Digital Extremes is aware that, technically speaking, Empyrean is an expansion, but they don’t want you to call the upcoming content release that. For many games, including Warframe’s previous expansions, an expansion pack takes the player to a whole new area of the world — a ship in a bottle, isolated from previous content.
Empyrean does have new content, but Digital Extremes links it to Warframe’s existing world. There is no new headline locale; instead, the star features of Empyrean are more subtle. From a giant, customizable spaceship to a Shadow of Mordor-style nemeses, to under-the-hood upgrades, Digital Extremes has taken the opportunity to overhaul many of the weaker parts of Warframe.
All aboard! It’s spaceship time!
The first thing, and potentially the most important, is that players are getting a spaceship. The Railjack was teased at Tennocon 2018, and again at E3, but today we got to see exactly how this vessel works. The Railjack is inspired by FTL: Faster Than Light, the roguelike spaceship management game by Subset Games.
Players will be able to collect crew members, upgrade and reinforce their ship, and enjoy little interactions around the ship. Some of these are just a wave, others are a little more detailed. These crew members fall short of, say, the cast of a BioWare game, but they give a little bit of zest and individuality to a player’s ship.
Players also get to upgrade the ship itself. At launch, the person who owns the session controls the ship’s cosmetics and upgrades. Players not in a party can customize their Railjack to their heart’s content. This is designed as end-game content, but lower level players can help out with Railjack missions as part of the team, and they’ll earn resources that can go towards their ship. Excess resources are converted into Railjack mission bonuses, ensuring that the wheel of content is always spinning and distributing something useful.
The Railjack is also capable of some stunning feats. Something technically possible, if logistically challenging, is the ability to splice a ship, The Last Jedi-style, with your fast travel through the Void.
Despite these highs, the stakes are relatively low on the Railjack; a mission failure returns the player to the safety of their dock in the player dojo. The Railjack, in its slower missions, allow players to explore existing areas and find hard-to-reach places and secrets. But the active missions made me sit up and pay attention. The Railjack is a set of fun systems, but it’s where it takes us that really matters.
Space battles for fun and profit
The early stages of flight aboard the Railjack were humble. We saw a crew maneuver through debris, carefully twisting its Railjack around meteors and occasionally clearing a path with heavy weaponry. The players discovered a lost vessel. Two went aboard to check its archives, while the Railjack’s pilot stayed aboard and provided fire support. In many ways, this example was like a standard Warframe mission, but the format was novel, and the addition of air support added a fun twist.
The next mission really showed Warframe at its best. The mission, according to the developers, draws direct inspiration from Return of the Jedi. Independent stories, from different co-op squads, merged into a brief confluence of shared goals. We saw players attack a Grineer fleet. Players launched onto enemy ships, while the pilot maintained evasive maneuvers and fired upon enemies. Then, the boarding parties were able to hijack ships by assassinating priority targets, and turn Grineer ships against their enemies.
The flagship was prepared for such treachery, and the game warned that a shield has gone up. Shifting focus, we were introduced to a completely unrelated group of players fishing peacefully upon the Plains of Eidolon. They received a prompt that a squad needed help, they answered the call and started a ground assault on the shield generator. The players in space stayed alive, fighting off Grineer ships long enough for the ground force to succeed. That opened up the flagship and final boss.
There are failsafes built in, if no one answers your call for help. No mission is impossible. But this form of co-op was a blast to watch unfold, and it adds to the powerful sense of community that binds Warframe together. This mission felt like one of the epic battles from EVE Online, run through a Hollywood filter to play out in a manner as fun, frantic, and far reaching as possible.
A bolder kind of boss
The Shadow of Mordor Nemesis system was a game-changer, and we’ve seen other titles adapt that persistent enemy type who remembers you from past encounters. Warframe now has their own nemesis for players to encounter again (and again), and he is as extra as the rest of the game.
The bad boy in question is a Kuva Lich. This enemy dies, and returns, again and again. His body has Warframe parts fused into his flesh. The player will have to find a permanent solution to end him, but that’s tough, because he’s hunting us down. That’s quite literal; we learned that the Kuva Lich will show up in unrelated missions looking for a fight. (He won’t show up in wildly unrelated story content, to preserve that narrative thread.) Each iteration of the Kuva Lich comes back stronger, so that’s quite a threat.
The Kuva Lich is unique to each player to a degree; he remembers your actions and the ways you’ve killed him before. Instead of pre-fight, end-mission dialogue, the Lich is far chattier, and he’ll bring up your favorite weapons, tactics you’ve employed before, and other personalized jabs about your shared history.
Empyrean offers a sweeping set of content and changes to Warframe that are immediately appealing and intriguing. If the execution is as solid as the demo we saw at Tennocon, this will add a whole new way to play Warframe, with lots of upgrades and iterations to dig through. We also saw graphical improvements that are part of a Warframe engine upgrade for the next generation, which had real-time shadows, better reflections, and smoothing of flight visuals.
In some way, it seems as though the design and lore of Warframe is locked into an arms race with itself to top its last feats. New content is increasingly dense, and complex, but also extra and undeniably cool. An enemy like a chemically altered, undying blood lich with your past mech suits fused with his flesh is a lot, conceptually. and Digital Extremes only sells it by remaining completely committed to the off-the-rails, wild sci-fi nature of their universe. Empyrean doubles down on all of the scope, touchstones, and wild aspects of Warframe.