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

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.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times