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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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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