Warframe has had plenty of massive updates over the years. The game’s fans are addicted to constant escalation, according to Steve Sinclair, the game’s creative director. But you can’t always just tack on bigger and bigger expansions forever. Sometimes you need to do more. Which is why Sinclair says the one of many upcoming Warframe updates, Empyrean, is very different from anything developer Digital Extremes has done before.
“It’s not a fucking expansion,” Sinclair said. “It’s a connection.” He was emphatic about that theme during our private demo of Empyrean at TennoCon 2019. The convention serves as a yearly celebration of all things Warframe — usually culminating in a crop of announcements about what new things are coming next. What’s next, in this case, is Empyrean. And it’s even bigger than Warframe updates shown at previous TennoCon livestreams.
That’s because Empyrean really is a connection — an update that ties together every type of gameplay in Warframe up to this point. The open-world zones added with previous expansions, the Plains of Eidolon and the Orb Vallis, will connect via a “big-ass fucking spaceship” (as Sinclair put it). Players will soon be able to use it to fly between zones. But we already knew that… What we didn’t know is that the ship-to-ship battles of Empyrean will also call on friendly players on the ground, urging them to complete unique objectives that aid allies and strangers in real-time.
We got to see this “Squad Link” feature in action. We witnessed a team of three players operating their Railjack, one of the aforementioned big-ass spaceships, battling an enemy dreadnought.
Things went well at first. The pilot blew away waves of fighters while two other players acted as a boarding party. They loaded themselves into cannons and blasted into the side of larger enemy ships. Once aboard, they could slaughter the opposing crew. The friendly captain even helped out, deploying powerful abilities through an overhead map of the opposing ship. Waves of enemies were damaged and frozen by a “tactical shock,” for example, lining up some easy target practice for the boarders.
They boarding party didn’t always go for the throat, though. We also saw them execute enemy captains and take direct control of their ships. From there, they could pick off fighters — just as if they were on their own Raijack. The fighters spat and cursed at the players the whole while, like something out of Mobile Suit Gundam.
Then things got tricky. The opposing captain deployed a “Disruptor Field” from the surface of a nearby planet. Sinclair described this as a “Battle of Endor moment.” The field made it next to impossible for the space-borne battlers to penetrate the enemy capital ship.
Cut to the offending planet: Earth. We see a friendly player fishing in its open-world Plains of Eidolon. It’s a familiar sight if you’ve played much Warframe in the last couple years. But the tranquil scene was interrupted by a distress beacon blasting into the ground next to our fisher. It promised rewards… in exchange for help destroying a nearby base — the one firing the Disruptor Field into space on a green pillar of energy. The fisher accepted the call, naturally, and went to work shooting, slashing, and exploding clone soldiers.
Back in space, the Railjack wasn’t doing so hot. Players commanding their own ships can adjust systems like shields and weapons on the fly. But the Disruptor Field overloaded those features. The boarding party couldn’t seem to get aboard the killer cruiser, either. The enemy captain knew it. He started talking smack back at the players over an intercom as well.
That’s because this wasn’t just a normal Warframe boss. It was a Kuva Lich: a new enemy designed specifically to harangue players over time as a persistent nemesis. The more you kill a Kuva Lich, the more of your own abilities it absorbs. And it will remind you of that fact, as well as past battles, with somewhat custom dialogue. In this case, the Lich was previously shocked to death with lightning powers. He recalled the experience in vivid detail. More than that, though, he had gained the ability to redirect lightning, just like the Volt Warframe.
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On Earth, the pickup players made short work of the Disruptor Field base. That freed up the space team to board the enemy ship, dodging small fry fighters along the way. But if the ground team hadn’t succeeded — either by failing or not answering the call — Sinclair explained that things could have been much harder. You can still disable the Kuva Lich capital ship, but your team would need to deal with debuffs and other worries.
Defeat isn’t the end of the world, though. Digital Extremes originally toyed with the idea of persistent damage — of having your ship lose durability over time. But the team decided against it. Slowing players down like that just runs counter to the speed of Warframe, according to Sinclair. The developers found a happy medium by offering rewards instead. The materials and resources you would have spent repairing damage can actually go towards buffs. These are long-term, multi-mission boosts to your Railjack that make ship-to-ship combat even easier.
There are much more permanent upgrades, too. You can kit your spaceship with NPC crew members that offer different kinds of attributes. Digital Extremes didn’t specify what kinds of upgrades, but improved shields, weapons, and the like seem like safe bets. And this wouldn’t be Warframe if you couldn’t customize everything with special colors and accessories. “Fashion Frame” is very much at work, even out in the cold void of space.
Sadly, the changes and upgrades aren’t always player-specific. Whichever player begins a Railjack session will have their ship reflected to the entire squad. Sinclair says the team wants to do more than that. There was talk about having upgrades map to whichever player sits at whichever station: weapons, navigation, etc. But for now that’s just “hot air.”
To even start using a Railjack, however, you need to build a special new structure. This is called the “Drydock” — and it works just like every other room in a Warframe dojo. Members of the same clan (i.e. guild) can work together to create it. But every player still gets their own ship to play around with. Sinclair also recognized that many players operate in one-person clans. So it doesn’t sound like the Drydock will be out of reach for players that don’t like to hang out with others.
The whole demo culminated in a final battle with the Kuva Lich captain. Their name was Agor Rok, and they didn’t seem especially happy to see the Tenno fireteam. But our demo cut off there. Digital Extremes showed more of the final battle during the TennoCon 2019 livestream. Although the whole thing played out slightly differently than our pre-recorded Empyrean preview. I’m dying to see just how much difference this nemesis system (clearly inspired by Shadow of Mordor) will allow for, too.
I asked Sinclair as much. He said the Warframe team is still working on that, but did explain that the nemeses — or VIPs, as Digital Extremes called them — will at least know which Warframe you killed them with. Then there’s more variation from there. It’s not perfect, yet, but Sinclair still said “Ideally, you’ll go ‘Oh he’s talking about that time.'”
If that pans out, it could be exactly the kind of personalized experience Warframe needs to spice up its endless grind. Either way, it’s clear this game hasn’t stopped improving itself in ways nobody could see coming. Empyrean sounds like much more than an expansion. It sounds like the next evolution of Warframe as a whole.
Empyrean — with all its Railjacks and VIP nemeses and Squad Link rewards — still seems like quite a ways off. But Digital Extremes has plenty more coming down the pike. Be sure to check out the rest of our TennoCon 2019 coverage, news, interviews, and updates on the site. In the meantime, enjoy this look at Empyrean in Warframe!