Warframe has been out for over seven years. For the longest time, I looked at it like Destiny or Eve Online — games that I find conceptually compelling, but that now contain so many systems I’m intimidated by the mere idea of starting. Well, I started Warframe the other day. Within a 24-hour span, I played for 11 hours.
For the most part, I went in blind. I read a quick primer by Polygon’s Cass Marshall that got me up to speed on the main factions, how to construct new items, and how to navigate the galaxy map, but otherwise, I elected to just go where the game took me. I thought this would be a disaster, and then I’d move on to playing Death Stranding, which is what I’d actually been meaning to do, but first I needed to psych myself up for an 80-hour helping of Hideo Kojima’s unique brand of baby-powered psychobabble. So I went into Warframe with one foot out the door. In hindsight, given the sheer number of people who’d ominously told me that once you pop, the fun don’t stop because you never leave, I probably should have expected what ended up happening next. Here is how Warframe got me.
Just The Right Amount Of Weirdness
Warframe’s opening struck me as pretty generic. I was a remnant of an ancient warrior race who’d just been awakened, and some angry man who looked like a mound of moulding salami fused with the charred remains of a freshly exploded gamer chair wanted to use my powers for his nefarious ends. But he and his cronies reminded me a bit of the Strogg from Quake, so I decided to go with it. The mission unfolded mostly as expected. I killed some dudes and also some space dogs, meaning that I was in for an experience at least as edgy as The Last Of Us Part II. I escaped. Hooray! But also, the Grineer, as they’re known, attached a piece of evil machinery to my leg. Oh no!
But then the hologram of a woman who was guiding me — who I’d taken to calling space mum, not knowing at the time that this is also what the Warframe community calls her — mentioned that the villain’s name was Vor (lmao), and I received a video in my in-game inbox from a seemingly very inebriated space woman who wanted me to join the galaxy’s largest water gun fight. “WATER FIGHT! WADDAFITE!” she bellowed. “I want a drink with a pink umbrella in it.” I was intrigued by this sudden injection of strangeness to the proceedings. It was funny! And well written! I knew then that I wanted to see more.
Before playing, I understood Warframe to be a cooperative third-person shooter where you blast NPC bad guys à la other games’ horde modes. This, it turns out, is not entirely true, if only because you do way more things than just shoot. You also jump. You jump a lot. I chose the Excalibur Warframe as my starter suit, meaning that I’m a katana-wielding space ninja, but every Frame can double jump, slide, wall run, and bullet jump.
Bullet jumping is the best. If you crouch while sliding or standing still, you fly forward in a twirly motion kinda like Raiden from Mortal Kombat. You can do this over and over to avoid enemy fire or cover ludicrous distances in no time flat. When I first started playing, I didn’t really understand this and spent most of my time running and gunning/slashing. Now I play like the floor is lava. Pinging off walls and careening into dudes like an irate bird of prey is so, so fun. Warframe is the clunkiest name imaginable for a game with such a svelte movement system. I am shocked that every action game in existence has not copied it. It’s that good.
I solo-ed my first couple missions, but Warframe is a multiplayer game, so I couldn’t help but wonder where all the other people were. Then I started another mission, and in the cool little intro scene where my dude drops out of a vent (Note to bad guys: Just get rid of the vents! It’s that easy!), another character plopped down right next to me. This, it turned out, was a real person. We ran the mission together, blasting baddies in pursuit of a high-value target, and it was chill. I was still acclimating to the movement controls, so I flopped around like a fish out of water who was also an idiot, but my cohort didn’t seem to mind so much. Then we finished the mission and went our separate ways.
I am the kind of person who will solo an entire MMORPG if I can. Such are the depths of my social anxiety. I appreciate, though, that Warframe occasionally pairs me with other players, because most missions — at least, so far — are low-stakes enough that I can hang out with randos without being concerned that they’ll scream at me (in text chat) if I fuck up.
Do As You Will
Recently, Kotaku’s Ian Walker told me that he, too, tried to get into Warframe, but he bounced off it. He said it overwhelmed him — that there were so many things to do, and he never knew if he was doing the right one. What I’ve found so far, though, is that as long as you do missions indicated on the galaxy map by little blue diamond icons, you can’t really miss out. The game slowly but surely takes you on a guided tour through many of its elements, and though I’ve had to look up where to, say, find particular resources on a couple occasions, I’ve never felt like I’m being bombarded by too many mechanics. Even though I’m still new, when the game has paired me with other players, I haven’t felt out of my depth, or like I’m missing crucial tools that they likely picked up hundreds of hours ago. I’m still trying to learn a few systems (reputation, mainly), but if I’m ever feeling like I just want to say “fuck it” and go blast some stapled-together husks or evil hyperspace capitalists, I can pick a mission and be there in seconds.
Loot Pinatas (But Tasteful)
In Warframe, for every action, there is an equal and exquisitely rewarding reaction. No matter how you shoot or skewer them, defeated enemies pop like perfectly squeezed grapes that do not get all over your hands, but instead slide cleanly out of their skin in some sort of mockery of the intrinsic chaos of nature. Loot erupts as though from miniature volcanoes à la Borderlands, but it’s mostly just ammo and things of the sort. Anything more intricate would break up the flow of combat and exploration, and Warframe very smartly avoids that.
