The Help Files ep2: Warframe

With Destiny 2 uninstalled and my shootery action RPG glands left unsatisfied, I finally took the plunge on a game Steam has been trying to get me to play for years by gifting me weird looking things to my inventory: Warframe.

Warframe is one of those games that leaves you wondering “how is this a free to play game?” Yes, Warframe has microtransactions, but it is far from pay to win. It feels a lot more like pay for style. The main thing you can fast track with money is buying new “frames,” which equate to classes on top of the mountains of cosmetics. If you really really want to play a specific class you’re kind of stuck either shelling out or grinding for quite a while to get it.

In that way it reminds me of Vindictus. Vindictus is absolutely pay to win on some levels, but it occupies that weird Korean/Chinese online game space where pay to win is a very accepted practice. It’s also an absolutely brilliant game in both gameplay mechanics and visual styles.

On to the help part; this series isn’t “hey this game is cool” it’s “hey lets examine some flaws and how to avoid them”. Warframe has minor flaws as most any game does, but it has one massively glaring flaw that has been pointed out in pretty much every single “beginner’s guide” that I’ve read or watched on YouTube: the awful state of tutorialization.

Unlike Destiny 2’s problem of having a tutorial leaning on emotional attachments it couldn’t form, Warframe’s tutorial is actually pretty serviceable. It shows movement, eases you into your weapon options (you have three separate weapons, as well as powers) and offers enough story framing to make sense. I didn’t exactly feel for my character, but it’s not asking for — nor is it expecting — it.

You start out ridiculously agile and, while you don’t have your chosen frame’s powers at the start, you do acquire the three weapons quickly and go from zero to space ninja almost immediately. The issues with the lack of tutorial come when you get back to your spaceship (the mission and crafting hub essentially) and start taking on missions.

The game automatically pairs you into assault groups for missions if you don’t mark it as a private group. The first thing you’re going to see when you pair with other players is they are insanely more mobile than you. The tutorial shows you how to run, jump, crouch, and slide but unless you happened to be pressing extra buttons you won’t know that you can wall jump, wall climb, and glide mid-air; never mind the true mobility of the game: the crouch jump. Crouch into jump either launches you several magnitudes into the air or allows you to “bullet jump” with a spiral dive forward, which can then be chained into a double jump into a slide into a bullet jump ad infinitum.

Warframe is basically MDK on steroids — for those that remember the series. You can flip, slide, and spiral all over the map, cutting enemies in half as you go past them. This is the fun of the game and they seem to not teach it to new players at any point.

Once you’ve figured out all this crazy space ninja movement, you’ll get a few missions done and each initial mission grants you a new thing to do on your ship. You’ll get two kinds of crafting: blueprints and mods. Mods are the equipment system. While you can swap out your weapon types and frame those are more equivalent to abilities. Mods grant you passives and boosts for the most part.

Blueprints are pretty straightforward. You have farmed materials and you can execute a blueprint to get stuff like the new frames, new weapons and other consumables.

Mods, however, are not. They seem obvious: you acquire mods. You can deconstruct mods for a mod upgrade currency to enhance the mods you keep, and you can even “fuse” 4 mods you don’t want into a random new mod with a chance of getting higher rarity mods. Nothing we haven’t seen before really.

Then you get to the application of mods. Each frame and weapon have “polarity affinities” that essentially little symbols. The frame/weapon UI is made up of eight rectangular boxes that are the mod slots. Two are special typed (and give an error if you try to use them wrong) but the other six vary from the infinity symbol and being blank.

The most obvious path to me, given zero instruction otherwise, was to fit the same polarity mod with the same polarity slot. This left my initial frame with only two mods. Perhaps I mis-clicked initially but it didn’t seem intuitive to me that the blank slots could accept mods.

It seemed fine until I finished all of my Earth missions (missions are clustered by planets) and kept staring at the Venus junction. To unlock planets you have to fulfill certain requirements. One of Venus’ achievements was to fit a single weapon or frame with four mods.

My initial thought was I had to either build a new frame/weapon that had more slots, or level up my current ones so they got more slots. So I ranked up from ~9 to 20 (30 is max) and no new slots appeared. I then connected my Prime account (Amazon/Twitch Prime) which gifted me a new frame and some other weapons. None of those had more than two affinity slots either.

I was pretty cross at this point: I felt like they were money gating me. I had read articles on how absurd it was that the game was free AND not pay to win and how easy it was to advance naturally without spending real money. Then, while going to the bathroom, I finally found a Steam forum thread asking how to advance to Venus. A dozen replies down and the confusion was finally addressed: every weapon and frame can accept up to eight mods. The affinity slots only reduced the slotting cost of the similar affinity mods. Suddenly I met the Venus requirement and also regretting trashing loads of mods I actually wanted thinking my frame only had two slots.

Warframe is a pretty awesome game.

The gameplay is unique, fun, exciting, and the community so far has been pretty friendly. Not just friendly “for a f2p online game” but legitimately friendly, even in general chat. It’s also a large game with a lot of unintuitive, complicated mechanics and currencies. There is a “codex” on your ship with tons of detailed information, but for the most part it is a dictionary. If you don’t at least know how the word is sort of spelled there’s no chance you’ll ever find it.

This is something to be avoided for sure. Warframe comes out kicking and is an experience many describe as having flaws “worth putting up with”. We don’t have that luxury with text-based games. Dropping players into a world with complex mechanics and not explaining how they work — or at least showing examples of them very early on — is unforgivable. Pointing out “it’s all in the help files” is a bullshit excuse. Yes, you should have robust help files, and it’s probably great if you can get to them on the web, but it’s still a dictionary. Unless someone knows what they’re after, it’s very difficult to find something in a stack of keyword helps.

A huge strength of an all-text game is we can concentrate on making robust, complex, and rewarding mechanical systems, but if those systems are core to the gameplay experience they need to be tutorialized. Things like crafting; from how to mine ore through processing the finished sword is fine to omit. It’d be nice to have guidance on the steps, but if someone wants to figure that out they’re going to research it or ask someone. Developing an alternate system of movement and combat, but not showing the player how it works right off the bat is a sure way to turn people off of your game.

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Just a rabbit