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Warframe / 9th of September 2014

Remember Dark Sector, that game where you threw around a serrated Frisbee and chopped up Cold War era Russians in biohazard suits? No, probably not. And to be honest even if you did, you probably wouldn’t connect it with Warframe. Both games were developed by Digital Extremes and although Warframe is set thousands of years into the future, and will have you hopping around the solar system, the two do have a tenuous connection. In Digital Extremes latest game you’ll play as members of a warrior race known as the Tenno, who enclose themselves in powered suits, or Warframes. The first of which - codenamed Excalibur - is uncannily similar to the one worn by Hayden Tenno, the protagonist of Dark Sector.

That, and the reuse of the name Tenno is where the connection ends, save for an entry in Warframe’s wikia that describes Hayden as “the first Tenno”. And despite enjoying Dark Sector back in 2008, I had to concede the story was equally as vague. In all likelihood most players would have finished the game with more unanswered questions than when they started, and it wasn’t even as if the game’s ending was intentionally unclear, as if to leave the door open for a sequel. So it’s not surprising really that when it came to creating Warframe, Digital Extremes decided not to bother creating a storyline or central narrative. Instead focussing on their strengths as a studio, namely to build strong gameplay that’s both instantly enjoyable and has surprising depth.

Originally released in March of last year on Steam and later on PlayStation 4, Warframe has now arrived on Xbox One, again as a free to play game. It’s this model that will either entice or revile the vast majority of people who opt to try the game out. Yes you can stick your console on, download it and start playing for absolutely nothing. However the price of the paid game currency (Platinum) should have you recoiling in disgust. Especially when, at first anyway, the earned currency (Credits) appears almost totally worthless. If you want to buy anything outright - as I suspect new players will be keen to do so - then you’ll need to buy and spend Platinum, prices for which start at £3.99 for 75, and go all the way up to £89.99 for 3210. And with over twenty Warframes, as well as countless guns, melee weapons and companions all requiring Platinum your fist inclination will most likely be that Warframe is nothing more than a pay to win, rip off merchant.

You see the main problem Warframe has is a complete lack of storyline to ease you into the game. In fact until update fourteen on PC and PS4 there was barely even a tutorial, and without any clear explanation on how the game’s mechanics, or various menus work many players were immediately put off. However Xbox One users will have this latest instalment from the get go, and it is a vast improvement. Gone are the complex PC style menus and endless lists, instead new players will be taken through a newly created prologue which explains the combat, types of missions and more significantly gives access to a small spaceship which serves as the new central hub. It’s far more aesthetically pleasing, and the prologue’s seven or eight missions allow players to unlock upgrades for the ship in order to explain the basics of how the mod collection, foundry and solar map function. It’s a far better way of presenting things and had the game initially launched with such a feature its reception may have been that bit warmer.

Other than the dramatic changes to the U.I. this latest version of Warframe also now contains a far more robust party system. Considering the game is primarily co-op focussed, it’s a welcome change. Finding a group of players to run missions with is far easier, faster and you won’t automatically be broken up at the end of every mission. Not only that but you’ll no longer be dropped straight into the middle of a match if you’re selecting a new mission for the first time. It allows the game to flow much better and previous comparisons to Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer are more even more apt, as you can play a series of matches with friends without getting constantly disconnected from each other.   

Although Xbox One users will have the most user friendly instalment from day one, things are not perfect. As I mentioned earlier, all manner of purchasable equipment is pretty costly and it’s not made clear that almost every item can be unlocked through normal gameplay. Each planet in the solar map has a boss fight - or assassination mission - which when completed rewards players with components for specific Warframes. If you want the Rhino frame for example, defeat the boss on Venus and you’ll earn the necessary parts to construct it in your ship’s foundry. While the foundry itself is pretty straightforward to understand, Warframe’s mod section is still far too confusing for new players. Frames, weapons and companions can all be enhanced via cards with certain properties called mods, these mods in turn have polarities that affect how many skill points they require to use. And after playing the game for a week I was still unaware these polarities existed on each card. Not only that but the fusion and transmute options which improve the stat bonuses of your mods - or combine to create new cards - offer very little guidance, making it easy to accidentally destroy a rare mod early on.

Despite these flaws the robust gameplay consisting of high speed movement, wall running and various acrobatics is certainly enjoyable, more so now that the game explains these mechanics to you. And assuming you have no objection to relentless farming in order to level up abilities, unlock new weapons and equipment, then Warframe may well be a game you’ll quickly grow fond of. As I say it’s previously drawn comparisons to Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer, mainly due to the structure of the game’s many missions, but another game that maybe describes the loot/reward mechanic more accurately is Castlevania: Harmony of Despair. Both it and Mass Effect 3 focussed on co-op gameplay, heavy character customisation and were excellent at highlighting your gradual improvement. But HoD encouraged players to dash through stages a quickly as possible, killing enemies as efficiently as possible, and at the end of it offering a random reward. If it wasn’t what you were looking for, well, you go again, and the same can be said of Warframe.  

Sadly it’s at this point at which my praise for what Digital Extremes have created ends. If you do get into the swing of things and start to really enjoy the game, the developers will be there to pull the rug out from under your feet. Intent on reminding you why free to play games have such a bad reputation, the developers force players to pay Platinum for inventory slots (spaces for the Warframes and weapons you’ve collected). And so after all your hard work you’ll end up paying for the equipment you’ve spent hours earning anyway. I was set to hold Warframe up as a shining example of the free to play model, where you only pay for aesthetic add-ons, or because you want to take a shortcut. Instead this minor restriction, carries big implications and ultimately sours the experience. I understand the need to make money from the game but the way that it’s done is rather unpleasant, and I expect such tactics will, for many players, wash away any goodwill the developers may have earned.   

If you go into the game with the foreknowledge of how the game operates, aware that free to play isn’t really free to play, if you can put the need for some form of storyline out of your mind and see Warframe as basically a multiplayer focussed game, then it is almost brilliant at what it attempts. It’s a lot to overlook, but there is a great game in there somewhere. As it stands however the free to play model still fails to justify itself to consumers, and doesn’t come close to representing value for money. Xbox One owners are getting the best version of the game to date, but had it been a retail release like its spiritual predecessor Dark Sector, then it could have been a whole lot better.  

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