Warframe is a free-to-play third-person shooter which first launched to little fanfare on PC in 2013. Five years and a ton of updates later, Warframe has become one of the most played video games of this generation, and now spread to Xbox One, PS4 and most recently — Nintendo Switch. Yet, despite boasting a huge player base, it’s a title that remains largely ignored by a lot of ‘hardcore’ gamers. So where did it come from? A little-known Canadian studio called Digital Extremes.
Who are Digital Extremes?
Based out of London, Ontario, Digital Extremes has actually been around since 1993. Its earliest work in the gaming sphere was shareware titles, but it quickly formed a partnership with Epic Games to co-create the popular Unreal series. From there it went on to aid several AAA titles with their multiplayer development, including Bioshock 2, Homefront and Halo 4.
Digital Extremes had its first crack at an original IP in 2008, with Dark Sector which launched to mixed reviews. If that wasn’t an impressive enough resume, this is the team that also developed the criminally underrated The Darkness 2 in 2012 as well as 2013’s frankly woeful Star Trek movie-tie in.
It’s fair to say that Digital Extremes had an inauspicious run in the industry up till that point, either playing second fiddle to other developers or failing to hit it big with its own titles.
Warframe would be the game that saved Digital Extremes, though success wouldn’t come easily or quickly. Free-to-play games like Fortnite and Apex Legends dominate today’s gaming landscape, but in the distant past of 2013 things weren’t so rosy for developers looking to eschew traditional gaming models. Players and media alike viewed free-to-play games with suspicion and derision, fearful of the monetisation methods and subsequent gameplay loops that these titles relied on.
Speaking with Wccftech, Studio Manager Sheldon Carter said that they were “in a develop-to-survive scenario when Warframe started”. But through perseverance, hard work and respect for its player base, Digital Extremes have turned Warframe into one of the best games on the market today, free-to-play or otherwise.
What is Warframe
Warframe is an online, third-person ‘looter shooter’ in the vein of Destiny, The Division and Anthem, though it predates all those other heavy hitters in the genre. Set in our solar system in the distant future, you control a Tenno – an ancient warrior brought out of suspended animation to restore peace and order to the system.
Teaming up with your allies (or running lone wolf if you prefer), you join the battle against the three major enemy factions vying for control of the Solar System: the clone forces of the Grineer, the Corpus mega-corporations and the parasitic Infested. Each foe offers their own unique challenges for you to overcome, with the help of your trusty Warframe.
While it may be free-to-play, Warframe feels like a AAA experience. The gunplay is responsive, the weapons unique and impactful and the ragdoll physics are sublime, if comically over the top. This all gels together beautifully with the movement system. Warframe is often described as ‘ninjas in space’, but it’s hard to argue when you’re wall-running, double jumping and power-sliding your way around the map, decapitating space marines with katana.
While there is a PvP mode for Warframe, it really isn’t the focus of the experience. Digital Extremes wanted to create a community that worked together, fostering co-operation over competition. As Sheldon Carter, Studio Manager at Digital Extremes put it in an interview with Polygon, “You want to work with other players to advance, you’re not against someone. So, the feeling that someone has something that looks different than you, there’s no sting to that. Our community turns into people who want to help each other achieve those goals.”
What is a Warframe
Warframes are incredibly advanced, ancient combat platforms built by an extinct race called the Orokin. Your Tenno controls these suits remotely from the safety of your spaceship, sending them off on missions too dangerous for any living being.
There are currently 39 (soon to be 40) different Warframes for you to choose from, each with their own playstyles and themes. Each Warframe has four unique abilities, activated at the cost of some of your energy reserves (basically a mana pool).
The usual suspects are all here, like the incendiary Ember and the icy Frost. But there are also eccentric Warframes like Inaros, an Egyptian-inspired frame who can turn into sandstorm. Perhaps you’d like to dabble in necromancy with Nekros, or play a futuristic bard with Octavia? Whatever your preferred playstyle, there’s a Warframe for you.
You’re not limited to just one Warframe though – changing Warframe is as simple as switching to a new weapon, and while each Warframe needs to be levelled up individually, your mods and weapons carry over between Warframes.
Your Warframe determines the abilities you have at your disposal, but it’s the mod system that lets you customise your build and power yourself up. Warframes and weapons have mod slots attached to them, allowing you to plug in mods and receive bonuses. Mods like Vitality and Redirection improve your health and shields respectively, while more specialised mods augment your damage output while sliding or increase your chances of finding loot.
There are around 1,000 mods in Warframe currently, giving you a staggering level of control over your playstyle.
