When you hear the words "free-to-play third-person shooter," you probably envision yet another PvP killfest with a frightening potential for pay-to-win microtransactions. Warframe, then, is a pleasant surprise: it's a four-player co-op shooter in the vein of Mass Effect 3 multiplayer, with fast-paced action and plenty of customizable options, except without the story context. Like all too many recently launched free-to-play games, at the moment (technically open beta, but declared reviewable) it feels somewhat buggy and unfinished, but it holds the promise of what might be a great game after a few more content patches.



Being a co-op game doesn't mean that you have to ignore a competent storyline (see Left 4 Dead), but Warframe seems content to establish its universe at a basic level: players are acrobatic robot-suited warriors fighting an alien invasion. Then it simply throws us into a long series of very samey-feeling missions. Whether you're asked to rescue a hostage or retrieve an alien artifact or destroy a reactor, rest assured that your primary goal is to shoot nigh-endless waves of enemies.

It's good, then, that Warframe makes it quite fun to kill things and watch them die. Movement and shooting feels smooth and responsive, targets are plentiful, and there's just enough ragdoll silliness in the enemy death animations to always make me look forward to my next kill. There's a good variety of guns to choose from, including a powerful bow that can pin enemies to walls, and although the sci-fi swordsman archetype might be overplayed lately, the melee combat here is also satisfyingly weighty. Charged attacks that can slice enemies clean in half are their own reward.

Animations in general are fluid and interesting, and although the environments tend toward blandness, they're lit up by a Technicolor explosion of enemy fire and player ability effects. Some tweaking is required (the bloom effects are fairly ridiculous at their default setting), but this is still one of the best-looking free-to-play games to date. Warframe runs on Digital Extreme's proprietary Evolution engine, which does a fine job of both looking great and running smoothly. Dips below 40fps were very rare at 1920x1080 on a system running a Core-i7 920 CPU and a Radeon HD 6950 videocard, even when the screen filled up with a dozen enemies and a full team of four players.


The primary fodder of Warframe are the Grineer, a race of privateer space marines that do a passable job of taking cover and attempting to retreat or advance as the situation demands. However, they'll also regularly send out seeker bots, which are by far the most annoying enemies I've fought lately due to their small hitboxes and extremely rapid movement. Meanwhile the Infested race (read: space zombies) are almost exclusively melee attackers, and I found I could usually reduce them to confused immobility simply by standing on a tall box.

Standing on top of boxes is just one of the abilities of these high-tech super soldiers. Each of the three warframe classes gets a suite of four unique superpowers: Volt relies on electrical attacks, Nyx uses psychic powers to turn enemies against each other, Loki becomes invisible for stealth attacks, and so on. Those abilities are fun to use, but the downside is that you wind up unlocking all of them fairly early on; some advanced superpowers at the upper end of the level curve would've been a nice reward for sticking with a single suit. Also, any of the three warframe classes can use any gun, which is understandable given that you might be paying real money for them, but it makes them feel interchangeable when it comes to shooting.

Wiping the grins off the Grineer.

Speaking of guns, the lack of grenades and other explosive options is a bit odd, but it did at least force me to move forward to engage enemies behind cover rather than bogging things down in protracted long-distance firefights. You can sneak up behind some enemies and perform backstabs to critically wound them, but in the chaos of a four-person mission, I found that stealth usually goes by the wayside fairly quickly.

Most customization comes from an extensive modification system in which you plug in collected upgrades like elemental damage to your weapons and extra shields to your warframe. The interface for this system still needs a fair amount of work, though; I ran into a nasty bug that completely prevented me from switching mods out on one of my warframes, and in fact required a complete game restart every time I attempted to do so. Plus, the random nature of the drops can also be frustrating. If you miss out on the basic shield and health boosters, you might find yourself needing to re-run early missions until you get some lucky drops, as they're almost required to complete later missions.

A job well done.

One of Warframe's significant issues at the moment is its failure to display important information, especially in the mission-select interface. It's a slick piece of work, letting you pick where you want to go in the system in a cool way, but the level ranges of each individual planet aren't shown, making you click around until you find somewhere appropriate to play. Likewise, games in progress are marked, but you have no idea of the relative level of the players involved until you actually join a game in progress. Since there isn't an quickmatch button, I had to go through a fair amount of planet-browsing each time I wanted to hop into a match, and false starts are a drag.

There's always the option to simply hop into a mission by yourself and hope that someone joins you, but some missions aren't well-balanced for solo play. Some require you to carry an item that prevents you from firing your main weapon; others consist of defending critical points from enemies attacking from multiple angles. Running out of ammo is also a concern when you're outnumbered this badly.

Most critically, there's no lag or ping display anywhere. Given Warframe's reliance on peer-to-peer connections, it's frustrating not to know whether you're about to hop into a game hosted by someone who's streaming HD movies from Netflix in the other room. I ran into latency problems that ranged from noticeable to almost unplayable in around a quarter of the games I joined.

Splat.

As with most free-to-play games, Warframe contains a store where you can exchange real-world money for one of the two in-game currencies, platinum. There isn't much in the cash-only store that could be considered mandatory, although some of these items, like the in-game pets that stun and shoot nearby enemies, additional daily revives, and power-boosting items that let you slot in twice as many mods to your frame and weapons could be classed as "very, very handy." Still, the economy feels fair, especially since you're only paying to be able to kill AI enemies more efficiently.

You'll also earn the other currency, credits, as you play, and the market does a reasonable job of ensuring that most items (aside from things like XP boosters and slots for extra warframes) can be purchased with them. There's an extra laborious crafting hurdle for free players, but it's not tedious to the point of frustration. I spent $50 to buy 1,000 platinum, with which I was able to buy a bundle consisting of a new warframe, three new weapons, and a set of boosters which made earning XP and credits much quicker for a few days, with enough platinum left over to purchase another warframe and a weapon or two. For perspective, it would've taken at least a few days of regular play (not counting crafting time, which is often on the order of 12 hours per item) to earn the credits to buy them all.

One other note: Warframe's technically in open beta (again, Digital Extreme gave us the go-ahead to review it now), so this may be a temporary issue, but there are often only a few hundred players on each regional server; when this population is further spread across solo games, private matches, and online play on the 100+ missions, it can be difficult to actually find anyone to play with. But, because it's free and requires only four players for a full game, it's a easy enough to bring three friends along for the ride.

THE VERDICT

In its current state, Warframe feels like the foundation (or frame, you might say) of a game that might be really interesting at some point in the future. It just needs more of everything: more mission variety, more good enemies, more polish, more environments, more players. Monthly content updates are promised, so hopefully some of this will be arriving soon. Digital Extremes has created something that's often genuinely fun to play, and given the cost of entry, Warframe's well worth a try if you're in the mood for something different.

Source: IGN

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