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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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage