I spent most of my weekend playing Warframe, a free-to-play online cooperative shooter. It had been on my radar for quite some time, ever since it showed up on Steam almost a year ago, but as usual I never got around to playing it. Ever since Killing Floor jumped the shark in mid-to-late 2012, I've been looking for a new coop shooter with the same kind of depth, intensity, and longevity to replace it, and it seems like Warframe might have the potential to be that game.
Warframe is a futuristic sci-fi shooter in which players take the role of an ancient civilization of warriors known as the Tenno, battling a variety of humanoid armies throughout the solar system. As the Tenno, players have the ability to move like ninjas, running and jumping along walls and sliding across the floor, while their warframes (the suit of armor they wear) give them a variety of unique active skills. The action is fun and exciting, the controls are tight and responsive, and the visual style and atmosphere are very immersive.
The only problem I have with Warframe is that it's fundamentally designed like a free-to-play game: "free to grind, pay to have fun." In a way, that works in the game's favor because it offers a psychological satisfaction to be had from earning your improvements while giving you long-term goals to work towards. On the other hand, the grind can force you to spend dozens of hours slogging through repetitive missions with boring starting equipment you may not even like before you can even get to the fun part of unlocking new warframes.
Starting the game for the first time bypasses the main menu and brings you right into the tutorial, a subtle little trick that helps immerse you in the game's world and gets you right into the action. It's a necessary trick, because once you're out of the tutorial and into the game proper, you're presented with an overwhelming amount of indecipherable windows and menus that would probably turn impatient, less dedicated gamers away if not for having already gotten a sample of the actual gameplay from the tutorial.
It took me several hours of gameplay and some careful navigation of the game menus, followed by research on the game's wiki to figure out what everything does. I'm sure there are tons of unexplained attributes and mechanics I still don't understand. In matches, for instance, enemies sometimes drop items. The most important of these are mods that you apply to weapons and warframes to upgrade their stats and abilities. For a new player, it's first a question of "how do I equip this," followed by "why won't the game let me equip this," followed by "what do these symbols, numbers, and meters mean" followed by "what are these buttons for fusing and transmuting, and why would I use them?" It's all very convoluted and mystical with no tooltips or descriptions to warn you of what you're getting into.
As I quickly learned, you have to be very careful with what you click because like an MMORPG, every action in Warframe is permanent and you don't want to risk wasting valuable items or money on something you don't want or don't understand. When I finished the tutorial I was given the choice of three starting warframes, but all I got was a one or two sentence description of their playstyles and the names of their four skills. One of them was clearly marked as being the best suited for novice players while the other two were more advanced. The other two sounded more interesting to me but I figured I'd try the basic one and then switch if I didn't like it.
After a few matches I realized I didn't care much for his active skills and went to change warframes, only to discover that all of the other warframes, including the two other choices from the tutorial, were locked and required me to spend real money buying them or craft them from materials dropped by enemies in missions. Researching the recipes I discovered that they all require items that only drop from Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, higher level planets that are restricted until you complete the requisite missions to advance through the solar system, starting on Mercury and working your way outward. I plowed through the missions and hit a brick wall on Earth, realizing I was vastly underleveled and would have to spend hours and hours grinding out experience on Mercury and Venus.
It's a steep grinding barrier for me to reach those planets, but even once I get there it's going to be a grind farming rare materials from bosses, and even once I get everything the craft itself takes three-and-a-half days. Even then, the new warframe will be at level zero, unable to use any of the higher level mods I've acquired thus making it useless except on low-level planets, until I've spent more time grinding it up to match my current warframe. After 15 hours of actual play time in missions, I've only just reached Mars, and I'm going to have to grind some more to get through those missions, and then it'll be a grind to get through Jupiter and Saturn.
At this rate it'll take me another two weeks playing a warframe I don't particularly enjoy just for the chance to try something new. That's an awful lot of commitment to ask of new players, but it's all because of the evil F2P model -- make the player feel like he's wasting his time so that he'll spend real money to bypass the grind and get to the fun part of the game. The F2P model has proven it can be successful for developers; Team Fortress 2 is a prime example of how a F2P game can be enjoyable for gamers without spending a dime, while still being profitable for the developer. With Warframe, the microtransactions feel devious and manipulative.