Instead, you get to see the real spoils of your missions when you’re back on your ship, and then you can use them to modify your weapons, construct new gear, and things of that nature. This makes both of Warframe’s main phases — missions and ship time — exciting in focused ways. You can focus on the high-flying here and now while in the heat of combat, and then, as you sprint toward your extraction point, you can salivate at the idea of opening a shiny present box full of new stuff.
This makes for a positively diabolical core loop. Missions in Warframe are short, but they’re not that short. Some have multiple phases that consist of sneaking, blasting, and hacking, as well as optional side events. And yet, somehow, they feel shorter than they are. In a few cases, I’ve gotten back from missions that I was sure had taken me 10-15 minutes, but then I glanced down at my phone, and 30-45 minutes had passed. This is dark magic.
This point ties into my last: Warframe is a colossal, potentially endless grind. Every individual piece of gear you equip needs to be leveled up. Resources to build gear and other items abound, and you have to play and replay missions in specific areas to collect them. Item constructions take multiple hours — sometimes days — in real time, but you can spend a purchasable currency to rush them. There are ample avenues, in fact, to spend real money in exchange for convenience. I’m not usually the kind of person who enjoys these kinds of games, and normally, I would find all of this hard to overlook.
Warframe, though, is generous within the walls of this winding grind labyrinth. At this point in its lifespan, the game is packed with an obscene number of planets, areas, open worlds, mission types, weapons, items, gameplay mechanics, and side activities. So far, I’ve yet to come across anything important that’s gated by money, and the pacing of missions is such that I haven’t minded waiting for my new weapons to build themselves. There is even an appeal to logging on after a day or two and finding a miniature Christmas waiting for you aboard your ship. That is, I have to imagine, by design. Warframe is a game that positively bristles with pointy hooks intended to repeatedly reel you back in. Perhaps in time I will come to view this element of the game more warily (or even wearily), but for now, I’m hooked.
I love multiplayer games that put an emphasis on fashion. Final Fantasy XIV, for instance, regularly wows me with the clear care that players put into their outfits. I also hate personally putting that care into my own outfits, which is why my Final Fantasy XIV character looks like a muscular cat who got into a fight with a burlap sack and eventually just kind of gave up and decided to let the sack become part of him.
Warframe is full of strikingly fancy space ninjas awash in the cyber-glow of their own holographic backlights. It is clear that this game’s community also prides itself on style, albeit perhaps in a way less akin to traditional fashion and more like what would happen if a bunch of ravers got really, really into customising race cars. Maybe someday I, too, will try to look cool. Until then, I’m more than happy to use the game’s handy randomise function, which you can press over and over until you find something you dig. Right now, my guy looks like a mashup of the red Power Ranger and Eva Unit-01 from Evangelion, but with cool emblems and a scarf made of light. It took me less than a minute to jazz up my boring old space pajamas, and yet, hours later, I remain pleased.
Space Ninja Noir
Warframe has an in-game pirate radio station that gives you detective missions. It is so, so dope. Nightwave missions, as they’re known, can be accessed from your ship, and Nightwave season three — which began a couple months ago — sends you to a series of environments to investigate full-on crime scenes, all connected by a mysterious murderer called “The Glassmaker.” I’ve only done a few so far, but they strike me as a really neat way to force players to slow down and spend some quality time in the sorts of locations they’d typically be careening through at a million miles per hour.
I’ve also enjoyed the individual character stories underpinning these missions, even if all of those characters are, you know, dead. For example, one focused on a member of Warframe’s later-than-late capitalist faction, the Corpus, who’d started to have doubts about the merits of amassing wealth at others’ expense, while another centered around a Grineer who’d forsaken his faction’s pillaging ways to learn philosophy and covertly help people after he’d seemingly killed a kid. I found the kid’s stuffed animal in the Grineer’s lair — a keepsake, perhaps. Or a reminder.
Last night, I did a series of missions and collected resources to build an attachment for my suit called an Archwing. Shortly after, a mission gone awry catapulted me into the void of space, at which point the game suddenly became a space shooter with my character more or less functioning as a Gundam. Now I’ve unlocked a whole set of Archwing-specific missions, which are completely unlike anything I’ve previously experienced in the game and use an entirely different gear set. After so many years of active development, Warframe is, itself, akin to a Grineer — parts stapled to parts stapled to other parts. But it’s all remarkably coherent, and it means that the game can regularly surprise you by being like “Oh yeah, that genre is in here, too.” Speaking of…
Everyone, this is my son. Say hello to my son.
You can adopt and breed dog-like pets in Warframe, because why not cram that genre into the game, too? Apparently in earlier versions of the system, Kubrows, as they’re known, could die permanently. This information sent me into a cold-sweat-soaked research panic the other night, but fortunately, I ended up learning that Kubrows can no longer bite the biggest of ones, meaning I can safely take mine into battle.
Anyway, I named my son Laddie Boy, after notoriously terrible U.S. President Warren Harding’s dog who was, by almost every available measure, significantly more popular than Warren Harding. My son is good. Hopefully, with time, I will become better at playing Warframe than Warren Harding was at being President.