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Warframe Empyrean gameplay demo: "It's not a f$%&ing expansion, it's a connection"

The centerpiece of Warframe's fourth annual day-long celebration, TennoCon 2019, was a new 42-minute preview of Empyrean. After debuting the new Warframe intro cinematic live on stage, developer Digital Extremes returned to the combined-arms space combat that it first revealed as Codename: Railjack at TennoCon 2018 and then reintroduced as the new Empyrean expansion at E3 2019. It isn't just about flying big ships in co-op teams - it's the most ambitious new direction that Warframe has taken yet, even if Digital Extremes still isn't ready to put a release date on it. Here are five reasons why.

You can kit out and pilot your own gunship

Warframe lets you build out and customize everything: weapons, pets, hoverboards, even your Frames themselves. Once Empyrean goes live, you'll be able to add your own giant gunship to that list. After building a dry dock in your dojo, you can then create your own base model Railjack ship and customize all of its systems - that includes turning your engines fluorescent pink if you have the notion (and that color unlocked). Then you can take your Railjack into missions across the solar system, with the vessel serving both as a mobile HQ for the mission and a legit ship that you can pilot around asteroids and use to shoot down bogeys.

...or control the systems, FTL-style

Maybe you don't feel like taking control of your ship, or maybe you're a guest on somebody else's and they're hogging the helm. You'll still have plenty to do aboard the S.S. Ninja Togetherness. Jump into a turret and blast asteroids for their precious resources or shoot down Grineer interceptors. Pull up the ship menu to reroute power between systems (and so the ship AI stops screaming at you about pending shutdowns). Head to the resource compactors to make sure your materials farming is as efficient as possible. Or do your best Air Force One impression and tell hostile boarding parties to get off your Railjack with classic, third-person combat.

(Image credit: Digital Extremes)

...or jump into space and hijack enemies

If you can tear yourself away from all the joystick jockeying and turret twirling and system selecting, you could even make an asset of yourself on foot and wing. Players can climb into energy catapults and fling themselves at enemy ships with the aid of their Archwing jetpacks; fly over to a vulnerable section of the enemy vessel and you can commence your own boarding action, which plays out like a standard combat mission. Make your way to the bridge - with the help of some tactical strikes from the Railjack if your friends are feeling helpful - take out the pilot, and you can seize the ship. Drive that sucker like a rental, shoot down more enemies, and don't forget to scuttle your hijacked ride with a few shots to the core before you leave.

It lets you recruit NPCs

Warframe has steadily built in more opportunities to interact with NPCs beyond shooting up cannon fodder and getting orders from talking heads, but it's still mostly transactional in nature: you do this or pay this, I give you that. Empyrean will let you make more in-depth relationships by recruiting NPCs to serve on the crew of your Railjack. The example Digital Extremes showed on stage was a cyborg who could give you a lead on some lost technology out in the Heliosphere. Other NPC crewmates might offer different missions or bonuses, and you're free to recruit (and fire) them from as your needs dictate. Think of it like staffing up your ship in Assassin's Creed: Odyssey, but you don't have to defeat your deckhands in one-on-one combat before they'll join you.

Empyrean finally ties the game together

Years of feature updates have turned Warframe into a dizzyingly broad game, for better and for worse. As just one example, Archwing missions are empowering chunks of high-speed, free-form combat, but they're kind of out there in space compared to the rest of the game (literally). Empyrean does more to unite Warframe's many pieces than anything else in the game's history: the on-foot action, the vehicular combat, and even different missions in different parts of the game. Empyrean is the first place Digital Extremes demonstrated its new Squad Link system, which allows teams in entirely different parts of the game to assist each other by completing parallel objectives. Like, say, a shield generator on Earth that's protecting an enemy flagship but is utterly vulnerable to ground-based assault. Yes, just like the Battle of Endor in Star Wars. As creative director Steve Sinclair succinctly explained, Empyrean is "not a f$&%ing expansion, it's a connection."

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Connor has been doing news and feature things for GamesRadar+ since 2012, which is suddenly a long time ago. How on earth did that happen?