Retro Saturdays Episode 8 :: Strife

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If you’re a fan of 90’s FPS like me,  then most of your time would have been spent aggressively slaughtering dozens and dozens of demons, aliens, zombies and all sorts of other-wordly creatures in Doom, Heretic, Duke Nukem 3D, Shadow Warrior, Quake and Blood. Life was good. You didn’t ask the game questions as to why you were doing it all,  because you didn’t need to nor cared to. In John Carmack’s words, “story in a game is like story in a porn movie.” Was it there? Yes. Did it matter? Well not exactly. Although I do love my story-heavy games, (Torment, I still love you) lack of a well developed story in a fast paced fps didn’t struck me as odd nor it made me love the game any less. I was too busy running around looking for key-cards,  kicking ass and raising all kinds of hell. But then out of nowhere this one game popped up. It was called ‘Strife – Quest for the Sigil’ or just ‘Strife’ in some regions. Oddly enough it was developed by a little team of people calling themselves ‘Rogue Entertainment’ who were located in the same building as id Software. The year was 1996. Quake was coming in with id’s shiny new true 3D engine ‘Id tech 2’  and Duke Nukem 3D was also releasing with a superior 2.5D engine called ‘Build’. You’d think that ‘Rogue Entertainment’ would take advantage of these technologies and would be moving ahead with the tides of time. Guess what engine they used for Strife? Doom engine! That’s right they were using the then-obsolete ‘id Tech’  engine to power their game. A bold and stupid decision that the company would soon come to regret. Well then what makes the game special,  because it obviously isn’t the graphics. Well… gather around sunny Jim, I’m going to tell you a little story.

*Puts on nostalgia goggles*

Strife – Putting the RPG in FPS

I have an obsessive relationship with games that combine two of my favourite genres; first person shooting and role-playing, evidenced by my undying love for titles like System Shock 2, Deus Ex, Fallout- New Vegas and the recent Prey reboot. I love Strife because it basically invented the sub-genre and paved a rough path for many generations to come. Strife, at first sight might seem like your average 90’s fps. You have your usual weapon loadouts comprising of; a melee weapon, a weak pistol grade weapon, a fast firing rifle, an rpg, a grenade launcher, a cross between a rifle and a slow projectile gun and finally the big f—fantastic gun (a shotgun is mysteriously absent). All these are progressively more powerful than the previous with their own advantages and disadvantages and you….shoot stuff with it. Maps are maze-like and you were forced to find various key cards to progress to the next level. There are a plethora of various consumables and pick-ups throughout the game that can aid you in your murderous rampage. So far pretty standard stuff eh? Now here’s where Strife begins to deviate from its siblings.

 

The moment you gain control of the game’s hero, you are dropped to a large hub area filled with enemies, allies and neutral npcs all together. You can explore it to your will and the enemies won’t shoot you as long as you don’t do anything suspicious like lets say…..take a bigass rpg to their faces and paint the town red. Now, Strife isn’t the first game to feature hub areas. Hexen had hubs too. But Strife streamlined the aspect. You get your missions from within this hub and have to travel to the objective, which may be within the same map or an adjacent map connected geographically and almost seamlessly to the hub. You come back to the town once the objective is complete and can replenish your weapons and armor from vendors. Back then this was a big thing as most games just had you move from disconnected map to map without ever having the option to come back to a previously visited area. The hub area had vendors, a bar, a sewage treatment plant, a prison, a power plant, a rebel base and the castle for the bad guys. This contributed largely to you feeling like you were actually part of something big and the whole world felt alive, populated and lived in. Rogue Entertainment was bringing in the big guns.

Before System Shock and Deus Ex came along, Strife gave players true freedom in an fps, or an illusion of freedom depending on how you look at it. You could talk to almost anyone in the game world whether it be your allies or enemies. This was not a gimmick too, as they had interesting dialogues to feed you. Sure, it came down to two or three lines per person. But it was way ahead of its time. It doesn’t stop there. Many of these dialogues were voice acted. They might seem a bit cringy and goofy now but Rogue Entertainment deserves kudos for trying to be experimental when most games hopped on the band wagon of the Doom formula. Even if it might seem like an illusion or just binary choices thrown in, Strife had a branching story line with three different endings! Man these guys don’t stop, do they? Hell there is also a stealth mechanic, which although crude and basic, is just pleasant to see in a game like this.

Another element Strife borrowed from many of the rpgs of the time is the ability to upgrade your character’s stats. During several sections of the stroy, you re given upgrades to your health and accuracy several times. You start with 100 HP and finish the game with like 200 or something. It is not clearly explained how accuracy affect the native auto-aim, but the fact that it’s there means something. Like many of the other rpg elements in the game, this was unheard in an fps back then and thus can feel a bit rudimentary and bare-bones when you look back. But it was 22 years ago and hey, someone’s gotta do the heavy lifting.

