Strife: Veteran Edition

"Strife did not elevate the medium like System Shock did two years prior, or Deus Ex would four years after. Nevertheless, it deserves its place next to them as a game that paved the way for the important FPS/RPG hybrid classics that would follow."

It was only a few years ago that id Software's classic Doom opened up its full potential to me. With one press of the "Shift" key, I realized (likely by accident) that Doomguy possessed superhuman sprinting speed. Suddenly, I was zipping in and out of enemy firing arcs, popping in between hellish pillars for cover, and entering into a quasi-Zen state of stratospherically efficient demon slaughter. Doom had suddenly become a different game. I had more fun during that playthrough than any of my others over the years. This simple feature heightened the brutality of the game while revealing its delicate craftsmanship.

Although one could — like myself — have a sudden revelation about a twenty year old game in 2014, it's more amazing that in 1996 Rogue Entertainment would have the audacity to cut, slice, splice, and stitch some RPG elements onto Doom's then-obsolete id Tech 1 engine. Strife was the result of this bloody, messy, surgical grafting of NPC chats and plot onto Carmack and Romero's fiend-murder simulator, and it is an appropriately inappropriate Frankenstein's monster.

In 2014, Nightdive Studios released the enhanced "Veteran Edition." It adds a few small features, mostly cosmetic, but it is the same game as always.

Strife takes place in a post-apocalyptic world that remains unique, despite the surplus of such settings in modern games. The Order, an oppressive religious cult, purports to govern temporal and spiritual matters in the name of a god that manifests itself on Earth as The Sigil, an intelligent weapon capable of reshaping the world. There are characters with cybernetic enhancements, such as the NPC "programmers," who sport bulky interfacing implants and speak with an icy modulated voice. There are plasma, particle, ballistic, and missile weapons wielded by mind-controlled soldiers, robots, and individuals that are a combination of both. Sitting somewhere between cyberpunk and medieval fantasy, all of this takes place among quaint, vaguely Victorian-style architecture, imposing castles, high-tech military facilities, and various other environments with sci-fi trimmings sprinkled throughout.

In the hub areas — usually towns — there are many neutral and friendly characters milling about. As in most RPGs, one of the main means to progress the story is to talk to them. Speaking to important NPCs treats you to a great comic book-style still of their face, along with surprisingly well-acted voiceovers. In fact, these painted portraits are so large on screen that it gives the impression that this individual is leaning in way too close to you. It's quite uncomfortable, and lends itself favorably to the oppressive setting, almost as if humanity is so far gone that everyone has forgotten their manners. Overall, it is a harsh, bizarre, and violent world, expressed through subdued yet strong art direction, aesthetic map design, and top-notch voice acting.

The story begins with you, a mercenary, arriving in a town and joining the resistance against The Order. You take missions from Macil, the resistance leader who has established a base in the basement beneath the burned down and abandoned town hall. Initially, you're sent off to free prisoners, sabotage the power plant, and perform other acts of subversion. Strife attempts to place its missions in places that feel realistic. Therefore, until you shoot something, the guards will think you're just a worker. You can stealthily kill using either your knife — which is utterly useless, since each basic enemy can withstand many stabbings — or a poison crossbow bolt. This is much more useful, since it instantly kills soldiers. However, it does zero damage to synthetic enemies.

This "stealth," insofar as it works, can occasionally come in handy to preserve ammo and health or to progress cleanly through the beginning of a mission, but since nearly any robotic enemy will attack you regardless of how you want to play, you'll likely be fighting before you want to. Even some guards will appear to see through your disguise and open fire while the others stand around, wallowing in ignorance until you retaliate.

The seams between Strife's ambitions and id Tech 1's capabilities are rather cavernous in these moments. In one mission, you must don an officer's uniform and access areas of a large military complex. At first it works, and like in every instance where you're disguised in a restricted area, it is eerie and tense to be walking around while the enemies are going about their business. However, the second a bipedal, flame-throwing, missile-launching, autonomous tank shows up, you are forced to go loud. This is the bad news.

The good news is that you're now essentially playing Doom.

All the poetic brilliance of Doom is here. The movement (including that inhuman sprinting ability) appears unchanged, and most weapons are great to use. The Mauler is an energy shotgun that evaporates the target. Another solid option is the Flamethrower, which turns each defeated enemy into an area-of-effect fire attack that kills other enemies: in turn, those ignited enemies then do the same, causing the fire to spread satisfyingly. Speaking of fire, launching phosphorus grenades from your Grenade Launcher devastates a small area with burning vengeance, but over time the comic book-style flames spread and migrate unpredictably. It is perhaps the most terrifying conventional weapon in the game. The aforementioned Sigil is the game's superweapon, and it's a fun one that tears up any room with bolts of lightning.

