Most of my favorite gaming moments of the past year have involved watching the evolution of Digital Extremes’ self-published free-to-play co-op shooter Warframe. Not since Max Payne have I been so enamored with a third-person action game and not since Doom 2 have I spent so much time teamed up with buddies running and gunning through monster infested corridors.
Warframe nails the recipe for an excellent action game. Mix great graphics, a unique art style, and buttery smooth controls for a variety of outrageous moves. Add generous helpings of MMO-styled level progression and gear customization that allows for shotguns that shoot lightning through walls and flamethrowers that belch armor-piercing viruses. Blend thoroughly a blisteringly fast pace that delivers on the concept of everything that a highly acrobatic space ninja armed with such outlandish weapons could be capable of. Serve it up for free to the pulse pounding beat of Japanese taiko drums. Presto! You’ve got the year’s most spectacular shooter that plays equally well whether you’ve got 15 minutes or three hours at your disposal.
Yep, I said free space ninja shooter set to taiko drums. If you aren’t downloading at this point, you may very well be on the wrong web site.
In a world where great graphics are now a dime a dozen, Warframe ups the ante with an art style quite unlike anything you’ve seen before. From the over-cloned, matriarchal space marines of the Grineer, to the chicken-eque walkers of the Corpus merchant guild, to the hideously disfigured mutants of the Infested, to the technocyte virus encrusted exoskeletons of the titular warframes themselves, the artists at Digital Extremes have crafted a science fiction universe unlike anything seen before. This visually striking style is made only more strange by the fact that the game takes place in a future version of our own solar system.
Of course you’ll be a little hard pressed to make out the finer details once a team of four warframes engage the enemy in earnest. Running adequately on even aging hardware, Warframe sees it’s players running across walls firing twin pistols, cleaving handfuls of enemies in half with battleaxes, and cutting loose with special attacks seemingly capable of leveling a city block in an orgy of screen filling particle effects. It is a refreshingly old-school celebration of carefree destruction painted up with state-of-the-art attention to detail and control. While a drop-in/drop-out game system means you’ll never be left spamming “LFG” in chat or sitting in a lobby for this four player co-op game, even those cursed with shoddy Internet connections or good ol’ fashioned anthropophobia can switch to a solo play mode. And, yes, all missions scale accordingly.
The bulk of your time out of combat will be spent modifying you gear via an intuitive system reminiscent of a collectable card game. Mod are represented by cards and slotted into everything from warframes to weapons to combat pets via an eight slot grid. Your experience level determines how many points worth of cards you can allot to any given item. It is a infinitely deep system that is easily understood at a glance.
Through this modding system you’ll craft your own personal arsenal. Fancy a tough, acid spewing archer with loads of energy for super stomping opponents flat? How ‘bout a speedy gunslinger who can turn invisible and parry bullets like a Jedi? Both are viable and easily created from a sea of possibilities. Since every player can carry a full suite of upgradeable mods for their warframe, rifle, pistol, melee weapon, pet Sentinel robot, and even their pet’s weapon, it is unlikely you’ll ever see the exact same loadout as your own past the first world. Additionally, different missions types ranging from theft to sabotage to wave based defense against three factions, each featuring different strengths, weaknesses, and tactics, will ensure that tweakers always have something new to min/max for. Environmental hazards and optional “Nightmare” scenarios add to the tactical considerations for those seeking additional challenge.
Getting into a round of shooty-slicey couldn’t be simpler. Warframe is an online action game, not an MMO. The game world is depicted on a three dimensional map of the solar system with each planet containing a variety of game types corresponding to a range of player levels. Click a planet, click a sector, and away you go. Even these menu screens drip with the style and graphic finesse, even if it comes at the expense of readability. Still, it’s pretty and adds an air of drama to what is, ultimately, a menu screen. However, this menu has recently had life breathed into it by it’s seemingly tireless developers.
Dynamic events rock the face of what one would expect to be a static level select screen. Timed raids occur several times every hour frequently offering up cash shop goodies as rewards. Outbreaks of the Infested mutants prompt cries of aid from traditional enemies allowing players to fight side-by-side with their favorite baddies against a greater threat. Factions launch invasions into each other's territory offering up their own payment with the victor being determined whom the majority of the players decide to support. While you don’t need to pay any attention to the battle lines wobbling to and fro across the game’s world, the proceedings add an air of consequence unexpected in an online world, let alone a title of this nature. Coming back to your favorite robot hunting grounds on the snowy peaks of Neptune to find it overrun with space marines brandishing incendiary rocket launchers and knowing that it happened because you wanted those rare crafting resources the invaders were offering adds a whole new level of gravitas to your actions.
And we’re just covering the basics. Stalker super ninjas can drop in on players at any time on any mission to avenge the deaths of defeated boss characters. A Bioshock styled research camera lets players build their own animated encyclopedia of all things Warframe. Special keys rewarded from missions allow access to entirely new environments for a shot a special mods. Player profiles are leveled separately from equipment which encourages the use of new gear and each new profile level is capped off with a unique VR testing sequence. Guild housing is available in the form of dojos with a fully customizable floorplan created room by room by the players themselves. And, being an online game, there is, of course, a crafting system and special events. For a quick playing shooter that is easily digestible in small bursts, Warframe features a number of interesting peripheral system to keep hooked players busy.
Full of Indie passion and AAA production, Warframe offers a high octane, high flying, ninja action shooter in a wholly original sci-fi setting where one to four players can effect real change without ever paying a dime. Now that’s what I call Growing Up Otaku’s Game of the Year.
Editor’s Note: Warframe is rated Mature by the ESRB for “Violence, Blood, and Gore”. GUO does not normally consider M rated games in our GOTY selection. In the case of Warframe, I decided that the violence depicted, including splattering blood and the occasional dismemberment of enemies were within acceptable limits compared to both Mature and Teen rated games today. The game’s speed, the inhuman appearance of the characters (playable characters are never dismembered), and the cooperative nature of the gameplay frame the violence in a context that I would consider more in line with a strong Teen rating. Additionally, Warframe does include an option in the first page of the game’s settings to disable blood and gore.