Since its arrival on PS4’s launch day, Digital Extremes’ thirdperson co-op shooter has already enjoyed numerous updates, including one radical overhaul of the way that damage works in the game. Such is the way of free-to-play gaming: frequent iteration is key to attracting and sustaining a healthy playerbase. Warframe’s moment-to-moment play is improving in both feel and the potential for tactical expression as the game heads towards a sturdy consistency, even as the procedurally generated levels in which it’s set will forever shift.
The game is based within our own familiar solar system, its missions chosen from an interplanetary map. Levels are linked together in a spider’s web and clustered around each planet that circles the sun. The story concerns the Tenno, a race on the brink of extinction, and their would-be slave masters, the Grineer. The Tenno are clad in titular Warframes, ancient performance-enhancing exoskeletal technology that only they have the capacity to operate. Many suits lie dormant across the stars, where they must be found or, naturally, purchased with a credit card by those who lack time, patience or treasure-hunting spirit.
Different Warframes suit different styles of play. The Banshee suit, for example, with its sonic attacks and acoustic target detection, favours a stealthy approach, while Saryn’s venomous assaults make it effective against organic enemies, plus it can ‘shed’ its skin to create a decoy. As you quest through the game’s stages with up to three online players, your chosen Warframe class gains experience points, increasing in power and upgrade capacity over time. Likewise, your weapons – two for shooting, one for melee – level up with you, and much of the appeal here comes from the combination of Diablo-style loot drops (better weapons, suits or the materials to craft them) and the long, winding road to showboating power over your peers.
As convention dictates, Warframe employs two forms of virtual currency. Credits can be collected during missions from downed enemies, while Platinum must be purchased with your own money once your small starting pot is spent, costing about 4p per unit. New suits can be bought outright with Platinum, or their blueprints purchased with Credits, the latter requiring a subsequent scour of the universe for the components to craft the suit by hand. Since many of the parts are hard to come by, all but those with the most time to invest will be tempted to pay up for new Warframes (at an average cost of around £10 per suit), or just opt to level up their starting equipment.
Gear up and then you and three automatically matched players will streak through Halo-esque space stations – all banks of blinking monitors and greenish, dingy caverns – as you battle the Grineer AI. Missions range from straightforward A to B runs to Horde-like fights in which you must protect resources from waves of attackers. Intermittent boss battles provide the best firefights, your opponent’s suite of special attacks forcing more considered strategies from your squad.
Gunplay feels light and insubstantial, with the emphasis on Unreal-style running and gunning at top speed, each player racing for the next pickup, softening enemies with bullets while sprinting towards them for the melee finish. In the absence of a lock-on, close-quarters fights lack elegance as you flail while struggling to adjust the camera. There’s scant refinement to the combat, something that rudimentary puzzles do little to make up for, but at least the most recent update means the game distinguishes between damage types, with greater nuance between weapon and enemy variations.
Your warrior employs a kind of parkour-lite when navigating space’s halls and corridors: you can vault ledges, dash and tumble across small gaps, and wall run. With the right mod, you can even launch into jumps that carry you into the rafters. These moves can be mixed with attacks, so you can slide along the ground on your knees in a nod to Vanquish before tumbling into a katana swipe. But despite the acrobatic animations, the Tenno exhibit none of the fluidity and sticky movement we’ve come to expect from digital parkour.
Mods are the most welcome drops from enemies, presented in the form of collectible cards that can be installed into your weapons and armour to imbue them with various buffs and upgrades. Each, however, has an install cost. Guns and swords have a limit to the cumulative cost of these mods, introducing a certain tactical element as you decide whether to use up their capacity on, for example, more ammo or better accuracy. Weapons can be upgraded with Orokin Reactors, which increase the number of mods that can be installed, giving a welcome layer of customisation and a much-needed alternative to the monetised upgrade path.
With scores of missions spread across the galaxy’s various nodes, you may be waiting for some time for a match in some of the more remote areas of space – unless, of course, you have three friends of a similar level with whom to travel the galaxy. The game will allow you to commence missions with only two players in the party (adding new Tenno into the mix as they come online) and, usefully, it’s possible to see at a glance how many players are currently playing any mission, helping you speedily find a game.
It is, however, difficult to shrug off the sense of futility underpinning the broader experience. This is a game about levelling up characters and equipment, but the ways in which this power can be demonstrated are disappointingly one-note. Strip out the poor parkour and clunky melee and all you’re left with is a shooter, and a workmanlike one at that.