Warframe’s greatest strength is also its most intangible: It commits. Whether it’s the core idea of outer space ninjas who front flip down hallways at a million miles per hour or a full-on Hadestown-style musical intro for a planet focused on labour issues, Warframe is 100 per cent all-in on everything it does. So when developer Digital Extremes announced that an open world made of flesh and worms was next on the admirably grotesque menu, I was prepared to eat it up. Now, having spent some time with the new expansion, I’m mostly impressed, but it hasn’t gone down quite as easy as I was hoping.
Warframe’s Heart of Deimos expansion, which launched yesterday, adds a new moon, Deimos, that’s been completely flesh-terraformed by the game’s Infested faction, which are kind of like Halo’s Flood enemies, but grosser. The twist is that a (relatively) normal family got caught up in all of this, so they’ve been remolded in the Infested’s image, taking on the form of barely-human entities blossoming forth from colossal, rose-like pustules. And yet, despite their larger-than-life concerns — evil forces that want to stop the heart that beats inside Deimos — they still bicker like a regular family, adding some levity to the proceedings. Inter-familial squabbles are a running theme on Deimos; the moon’s day/night cycle is dictated by two gargantuan worm siblings who duke it out in an endless battle for supremacy. This leads to a series of cascading effects depending on which worm has laid claim to the surface — for example, local monsters are generally a little more chill when Vome, the sister worm, is in power.
It’s a really cool setup, and the rest of Deimos’ open world leans into it. The landscape is a series of half-scratched-off scabs pockmarked with pimples that burst and scatter loot from pus volcanoes. Otherworldly geological formations loom, and caverns — with sphincter doors, of course — beckon. Sometimes, you’ll stumble across corpse-powered “necramechs” that you can pilot to wreak havoc. Side activities also tie into this overall theme, with members of the family asking you to carry out various tasks. Mother wants you to kill shit, Father wants resources, Sister wants you to catch weird fish that float above water (and also the water isn’t water), Brother wants you to rescue half-dead wildlife so he can reanimate it into Frankensteins, and Grandmother wants you to give her dirt on what the rest of the family is up to.
Except they’re not just side activities. While Warframe has dabbled in fishing and pet breeding before, they’re part of Deimos’ main factional progression system, which tasks you with doing favours for the aforementioned family members in exchange for character-specific tokens (Mother token, Father token, Sister token, etc) that represent the aforementioned things each family member is asking for. Any of these tokens can be traded in for faction standing — all family members are part of the Entrati faction — but in order to progress, you have to obtain tokens from everybody, not just the family member whose activities you like best. Which specific items family members want also rotates a regular basis, which on one hand adds variety to the proceedings, but on the other hand means that farming isn’t always a straightforward process.
The end result is an expansion that tries to marry together a bunch of the disparate systems Warframe has added over the years, but in a way that reveals a worrying number of seams. Make no mistake: It is extremely rad that this is a game with several different kinds of space ninja combat and open-world exploration and hover-skateboarding and necro-dog breeding and fishing. However, creating a coherent throughline that runs between them is a task so tall that even a giant space worm would be like chewing gum on its boot. I admire Digital Extremes for trying, but tokens and randomness feel like a band-aid over a larger problem: Warframe is a whole, whole lot of game, and many of its pieces do not fit neatly together. Digital Extremes wants people to keep coming back rather than exhausting new content in a month, but not everybody likes all of these gameplay systems — especially not collecting half-dead animals, a process that many players say is glitchy and unreliable.
The disjointedness at the heart of Heart of Deimos doesn’t stop there. The moon is its own ecosystem, with its own resources and faction. When I hop back over to regular missions on the game’s star chart, it feels like I may as well be progressing through an entirely separate game. Entrati unlockables like the Helminth system — which gives you access to a disgusting (read: very cool) mouth that eats Warframes and spits out abilities you can slap onto other Warframes — bridge that gap somewhat, but they don’t remedy the problem. Heart of Deimos adds a new opening to the game as well, and while it’s a much appreciated upgrade to the blah beginning that was there before, you’re then dumped out into a series of too-basic Earth levels that badly need a touch-up to feel more at home in what the game’s become.
This is not a problem wholly unique to Warframe — Destiny, for example, is about to vault a bunch of its content to cut down on cruft — but it’s one that’s more tangible than ever with Heart of Deimos in the game. There’s so much going on in so many different directions. Some of it is massively fun and feels great. Other elements feel awkward and half-baked, or crusty and in need of an overhaul. Even as somebody with 70 hours in the game — still a new player relatively speaking, but no longer a total neophyte — I’ve had a weird time on Deimos. Sometimes I get overwhelmed, like no matter what I’m doing, I have a distant feeling that I should be doing something else. Other times I feel like I shouldn’t even be there yet, even though the game’s level system allows for it. Deimos is a wild place full of wild rides, but they’re also bumpy, disjointed ones. Digital Extremes clearly wants to smooth things out, to remove the barriers between Warframe’s many activities, but that’s the hard part of a never-ending game, isn’t it? It’s a work in progress.
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