Warframe is one of the most consistently monetized free to play games I have seen. Want a new gun? Five bucks. Oh wait, you don’t have enough slots for a new gun. We’ll sell you those slots for five bucks. Sick of your current character? Buy a new one for twenty bucks. Oops, no slots for a new character. Five bucks. With (almost) everything, you can earn in game currencies to create the new guns and new characters, but they all have build times. These can be sped up from 12 hours for most items to the 3 days for a new character - for a nominal fee. Yet, I have put over 30 hours into it, and haven’t spent a dime, so it is doing something right. Let’s go on a deep dive, with a single disclaimer: I am in the ‘early game’. I’m sure that after 70 more hours the mechanics I encountered will have shifted, and many of my views may shift.
Starting off this game reminds me so much of starting DotA that it is almost uncanny. There are basic tutorials to show you the controls and where your weapons and upgrades are, but beyond that you have to put in the time to understand pretty much every part of the mechanics. One player had mentioned a guide put together by a community celebrity, and others commented that that guide was what got them into the game 4 or 5 years ago. Clearly the game has a large community with legs that helps each other out. And when I mention I am at 30 hours in, I am very much a new player - people have hundreds if not thousands of hours in the game. There are several times where the game has a congratulatory pop up for an item or ability that has meant less than nothing to me. I had characters coming up over my coms talking in cryptic riddles, objectives requiring currency I had never heard of, and progression blocking objectives for mechanics never explained. And every time I would question those on stream, the advanced players would give me a mixed bag of helpful advice or more cryptic garbage.
For example, the entire game is paced by “Lotus”, a voice in your head telling you what to do. Every once in a while a completely different voice would come up, saying something about some glass enemies coming up. I asked who the hell this was, and someone said “oh that’s Nora, she’s with Nightwave”. Did this answer my question? Technically, yes. But gameplay wise, no. See, everyone playing for a while knows that she is a faction leader that was put into place for an expansion who gives optional quests, and you can gain her favor by killing special enemies who show up when she talks to you. But for a new player, this is glossed over. The new player experience is sorely hurting from the additional content that has been layered on for years. Yet I have always been the curious kind, and someone who enjoys learning, so figuring out the systems has been a draw to me in what might otherwise be a shallow game.
From what I have read, a ‘mission statement’ on the game wanted it to be wide, but not deep. The combat in the game has an amazing feel to it, in that everything moves, shoots, and slaps the way you would want it to. The parkour system is fun, the speed at which you move feels nice, and the sound design has nice thuds when you land heavy attacks. If you have a melee weapon out, you automatically block any projectiles like a Jedi, and with any weapon you can do a Max Payne slow motion dive. You can cling to walls and shoot, and have a ground slam that also functions almost like a teleport with how far, and how fast it moves you.
That aside, though, this game is mind numbingly easy. There was a quest I received (from Nora!) to kill 1500 enemies in a week. Enemies are presented as fodder, and if they are in groups of less than 20, it is trivial to clear them out. I have rarely used a gun, instead just using the melee system and running forward while mashing attack to clear out rooms of enemies. Every once in a while there is an enemy that seems designed to block your progress or piss you off. One such enemy drains your energy that powers your abilities, another will grab you by the ankle with no rhyme or reason, another projects shields onto its allies. Finally, there are enemies that spit out poison, which damages your health through your shields, and since health drops are rare, a few of these in a mission can kill you seemingly out of nowhere. Even when trying to keep track of these, I still have many deaths that I can’t explain. Even death, though, doesn’t have much teeth to it. You can revive yourself if a player isn’t around to help you at the cost of some of your gained experience, and one of four lives (one frame gets to do this twice for free, with buffs, for 6 lives per mission). There are a few missions with failstates - escorts, king of the hill, protect an inanimate object - that are better at presenting the threat of failure, but most of those are still fairly easy.
