Heart of Deimos is the latest in a string of open-world “expansions” for Warframe, the free-to-play shooter. It adds a lot of content (all of it free) to an already bulging base. And there is much bulging in Heart of Deimos… Plus shrieking, pulsing, oozing, and dripping. This update is all about the Infested (a gross-out hive mind monster race) and the aristocratic Entrati family. So things get sticky very quickly.
Except gluey goop isn’t the only thing that will impede your progress. Very quickly, it becomes clear that you can’t progress until you engage with nearly every new aspect of the game. And that’s just not going to be fun for some folks.
Warframe is disjointed. That’s a long-running criticism from the community. It’s something I hear enthusiasts ask about at every TennoCon, the annual Warframe expo, where new stuff like Heart of Deimos gets announced. Developer Digital Extremes’ attempts to remedy this have been mixed. They tend to curve in the right direction over time, though.
Railjack, for instance, is space-based combat where players battle enemy frigates beyond the stars. But there isn’t much reason to do it, except to upgrade your Railjack, so you can play more Railjack missions. An event called Scarlet Spear forced folks into it. Though it really only served to expose balance issues and bugs in the whole system (which the devs subsequently addressed).
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Back on the ground, bugs and glitches remain (even as they’ve been ironed out in various hotfixes), but various gameplay elements aren’t so much unbalanced as they are ignored.
Hobbies like fishing, mining, trapping animals, and doing sick hoverboard tricks all make up side jobs in any open-world zone. Whereas combat bounties make up the meat. Heart of Deimos — which adds a new outdoor area called Cambion Drift — is no different. Except this time Digital Extremes really doesn’t want you to ignore anything. You are forced to engage with the least-used systems in the game to progress. At all.
You can do the bounties, sure, and even get rewards from them. That includes parts for the all-new Warframe called Xaku (we’ll get back to them). But you’re locked out of earning Standing. This is a faction-specific resource that lets you level up your reputation on a particular open world. To actually buy anything cool, like the three-meter stomp-bots called Necramechs also added in this update, you need to grind a lot of Standing.
Except now there are also tokens. Each NPC on Deimos gives out these special coins for the aforementioned side jobs. The fishing lady gives you her tokens for fishing; the animal conservation guy gives you his for trapping beasts; and so on and so forth. Standing is now tied almost exclusively to these tokens — rather than repeating the same bounties again and again.
Does it make the game feel less disjointed? Absolutely. Is the actual animal capture mini-game fun? Not really. It’s tedious and over-designed. It’s a timed, semi-random, fiddly stealth mission. Though forcing the issue helps expose flaws in the design, just as Scarlet Spear did with Railjack. In a lot of ways, that feels true for Heart of Deimos itself. It foregrounds a lot of longstanding issues and questions about the rhythm of Warframe itself.
The endless, repetitive Standing grind was an issue with the last open-world area: the Orb Vallis. Players got to the super cool new locale and just… ground out bounties a few times per day. And a lot of that Standing went wasted if you went over the cap you’re allowed to farm every 24 hours. The token system is, in theory, very smart. It removes some of that waste and stops certain activities from feeling throwaway before you even start.
It was just so aggressive at launch. You would hardly touch down on Deimos before the game commanded you to stand around and hunt weird dogs. And that was just to start the usual Standing grind. Because that’s still there, too, waiting to gate your progress behind daily caps and reputation levels. Thankfully, Digital Extremes listened to feedback, and almost immediately removed some of the most egregious restrictions right after Heart of Deimos launched. The conservation mini-game is no longer a requirement to get to the meat of the grind.
And you can always still roll for Xaku. The new playable character’s components are random drops from bounties. Though you need to do more grinding elsewhere to actually construct them. Xaku blueprints required somewhat rare items from both the Plains of Eidolon and the Orb Vallis. Once again, it’s a way to interconnect some disparate systems, but feels a little blunt.
But sure! Let’s say you hunt for Xaku. They seem pretty fun to play. They’re also the first gender-neutral frame in the game. I was pretty excited about that, at first, as a nonbinary player myself. But the description of Xaku is a little scuzzy.
Rather than a nonbinary character, this singular they is actually a plural one, Frankenstein’d out of three different people into one. Their origin scrapes against the importance nonbinary folks fight to place behind the simple pronoun every day. Meanwhile, it presents Xaku’s gender identity as something weird, broken, and the result of trauma — not just part of who they are. It kinda sucks!
Don’t get me wrong. I actually find the idea of a patchwork frame pretty cool. Even freaky elements, like the way they take off their own face while idling, work wonders on me. It’s certainly no more over-the-top than anything else in the game. But the idea that this brokenness must be part of their gender, invalidating the read as a singular individual with a particular identity, is frustrating. They can’t just be they. Instead, their identity has to be explained in The Lore.
As with all representation in media, it wouldn’t matter so much if Xaku was didn’t stand for an entire subgroup of people. But there are 74 playable characters in Warframe right now, including variants. This is the first and only gender-neutral one among them.
This feels like a weird argument to even have about a loot-based shooter-slasher with space ninjas. But that’s just the kind of game Warframe is sometimes. I want better because I expect better from a game that, by and large, does extremely well by its atmosphere and world.
Speaking of which… The story behind Deimos itself fares a lot better than Xaku. The gummed up planetoid is smaller than the Orb Vallis or the Plains of Eidolon before that. Its tale feels a lot more condensed — more personal. Which works well when you’re focused on a single family of sexy meat-plant people. And otherworldly elements, like twin tentacles that Kamehameha one another to death every day, lend the Cambion Drift a unique feel in a game with about a hundred different aesthetics already.
Digital Extremes also weaves more personality into the new NPCs than ever before. On the other two open worlds, characters are introduced and don’t do much more until they show up in some side quest down the line. Maybe you’d get some extra surprise if you ground out enough Standing. On Deimos those discoveries are drip fed to you. Each rank up reveals a new cutscene that makes small changes to the world. It’s a subtle touch that shows how far much further Warframe gets in the storytelling department with every update.
Glitches (which were quite common at launch but are being swiftly addressed) and resource economies can be fixed. They will and have been fixed. Digital Extremes is very good about that. But atmosphere is harder to correct. So it’s good that the developer nailed that out of the gate this time. I only wish it nailed the character I wanted to identify with more.
My disappointment with Xaku notwithstanding, Heart of Deimos is a Warframe update I’m keen to spend more time with, as the rough edges get smoothed over like so much Infested flesh. It’s just not quite perfect at launch.
Update: Text was changed to reflect the several balance changes and hotfixes deployed shortly after the release of Heart of Deimos.