Warframe has been building up to The New War for a long, long time. The free expansion is the culmination of a storyline begun in The Second Dream way back in 2015. It’s the quest Warframe players have talked about in hushed tones for the better half of a decade, trying not to spoil new players on its mind-bending reveal of what the free-to-play shooter can be while assuring neophytes it’s all worth the 30-hour grind to that point.
They’re right, too. It’s all worth it. The story of The New War is also largely worth the wait until now.
Note: Some (light, mostly thematic) spoilers for Warframe: The New War follow.
That’s not to say the lengthy series of missions isn’t divisive. Players are already debating that point. I can even see why: The New War is a heavily focused, narrative update. Smaller Warframe expansions, by contrast, have wielded the double-edged sword of brand-new content. Sometimes, it’s been a non-litigious “Nemesis System” similar to the one in Shadow of Mordor. Once, it was player-made and operated space cruisers, called Railjacks, that allowed you to fight in ship-to-ship battles — complete with engineering, side guns, boarding parties, and more. Even the nature of your playable character has shifted radically over time.
More recently, developer Digital Extremes has shifted to “bringing it all together.” New events and updates frequently include cosmic dogfights that shift seamlessly to more familiar corridor shooting and back again. The New War does, too, alongside mech-based battles and a good number of cutscenes in between splashes of one-off gameplay that is specific to this questline. All of which is gorgeous, featuring what is easily the best facial animation the game has ever deployed. That’s important; for all the bombastic battles weaving between each other, The New War keeps you grounded for most of its length. And I mean that in more ways than one.
That starts with some sequences Digital Extremes has already previewed: those with Kahl-175 and Veso. You start as these mere mortal characters instead of your god-killing war machine, though it doesn’t last long. Most of The New War actually focuses on a new character referred to only as The Drifter (though players who remember the mysterious Duviri Paradox teaser from 2019 will have guesses about their identity). Not to mention the melody The Drifter whistles in their quiet moments…
The New War actually sports a few subtle references to The Duviri Paradox (such as the game taking on the trailer’s black-and-white hue at one pivotal moment). It’s easy to see why Live Operations & Community Director Rebecca Ford heavily implied The New War sets up what’s happening in Warframe throughout 2022.
Speaking of Ford, she’s also the longtime voice of The Lotus, whom this expansion is mostly about. Warframe has always been refreshingly blunt about its politics and allegories in storylines before. For example, its beloved Chains of Harrow quest was about a neurodivergent Warframe operator being stigmatized and misunderstood by his peers. The game also features a debt colony, Fortuna, run by money-worshipping ultra-capitalists. The player teamed up with its local labor union, Vox Solaris, to sabotage and strike back against the bosses. Now, The New War centers around an abusive, manipulative relationship between the Lotus and her former (sort of) lover.
It’s a bit more heavy-handed than the wonderful tale of trauma recovery in The Second Dream, but it works. Warframe is chock full of proper nouns and sci-fi magic. Yet it always chooses to recenter, in no uncertain terms, on people and the real problems they face. In this case, that problem just so happens to stem from a man who can destroy the sun. It’s end-of-the-world stakes, sure, but it’s grounded in a way that’s refreshingly serious. At least compared to an ever-growing percentage of modern sci-fi — your Guardians of the Galaxy and even Dune: Part 1 — that take the piss with quips and winks to make high-minded ideas more palatable to a presumed “mainstream” audience.
Oh, and those facial animations really help, too.
How players feel about The New War will likely depend on how attached they are to all these narrative hooks. I personally think the story and style of Warframe are unlike anything else out there in games right now — bizarre, touching, and willing to take a shocking number of risks for a studio that only really makes one game. The fact that it’s also built on a downright addictive combat loop feels magical. Just know that you won’t get much of that loop in The New War. Space battle set-pieces aside, there’s very little traditional Warframe gameplay in this expansion.
Nor is there much to do after the fact. Completing the quest unlocks “new” bounties to complete on Venus and Earth, two of the game’s open-world zones. But these are reskins of existing objectives with different rewards. A new playable Warframe, Caliban, is the chief prize — and while he’s interesting, you’ll only be taking him through the same missions you had before The New War.
That’s not such a bad thing, though. The glut of new missions, zones, activities, and such always comes with drawbacks. Every time Warframe adds something new, it splits your time (and the player base) down another spoke. Sometimes, it’s nice to just play a mission and be done. The game will add new Syndicates to grind standing for — new locales to unlock and objectives to memorize. It’s inevitable with Warframe. That it makes me feel something along the way has ever been a big surprise. The New War brings that magic once again while hinting at even more strange and affecting stories to come. I’m happy to wait for those, too.
Seriously. That last shot of the final battle? I’m buzzing to know where that takes us.