The enemies are nicely designed as well. Their behavior is the same as the enemies in Doom: they move slowly, fire at you intermittently, and can be made to hurt and fight each other. There isn't much more to say except that the Mauler toting semi-robotic Templars have a particularly disturbing death animation, where their mech suits topple to the ground and their pale, organic bodies tumble out of the shattered top and onto the cold concrete.

This game is incredibly violent. It's not as over the top as Doom, but the more grounded nature of the setting makes the violence slightly more impactful. So does the fact that some of the characters you kill will be the ones you've had conversations with, and the cast of characters does not disappoint. They're not given much to say, but their nature comes through very well in the scant dialogue. This is helped by some seriously great voice acting.

The best character is Blackbird, a woman who acts as your guide and communicates with you remotely. Despite her heavy use of one-liners and quips, she never causes a cringe. A few of her lines are poorly written or cheesy, but as she delivers them, you don't notice.

The other characters are similarly engaging, if not as charming. The prison warden, for example, is such a jerk that it feels good to kill him, take his severed hand to the hand scanners controlling the locks, and free the prisoners. (Gruesomely, his hand remains in your inventory as a "key" for the rest of the game. Ew.) The Oracle is a hooded figure with a cyber-face who speaks with a voice that will make your skin crawl. His green Temple is lined with kneeling figures in hoods. Close scrutiny reveals them to be, suspiciously, nothing more than holograms. Weran is the leader of a colony of jaded hermits in the sewers, who've lost all hope and are waiting to die. He, however, seems to be doing okay for himself. He appears mentally unstable, but his dwelling is full of the supplies his followers need, such as health packs and money. He is a negligent oppressor in his own right, but somehow, despite his followers not believing in its mission, he is plugged into the resistance. It's curious that in order to further its purposes, the resistance might need despots among its ranks, despite its ideals.

In one sense, the cast is colorful. Unfortunately, it is also very white. It's important to note that I spotted no people of color, and the only woman in the entire game is Blackbird, and she's simply a voice in your ear until the end (which isn't great). There are times when you fight alongside resistance soldiers, and since they're covered from head to toe, I like to think that some of them are women and non-white people.

The most notable moment of fighting alongside your comrades is when the resistance storms the town's castle. It is a spectacular set piece, where dozens of your people fight dozens of the enemy, the battle converging on an open courtyard. I don't think I've ever seen a Doom engine retail game accomplish anything quite like it. Unfortunately, this may be where the game peaks.

The action remains fun throughout (it is Doom, after all), but the maps become an exercise in absurd excess. The problem isn't that they're large or even a little labyrinthine; the problem lies squarely with the outrageous number of switches to hunt, keys to seek, and locked doors blocking your path. Sometimes the switch for the door you need is at the other end of the building. Honestly, if you were going to found a theocracy to oppress the people, you wouldn't want to construct your facilities so inefficiently. Your regime would crush itself under the weight of its own horrific infrastructure. I'm very tolerant of old games and their quirks, but this design decision deeply frustrated me by halting my momentum over and over.

It's a shame, because contrasting these maddening maps are the various hub maps that connect them. They are quite attractive and natural for an id Tech 1 game. These towns, outdoor areas, and the more straightforward government facilities are so smartly designed that one may wonder how the proverbial ball could have been so thoroughly dropped for the other levels.

The logic of the game world's politics begin to break down before long as well. For example, the resistance takes over the town's Castle, yet when you visit the governor's mansion in town, the governor is still there, still has an attitude, and still has grunts standing guard. Didn't they get the memo? The castle is just down the street! Additionally, when you visit the aforementioned Oracle to receive guidance on your mission to destroy The Order, there's a small settlement exactly adjacent to it that is completely controlled by The Order. Why? Does the Oracle work for them or with them? It's puzzling and ultimately lacks a satisfactory answer.

Unfortunately, the plot is full of holes like this and is rather weak in general. It grows increasingly top-heavy, while its holes compromise the structure underneath. Its "twists" do entertain, but they cause the plot to stumble and crash mightily to the ground. The twisted husk that remains is a heap of juvenile explanations and dei ex machina. Even Blackbird, the best character, gets shamefully mistreated at the end.

Strife did not elevate the medium like System Shock did two years prior, or Deus Ex would four years after. Nevertheless, it deserves its place next to them as a game that paved the way for the important FPS/RPG hybrid classics that would follow. Strife itself nearly achieves classic status, but several factors tamp it down to merely being a great game. Hiccups aside, Strife is a thoroughly imaginative, ambitious, and thrilling FPS. Nearly all the RPG elements are welcome additions that distinguish it from other FPS games, and the fascinating setting further sets this gem in the rough apart from the pack. Now that it's easily accessible through the Veteran Edition, it is easy to recommend, especially for connoisseurs of classic first-person shooters.


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