Warframe's latest story update is heavy on lore but light on new things to do

The release of a new cinematic quest in Warframe is like Christmas morning for its players. The free-to-play shooter’s procedurally generated missions usually offer little context for grinding loot and materials, while the slightly larger updates use voice-over to tell side stories in the sci-fi universe. But cinematic quests push Warframe’s main narrative forward in dramatic steps, telling engaging stories of cyborg ninjas battling robots, clones, and capitalists while often introducing entirely new progression systems in the process.

The most recent cinematic quest, The Sacrifice, is unfortunately light on those big progression changes. There’s a new version of an existing warframe to play and a few unique modifications to juice your existing war machines in new ways. Yet these felt more like bonuses for finishing this latest slice of story than game-changing additions. Instead, most of the meat in the 90 minutes or so The Sacrifice will take to complete comes in the form of lore, character development, and one-off puzzles.

Questions and answers

The chapter begins where the Apostasy Prologue, a sort of bite-sized teaser quest released last year, left off. Players’ omnipresent handler, the Lotus, has been spirited away by an ancient politician who helped create the titular Warframes. His name is Ballas and he’s not very nice. The main thrust of the chapter is figuring out just how evil he is. 

Getting direct answers to a number of big questions is refreshingly simple.

Details on Ballas mostly come from flashbacks and narration laid over fancy concept art—not that I’m complaining. Warframe’s absurd world of proper nouns and organic machines can be frustratingly esoteric, especially when there’s more than a year between cinematic quests. So getting direct answers to a number of big questions is refreshingly simple.

We learn that creating Warframes, for instance, is a more gruesome process than you might guess. And Ballas’s smug involvement with the process throughout the flashbacks makes him that much more smackable. If anything, the update’s final confrontation feels a bit brief, given how slimy its villain is made out to be.

For those who simply want more action, it’s here. Between exposition dumps is a combat-heavy hunt for that aforementioned new Warframe. Excalibur Umbra is a visually distinct version of a basic model from the game. Its abilities are mostly identical to the normal Excalibur, but this one is specialized for destroying Sentients—an enemy faction that adapts to damage types as you fight them. Although Excalibur Umbra is more concerned with hunting Ballas, for reasons that become clear as you sneak glimpses of its memories.

Umbra also feels like a concession to players. Most Warframes receive an enhanced Prime version players can hop to with real-world cash or intensive farming. Excalibur Prime, however, remains exclusive to players who spent $50 or more on a founders pack during the game’s beta over five years ago. So the Umbra variant is a nice middle ground. Cheapskates (like me) and late-comers can finally upgrade their potentially favorite robot, while the dedicated get to keep their special toy. 

Receiving Umbra for less than two hours’ work feels almost too good to be true.

And in a surprising twist, there are no long crafting times or grinding excursions necessary to unlock Umbra. You get it, plus its handful of stat-boosting mods, just for completing the story. It’s even fully leveled.

That’s a major departure from most Warframe updates. Usually, completing a quest only unlocks a blueprint. You then have to grind for three more blueprints, the necessary crafting materials, and wait over three real-time days for them to finish (unless you spend actual money). Receiving Umbra for less than two hours’ work feels almost too good to be true by comparison.

The rub is that it's not really two hours of work. Just unlocking The Sacrifice is an ordeal unto itself. You’ll need to follow a lengthy chain of quests—some of which have their own level requirements and only unlock when you’ve completed certain normal missions. Then you have to craft a particular item back at your in-game ship, wait 12 real-time hours, and watch the Apostasy Prologue teaser.

That’s not a problem for anyone who plays daily, or jumps back on for a weekend every few months to play new quests as they come out. It is a problem if you’re new. More anecdotally, I had a hard time getting my friend, a Warframe rookie, excited about the update. He still has dozens of hours of quests to complete before he'll be able to play this new content.

There is something new for both expert and novice players, though. The Sacrifice coincides with the first step in a long-term project to overhaul Warframe’s user interface. By long-term, I mean the redesign still has a long way to go. Only eight of a promised 131 menu screens got spruced up with the patch. The plan is to retouch the rest throughout 2018

The new UI is nice but since only half of the menu screens have been updated it feels unfinished.

It is slightly jarring to go from one unchanged menu to a new one, though. There’s an almost unfinished quality to the game now.

The difference is striking where visible (and not just because the old and new menus obviously clash). The affected areas are more filigreed and less sterile—better matching the game’s regal, alien look. It’s also easier to tell what you have in your inventory at a glance, since the equipment screen shows more items at once with less wasted space. It is slightly jarring to go from an unchanged menu to a new one, though. There’s an almost unfinished quality to the game now. Hopefully that will fade as the new screens start to outnumber the old ones.

Speaking of the future, I’ll be very interested to see where Warframe’s story goes from here. The Sacrifice changes its status quo considerably, with a wild climax that should have major consequences down the line. The problem is that, so far, cinematic quests have taken a year or more to develop. That seems like an awfully long time to wait for closure, right after waiting more than a year for The Sacrifice.

TennoCon—developer Digital Extremes’ Warframe-centric convention—is just around the corner, along with the potential for major announcements. Maybe the studio has something up its sleeve to assuage my curiosity further. In the meantime, The Sacrifice does a fine job of raising as many new questions as it answers. That will have to do for now.