A sadly undervalued gem
Strife is a great tragedy in PC gaming. If only it had not used a somewhat outdated game engine, then I think everyone would have paid attention to its innovation and great design, and I think it would have been a massive success. I think everyone would still be talking about it today, remembering it with the same affection that is held for Half-Life.
Strife was the last game that used the licensed DOOM engine. When it came out, it had Quake to compete against. It couldn't compete.
But it shouldn't have had to. Strife doesn't set out to be a first-person shooter. It's definitely not mindless, and it's definitely not DOOM. It's closer to an RPG than a straight shooter, with a proper storyline (which branches), people to talk to, weaponary and equipment to buy, a well-developed gameworld and varied quests and missions to undertake. On first glance, it make look DOOMlike, but Strife often feels *nothing* like DOOM.
Here are just some of the great things in Strife:
* Excellent maps that link seamlessly:
Strife's world, unlike the entirely seperate and unrelated levels of DOOM, Quake, etc., is like one big map. All the locations link together to form a truly related world, and the feeling this gives should not be underestimated - It really adds to the game's sense of realism and immersion. And when I say 'excellent' maps, I really mean 'excellent.' I've played all kinds of 3D first-person games over the years, many with very sophisticated, true 3D worlds and incredibly impressive architecture. I played Strife (DOOM-engined Strife :)) for the first time, a couple of months ago, and was blown away by its level design. This is the DOOM engine pushed to its limits. These are levels designed intricately and beautifully. They really put the lazy level design of some, more recent and much better selling, games to shame.
Strife has varied locations, too, but they all work together, and feel realistic. More importantly, they're all fun. It generally takes a lot for me to enjoy wandering around in sewers, but I loved Strife's sewers. Some of the best levels are entirely optional, like a weapons storage facility that you can visit if you feel like it, later in the game. This massive level also shows the wonderful pacing of the game: As you have a stolen low-level pass, you can wander around the facility freely, passing guards, defence systems and gun turrets without trouble. But what you really want is held in a secure part of the facility. You just know that the moment you decide to trip the beams, all hell is going to break loose. Then there are the levels that reflect changes, such as the castle, which starts off belonging to the enemy, but after a spectacular siege (in which you work alongside scores of fellow rebel soldiers), the castle is successfully taken. When you go back later, the castle has been converted into an impromptu rebel base and you can wander around, looking at the scorched and smashed walls, craters in the floor and piles of rubble. Rebel soldiers now stand where enemy drones once did. Of course, it's just a different version of the same map, but the effect, and the attention to detail, are both wonderful.
The main part of the world is the large town that you spend most of the first part of the game in. Needless to say, it's really well done.
* Imaginative enemies to fight:
Apart from the standard grunts, most of the enemies in Strife are rather imaginative. The best are surely the spider-bots, which crawl along the ceiling and then drop down on you. They honestly scared the hell out of me. Anytime I heard that ominous clacking of metal legs, I backpedalled like mad. I'm sure their A.I. must be quite primitive, but they seemed insidiously evil.
The flying probe droids are pretty cool, too, as are most of the other assorted droids and creatures. Oh, and the first 'boss' scared me to death, too.
* The graphics:
Yes, the graphics could take some getting used to, I guess. In fact, I'm a big fan of DOOM, and I still play it to this day, and have no problem with the graphics, but when I loaded up Strife, I thought it looked kind of ugly. This was a temporary thing. The graphics really grew on me, and it wasn't long before I was really appreciating them. Like I said, this is DOOM pushed to its limits, coupled with simply incredible level design. Some of the architecture in this game is honestly brilliant. You'll have to take my word for it. The enemy 'holiday resort' level has to be seen to be believed, as does a later level in some kind of facility, where light and shade have been played around with to great effect.
* To shoot or not to shoot?:
Like I said, this is not primarily a FPS. It does have a lot of combat in it, but it's tempered by levels where you don't shoot a thing. Or levels where you have the choice - It's up to you whether you want to go in gung-ho, guns blazing, or take a more stealthy approach. There are levels which could explode into massive firefights or which you could creep through without firing a shot. I was often reminded of Thief, particularly at the start of the game. You can perform silent takedowns by using your knife, or poison arrows. There are a lot of levels where you can wander around without arousing suspicion, but the moment you fire a shot, all the alarms go off and all the guards come running. The game's balance is near-perfect - Mixing 'safe' sections with furious gun-fights. Oh, and the combat is incredibly fun, by the way - Just as much fun as DOOM ever was, but with its own style.
* Neat features:
There are all kinds of neat features and elements to this game. You can break windows and climb through them. You can kill guards silently with your knife or poison arrows. You can earn money and then go to shops and buy armour and weaponary. Your stats increase (not really in a deep enough way to call this an RPG, but still...). You have an inventory. There are comic-book style cutscenes. There are multiple paths through the game, and two different endings. If you wear an environment suit, it protects you against certain robots' flame attacks. If you walk through a toxic environment, it doesn't affect you immediately, and it doesn't end the moment you get out - It's done in a more gradual, realistic way. The plot branches ask you not just to make choices, but to make *moral* choices.
* Set-pieces (and just generally more cool stuff):
Fancy storming a castle with an army of rebel soldiers? Fancy rescuing some prisoners? Trying out the training facility? Meeting the Oracle? Slicing someone's ear off to give it to the governor? You should play Strife.
There wasn't much I disliked about Strife. OK, there was one level (in the mines) which I didn't enjoy that much, but that was the only part I found a little tedious.
The unpatched version of the game only gives you one save slot, which is just dumb. However, this can be fixed with the latest patch, so no problems there.
I did have some problems with the sound cutting out, but that was probably just my evil soundcard (now replaced with a different one and due to be smashed with hammers in the near future :)).
I did feel that there were more plot/mission choices to be made near the start of the game. There were many different options for the first couple of missions, but after that, it was fairly linear until the *major* choice you get about 2/3 of the way through the game.
The Bottom Line
Strife is *NOT* a DOOM clone, a DOOM wannabe or a DOOM-alike. It may use id's famous game engine, and it does have its fair share of furious combat, but honestly, it's so different from DOOM, that it just doesn't feel anything like it. The bottom line is that this is a big, fun, action-adventure that you should play if you liked Half-Life, or Thief or Deus Ex, and feel you can stomach the old graphic style. Even if you think you couldn't cope with the oldskool graphics, you should give it a try, anyway. I had a blast playing this game and it honestly impressed me. It predated Half-Life, it predated Thief, and it's just a damn shame that more people don't know about it.