I give this game a Tenno
When it was announced Panic Button was bringing Warframe to Switch, I had to Google what Warframe was. Until that moment, I don’t think I spared a second of my life thinking about it. Here was a free-to-play PC game that launched with a bunch of problems that was now coming to Switch. Sure, I’d try it out. As one of those “I’d play it on Switch” people, I have to put my money where my mouth is, but I honestly didn’t have the highest expectations for it.
Outside of Arena of Valor, no free-to-play Switch game has stuck with me, either because they run pretty poorly or are simply a lesser version of a game I already own and love. It wasn’t until I actually sat down with Panic Button and Digital Extremes that I started paying attention to the game. My hands-on session with the title was fast, beautiful and bit like being thrown into the deep end of the pool. I was overwhelmed, but excited to see just what this game was all about.
After spending a little more than a week with it, I’m just as excited as ever to see what I’ve been missing for the past five years.
Right out of the gate I want to make it known this isn’t a review of Warframe. One week, a holiday week no less with two days dedicated to travel, isn’t nearly enough time to parse through everything in this package. In the time I’ve been playing, I’ve completed a variety of story quests, side-quests, and competitive modes to give me a good feeling of everything it has to offer. There is a lot that is still unknown to me, a half decade’s worth of content, but I’ve made headway in the little time I’ve had.
Easily the most commendable aspect of Warframe is how gorgeous it is. I turned it on yesterday and sat in awe as it booted up with my ship parked outside the rings of Saturn. Absolutely breathtaking. Even if my ship has all the warmth of a thirty-first-century hospital waiting room, every location in this game has impressed with its art direction and graphics capabilities. The Evolution engine works wonders, even if the game maxes out at 30 frames per second.
Beyond beauty, Warframe is simply a delight to play. The gunplay is tight, dashing across each stage is almost like a choreographed dance — when done properly — and various timed puzzles scattered throughout, most of which are tied to alarms, add a sense of urgency to missions I can otherwise complete at my own pace. The stereotype of Warframe is that it’s incredibly fast-paced, but taking it at your own speed is a perfectly acceptable way to go about it. Enemies may not be that difficult to take down (though bosses are) but there is a variety that keeps it from feeling mundane when I play for long stretches of time. Like most free-to-play games, Warframe is probably best experienced in short bursts, but I can go three to four hours without tiring of it thanks to the diversity of possible missions to accept.
I assume the biggest question anyone who hasn’t already downloaded the game has about it is how does Warframe run? Well, that depends. Warframe can be played, for the most part, as a solo experience or you can run through it with friends or strangers. In solo, the game is extraordinary. For the past week, anytime I run through a mission by myself, there are no technical hitches to be found. The frame rate stays steady, the enemy animation remains smooth, the sound effects are sharp and timed correctly, and the particle effects add to the ambiance of a stage. It’s when I connect to other players that things begin to stutter.
Framerate drops are occasional when teaming up in squads, but a far more noticeable and persistent issue has to do with enemy animation. For several of the missions, be they story or simple grinding quests, enemy soldiers moved in a manner that indicated the animation was having an issue keeping up with the programming. A soldier would be far away from me and then, like a vampire in True Blood, he’d zoom right into my face. It can make taking out foes with firepower problematic, but the easy access melee weapon does mitigate most issues I have with stuttering or “teleporting” enemies.
What matters in these situations to me is, no matter how many people I’m playing with, my Warframe’s animation remains smooth. Even when my teammates stutter through the stage and enemy forces start to move like malfunctioning members of Munch’s Make Believe Band, the presentation of my character doesn’t flinch. Maybe I have low expectations, but that’s all I’m really asking for. It’s when the sound takes a hit that I really start to get irritated. Issues with sound effects are rare but they can absolutely drive me nuts. One particular instance occurred during a 4v4 match where, for the entirety of the contest, it sounded like somebody was letting a lawnmower run on the stage. This hasn’t happened to me since, but that was an excruciating four minutes.
