Space Ninjas for Everyone!
Hello again and welcome to Episode 3 of ZAM's bi-weekly column, the Free Agent. If you missed the previous Episode, be sure to check out the Free Agent's thoughts on just how free-to-play the 3rd person MOBA and battleground of the gods, Smite, really is.
While it may also be played in a 3rd person perspective this episode’s featured game is about as far from hurling lightning bolts and releasing the Kraken as you a can get. We've traded in all those crazy gods for an array of high-tech combat suits worn by a race of ninja-like warriors called the Tenno, in the cooperative free-to-play shooter, Warframe.
Now, after two weeks of intense undercover action as a space ninja, I'm here to let you know if you too can be a space ninja for the cost of nothing but a Steam account.
As I often like to do, I'll start with a disclaimer or two. The first is a simple one really, I suck at shooters. It doesn't mean I don't enjoy them, just that I’m terrible at them. I'll touch on why that's important later. The second disclaimer is that, like so many other Free-to-Play games, Warframe is still in open beta, and as such, please take this into consideration with any of my comments or conclusions.
What's with all these F2P betas?
Before I go much further I'd actually like to spend some time talking about that second disclaimer. Something I’ve discovered after only 2 months on assignment as the Free Agent is that many free-to-play titles are soft released as open betas. In many cases these open betas last so long a number of players forget that a game is even still in beta.
I can certainly understand why the developers take this approach. With a game that's free to download and play, why bother with a hard retail release. There's nothing to be gained, and an extended open beta period allows for plenty of 'massaging' of content and game mechanics. Not only that but it also generally creates a higher degree of grace for bugs and/or erroneous content from the gaming community, because after all 'it's still in beta'.
But to be perfectly honest, it's kind of annoying when you're trying to discover if gaming can really be free, when you're not sure if the free-to-play content you're playing is even final. And while the Free Agent could wait until full release to take on a game, with the length of time that some of these betas last, I'd run the risk of only covering old news.
So screw that, let's be space ninjas!
Okay so maybe ninjas don't wield shot guns, but I think if you played this game for more than 30 minutes you would agree that it still has a very ninja-like feel to it. Especially once you figure out all the cool dashes, rolls, wall running and jump maneuvers that you can do. Unfortunately they don't actually tell you how to do any of that so you'll have to discover it for yourself. Dear Warframe, before you take that beta sticker off please update your tutorial to include more space-ninja moves. Thanks.
I suppose I haven’t mentioned that basically the whole game is played in space, thus ninja moves done in space equals, space-ninja. I'd get into deeper plot elements than that, but frankly there isn't much more to say. But don't worry, it's not the plot that will make you keep playing this game, it's the intense action, and the wide assortment of abilities and customization options available to each warframe.
So what exactly is a warframe?
I'm glad I asked. Strictly speaking, they are a form of exoskeleton style armor with enhanced combat abilities, from which the game derives its name. But if you're RPG inclined you could almost think of them as character classes, or perhaps for the MOBA crowd, it’s more appropriate to think of them as champions. Either way you can select your first warframe for free, from three basic choices, when you start your account.
Currently there are a dozen different warframes that can be unlocked, with more to come as the game matures. Each warframe has its own set of four unique abilities, lending each warframe its own play style, ranging from front line shock trooper, various stealthy and ranged caster types, support classes, etc. New warframes can only be purchased through in-game currency called platinum, which, sadly, costs real money, so I'm afraid that’s a major strike against this title as far as the Free Agent is concerned. No new warframes for me, although I suppose I could create a new account and try one of the other three freebies if I so desired. It's a pity though; there are some very intriguing options.
Customize, Customize, Customize
Warframes are only the beginning of a wide range of customization options available. You can also unlock various weapons across three different weapon slots; rifle, side-arm and melee, as well as a sort of combat pet called a sentinel. While the selection of weapons is fairly straight forward, with staples of the genre such as semi-automatics, fully automatics, shotguns and sniper rifles, there are still some pretty entertaining choices.
