known as a work-for-hire studio, which bigger publishers or other studios could contract – cheaply and half-assedly – for development assistance with other low-budget projects. While it started up way back in 1993 as a pet project for studio head James Schmalz, Digital Extremes produced little of note in its first 20 years, outside of the dreadful ‘Unreal’ series of Arena FPSes, made in collaboration with Epic Games. In a lot of ways, “Warframe” in 2013 was to Digital Extremes what “Final Fantasy” in 1987 was to Squaresoft: A last-gasp effort by a struggling, floundering videogame studio to stave-off bankruptcy and make a name for itself.

In some ways, “Warframe” was a success, as it did, indeed, garner a reputation for itself, in spite of numerous hurdles along the way, allowing Digital Extremes to continue existing. On the other hand, it’s still the only game Digital Extremes is really ‘known’ for, and didn’t bring in enough income to keep the studio independent, as the Canadian developer was bought out by a Hong Kong-based chicken company (which wanted to get out of chicken and into tech) called Leyou in 2016. Leyou was then bought out by Chinese Communist Party subsidiary, Tencent, in 2020, giving the Chinese government 97% control over a Canadian videogame studio.

I came to “Warframe” in a somewhat roundabout manner. I had heard good things about it for many years, but the MJ Crew wasn’t exactly in need of a new Live Service or MMO game to vacuum up our remaining free time. However, when Bungie decided to force users to install rootkits on their PCs in order to continue playing “Destiny 2” in 2021, that removed a significant Live Service commitment from my life, as that’s not the type of behavior I will indulge, nor was I particularly pleased by Bungie’s ongoing decisions to ‘Sunset’ loot, then not Sunset loot, then to remove entire campaigns and expansions from “Destiny 2” in order to ‘trim down the install directory size.’ With “Warframe” commonly compared – both favorably and unfavorably – to Bungie’s debacle of a Sci-Fi Looter Shooter, I figured it was finally time to compare apples to apples.

“Warframe” is a thoroughly-modern Third-Person Shooter developed in Digital Extremes proprietary Evolution Engine. This engine has gone through a number of updates over “Warframe’s” lifespan, gaining improvements to character models, animations, the lighting engine, and whatnot. In general, the artistic work what went into “Warframe” is excellent, with a variety of iconic and recognizable designs for both playable characters and enemy factions. Some of the animations, like those for the pet animals players can bring with them into combat, are stunningly realistic at times. Watching a kavat (e.g., a pet wild cat from the future) prowl around the player’s orbiter (e.g., central gameplay hub area) looks a lot like watching a real cat, complete with facial expressions and ear flicks. On the other hand, watching that same kavat in a combat zone, giving itself whiplash as it swings its head back and forth like Stevie Wonder on meth while zeroing-in on a locker to unlock, looks a bit janky and weird.

Audiowise, “Warframe” is solid enough, with a handful of recognizable, recurring themes in its soundtrack, and no background music that ever ventures close to ‘bad’ or ‘annoying.’ However, the voice-acting is something of a mixed bag, with far too many wooden performances and RIDICULOUS Canadian accents. Indeed, Digital Extremes saved big money on vocal talent by recruiting internally instead of hiring dedicated VAs for most roles. Most notably, the narrator for most of the game, known as The Lotus, is just one of the studio’s community managers, pressed into acting. But the community seems to lover her in that role, so I guess it worked out?

Technically, “Warframe” is… a little bit messy. While it’s nowhere near Bethesda, or even Gearbox territory, there are still numerous little bugs that crop up all the time. While these bugs are rarely game-breaking in my experience, the most common kind require the player quit and restart the game in order to make them go away. Many minor bugs, such as mistakes in displayed weapon stats, have allegedly been ongoing for years. But that’s, apparently, okay in Digital Extreme’s opinion, since, in spite of its initial public release in 2013, “Warframe” is still officially in open Beta in 2022. Yup, that’s nearly a decade of perpetual Beta, with no indication that the status quo is going to change any time soon. Still, “Warframe” does a lot right from a technical perspective, including native Xinput support, fully remappable controls, numerous graphical settings that allow it to be played on a potato or a NASA supercomputer, and a constant trickle of bugfixes, mechanical revisions, and new content, which has expanded the relatively simple and basic game that launched in 2013 into an almost-too-complicated puzzle box of mechanics with a lot of moving parts a decade later. Of course, this extra complexity comes with the downside of Digital Extremes being horrible at in-game tutorialization, meaning that anytime a new mechanic or mechanical revision is introduced, it’s up to the players to update the player-managed Wiki site to explain exactly how everything works.

In the distant future our solar system, referred to internally as the ‘Origin System’ is a used-up remnant of a collapsed galactic empire from a time known as the Orokin Era, wracked by factional in-fighting between Space Capitalists in the form of the Corpus, and Space Eugenicists, in the form of the Grineer. Our heroes are the Tenno, a mysterious clan of ninja-like warriors who operate remotely-piloted humanoid battle-suits called warframes. It has been a century since the Tenno disappeared, their warframes falling silent where they stood, following a mysterious event known only as the Old War.