And really, it’s a crapshoot if there’ll be any technical issues at all. My second 4v4 match went off without a hitch. The game has never crashed on me, but some loading screens can take so long that I thought the game actually did crash. The wilds outside of Cetus have been the worst I’ve experienced so far, combining all the issues mentioned above, but the mission was so short it was over before those problems really started to grind my gears.
So it’s not always predictable whether or not an issue will pop up, but I can say the experience remained the same no matter how I was playing. I tested Warframe on my TV and in handheld mode, with two different ISPs, and using both standard and motion controls, and it just works. Panic Button really did a magnificent job getting this running on Switch. It may not be the silky smooth presentation it was during my hands-on with it, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a fine port I know I’ll be returning to until the day the battery dies on my Switch. Really, if there is anything keeping this title from greatness, it’s the design decisions orchestrated by Digital Extremes.
Warframe is a title that balances two identities: one as a free-to-play game and one as a title that originated on PC. It wears both on its sleeves, and those, coupled with some “world-building-over-player convenience” designs add up to a game that is more cumbrous than it should be. For starters, the menus in the game are not optimized for a controller. They still feature a cursor, and on Switch, you have to use either both analog sticks or one stick and the directional buttons to peruse menu options. It’s a sluggish way of going about it, especially when you spend a lot of time in menus.
In a mobile, free-to-play game, everything is menus and the best designed F2P titles lean into that fact by creating menus that are clear, concise, and quickly accessible. But Warframe wants its menus and systems to make sense in the world it’s created, so everything is spread out. In your ship, mods have their own station, crafting has its own station, and equipping your Warframe and weapons has its own station. The same goes for hub cities. In Cetus, there are just a few people who serve a purpose, but in creating a world that feels real, all of it is spread out and can be difficult to find. Yes, there is a quick find option in the plus button menu that warps you to your desired destination, but that’s only a quick fix for what should be a more intuitive system.
There are a lot of words I’d use to describe this game, but also many others I wouldn’t and one that falls in the latter group is intuitive. It can be quite easy to get lost in this game; not necessarily in the stages but in figuring out how you progress. Hitting campaign points isn’t a straight line. As part of the game’s free-to-play roots, unlocking new missions means fulfilling often arbitrary requirements. I can’t access missions x,y,z until I gain proficiency with a gun (or achieve a Mastery Rank, as it’s called in the game) for instance. I understand why Digital Extremes went in that direction as it’s par the course for F2P, but the way it’s laid out, coupled with a fuliginous map and general lack of direction, makes for slow going in the early hours of the game. It can take a lot of time to figure out where to go and what to do and honestly, if you’re playing with strangers and let them take the lead as I did for one whole day of play, you might not make any progress in the campaign and just slowly level up your Warframe and weapons while hoarding materials you can’t use because you haven’t fulfilled the specific crafting requirements.
But I guess getting lost is part of the process. There are five years of content to play through and I’ve only just now broken the skin on it. There are still aspects that escape me, but the more I play the more it all starts to sink in. It took a few days, but I learned how to turn off matchmaking, figured out how to gain proficiency with my weapons, and have now entered a groove where I’m making actual progress through the different story missions while also grinding for gear and materials with strangers. If the gameplay wasn’t as good as it is, I would have deleted Warframe off my Switch the second I finished this impression. But because Digital Extremes has crafted a world I want to explore and eventually dominate, I’m all in.
I’m honestly going to have a difficult time going back to other free-to-play games, whether on console, PC, or mobile, after spending the last week with Warframe because the game is just too good. This is how free-to-play should be: tight, exciting gameplay with few restrictions that doesn’t goad me into spending money, but rather satisfies me so well I want to reward the developers with my hard-earned cash. Panic Button and Digital Extremes did an amazing job getting this game running on the Nintendo hardware, and while it’s arguably smoother on other platforms, Warframe remains an indefatigable, if cumbersome, experience on Switch.
[This impression is based on a retail build of the game downloaded for free from the eShop. A promo code was provided by the publisher, however, it was not utilized during the impression period.]