Here at least there are some options available to unlock that don't cost real money. Instead some, such as the shotgun I picked up after around 5 hours of game time, you have the option of paying with credits, another in-game currency that is collected from a variety of sources, such as completing missions. Others can be unlocked for free at certain level thresholds, although be warned the rate at which you go up levels is rather slow.
If you're the type of gamer that enjoys re-coloring your armor and weapons to stand out in a crowd then Warframe has you covered. The colors on just about everything can be changed; however, if you're playing for free like me, your palette is fairly restricted. The in-game market offers several deluxe color palettes, but they can only be purchased with platinum (aka real money).
The true gem of customization in Warframe is the in-depth mod system. Mods can be collected from various drop sources while on missions, and can then be applied to equipment between missions, allowing the player to tailor fit his/her load out for any occasion. Love shotguns, but hate having to reload all the time? No worries, mod your clip to hold more ammo. Want to see your enemies convulse when you slice them in half with your blade? That's sick... but none the less, just mod your melee weapon to add electrical damage and appropriately deranged spell effect.
Sadly at this stage of development the mod system is about as un-intuitive as you can get. I had to go to some 3rd party websites to learn exactly how the mod system worked, but once I figured that out, I had a blast just playing around with my loadout.
There are a few other clunky or un-intuitive systems in place that I can only hope will improve as part of the beta phase. I won't go into detail, because it’s possible that someone reading this might play a later release that has improved these and then they'll think I'm on crack, which I'm not... I promise... Drugs are bad, stay in school.
I'm by no means a connoisseur when it comes to shooter game play, so nor will I spent a great deal of time critiquing the actual game play, beyond mentioning that it seemed reasonably smooth with pleasing though somewhat repetitive graphics and level designs. Also Warframe can be a bit glitchy sometimes (again with the beta). Nobody wants to fall through the floor of a ship when you're in space, not even a ninja.
Bring all your space-ninja friends!
Okay, remember the part when I freely admitted I suck at shooters? Well part of the problem is that everybody else seems to be better than me, so PvP shooters are a disaster for me. Lucky for me Warframe's multiplayer game play is cooperative. I certainly found it a refreshing break from the insta-death lurking around every in a corner in games like Call of Duty or Battlefield.
In Warframe you can choose to play missions solo, but I found them to be much more enjoyable in a group. For group options you can put together your own squad of four friends or be automatically matched with other players online. But one great feature is that if you’re gunning for some action, Warframe never makes you wait. If you can't find a group right away you can start a mission solo and it will add players as they become available, seemingly adjusting the difficulty on the fly.
Just because your enemies aren’t player controlled, don't let that fool you into thinking Warframe can't be challenging. Grineer soldiers, Corpus mechs, and space-zombie like Infested handed me my arse on several occasions. In solo play you can revive yourself 4 times a day. In co-op you have the added benefit of having squad mates that can revive you. Run out of revives? Sorry, game over. And there are no 1-up mushrooms in this one.
Of course if you aren't ready to call it a day you could always spend real cash to buy more lives. But that's big a Free Agent no-no. Lucky for me, I never ran out of revives, although I was down to my last life a couple of times.
So where does that leave us?
My collective experiences as space-ninja have left me with a two part conclusion regarding that age old question (aka two month old question), "can gaming be free?" Here it is:
When it comes to Warframe, the answer is yes, gaming can be free. You can grab some buddies and have a great time playing the game without spending a dime, but you will only ever be able to play it casually. If you really want to dive hardcore into Warframe get ready to spend some real money, and probably lots of it.
That said, for being in open beta, I don't mind saying that Warframe is an enjoyable game. And it may very well remain in my back pocket as a casual game to pull out on a rainy day. But no two games are exactly alike, so the Free Agent must press on. And while I'll have to trade in my space-ninja warframe for a spaceship cockpit, at least I'll still be in space.
That's right, stay tuned to ZAM.com because in two weeks the Free Agent will endeavor to answer the Free-to-Play question once again, this time with the Free-to-Play Space-Sim MMO, Star Conflict.
Thanks for tuning in and please feel free to post below with comments and/or suggestions for other Free-to-Play games. See you next time, on the Free Agent.
Robert "Caergan" Gray