Strife is a peculiar FPS. It came out as a DOOM engine game in 1996 – four months after Duke Nukem 3D and only one month before Quake. Between the former’s standout character and the latter’s revolutionary graphics was this thing, with dated visuals and an obsolete engine. However, despite being stuck in obscurity until relatively recently, Strife remained as a cult classic that was way ahead of its time. Even with its issues, it has some standout reasons that justify a playthrough.
You can buy the 2014 re-release, Strife: Veteran Edition, on Steam, GOG, and Switch for $9.99 US. This is not to be confused with the now-defunct MOBA of the same name.
Unique Storytelling…in a DOOM Clone?!
The game’s most standout trait by far is the presentation. The story involves the player working for the Front (a ragtag group of resistance fighters) and against the Order (an oppressive theocratic organization). It’s a fairly straightforward “good guy does heroic things” flick, but it features cutscenes, multiple interactable characters, comic-style portraits, and voice acting. These elements combine as the backbone of Strife’s RPG side.
To be more specific, the story isn’t told through diegetic action alone. Interactions between the player and NPCs play an even bigger role in that regard. In Duke Nukem 3D, the player demolishes a building near the end of episode 1, level 2, to stop an alien invasion. What little story there is (not to imply that it’s inherently a bad thing) comes from such gameplay spectacles; exposition is few and far between.
On the other hand, it has a plethora of characters on top of the action. Your guide, Blackbird, not only helps with your missions but also gives snarky one-liners from time to time. Macil is your typical military leader giving orders, and the Rat King has some creepy vibes. You can even talk to the side characters – including the townspeople, warehouse workers, and even members of the Order. Such an interactable cast was seldom seen in pre-Half-Life FPS’s, yet here we have it from 1996.
The RPG Side – World, Quests, and Items
Storytelling isn’t the only RPG-like aspect of Strife. To begin, the game doesn’t divide itself into separate “levels.” It instead expands as an interconnected world – complete with hub areas that lead to different action zones. You can’t just go in and stab everyone to death right away; you will be punished dearly for such reckless behavior.
Granted, this isn’t a Metroidvania. Only a few places need to be revisited, and the only reason to backtrack otherwise is to scavenge for health packs. Still, this further enhances its world-building.
Also, you do the equivalent of quests to progress. As said earlier, Macil gives the orders while Blackbird guides you through. Most DOOM clones have one goal: reach the end of the level through key hunts, switches, and/or opening a few doors. On the other hand, it has a bit more depth than that. Complemented by the linked areas, objectives include going here to talk to this person, retrieving a keycard to progress further, moving elsewhere to destroy a power source, and so forth. It’s not that complex in practice, but it has depth regardless.
To top this off, you have an inventory system with a twist. Items in FPS’s were not new at the time (Heretic and Duke 3D being among the early adopters), but using gold to purchase them was. While gold isn’t essential, it can help when you can’t find any ammo, health, or armor. You can earn it by completing missions and picking it off the ground, but it exists in limited quantities. With such RPG-style mechanics, it’s no wonder people compare Strife to Deus Ex.
Still Has That DOOM-Like Gameplay – And Then Some
While the core gameplay hasn’t changed much from DOOM, it has some special features. For one, it teaches the id Tech 1 engine’s tap-firing mechanic. When using bullet-type weapons, waiting for the animation to finish after firing resets their spread. In other words, firing in short bursts instead of holding down the trigger creates 100% accurate shots. This turns the assault rifle from a high spread sprayer to a reliable mid-to-long range option, and it makes the game feel surprisingly modern – modern along with the likes of Halo and Call of Duty.
In addition, you get a big and powerful arsenal. The poison crossbow one-shots human targets, the grenade launcher decimates groups and beefier foes; the mauler vaporizes in close quarters – you get the picture. Not only do they have different use-case scenarios, but they also feel uniquely futuristic.
Heck, in retrospect, Strife was also ahead of its time in terms of gameplay. This is a game that deviated from the norm; it stuck to a tried and true formula yet innovative within that field. Rogue Entertainment could have made Strife in the Build engine, which featured more versatile events and 3D graphics. But they didn’t need to – even when visuals mattered more than gameplay. If anything, this predated the retro trend that would dominate the indie scene decades later.
A gameplay element that could have been more refined, however, is stealth. So long as others don’t see you, you can kill enemies with either the knife or poison crossbow without triggering any alarms. In practice, the knife does very little damage without training, poison bolts are hard to come by early on, and a lot of areas invalidate stealth with alarm gates anyways. It does save ammo under the right conditions, but such opportunities rarely present themselves.
At least Thief would later polish this concept in first-person games.
With all that’s said and done, Strife isn’t what I’d call “perfect.” Maps are super labyrinthian, enemies are quite spongy, and hitscanners will constantly chip at your health and medkits. Rather, it’s an experience – a modern-style experience wrapped in a classic boomer shooter. It’s not exactly cyberpunk or medieval, but just for its mechanics and RPG feel, Strife was far ahead of its time.