Then there are the currencies and materials. There are six different currencies (money, real world money, ducats, standing, endo, and cred), and probably about 50 different materials. Each material has a specific place where it can be farmed, and a specific rarity, and you mostly have to trust that you will find it or find a use for it eventually. Some of these serve only a single use (navigation orbs), whereas others are used in every single useful thing you will ever encounter. It is incredibly confusing to try and figure out what each one means and how it may help you, especially because certain ones have an entirely different pop up on your HUD. Let’s say that you do have it figured out, and you want to use your materials and money to make a new frame. After framing parts from the boss, you build the 3 required items, and then...nothing. Because you have to know to go into the real world currency store, click on the page for the warframe you would want, and click on the button that lets you buy it with in game currency. This also applies to your little helper bots, and I’m sure a bunch of other things I don’t even know about yet. I mentioned in the start that the game is heavily monetized, but I will say that the grind to get the required materials and currencies for each new frame is easily obtainable in most cases. Usually 2 or 3 hours of play will get you all the money you need, and depending on the rarity of resources, it will probably get you most resources for it. I am fairly impressed that the only thing that feels necessary to buy is extra slots for items, and the game gives you a very small amount of currency to do so. You can also sell rare items for the premium currency later on, so you can likely play the game for free, relying on the whales to make it easier.
"But everything was 5 dollars!" "No, every thing is 5 dollars"
I did mention experience, and I want to talk about the experience cycle for the “early game” because that is what is truly ‘interesting’ at this point. Every thing in the game has its own level - you, your character, your weapons, your companion, and your companion’s weapons. As you gain experience, those level up, and you can attach more mods to them powering them up. The overall goal for me right now is to level my player up because some content is gated to certain character levels. In order to do that, you have to level everything else up. Eventually you hit a level cap of 30, and at that point, you stop earning experience. So you get this sweet new gear, level it up to 30 at which point you can put on mods that make it so it does 400% damage, then abandon it because you need a new level 0 piece of gear to gain more experience. The cycle of going from a whirlwind of death to a soft kitten for the sake of advancing is, at the very least, strange. As you swap out frames, you lose everything you built into your current frame, including armor and health buffs. I literally went from about 800 health/shields to a new frame that had 250. You are expected to kneecap yourself to continue. Do you keep trying to progress through the plot, or do you go back to lower level zones to grind up enough to pick up where you left off? Worse, with multiplayer, how much of a burden are you to your team if you have no survivability? Finally, there is always a fear that you will reach the catch 22 of not having enough equipment to level up that you can’t level up, which I will reiterate restricts you from buying new equipment.
Perhaps my biggest complaint against this game is it doesn’t feel like it was made by someone who plays videogames. There is an idea called ‘conveyance’, which I take as meaning how well a game communicates ideas without ever saying them, and Warframe does a terrible job of this. One mission gives you a new camera, and tells you to take a picture of an enemy to steal its soul. After tracking down the enemy and taking pictures, the camera suddenly stops working, but the marker for the enemy remains. After looking on the wiki, I learned that you have to target certain orbs on the enemies body, and once all of those are gone, then you get its soul. A mission required for you to rank up begins by telling you to shoot all the targets on a timer, in a room filled with about 20 targets. One turns red, and the camera snaps to face it. Shooting it doesn’t destroy it, but a line shows up. What do I do now? Do I shoot the target it’s linked to? Shoot the first target until it’s destroyed? Shoot every target in the room? No, the game wants you to shoot the red target, then follow a series of lines until another target turns red, and shoot that one, rinse and repeat. The price for failing to understand the game’s muddled objective is that you have to wait 24 hours before you do it properly.
This even applies to enemies, and very much to bosses. Some enemies have a whip that they can use to make you pratfall. Within the crowd of 10 to 20 units, it is almost impossible to distinguish which enemy may do this, there is very little, if any, indication they will happen, and worst of all there is no counter play to this. You can’t mash E to escape, or press dodge at just the right moment to escape it. You just have to accept that every once in a while, haha, warframe fall down. Bosses in the game fall into three categories: trivial, stupid, and MMO raids. The trivial bosses have a healthbar that you easily whittle down, drop rewards, gg. There are MMO like bosses, which I generally enjoy, where you have to do something special to beat them. Maybe disable the legs so you can climb it to deal damage, all while it is dealing a massive AOE attack. These feel really, really good and are one of the points where the game shines. Then there are stupid bosses, which seem to make up the bulk. They have a gray healthbar, meaning they can’t be damaged. Some make you wait an actual minute before they become vulnerable, whereas others have tiny weak points, with no signaling that they are weak points. Now listen, I get it, when you play a Zelda game and the enemy has a giant, flashing canker sore, you know to shoot that, and sometimes you do a little eye roll. Or if it isn’t obvious, you target it and Navi says “did you notice the crack the size of the Grand Canyon in his armor”? Yes I did, Navi. In Warframe, none of this exists. Lotus tells you to watch out, this guy is a badass, and he approaches you with his weapon and kicks your ass as you flail effortlessly, not sure if this is a phase or if you have to break him out of invulnerability as a sea of 0 damage pop ups flood your screen. Turns out, you have to shoot his powerpack, or shoot the flames on his flamethrower, or whatever the developer wanted you to do. If you are playing solo, the boss is seemingly impossible and you have to quit, or if you are playing with a group, the boss does for some indiscernible reason, go team. The only saving grace is that the wiki is full, the subreddit is active, and the veterans can tell you exactly what you should and shouldn’t be doing. It’s a Dark Souls level of community without the built in communication and nuanced design.