Mods can be upgraded, increasing the power of their effect but also increasing the mod’s drain on your Warframe. Leveling up your mods is always a balancing act, as you need to buff your Warframe’s capacity in parallel or risk running out of space. When you’re first starting out, you’ll want to focus on buffing your defensive and offensive capabilities with mods, but in the end-game there are some impressively diverse and powerful builds out there.
Late game builds can use mods which buff one stat, while debuffing another. Take the Overextended mod as an example. This mod increases the range of your abilities, but reduces their power. The trade-off might not seem worthwhile at first glance, until you consider that some abilities are unaffected by Power, like Loki’s Radial Disarm which, unsurprisingly, disarms your foes.
Guns. Lots of guns.
It’s not just the Warframe that determines your playstyle though, there are also your weapons to consider. Warframe contains an arsenal to shame the US military – assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles, grenade launchers – just about anything you can think of. For the sci-fi crowd there are laser rifles, beam weapons and toxic bioweapons alongside a selection of melee weapons. You can run with the ‘ninjas in space’ aesthetic and grab a sword, or dive into the outrageous and equip set of wolverine claws or a rocket-powered hammer.
Each weapon has its own strengths and weakness, firing patterns and damage types. Speaking of damage types, there are a lot of them. Physical damage comes in three forms; slashing, puncture and impact. Generally, you want to impact shields, puncture armour and slash flesh.
These physical damage types are complemented by an elemental damage system. The four core elements are heat, cold, electricity and toxin, but if you mix two of these together, you unlock a new element. For example, combining cold and electricity gives you magnetic damage, which is devastating to shields.
Your missions, should you choose to accept them
Eventually, you’ll have to stop messing around with your loadout, pick a Warframe, grab some guns and head out. So, what does Warframe have to offer?
Shooting bad guys is the simple answer, though Warframe has a fantastic variety of settings to shoot goons in, with numerous mission types to embark upon. There are Elimination missions where you just need to wipe the map clean of enemies, Capture missions where you hunt down a specific foe and kidnap them, Defence missions where you hold out against increasingly savage waves of foes, etc.
There are also more unique assignments, like the Spy missions which ask you to stealthily break into vaults and steal technology. Each mission type favours different gameplay styles, encouraging you to bring the right tools for the job. Rhino is an absolute beast in combat, but he’s not exactly built for subtlety, so maybe leave him at home on your next Spy mission.
Alongside these standard missions, there are time-limited alert missions, raids, and story-driven questlines to unlock and follow, some of which offer exclusive rewards like Warframes. Then there are the recently implemented open-world sections, the Plains of Eidolon and Fortuna, which offer something else entirely. The amount of content on offer in Warframe really is vast, perhaps even intimidatingly so.
Your credit’s always good here
A key tenant of Warframe’s success has been its free-to-play model and mantra. Early in development, Digital Extremes made the decision that nothing in the game should be locked exclusively behind paywalls. “Warframe is the game where essentially everything we have in the game that’s game effecting, you can earn it,” Carter told Polygon.
There is still a premium currency in Warframe called Platinum and many items can only be bought with it, but crucially this currency can be traded between players. This trading system means that you can sell mods, prime weapon pieces and other rare items to other players for Platinum, which you can then use to buy premium items.
Alongside Platinum, you will also earn Credits which are used for just about everything. Credits are rewarded at the end of each and mission and can be used to buy weapons, upgrade mods, research new items and much more.
Then there is Prime Access, which offers instant access to the newest round of Prime Warframes and weapons – buffed up versions of existing gear, offering stats bonuses and unique visuals. For new players, it’s best not to worry about Prime Access unless you’ve got some serious real-world cash burning a hole in your pocket. You can earn Platinum through in-game trading, but it’ll take you some serious playtime to rack up the prized Prime Access blueprints and parts through trading alone. Prime items can be earned through gameplay too, unlocked from relics in end-game missions.
Mmhmmm, I know some of these words
If you’re feeling confused and overwhelmed by information right now, then welcome to Warframe. It’s an incredibly deep game, that doesn’t always do the best job of tutorialising its myriad systems and mechanics to new players.
I bounced off the first time I tried to play Warframe, rebuffed by the sheer amount of information. If you’re serious about picking up Warframe, be prepared to make frequent trips to the Warframe Wiki page. I’d also seriously recommend joining a clan. There are a ton of clans out there who welcome and teach new players the ropes. Just reach out in the recruitment tab of the in-game chat and you’ll find your sensei soon enough.
See you out there, Tenno
And there we have it. That’s a whistle-stop tour of Warframe, though it’s no exaggeration to say that we only touched the surface of what the game has to offer with this article. But if we’ve piqued your interest, then why not give Warframe a try? It’s free after all.