Everything is on fire, our ship is blaring at us, and two of my teammates have jetpacked into the great beyond. That’s just how things can go in Warframe’s next expansion, Empyrean.
We first saw this expansion at Tennocon, the Warframe fan convention. Players construct a ship called the Railjack, which they can upgrade, customize, and outfit. From there, the players launch into space, and experience an entirely different scope of combat. We’re going from ground skirmishes to the stars, and the Railjack is the vessel that allows players to go toe to toe with massive space armies a la Star Fox.
Empyrean is a co-op spaceship fighter where there are constantly five fires, and you and your team have four buckets of water. You all control your standard Warframe aboard the Railjack, keeping the ship healthy and dishing out damage from its powerful armaments.
This isn’t the power fantasy of the base game; it’s closer to a fully co-operative version of Sea of Thieves. Things are still work-in-progress, and none of the following, including footage, is final. But the end result of the current Empyrean is frantic, desperate, and satisfying. Much of the fun is finding all of the ways that things can spin out of control.
There are four roles in Empyrean: Tactical, Piloting, Gunnery, and Engineering. Players can go hard in one role, getting stat bonuses and abilities, or they can be a jack of all trades. Either way, everyone will need to chip in around the Railjack (Warframe’s newly-added spaceship), and an existing group of friends will likely slot into specific roles based on skill or interest level.
We want [Empyrean] to feel like an extension of everything people were used to,” says Dave Kudirka, senior producer at Digital Extremes. “We looked at the usual tropes of engineering and gunnery, because those are nice containers for people that have played any kind of game that has those things.”
While the developers say the core gameplay of Empyrean was built around the intent to not “get too wacky”, it’s still built on the skeleton of Warframe, a game where everyone plays a robot ninja who can bullet jump 80 feet into the air. On the ground in a full squad, I feel like part of a well-oiled machine.
On the spaceship, things are much more chaotic.
What’s the worst that could happen?
The ship is vulnerable when under fire. The hull will breach and fires will start on board. As the pilot, I am focused on navigating us around rubble and using my weapons to take down alien ships. The gunners can assist, dealing out as much damage as possible. No matter how efficiently we set up, we find ourselves needing another body somewhere.
There are only four players, but tons of stuff to do. We can find materials in space to build new supplies for the ship, put out fires and repair, jump on guns, pilot, clear out boarding parties from the enemy, and even stage our own boarding parties to clear out enemy ships.. With all of those options, it’s easy for things to go wrong in amazing fashion. All four people can leave the ship at the same time, leaving it floating through space. Maybe your buddy boards an enemy ship but doesn’t tell you. Oops, you just shot it down, sending both friend and foe down in flames.
Empyrean removes Warframe from its looter shooter style gameplay and replaces it with something inelegant and exciting. At times, that means playing Benny Hill-style shenanigans, like the pilot abandoning their post to sprint through the ship and tend to an urgent breach. Other times, we would actually solve a problem through teamwork.
Rebecca Ford, live operations and community director, served as our squad’s one-woman boarding party. One mission had us mow through waves of smaller ships, while Ford’s Ivara Warframe breached, boarded, and hijacked larger vessels. I helped us navigate and dodge, and the other two members of our party focused entirely on putting out fires and sealing breaches. The reward felt sweeter for the chase.
Navigating the chaos
Every player has access to a tactics screen, where they can check in on their other players and give commands via a ping wheel. This will be a lifesaver with random groups, but it remains useful for pre-existing groups.
“To start off, it will be difficult for a solo person to run a Railjack,” says Kudirka. “There’s a lot of aspects to manage, a lot of enemies to manage. But a couple of side gunners, and then it becomes more manageable, and you can split your time between combat and resource collection. It’s terrific when you have a dedicated squad of friends you always run with, you’re going to find your roles pretty quick and figure out who’s doing what.”
Failure isn’t punishing in Empyrean; you don’t lose the Railjack, or get your progress meaningfully reset. Instead, it’s back to the drawing board. That might entail a friend switching to boarding instead of guns, or someone else taking up the pilot’s spot.
There’s a lot to mix and match in Empyrean, and it feels like the base game of Warframe in the best ways. It’s flexible, cinematic, and genuinely cool. It’s also an occasional nightmare carnival where things go from 0 to 60 and your friends are out in space when you need them most.