Suddenly, the Tenno warframes begin to reactivate, as the Tenno themselves begin receiving transmissions from a mysterious woman known only as The Lotus. After liberating a starting warframe to use and rescuing a half-broken AI named Ordis, who operates a personal spacecraft once used during the Old War, the Tenno are thrust into a new, bleak world where the factional infighting between the worst remnants of humanity is further complicated by the incessant spread of a spore-based disease, known only as The Infestation, which assimilates both organic and mechanical materials and beings into its hive mind. Yet brewing in the background is some as-of-yet unfinished business from the Old War that will eventually bring a New War to the Origin System.

In general, “Warframe’s” story is about on-par with what one would expect from a Live Service or MMO game. While the game, as mentioned previously, was initially released in 2013, the first major act of the story didn’t receive a proper conclusion until the release of the New War expansion in 2021. Much of the storytelling comes piecemeal, and is spread across large stretches of real-world time, making a Wiki article a more practical and digestible way of following the narrative. While reading about “Warframe” and seeing that its story consists of more than 30 story quests might give the impression that here’s a lot of story content… there really isn’t, as most of these quests are fairly short and straightforward, with a tendency toward cinematics (which look good) in more recent quests. That said, the backstory and lore of the world of “Warframe” are deep, intriguing, and – most importantly – consistent. Even as the surface level story tropes might seem a bit rut-worn, there’s an original spin put on all of it that allows “Warframe” to stand on its own.

As for game length… as a Live Service/MMO, “Warframe” will take as many hours as you, personally, are willing to give it. Between the two less-dedicated members of the Crew who primarily play “Warframe” only on co-op nights, playing from the beginning through the end of the currently-available story content takes 100-200 hours. Not that there’s actually 100-200 hours of actual story or narrative in there – there’s a lot of pre-requisite grinding and hoop-jumping that players must do in order to qualify for the newer chunks of story that have been added over the years. On the other hand, a player who enjoys the gameplay and isn’t just in it for the story, but actually wants to collect warframes and weapons in order to try them all out – like me – can get many more hundreds of hours out of “Warframe.”

However, “Warframe’s” biggest downfall in the story department is the fact that it is a Live Service/MMO game, based around squads of up to four players cooperatively completing missions… yet all of the newest, greatest story content is SOLO-ONLY. That’s right, co-op is outright impossible for the most exciting parts of the story in a co-op Live Service game!

“Warframe” is, at its core, a Third-Person Looter Shooter that takes a variety of mechanics from other games and mashes them together to great effect. First, and most important to keep in mind, is the fact that “Warframe” is, and always has been, 100% Free2Play. While many players might think that means it’s full of gachapon nonsense or Pay2Win mechanics, it shockingly isn’t. The primary means of monetization in “Warframe” is the sale of a premium currency called Platinum. While players may trade Platinum between themselves, there’s no way to earn any from gameplay. Platinum can be used to outright purchase weapons, warframes, crafting materials, and all manner of stuff from the in-game market. However, everything that can be purchased with Platinum can also be earned for free, simply by collecting resources in normal missions, grinding boss battles for blueprint drops, and purchasing other blueprints from the in-game market for Credits – the main in-game currency – instead of Platinum. Indeed the main thing players will want to spend Platinum on – and nearly every long-time “Warframe” player will attest to this – is inventory slots, which allow players to hoard more warframes, weapons, pets, personal aircraft, mechs, and heavy weapons than the starting amount. Honestly, it’s almost entirely warframes, weapons, and pets that require more inventory slots, as there are significantly more of them than other types of equipment, and enough variety that circumstantial usage cases might crop-up.

With that basic understanding of the game’s monetization system, we can look at the core gameplay. As mentioned, “Warframe” is a Third-Person Shooter. The player controls one of the titular warframes in a combat situation, outfitted with a primary weapon (typically a rifle, shotgun, or bow), a sidearm (a pistol, dual pistols, or throwing knives), and a melee weapon, which can be mixed and matched freely from a huge arsenal of choices. Warframes are universally maneuverable, featuring the ability to double-jump, climb most walls, glide through the air, and slide and roll across the ground. Each of these numerous armored bodies has a stable of four special abilities at its command, as well as a unique passive skill, allowing players to find a ‘frame to fit their personal playstyle. None of these pieces of equipment are just ‘found’ lying around or dropped by enemies, as in most Looter Shooters, but must be crafted back on the player’s personal spacecraft using its Foundry System (which is really just a super-fancy 3D printer). The Foundry requires a blueprint for any item the player wishes to craft, then up to four component materials that will be consumed during the crafting process. Warframes, in particular, are quite resource-and-time-intensive to craft, as the player must first find blueprints for and craft three sub-components before assembling the whole thing using the main warframe blueprint. Furthermore, crafting items happens in real-time, with typical 12-24-hour waits for a new weapon to finish printing, while a warframe takes 3 days (impatient players with no impulse control can, naturally, waste Platinum to get their items now, now, NOW!).

