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Warframe’s new spaceship expansion is built to expand and evolve over years

Buckle in for a long ride

Warframe - an exterior shot of the Railjack Image: Digital Extremes
Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

Warframe is a game so large that it’s almost a franchise unto itself, stuffed with everything from Tony Hawk-style hoverboard challenges to a music-composing combat minigame. The latest expansion, Empyrean, is built on the foundation of Warframe, but it’s almost a whole new game in and of itself.

When a player jumps in for the first time, there’s no tutorial. They’re thrown into the deep end of the pool. My first few voyages upon the Railjack spaceship were quick and devastating.

Fleshing out the story

Warframe players can jump into Empyrean as soon as they’ve completed their Archwing, within a couple of hours of starting a new character

Unlike other gameplay additions, like the recently added nemesis, or the music crafting minigames, Empyrean is going to be a crucial building block and vehicle for the future of Warframe. The story, which has been added in bits and pieces over Warframe’s seven year lifespan, has turned into a high-stakes galactic showdown. The new Railjack is going to take us forward to find some conclusions — and new mysteries.

“It’s a big part of the next storyline,” says Sheldon Carter, chief operating officer at Digital Extremes.

The next cinematic storyline isn’t here yet, but Empyrean lays the ground for it. Rebecca Ford, the game’s live operations and community director, plays double duty as the voice of the enigmatic Lotus, a major figure in the game’s story. “I recorded a lot of voice-over, and it’s not going to waste,” she says.

Warframe - The Lotus from Warframe Image: Digital Extremes

Power and progression

Intense knowledge of the lore isn’t required to enjoy the gameplay, though. Those looking to jump right into the action should familiarize themselves with four “intrinsic” trees: Tactical, Piloting, Gunnery, and Engineering. Leveling these trees up provide powerful bonuses to the player; ideally, a party would have one dedicated player on each role. When players queue up on a random Railjack, you can end up with four Pilots, or four Gunners.

Players are encouraged to flex onto different roles on the ship, and a free respec option is available. “It depends on your social glue, so to speak,” says Ford. “We want to give you the ability to respec your intrinsic [role] because you go ‘hmm, I wish I had specialized in this now that I know what the content offers.’”

“At launch, the intrinsic system is launching without [one of the options, Command]. It shows that you’re getting Empyrean and everything that you’ve come to expect over the last year of us talking about it.”

These additions, including things like the two-party team-up feature Squad Link, are still on the way. “[They] will be released in the time it takes for us to develop it. What we want to do is set out the core experience, regions, gameplay... basically, the foundation is there,” says Ford.

“We’re getting back to our roots,” says Carter, referencing the early days of Warframe -- release, iterate, expand, retool, repeat. “This is a version of Empyrean that will let you play it and understand it, but we have big plans to put things on top of it,” says Carter. This includes the next main story chapter, The New War, as well as roping in older systems.

A fifth tree is in the works: Command. Command is inspired by Faster Than Light, the top-down spaceship roguelike. Players will be able to command a small squad of NPC players to handle their ship. The Command tree is in development; there is no announced timeline on when it will be added to Warframe, but it is the solution to solo players who want to play Empyrean alone.

Warframe - a shot of the Dry Dock, with NPC workers Image: Digital Extremes

Bringing back the greatest hits

The Grineer are one of the first enemies you fight in the original Warframe campaign By the time a player is loading up Empyrean, they’ve killed hundreds or thousands of the big meaty foes. Now, the Grineer have a fleet in space.

“Our concept artists were able to take the colors and shapes of Grineer machinery, and create ships that make sense,” says Dave Kudirka, senior producer. “One has a braided tail look, which matches up with their queens, and it’s all bulbous, greasy technology.”

In the future, other factions like the Corpus will get their own interstellar ships. But first, we have to take out the Grineer. This includes the Grineer commanders of their space fleets, seen for the first time. But sometimes we’ll also see our Kuva Lich nemesis onboard a vessel, ready to beat our ass.

We may even see the return of some characters like Tyl Regor, the fan favorite Grineer commander who is notorious for being an absolute daddy. I asked Digital Extremes about the return of pre-Empyrean characters.

“We always want to bring these characters back and their personalities, because they add more weight to the universe. It’s a matter of finding which spots, but taking combat vertical into orbit opens lots of opportunity for reintroducing these characters, just because the space they have to operate is so much larger now.”

Empyrean is currently live on PC. Rising Tide, the prior update that allows players to construct their own Railjack, is available on consoles, but Empyrean’s arrival on other platforms is still to be determined.