No such thing as a free launch.
With the rising price of next-gen games a hot topic of conversation, the case for free-to-play moving onto consoles should be easier to make. Games like Warframe, however, probably won't help.
It's a four-player co-op third-person shooter, pitting human players in Guyver-esque supersuits known as Warframes against a variety of evil alien cyborg types. If that scenario causes your eyes to glaze over with weary familiarity then rest assured, the game that follows is even more generic and characterless than you think.
Following a brief tutorial which teaches you such insultingly obvious basics such as how to move and shoot, you're dumped into a densely packed front-end that explains little else. The game is structured around the planets of the Solar System and some fictional additions, with each providing a progressive mission tree to work through.
These missions are self-contained dungeon crawls in all but name, with a few elements of popular FPS game modes sprinkled on top. Your objective may involve capturing an important enemy, rescuing an important ally or exterminating every enemy on the map. In practice, it all boils down to much the same thing - move from room to room, corridor to corridor, kill everything that moves and loot every locker and chest for credits and ammo.
That's a pretty standard template, but Warframe never builds anything of interest on top of it. The fictional universe is thinly sketched and the result is a game that could literally be any shooter from the last 10 years - only not quite as good.
Despite launching on PlayStation 4 (it's been available on PC since March), Warframe bears all the hallmarks of any unambitious mid-range shelf-filler from 2007. Developer Digital Extremes is responsible for such ambivalent, middle-of-the-road fare as Dark Sector and Star Trek, and Warframe continues in much the same make-do fashion. This is not a game you'll turn to in order to be dazzled or surprised.
Sadly, the core mechanics chugging away beneath the uninspiring exterior aren't up to much either. This is a glitchy, murky game with no nuance or depth. Enemy AI is atrocious, with the brightest examples managing to duck in and out of basic cover, while the majority advance blindly towards you. The worst can be found simply standing in corners, doing nothing, even as you shoot them in the face.
Control feels slippery and skittish, and reaches its nadir when you try to make use of the game's melee combat. As well as a primary and secondary firearm, you go into battle toting a sword. The R1 button lashes out with this weapon, while holding it down delivers a slower but more powerful blow. It's functionally useless though, with a camera that is never up to the job in close quarters. You'll slash and slice at thin air, whirling your view around with the right stick in the hope that a few strikes will land.
Combat can't help but slip into a mildly distracting but mostly mindless frenzy, with survival matches in particular collapsing into laggy chaos where the only thing you can do is keep pumping bullets into the bewildering soup of polygons, numbers and glowing icons and hope you're contributing something to the cause.
Map design is functional but lazy, with the same rooms and features repeating before you've even got past the first set of missions. Even when the locations are technically new, the layouts feel the same: it's a game of occasional palette swaps rather than truly distinctive locations. With only a handful of mission objectives to divide between them, that Solar System of stages spread out before you starts to look more like a thankless chore than an invitation to adventure.
In fact, the whole game is clumsily inaccessible to new players, with a cluttered interface and menu system that were clearly designed for players sitting close to their PC monitors, rendering text virtually unreadable when displayed on TV from across the lounge. Every now and then, the game throws in a feature that it hasn't bothered to explain, like a huge gap that can only be crossed using a wall-run move that has never been mentioned or shown before.
What long-term appeal Warframe has comes from the ongoing levelling and upgrading of your character. Your suit and weapons level up with use, though you'd be hard pressed to notice any practical improvement in their functions. New equipment can be crafted by using blueprints and salvage, or purchased using Platinum, the game's freemium currency. You start out with 50 Platinum which, inevitably, isn't enough to buy anything useful. Different Warframes do offer a variety of battlefield abilities but, unforgivably, there's no way of seeing or comparing the stats between two different items, so you'll mostly make your choices based on what looks cool.
In fairness, the micro-payment system isn't too bad, despite there being a mind-boggling option to spend £109 in one go. The only time the game uses a countdown timer is when crafting - even a basic new sword takes 12 hours to create - but the game's flatline design actually makes new equipment less essential than it might otherwise be. Even your basic weapons get the job done for a fairly long time, so in the end what you're really doing is paying extra to make the game more interesting, not to make any actual progress. There's just nothing here to make you feel like it's worth sticking around, let alone start pumping money into the thing.
Ultimately, Warframe succeeds on only the most forgiving of criteria. It's a free-to-play shooter that does, indeed, let you shoot things for free. Beyond that, all it can really offer are technical rough edges, repetitive missions that quickly feel like a grind, character progression that fails to inspire and micro-payments that are both expensive and inessential.
If all you want is a way to run around and shoot things without troubling your wallet or imagination, that may be enough to justify the time it takes Warframe to download. It's hard, though, to shake the feeling that the only reason this game is free to play is that nobody would pay money for something so scrappy and generic.