Had you come to us earlier in the year and asked us which game Panic Button should port to Nintendo Switch next, Warframe would not have featured anywhere near the top. Not that the game itself isn’t a worthy candidate - on the contrary, it’s become of the most improved and noticeably enhanced free-to-play games out there in 2018 - but simply because a) it’s an always-online experience and b) it simply looks too good and plays too fast for Switch to handle.

And yet, despite all those seemingly plausible notions, here Warframe is, running on a semi-handheld console in its full form. And with far fewer concessions than you might think. We’re not entirely sure how Panic Button managed to get this third-person shoot-’n’-slash experience working so well - witchcraft of some kind was almost certainly involved at some point - but it’s nothing less than a technical marvel that even one-ups its recent work on Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus.

Warframe isn’t a new commodity either. Originally launched in 2013, this free-to-play cooperative shooter has quietly transformed into one of the most rewarding games-as-a-service titles out there thanks to a consistent wave of updates, free content and a progression system that’s doesn’t choke itself with microtransactions. Such purchases are there - it is free to download from the eShop after all - but they won’t impede your ability to play as much as you like.

While it preceded Bungie’s post-Halo franchise, Warframe’s gameplay loop, customisation systems, loot drops and mission design are likely to remind you of the Destiny series. In the body of a titular warframe - a race of hyper-skilled warriors encased in powerful battle armour (read: space ninja) - you’ll travel to different planets, battle various alien races, level up your avatar, take down bosses and collect loot as you go. And, you can do it all alone or with up to three other players. Sound familiar?

And that’s just scratching the surface. Warframe has a vast array of interconnected systems - ranging from mods that upgrade certain aspects of your loadout - and when coupled with an open approach to mission design that purposely leaves your path up to you, this has given the game something of an unfair reputation of impenetrability. It’s true that the game can often feel a little overwhelming in the vastness of its menus and missions, but with a single-player orientated tutorial that gradually introduces you to the core combat mechanics and systems in place, it doesn’t take long to see its openness is an invitation for freedom rather than a wall of obstruction.

It’s still not a perfect formula, and something as simple as departing from a squad you’ve been automatically assigned to can be needlessly obtuse to solve, but Warframe’s overall accessibility is leagues ahead of where it was in 2013 and the Nintendo Switch version launches with years of improvements and refinement already patched in. The Warframe community is also one of the friendliest, with a terrifyingly vast number of resources, guides and Wikis out there to help you make sense of which mods work best.

And there’s just so much content to experience here. You can instantly access the galaxy map and repeatable missions that range from wave-based defences to stealthy infiltrations where you’ll need to bypass security measures to steal data. Questlines are there, usually requiring you to complete certain missions in order to unlock new planets, but even on a single planetary body, you’ll find sandbox areas filled with friendly trading posts (think The Tower in Destiny), bounty hunts and systemic quests that require you to kill AI squads and retrieve supplies.

Combat is fast and frenetic, and can take a little getting used to, especially when switching between melee strikes and ranged weapons. Melee weapons feel vastly different from one another, ranging from the default katana right down to versatile staffs and sword/dagger combos. Rifles and pistols also have plenty of variety, although pistols still remain frustratingly less reliable and lack the heft of Destiny’s far more powerful hand cannons. The ability to take mastery tests (which work like Metal Gear Solid-esque VR missions) once a day to increase your aptitude also adds a nice touch.

Despite the trend of so many other free-to-play titles out there, Warframe never feels like its making you play at a disadvantage. You’re constantly being awarded XP, with your preferred weapons levelling up as you use them. Mods - represented by holographic cards - are doled out pretty regularly and enable you to enhance your warframe and weapons with buffs such as increased damage or faster shield recharges. It helps negate the grind needed to unlock the in-game currency needed to purchase new weapons, but Warframe still suffers from a lack of inventory space. It’s here that you do feel the pinch of the game’s in-game transactions, which gates off greater gear storage behind purchases.

You can, if you choose, undertake most missions on your own, but Warframe was designed to be a social experience and it’s consistently better for it when you do embrace its online community. Missions will, by default, automatically squad you up when heading out, and XP earned from every kill and completed objective is shared among your squad. The game also has its own voice chat system, enabling you to chat with players in your squad or interact with those you meet while roaming the game’s manner sandbox locations.

And, to balance out all this PvE action, there are even some PvP modes where you can take teams of other players into everything from team deathmatch to CTF variants. None of the four modes included in PvP are as exciting or as rewarding as Warframe’s cooperative experience, but it’s incredible that a game as vast and comprehensive as this is available for free on Nintendo Switch right now. And while there are still some technical issues at launch - such as player avatars warping around the screen and the occasional instance of slow-down when there’s a lot of enemies on-screen at once - Warframe is still a technical wonder.

You can see where Panic Button has had to downgrade certain visuals, and yet from the glistening armour of your warframe to the particle effects you encounter while exploring its worlds, we can’t quite fathom just how this game is running so well on Switch. It is, as we've mentioned, a purely online experience so this isn't a title you'll be able to fully experience without a decent Wi-Fi signal to hand, but when you do, there's just so much to explore you'll likely never go out again.

Conclusion

While Digital Extremes hasn’t quite perfected the formula it needs to make Warframe completely accessible - the sheer number of interconnected systems and customisable elements suggests it never quite will - it still offers a co-operative third-person shooter with all the MMORPG elements you never thought you’d see running on Nintendo Switch. From the impressive visual fidelity Panic Button has maintained, to the sheer breadth of content you can access for free, Warframe represents another milestone for the console.