The term free-to-play still carries a lot of baggage for many gamers. After all, there have been countless high-profile examples of tedious games that badger players for money at every turn and use downright deceptive tactics to achieve their purpose, such as last year’s abominable reboot of Dungeon Keeper. So while there are titles like Path of Exile that embrace the freemium model in a fair and balanced manner, that’s generally considered the exception to the rule.
Warframe is a sci-fi action affair in which players lead cyborgs to battle and continually upgrade them through seemingly endless solo missions, co-op modes and duels. It has a Diablo flavour in the sense you’re always picking up some slight improvement over your old gear, but this is less about click-spamming enemies to death and more about frantic space-ninja craziness.
I didn’t trust myself to take on another person, so I threw my bow-wielding avatar at the singleplayer and co-op stuff and was impressed at the effort given to dressing up fairly simple levels with some lore, giving at least a smidgen of context to otherwise disconnected arenas. Don’t expect stunning character depth, but the weird art design was enough to make a genuinely creepy villain I actually felt some desire to level up and seek revenge on, which is more emotion than most game antagonists manage to inspire.
The meat of the game is the endless drive to push your stats that extra bit further, and it was more than a little overwhelming when the game started opening up and I began to understand how somebody’s life could be taken over by stuff like Warframe, for better or worse. Levels are recycled and the combat can feel floaty, but hacking stuff up is still fun enough to excuse that even if you overlook the lack of a price tag; Borderlands has a similar issue with repetition and that was released for full price and had several DLC packs of questionable value.
But a free-to-play game makes money by establishing an economy, so what about the micro-transactions? Well, you gradually earn currency just by completing objectives, but you can also spend real money to speed up the process. As for what you can buy, there’s a dizzying selection of purely cosmetic items for those who want their cyborg to look their murderous best, along with more practical items that actually affect your combat performance. Far as I can tell, a patient person could eventually max out their warrior without spending a penny, but people who value their time over their wallets are catered for as well.
Overall, Warframe is a commendable attempt at bringing free-to-play to a more dedicated gaming audience, even if the repetitive format means I’d never do more than dip in and out of it. The micro-transactions are pushed in your face on occasion but seem optional for anyone willing to pour time into the game, so the worst crime the game commits is neither being particularly bad or good, which is great given you can easily play for free but an okay game is still just okay no matter the price. Still, there’s no reason not to give it a go if you’re intrigued by the notion of running around as a bright pink robot with twin laser guns.
Maybe the best things in life truly are free.
Image rights; Digital Extremes