Beyond their basic statistics, each piece of equipment can be heavily augmented using the Mod System, which allows players to add a wide array of upgrades – ranging from augmented damage, magazine, reload, fire rate, etc. to entirely new types of elemental damage – to a large number of slots attached to each and every item. Mods are found all over the game, as random drops from enemies and environmental objects like crates and lockers, to special boss drops, to completed mission rewards, to purchases from a special Void Merchant who only shows up at a specific space station for 2 days every-other-week. Mods, themselves, can also be upgraded by spending in-game resources (not Platinum), improving their potency, but also increasing the number of Mod Capacity Points they consume when slotted into a piece of gear.

Character development in “Warframe” is one of the most unique takes on the concept I’ve seen in all my years of gaming. While each piece of equipment starts out ‘unranked,’ by using each piece in missions, the player’s character gains affinity with that piece of equipment and improves its rank, up to a (typical) maximum of 30. While only warframes themselves receive stat boosts as they rank-up, these boosts are typically small, allowing for players with wildly varying ranks of gear to play together without feeling like there’s a gulf between their capabilities. Indeed, the primary things ranking up gear does are two-fold: First, it increases the Mod Capacity of the item, and second, it grants a sum of Mastery Points to the player’s profile. Mastery is the true ‘leveling’ system in “Warframe,” as it grows continuously as the player engages with the game, unlocks additional weapons and other pieces of equipment that have minimum Mastery requirements, and allows the player to access more of the full Mod Capacity of a new piece of gear from the outset. Each Mastery Rank requires the player to earn a certain amount of Mastery points by maxing out equipment, which encourages players to craft and use EVERY piece of loot they can, then simply throw it away if they hate it (and don’t want to spend Platinum for a storage slot). In addition, after hitting the Mastery point threshold for the next rank, the player must pass a Mastery Test, demonstrating understanding of one of the game’s mechanics. Personally, I have mixed feelings on Mastery Tests. On one hand, they’re novel, and an interesting way to ensure players have been improving their own skills as well as their character. On the other hand, failing a Mastery Test imposes a 24-hour wait period before the player can try again, and some of the tests feel more like exercises in luck or rote repetition than skill, which stresses me out something fierce. While the maximum Mastery Rank in the game is currently 32, I stopped ranking up at 22, simply because the Mastery Test for Rank 23 is such BS, and there’s NOTHING else like it in the game.

So, what is the basic mission structure like? Well, that’s hard to say, since “Warframe” has an absolute butt-load of different mission types. While, early on in my time with the game, I loved the Spy missions, where the player is tasked with infiltrating an area and stealing data from three computer consoles without triggering alarms, the majority of mission styles tend to lean toward being a ‘horde shooter’ or a Tower Defense game, where the player must either survive against huge numbers of enemies that continuously pour-into the map, or must protect an object (or person) from a huge number enemies that continuously pour-into the map. One-off missions ranging from Spy to Survival to Sabotage to Extermination each appear as a node on the inter-planetary galaxy map, with each additional planet requiring the player to complete a number of nodes and objectives, then defeating a guardian specter to unlock the Mass Effect Relay solar rail that leads to the next planet. Each planetary node is procedurally generated each time a player or group of players runs that particular mission, smashing together pre-designed rooms and corridors from a planet-specific ‘tileset’ to keep things interesting, even after running a given map node dozens or hundreds of times. Some planets, added in updates throughout the game’s lifespan, feature open-world free-roam areas that, unlike regular mission maps, have a static layout, but feature Bounties issued by specific NPCs affiliated with each area that procedurally generate a series of tasks for the player/squad to complete in the open world for a payout. Even more recently, Digital Extremes added an entirely new layer of complexity to the game’s mission structure with the addition of full-fledged space combat missions that take place aboard a spaceship called a Railjack, which can be fully crewed by a squad of players or a set of AI controlled NPCs. While I find all of “Warframe’s” missions to be quite enjoyable, even after grinding through them dozens of times in a row in search of rare resources and crafting materials, I really, really enjoy the Railjack missions, and hope to see Digital Extremes do more with that mode in the future, since, as it is, it feels kind of tacked-on and neglected.

If you need a Live Service Looter Shooter in your life that isn’t “Destiny 2,” you could do a lot worse than “Warframe.” In spite of its perpetual Beta status, “Warframe” presents a slick, immediately enjoyable experience, yet with plenty of complexity and numerous moving parts for players who want to dig deeper and get their hands dirty. Yes, there will be grinding. Yes, there will be bugs. Yes, there will be an unfortunate amount of solo-only story content. But there’s also the promise of near-limitless, free entertainment, and dozens and dozens of sexy weapons to fondle.

Presentation: 3.5/5
Story: 3.5/5
Gameplay: 4/5
Overall (not an average): 3.5/5



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