The time has finally come. In 2015, Warframe introduced its first "cinematic quest," The Second Dream. The plot twist within that update proved Warframe was about much more just than space ninjas grinding for loot. About a year later, developer Digital Extremes followed up with The War Within. It was less surprising, but further detailed the ongoing science-fantasy epic. But that was in late 2016. More than a year later, the game is finally getting its third cinematic quest: The Sacrifice.
"We have had a dry spell of cinematic quests—obviously because the Plains of Eidolon released," says Rebecca Ford, Digital Extremes' live operations & community producer. "So I think we're nervous."
Plains of Eidolon, Warframe's massive 2017 update that added an open-world zone, did have its own bits of side story. But it wasn't the primary plot shown in those first cinematic quests. The Second Dream and The War Within explore the history of Warframe. They explain how a mighty civilization called the Orokin Empire fought a losing battle with sentient machines. To turn the tide, the Orokin deployed war machines—the titular Warframes—and were finally destroyed by them.
Warframe picks up eons later, but the scars of those factions is still felt. That's where The Sacrifice comes in. The update sees the return of one of the Warframes' creators, a high-ranking Orokin called Ballas. And it's not a happy homecoming.
"What we're going to see is Ballas and his past, present, and maybe his future," Ford elaborated. "He snatched the Lotus away, right? So Ballas comes out. You think he's dead. You've only heard his voice in the game up until this point."
The Lotus (played by Ford) is the voice in the player's ear. She gives you missions, updates you on special events, and is tied to Warframe's history herself. We saw the masked narrator disappear with a very much alive Ballas in a tiny Easter egg quest last year. The Lotus also removes her ever-present mask in that very same scene—hinting that we might finally see her true face.
Ford calls that a "very symbolic" act. The character "removes a part of herself" just as Ballas removes her more literally from the game. That change to the status quo alone indicates something big is on the way. Before Warframe added talking spaceships and NPC syndicates, the Lotus offered the only consistent perspective in the game. Losing that dynamic after dozens, if not hundreds of hours of game time comes as a shock.
So Ballas absconding with the Lotus should place him firmly in villain territory. Although Ford says he's mostly present "in a non-combat way." Which makes sense. The Sacrifice sounds more laser-focused on story than combat and new mechanics found in other updates.
The Second Dream added an all-new skill tree and a form of character customization, for example. The War Within allowed players to disconnect from the Warframes and play as the psionic teens behind them—with all-new gear to collect for their flesh and bone bodies. The Sacrifice does promise a new enemy unit, based on the sentient machine faction, but apparently "the cinematics and story will feel very museum-esque."
The Sacrifice begins on the moon, home to abandoned Orokin ruins. From there it will flash back to the early days of Warframes. If the first cinematic quest was about the Warframes' operators, then The Sacrifice will dig "very explicitly" into the frames themselves.
"In order to conquer the future you need to go to the past," Ford said. "Which means this quest takes us through what Ballas did. What was his role in the Waframes' creation? That's something you'll find out in the quests."
It probably wasn't anything good. What we know about Ballas, from snippets of lore currently scattered throughout the game, isn't flattering. And apparently not all the Warframes, whatever they were before the Orokin interfered, became war machines willingly.
Perhaps Ballas's involvement has something to do with Umbra. One of these strange, black-clad Warframe variants, Excalibur Umbra, has been available in the Chinese version of the game for years now. Yet an air of mystery still surrounds the unique robot suits. Digital Extremes teased their inclusion in The Sacrifice at TennoCon 2017, but has remained silent ever since. We don't know if the armor will play differently from its standard counterparts, if The Sacrifice unlocks it for future use, or why it's taken this long to reach the west. Digital Extremes is well aware of how this secrecy has inflated the unit's importance.
"There's this sort of mystique around 'What is an Umbra Warframe?,'" Ford said. "That's something that's huge for the allure of this quest, regardless of a player's investment in the game or not. Just because it's sort of reached mythical status. What is Umbra and when is Umbra coming?"
She added that those looking forward to Umbra "will be very pleased" with the result. If anything, the producer seemed worried it would overshadow the cinematic quest's wider revelations. Though Digital Extremes didn't seem worried enough to withhold an official Umbra trailer at this year's E3.
Ford compared her anxiety to Spider-Man's cameo in Captain America: Civil War. While audiences waited for one scene with wider ramifications for the Marvel movie business, they might not have paid attention to the film itself. She hopes that won't happen with The Sacrifice and views Umbra as "an added bonus."
There should be plenty else to absorb, though. Ford estimates the expansion is just a hair shorter than The War Within. That update clocked in at about two hours and allowed time to explain new mechanics. So, with its tighter focus on story, The Sacrifice should have plenty of time to teach us about the world of Warframe. Just don't expect the live game to suddenly wrap up every loose end.
For every story question the studio answers, Digital Extremes plans to raise new ones, and to only answer those at a semi-annual pace. The Second Dream explained what operators were two and a half years ago. So the new questions became "Where did they come from?" and "What are they?" Addressing those questions big topics is perfect for "really high-impact moments that are few and far between," according to the devs.
"I think it's basically at this point some weird manga/anime hybrid," Ford continued. "If you like the characters and you like the world, you can kind of go on forever. And at the pace we develop these big story moments … it's not too fast that it's overwhelming."
Not even the studio itself has all the answers. Digital Extremes has patched in changes to its own lore before. The Lotus once seemed to be the name of an organization, rather than an individual, for instance. Now the uncertainty at least appears to be more forward thinking. The War Within's alignment system for dialogue—similar to Mass Effect's Renegade/Paragon dichotomy—returns in The Sacrifice. The developers just aren't entirely sure what to do with it. The plan is to eventually tie it to "something bigger"—just not quite yet.
It's not surprising that Warframe requires rolling development like that. The live game is constantly adding features. The Sacrifice alone has been in development all throughout 2018. Although, according to Ford, it wasn't until the last few weeks that writing, asset production, animation, and voice acting were in place to begin tying it all together. That's why the quest slipped from an intended mid-May release into June. That this is a story update, which Digital Extremes has been incredibly careful not to spoil, adds its own problems. Because during all that time there was nothing for Ford and company to share with its audience, hungry for frequent updates.
That's not even factoring all the work that comes after release. Bugs always need squashing. Enemies and items may need balancing. As Ford paraphrased, "your creative work is never done; it's just released." If the developers didn't promise some kind of release date, "whether it's in chalk or in stone," they might never release anything at all. "Because it does seem like the iteration, and the changes, and everything could go on forever if we didn't have to release something," Ford explained.
Hopefully that work will pay off. The Sacrifice can't rely on a shocking plot twist this time. It's likely nothing will ever top that first one, now that the world of Warframe is at least something of a known quantity. But the third cinematic quest has the benefit of an invested audience. Questions about Ballas and the Lotus, Umbra, and the Warframes themselves have percolated for years now. Let's see if the answers were worth the wait.