Phil Hartup on videogames

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Warframe: or how I learned to stop worrying and love weird Canadian space ninjas

It's not the most original title, but Warframe's sneaky space ninjas make duck-and-cover shooting fun.

Space ninjas in action. Sometimes the old ways are the best. (Image: Digital Extremes)
Space ninjas in action. Sometimes the old ways are the best. (Image: Digital Extremes)

Choose story. Choose characters. Choose themes. Choose NPCs. Choose a fucking big cut-scene, choose dialogue, morale choices, romance options and multiple endings. Choose good guys, bad guys and party members. Choose knowing what you’re meant to be doing. Choose sewer levels. Choose side missions. Choose Easter eggs. Choose completion. Choose sitting on that couch, watching the end sequences and wondering who the fuck the voice actors are. Choose uninstalling the game at the end of it all, telling everybody how much you loved the six hours you spent playing it, never to play it again, nothing more than an impossibly high yard stick against which to measure the unnecessary, pointless sequel the developer churned out to replace it. Choose a franchise. Choose story… Actually don’t, because Warframe has space ninjas.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking it’s the bit from Trainspotting with some of the words changed for comic effect. You’re probably thinking it’s unoriginal and derivative and you’re wondering why somebody would bother to do something which has been done to death by other people going back so many years.

Congratulations, you now know exactly how I felt when I first tried to play Warframe when it first came out.

Warframe is a third person action game about space ninjas in the future. There is some kind of a plot floating around about ancient warrior castes and how you have been brought out of suspended animation, but it is not important, not even slightly, and I will explain why later on.What you need to know is that you play a space ninja and you guide that ninja through a limited array of missions in a limited array of maps, pretty much forever. Over time you unlock different types of ninja armour - the "warframes" of the title - and different weapons, skills and other bits and bobs. Or you can just buy them, because being a modern free to play game you can bypass the time spent playing with money to get the good stuff. The game has been knocking around on the PC for a year in beta with updates popping up every month, cleaning up the UI, adding new mission types and enemies and generally making it better. Warframe recently made the hop to PS4 too, while remaining free to play. I’m writing about it here after update twelve, my third attempt to get into it, and this time it is feeling worth the effort. It has, putting it mildly, come a long way since it first appeared.

But to return to the setting, what is it that specifically makes the background to Warframe so entirely pointless? Well, two reasons. The first is that it just doesn’t matter. In the same way that we don’t know why assorted groups of terrorists and counter-terrorists have been assembled in even teams to fight it out in Counter Strike, or why the black and white pieces on a chess board can’t seem to get along, we don’t need to know what the ninjas in space are really up to. You pick a job from the map and your character gets rewarded for doing the job, nothing more to worry about. The second reason is that the game has quite a lot going on by way of crafting systems, character and weapon upgrade setups, and it is better to worry about that than why you’re chasing around doing ninja things to space people. There is quite a lot to learn.

The meat of the game is the action and the game does this very well despite not really doing anything very new. If anything, it is refreshingly old-fashioned. There are two styles of third person shooter such as Warframe: you’ve got your Gears of War-, Tomb Raider- or Mass Effect-style games, and then you’ve got your Max Payne-style games, which after the appearance of Gears of War largely vanished (even Max Payne 3 changed its style). The difference comes down to one mechanic - a cover system. Games with cover systems tend to be less dynamic, because by and large you are basing the game around hiding from incoming fire as opposed to dodging it. Done right there is nothing wrong with a good set of cover mechanics. Red Dead Redemption and Mass Effect, for example, both used them extremely well. Use of cover is obviously much more realistic, as it completely trumps movement in the common sense ways-to-avoid-getting-shot stakes, but realism isn’t always what you want. Sometimes you want space ninjas.

The idea of dodging death rather than hiding from it is about as old school as you can get, harking back to the old bullet hell arcade shooters where you would have to cram your ship into the tiny part of the screen that didn’t have an enemy projectile in it. Similarly, in Warframe it is delightfully hard to die as long as you stay moving. The warframes can run up or along walls, slide, flip and roll with ease and can do all that while shooting and stabbing anybody nearly. The controls are easy enough to get to grips with but the game is still fun even when you don’t really know how you’re doing anything. No matter how drunk, sleep deprived and hung over you are, the warframe will generally manage to look competent in battle. I know this, I have tested it.

The obvious thing that Warframe does that is original is the art style for the warframes themselves. While the enemies fit comfortably into the traditional horrible monster, cyborg, armoured trooper and robot categories of space villains the warframes are outlandish and intricate things. The weapons vary from bows, axes and daggers to rifles, flamethrowers and a happy little contraption that fires circular saw blades. As with the suits themselves the weapons don’t feel entirely practical. There is a vanity to the warframes, a sense of style that contrasts to the overbearing ordinariness and ugliness of their enemies and environments. That is not to say the game looks bad, rather the developers have done a great job of making enemies that don’t look like they care what they look like.

Missions tend to be fairly simple, though a couple, like the survival missions or the capture missions, tend to not be as self-explanatory as you’d think they’d be. For example ‘capture’, in the context of a Warframe mission, translates to ‘chase down, shoot and vaporise’. The enemy AI isn’t a genius by any stretch, but little touches like the way that the enemies will run to terminals in order to sound the alarm or lock down sections of the map add some flavour. Because you play a space ninja it is of course possible to complete most of the missions without being detected, but the stealth mechanics are not great. Stealth mechanics can go wrong in so many ways but Warframe does them wrong in the right ways, namely that they are overly forgiving and nonessential. It is generally better practice to just try to attack with enough speed to kill anybody who tries to raise the alarm before they get to the terminal rather than worry about whether they saw you coming or not. It is not possible for an enemy to use an alarm terminal properly if his head is stapled to it with an arrow - I know this too, I have tested it.

Warframe has been growing in popularity steadily on PC since it came out, which is a remarkable achievement for a game of this simplicity after this much time.Warframe is not a game that guards its content, you can see everything the game has to offer within a couple of hours, minutes if you’re willing to pay, but like all of the very best games it is the variations, the ways in which you can play the game that keep it compelling. In an industry that seems these days to obsess over narrative, new ways to tell a story and new ways to create compelling characters, it is as well to remember a good game does not need any of that, at all. All it has to be is fun to play and maybe have some space ninjas.