At this point, I want to talk about bugs. This game has them. There have already been a few times where I have been locked from forward progression because a door closed and refused to open for me again. Sometimes, bosses have spawned in unreachable areas, and are still able to attack out, but the squad can’t attack in. On the other hand, I have accidentally launched bosses through the level geometry for an instant win. They are fairly rare, but common enough where I have encountered quite a few things that got underneath my skin and left a poor impression for a game that has been out as long as it has been.
Next, balance. The PvE isn’t balanced at all, and at times, it’s kind of funny. There is no restriction as far as I can tell on matchmaking so a level 30 player can join in on a level 5 mission and just destroy it. Not to mention that they might have some severely imbalanced frames. I was playing “Excalibur” who has no team buffs, and excels at melee, so I was running at everything stabbing them. Some guy was playing what I think was Inaros, but I have no idea. Every few seconds he would release a pulse centered on him that extended to the edge of the arena we were in and killed every enemy on the map. After 20 minutes on the level, he had done 98% of all damage dealt. Now this is objectively hilarious, and made the mission very easy, it was also kind of boring. On a protection mission, we had a character called Wisp helping us. Wisp has an ability that gives allies 300 health, 30 hp regen, 20% increased movement speed, 20% increased attack speed, 30% increased rate of fire, and an AoE stun. All of these abilities last for 30 seconds...from touching the infinite duration place where she first used her ability. Every 30 seconds, you return to the fountain of invincibility, take another sip, then resume destroying everything in sight. Let me check what my “1” skill is...Oh, I run at an enemy and hit it with a sword. Aren’t I helpful? Don’t I just want to pay 25 dollars to make my team unstoppable?
Even the levels themselves have a very strange balance based on the number of players. There is one mission type called survival that has a slowly depleting oxygen meter. You have to use slowly replenishing oxygen tanks, or you can find smaller supplies off of killed enemies. If you play by yourself, you have to use the tanks, and the meter runs out faster than they arrive. With 3 other people on your team, though, the game throws 4 times as many enemies at you, so they are constantly dropping oxygen. In addition to this, whenever you are in 50 meters (I think) of another player, you gain all the experience the other player would gain. So if you play by yourself you get 1 area’s worth of experience. If you play as a close knit squad with 3 other people, each mission gets you 4 times as much experience. It is almost a clever way to make you want to work with other people, but it makes it so frustrating when people either leave a mission (many you can leave at almost any time, so people run them for 5 minutes when you want to go for 20), or when you don’t get anyone on the mission and have to run a now much more boring mission solo. As a quick rant, any non timing based mission is run through as quickly as possible by all players, ignoring all enemies and most drops, just to clear it. I really hate it, but after enough PvE games, I guess I get it. Oh, and you match with random parties, join in, then once the mission is complete you have to manually disband the party every. Single. Time.
Despite all of the bugs, all of the mechanics obfuscated by countless currencies, and the consistent pressure to pay real money, the one word I would use for the game is ‘cathartic’. It is the all syrup Slushie of free to play games. It has an almost Dynasty Warrior feel of just destroying all who oppose you combined with a Minecraft like tranquility of gathering ores to make better tools so you can gather ore better, and of course the dopamine dump of leveling in a JRPG. This is probably my biggest conflict with the game - I like depth, I like complexity, and I like learning while gaming. But sometimes there is that need to play Azazel in Binding of Isaac and just destroy everything as you go. Especially in this climate, it can feel so rewarding. I’m just unsure how long the high will last.