I'm not generally against the F2P model and am perfectly willing to spend money supporting a developer if I like their product. I bought Killing Floor for $5 in a sale and was happy to spend $20 more buying cosmetic DLC, just so that Tripwire could continue releasing new game content. In Warframe, cosmetic stuff is relatively cheap, but if I want to skip the dozens of hours grinding and farming, it's going to cost me a little less than $20 per warframe and per weapon that I want to unlock. Those prices are awfully expensive, but even if one were to acquire everything the free way, you're limited to one extra warframe and five extra weapons; if you want any more than that you'll have to spend real money buying extra slots -- you can't earn more slots through free gameplay.
With those kinds of price points and the fact that you basically have to spend money if you really get into the game, I think I'd prefer to spend $20-30 up front and have access to all of the game content, and then have the option to spend an extra $2-3 on hats or other such cosmetic goodies. It feels like the game is twisting my arm trying to get me to buy things, and you could ultimately spend more than the usual $60 cost of any other game. Suffice it to say I'm not pleased with the way Warframe handles its F2P execution since it mires your ability to enjoy the game without spending money, but makes it difficult to justify the overpriced cost of buying things from the in-game store. It's a shame because the game is pretty good otherwise.
Warframe features a loose campaign of missions strung together in a sequential order. You start in the center of the solar system, on Mercury, and work your way outward, fighting an army of cloned human soldiers, a megacorporation's crewmen and robots, and a species of infested creatures. There's kind of a story going on, conveyed to you between missions in the form of emails and voiced narration, but it's really just a flimsy pretense to get you into combat situations.
Missions take on various forms -- there's the usual "exterminate" objective to kill every enemy in the level, as well as the "assassinate" objective to kill a powerful boss, but others are a little more creative. "Survival" missions require you to activate life support systems while fending off an infinite number of increasingly stronger enemies, all while fighting the timer of available air supply; in "capture" missions you chase down a powerful target that flees through the level; in "rescue" missions you have to free a target and escort him to the extraction point; in "defense" missions you defend an object from waves of enemies; in "sabotage" levels you infiltrate a location and destroy a piece of equipment; and "intercept" missions are basically like king of the hill matches.
With the main exception of "defense" and "intercept" missions, gameplay doesn't change that dramatically from mission to mission since they all basically amount to working your way through a level shooting everything in sight, but there's just enough variety in the objectives to keep things from getting too boring. Adding to the variety is the fact that each level is randomized from different combinations of rooms and hallways, meaning you can do the same mission multiple times in a row and have a slightly different layout each time.
Combat is fast-paced, pitting you against sometimes hundreds of enemies in a single level, frantically running around rooms mowing down waves of enemies. Your mobility is a key component in making the firefights so fun engaging as you slide around and bound off walls, moving from cover to cover and evasively dodging attacks. The controls feel tight and responsive whether you're shooting from the hip or zooming in for the more precise over-the-shoulder perspective, and the guns have a satisfying feedback every time you fire them. Melee combat is pretty satisfying, too, for a shooter, with each character starting with a katana-esque blade that he can use to slice enemies apart.
There's also a ton of equipment to unlock, including 18 different warframes, each with unique skills and stats, and over a hundred different primary, secondary, and melee weapons. Weapons and warframes are all leveled-up with combat experience, which increases the number and strength of mods you can apply to each one. Mods can be applied and removed from equipment freely, allowing you to experiment with different combinations to find your own desired build. There are so many options available, and despite (or perhaps because of) the tedious grind there's a great psychological satisfaction to be had from finding a rare mod, upgrading your equipment, making progress towards crafting a new warframe or weapon, and getting strong enough to survive a tough new area.
Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be much need for genuine teamwork, at least in the starting areas. Mercury and Venus are easy enough that players can run around irrespective of one another and still beat the levels. There's rarely any need for communication and zero need for strategy; in a lot of cases, players just race through the level attempting to see who can get the most kills. It wasn't until I reached some "defense" and "intercept" missions where I could see the potential for necessary teamwork, so I'm hoping that later in the game the whole "cooperative" aspect of the gameplay comes through.
While the grind and microtransactions kind of insult me, the action is exciting, the atmosphere is fun, and there are plenty of long-term goals to work towards, meaning every match feels like I'm making progress in something. I intend to continue playing at least long enough to try out some of the other warframes (the healer warframe, Trinity, is the one I really want, since I usually like to play support roles in online games) before I decide to give up on it, but I have a feeling Warframe will hold my attention for a decently long while.