Here's the thing: it is cool to slide along on your bum while firing a rifle. It is also cool to transition from bum-slide into accelerating leap, to draw a bow and arrow in mid air and to plunk a pointy laser-shaft right in the cranium of an unsuspecting spaceman. It's also cool to hit a spaceman with a space-staff, to set your space-dog or space-robot on him, to tear him apart with superpowers. All of these things are cool, and they constitute 90 per cent of the things you do in Warframe. Is it fair, therefore, to conclude that Warframe is cool?
I've been thinking about this a lot as I've picked at Digital Extremes' free to play spaceman shooter. This has been my first experience of a game that has always been on the periphery of my awareness, a contemporary of games I love like Guild Wars 2 and Destiny. The ways in which Warframe is (and isn't) like those games and the particular niche it has carved for itself both as a game and as a capital-P Product are worthy of exploration. This is a game from games media's traditional blindspot: south of triple-A but north of indie, a powerhouse of Steam's free-to-play section and the parts of the PSN store you probably don't go to much.
The first line of my notes reads 'slow-mo bow is cool', and let me reiterate: it is. Warframe is a fundamentally well-conceived action game, particularly in the context of free to play MMOs. It's the lovechild of Phantasy Star Online and Vanquish, kinetic action rendered infinitely consumable by sprawling progression paths and deep grind. It's not a Platinum-tier action game in its own right - it inherits some floatiness and imprecision from the PC MMO half of its parentage - but it comes much closer than you'd expect.
Action is where you get a sense of the style and sensibilities of Warframe's developers. Art, too: this is a version of the far future rendered with a very specific eye, a hybrid of anime and Heinlein with shades of the great Games Workshop illustrator John Blanche (trading feverish space Catholicism for chilly mysticism.) It's a world of creepily organic cosmic ninjas and ruined cyborgs coming together to form something like HR Giger's Cirque du Soleil. It is so easy for free to play games to come across as derivative or, worse, as straight-up clones. It's to Warframe's great credit that it evades that impression as deftly as it does.
'Good for free to play' is a sentiment I want to avoid because I think the technical expertise and imagination behind Warframe would be laudable regardless of the game's payment structure. Even so, there is no avoiding the influence that this business model has on Warframe as a game and, more coldly and calculatedly, as a proposition to you, the prospective time-and-money-spender. It's here that the question of Warframe's coolness becomes more complicated, because nowhere is the superposition of business and art more keenly felt than when we're talking about free to play games. Business, need it be said, is rarely cool.
Warframe introduces dozens of divergent progression paths early - midway through the tutorial, even. You have a mastery rank, which reflects your progress towards maxing-out the levels of your individual weapons and warframes. Each of those also take mods, which can be individually collected and upgraded. You have crafting blueprints and associated resource requirements and checklists to complete in order to reach each new planet. There are alerts that pop up on your galaxy map to tell you about time-limited missions with time-limited rewards, there's PVP, there's bottomless customisation of almost everything. It all represents your time, lots of it, merrily absorbed for free by a game that will take as much as you can give it.
There's a disconnect between all of this meta-game stuff and actual play. Percentage-based boosts to stats aren't keenly felt when it takes the game a very long time to get anywhere approaching difficult. It can feel like you're investing time shooting spacemen to increase numbers in a different, unrelated game about unlocking nodes on a map of the solar system. In a sense, you are.
It's here that the pull of Warframe's minute-to-minute experience collided with the equal and opposite push of its hour-by-hour structure, for me. It doesn't help that the game is deeply in love with its own vocabulary, so much so that even basic game concepts require a trip to a wiki. I have an almost bottomless capacity for useless space words (I play Destiny!) but even I read about the folly of overinvesting Endo in performing Fusion on the damaged Serration in my MK1-Paris and think: wat.
Stare at all of this for long enough and patterns do emerge: if you want to fly around in an Archwing, for example, then there's a button on your ship that will bring up the prerequisites for the quest you need to complete and you can work backwards from there. I resorted to beginner's guides and wikis: Warframe offers so much to do that I needed somebody else to parse it for me, to tell me the path-of-least resistance way of profitably investing time in this game (and there is a lot of game).
That question of profit is what complicates Warframe. Human beings like the feeling of acquisition and progress: like it so much, in fact, that it tends to obliviate everything that it's put next to. Free to play design is, essentially, about the careful stage management of that feeling. The essential 'stuff' of a game - its slow-mo bows, its look, its ideas - are all 'day one' affairs. They draw you in. It's on day two that every free to play game faces its real test, as it's then that you start thinking about the long-term: the goals you might work towards, the planets you might unlock, the mods you might invest in, the dog or jetpack you might earn. If you click on day two, you'll probably be back for day 50. Warframe goes all-in on winning that day two investment: it has to, because unlike something like Destiny it doesn't already have your money.
I did not click on day two, and that has limited the chance that I'll hit day 50. There are two reasons for this, and both are subjective: the first is that I am no longer rich in time in the way that I used to be, and I'd rather pay for a shorter manageable experience than sink into a longer unmanageable one for free. This is a much busier, more immediately intimidating game than Destiny, one where you'll kill more spacemen and do more missions in a shorter space of time but each of those individual actions, those individual successes, means less. There's a profound difference in the rhythm of these two games despite structural similarities: Destiny offers less to do off the bat but has greater focus and feels more substantial. Warframe's stylish presentation masks a frantic drive to get and hold your attention, and the awareness that this is what the game is doing is to the detriment of the world that it is attempting to build.
Here's a final thing, though: grinds can be fun. Grinds create communities. Opaque progression systems and impenetrable game vocabularies spark conversations in all-chat that become friendships over time. There are qualities to be discovered in that side of Warframe - in the traditional MMO stuff - even if I don't have space in my life for them. The issue here isn't 'it's a shame that it's an MMO', then, or 'it's a shame that it's free to play' - but the unresolved culture clash between game design and business and the mood that this creates for prospective players. I suspect that the future (hell, the present) of online games looks very much like Warframe, but I suspect that it'll take a generational shift in expectations before everybody is completely cool with that.