The core gamer free to play field is filling fast. Most of my gaming time on the PC is already spent on Ghost Recon Online, with the occasional night of Hawken, Mechwarrior Online or World Of Tanks. Warframe represents something we haven’t really seen before: it’s a third-person dungeoncrawling brawler, with heavy co-op focus. Kind of like Gears Of War with loot grinding, except there’s no shooting from cover.
Other references I could drop: Hellgate London. The setup with reclaiming a lost world from monsters, the general feel of the combat, and the structure of the game, as well as some of the art style, reminds me of that lost opportunity. Then there’s the Dreamcast cult favorite, Phantasy Star Online, which is invoked with the default four-man co-op questing in enclosed arenas.
The fighting is tactical and does require both thought and skill to a degree, but it’s no Devil May Cry. Most closely it resembles Mass Effect’s fighting, if you played that in un-paused realtime, which can get confusing and lacks solidity. It’s not quite competent and a little fleeting as an action game, but for an MMO style fight it’s much more active and skill-focused. It’s a good enough take on an action game to get by.
The narrative is a problem, as you might expect with an action oriented online title. How to narrate, when you can’t require slowing down during the mission, because people are going to be running through maps? Left 4 Dead did this well, but they had the very well understood zombie apocalypse scenario for support. Here they’re trying to convey a world after humanity, with presumably human-manufactured “warframes” being activated to re-take the Solar system from the hostile force. Or something. I don’t quite get what the hostiles are, maybe a sort of alien? They seem to be using human parts. All told, it’s quite powerful stuff, something I’m really a sucker for, but it could use much stronger environmental storytelling, mission assignments, evocative menus and so forth. Since they can’t have us talk to NPCs during a mission, they really should pay more attention to what they can tell.
It’s not like there’s no effort made. The slightly too samey levels do have plenty of intriguing detail and it does leave me wanting to know more. I’ll take mysterious and vague over identikit tastelessness any day.
The level layouts are confusing. While they’re not randomly generated as in Hellgate London, they look like they are, and the layouts feel random. I spend a lot of time lost, tyring to figure out where to go, and I’ve completed entire missions without seeing anyone, including my squadmates, who’ve run off before me, doing everything.
If you play this as a single-player action game – you can – it doesn’t really work. The grindy elements become too apparent, and the fighting isn’t good enough to work solo. But co-op is where it shines. Playing with a group is faster and you tend to run into trouble instead of scouting it out and figuring out your approach calmly, which leads to much more exciting play, but also confused brawls and becoming lost in a quickly evolving situation, spread all over the map. They make the grouping exceptionally easy. It would be very hard to grief in this game, and while the teamplay is nowhere as tight as Left 4 Dead’s, it’s still solid. The defense missions, with waves of baddies converging on a target you’re all protecting, work best as teamplay. In the other missions it’s too easy for the objective to become lost.
Until very recently this would’ve been a pay to play game and as such it feels like a vision of how a lot of games are going to be in the near future. Combined with a game like Warface, a Call Of Duty like multiplayer FPS, playable in a browser – it does actually install and runs a separate executable, I think, but you never leave Chrome – the identity of a videogame is fast changing. It’s all just media that people are consuming wherever they happen to be. The idea of a dedicated game machine may feel antiquated much sooner than we as hardcore gamers like to think. It’s not hard at all to imagine next year’s mobile hardware sizing up to today’s Xbox 360 and PS3 – now six years old technology.