 Striving for Innovation – The Story

Like I mentioned earlier, Strife is one of the first attempts at a story-driven fps. The devs weren’t satisfied with having just a decent story in. They wanted more. Hence they created a story where your actions affected the outcome.  The choices may have ended up being illusionary as no matter what you do, you’ll always have to do what the game tells you to do. If you didn’t play by the rules, you could end up breaking the game. But the chances of that happening is rare. Like I always say; “false hope is always better than harsh reality”….or was it the other way around?Anyways I digress. The so called ‘illusion’ felt great and it still does, despite many of the later games doing a far better job at it.

The story goes something like this; the world has been ravaged by a deadly virus emerged from a catastrophic comet impact. The resulting plague caused deaths of millions of people, while other victims were mutated and began hearing the voice of a malevolent deity. They formed an organization called “The Order” and enslaved the rest of the populace. You play as a nameless mercenary (Strife guy?) employed by the resistance front to foil the plans of the Order and bring balance to the galaxy…erm.. .I mean the world.

Strife’s world is a twisted take on medieval fantasy mixed with technological innovations, or as I like to call it; ‘techno-fantasy’. While the weapons and machines have clearly seen some advanced technological advancements, stuff like architecture and armor designs take a walk to the past and is based on medieval fantasy and myths. You’ll see knights armed with machine guns and wearing full-plate armor guarding mythical temples fileld with computers and all sorts of scientific marvels. It’s just fun stuff man. Don’t forget the awesome Blackbird, your com-companion whose voice is “by far the sexiest thing to ever resonate from my computer speakers”, said a reviewer. 

Striving for Development

Strife began as a project by Jim Molinets, Rich Fleider, and Steve Maines at Cygnus Studios and was supposed to be published by id Software. When Cygnus owner Scott Host decided to move back to Chicago and cancelled the project, there was an internal revolt. Most of the staff left to start Rogue Entertainment and continue work on the game there. id Software helped the company get set up in the same office building, and helped fill out its staff with programmer James Monroe, a longtime friend of John Romero, and level designer Tim Willits. Velocity came in to the rescue as the publisher. The project suffered a total delay of around a year due to this transition, extending its development from 1994 all the way to 1996.

When Strife was finally released, it was deemed a commercial failure. They really did pick up a bad time to publish the game as both Quake and Duke Nukem 3D was released just months after. All the hype went to the two games and Strife became the snotty little kid in class who no one wanted to have anything with. Such a shame really. The failure of Strife also befall on the dated graphics and spritewrok. Strife was the last game to use the Doom engine and came out a year too late. The pc market was moving forward with true 3D technology and graphics accelerators. In the graphics department, Strife had nothing on with the huge polygon count of Quake or the impressive level geometry of Duke 3D. Even I didn’t know that the game existed up until early 2000s  and that’s saying something.

Strife is not flawless when it comes to the gameplay either. The levels were too large and maze-like  for its own sake. While the A.I isn’t really the smartest, they have pinpoint accuracy and will tear through your armor and health with their hitscan. The native auto-aim is not accurate enough, even with all the upgrades.  All of this makes many of the levels frustratingly hard. This frustration is further enhanced by the lack of sufficient health pickups in the later levels and the large number of enemies. But thankfully, these days the automap shows where you need to go almost always and if you are fast enough, you might run past some of the hitscans.

Strife – Veteran Edition

A huge thanks goes to Nightdive studios for their work in remastering pc classics from the 90’s. They have released an enhanced version of Strife titled; Strife – Veteran Edition on Steam and GOG. The newly added features include Completion of missing and unfinished options in the original game, such as: the planned “Capture the Chalice” multi-player mode, marking of current objectives on the auto-map, support for high resolutions, with proper aspect ratio, Dynamic lighting and bloom, widescreen support and much more.

Legacy of Strife

While some of the elements in Strife can be seen in other games at the time, there is no mistaking the fact that Strife is the first fps of its kind to implement a branching story, upgradeable stats, a proper interconnected game world, interactive npcs and one decent story to boot.  It paved the way for games like System Shock 2, Deus Ex, Arx Fatalis and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

 I’m always in favor of going back to each genre’s roots and see how it originated and find out how far have we come since then. If you share a similar mentality, get Strife – Veteran Edition and experience the first FPS-RPG hybrid. I’ll be back with another retro title next Saturday. Till then happy gaming.

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