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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Strife Retro Review

This is will be the first in a series of retro-reviews, where we go back and take a look at classic games from days past. In addition to breaking down their gameplay we'll also be examining how they influenced the industry and later games.

The now venerable Doom engine defined the first generation of First Person Shooters. It wasn’t quite true 3D, and there were a lot of forgettable “Doom clones”, but the engine was responsible for an entire classic genre of play that hasn’t quite been replicated since. While limited by modern standards it’s fascinating to go back and play what was produced as mappers and developers first got to grips with the ability to carve out three dimensional space. Today we’ll be looking at a minor classic called Strife.

Strife was the last real commercial game produced on the Doom engine, back in 1996. It’s largely forgotten today because Quake came out less than a month later, with true 3D and a host of other technological advancements that left the aging engine in the dust. While Quake was a classic in its own right, with considerable impact on the industry, it was also a huge step backwards in some ways.

As a first generation game on a new engine Quake pared gameplay down to the very basics. Run, jump, shoot, hit the switch, etc… In many ways it was reminiscent of the first Doom. Both games were very reflexive and visceral. Levels could get quite abstract, and there wasn’t a lot of emphasis on story or world building.
Note that I'm lugging around an inventory of healing items, spare armor, and other goodies.
Strife, on the other hand, was produced on a mature engine. The developers had a lot of previous work and resources to draw from. They didn’t have to spend time learning the ins and outs of their tools, but could instead focus on pushing that engine to its very limits. What set Strife apart from both its other Doom engine brethren and the first generation of its true 3D successors (and what makes it warrant a look even today) were its features.

Strife could boast stuff that wouldn’t really be seen again until System Shock 2 and Deus Ex several years later. Strife had an actual story that advanced through the game, not a three paragraph blurb in the read me file. It had voice acting, cutscenes, and NPC conversations with relevant choices. There was light character advancement, an inventory system, weapons with more than one fire mode, and even crude stealth mechanics.

The premise, relayed via a colorful narrated comic slideshow on the main menu, has you working as a mercenary freedom fighter. You’re battling to overthrow a group of fanatical cyborgs called “The Order”, who manage to come off as surprisingly creepy. In addition to running missions for the resistance and storming Order bases you search for pieces of the ultimate weapon: The Sigil. 

Hints at the Order's nightmarish bio-technological experiments and other atrocities abound.
The game doesn’t just push you through an episode of maps full of enemies and pickups. Strife is laid out more like an adventure game than a traditional shooter. Most areas feature a hub where you can resupply and heal up between missions. You can always return to any area you’ve visited previously, although on rare occasions major plot points actually change an area. The resistance fighters abandon their old base once you take a bigger and better one from the bad guys, leaving behind rats and a few supplies for the careful scavenger.

The graphics are as blocky as you would expect, but the crisp art in the comic-book style cutscenes and character portraits really bring the world and characters to life. Voice acting is concise and not too hammy. Strife may have the distinction of being one of the first shooters with a “voice of mission control” constantly chiming in to feed you advice, objectives, and occasional humor. The warmly voiced Blackbird, your radio handler and spiritual ancestor of Alyx Vance, is easily the best character in the game.

Combat doesn’t feel quite like classic Doom, mostly because of the prevalence so many enemies with instant hit weapons. Even non-instant attacks move faster than pokey imp fireballs, so cover and line-of-sight is actually even more important than one might expect. Enemies themselves still move at the leisurely pace of most Doom engine creatures.

The weapon selection is satisfying, and the flamethrower is appropriately fun to use on enemy grunts. Strife has the distinction of the most terrifyingly dangerous grenade launcher I’ve ever seen, sending explosives bouncing in all directions with every pull of the trigger. You have about a 50/50 percent chance of blowing yourself up every time you use it. That’s before you break out the phosphorous grenades, which leave free-roaming jets of fire that can clear a room of enemies or toast you in a fraction of a second
Don't touch the flame.
As implied by the two types of grenades some of Strife’s weapons have alternate ammo types and firing modes. You still need to manually swap between them, but it opens up some cool tactical options. The signature maguffin, the Sigil, upgrades and changes its attacks as you claim more pieces. By the end of the game it’s able to drop most enemies in a single blast, mitigated only by the fact that it drains your own life.

The game has optional side missions and areas to reward careful exploration. Depending on which missions you accept and which characters you choose to side with you might not even see some sections. I suspect it’s because of the staggering expenses now involved in production, but I can’t think of a modern shooter that featured entire optional levels. Strife even has multiple endings depending on your choices and actions, adding a bit of replay value beyond bumping the difficulty level. 

You can load up on supplies at friendly shops.
Strife’s non-linear design is not without problems. It’s possible to get lost, confused, or forget what you were doing. The sewer level stands out as a pain to navigate, made worse by the limited number of protective suits available and the large number of areas that will damage you without one. Then there’s the truly bizarre choice of making the game un-winnable if you talk to the wrong characters and accept the wrong quests within the first hour of play. It’s possible to screw yourself out of being able to progress and not receive any indication you’ve done so till nearly an hour later.

Un-winnable dead ends are a cardinal sin of game design, especially in a game with an 8+ hour campaign like Strife. Fortunately it’s only possible to lock yourself into a dead end at one point, and only near the very beginning of the game. It’s still a bad design decision, but at worst you don’t lose too much progress. 
Slap down a teleporter beacon to call in a strike team of Resistance commandos.
 Least it seems like I’m being too critical, understand that this sort of flexibility is still one of the coolest things about Strife. Many of our painfully linear modern shooters could benefit from examining the more open flow of old school map design. Anything to get away from the lockstep of a series of rooms connected by corridors that you march through in rigid sequence.

The stealth mechanic is most notable in that it exists at all. The more human members of The Order generally don’t start a map hostile to you, and can be silently picked off with your punch dagger and limited supply of poison arrows. Your other weapons trigger alarms that send everyone after you and cause shopkeepers to cower behind shutters.

It’s a cool idea, but doesn’t hold up well. It’s impossible to “ghost” any area, because the numerous robot enemies attack you on sight and trigger alarms when they do. Your poison arrows only work on the weakest enemy types, whom watch listlessly as the goon right next to them takes one in the throat. Still, kudos for even trying on an engine clearly not built for this sort of thing.

Strife is worth checking out even today. Finding a copy and getting it running can be tricky, but a good place to start would probably be this source port: http://doom.wikia.com/wiki/SvStrife The game is a fascinating bit of FPS history with the bad luck to come out just in time to be overshadowed by a giant technological leap forward. Gameplay is rock solid and entertaining, and it’s a great way to see a lot of shooter features implemented before their time.

 Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.