From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett (opens in new tab) wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random games back into the light. This week, a shooter/RPG hybrid that was Doomed from the moment it went into development, sadly in more ways than one.
Remember Strife? Come on, you remember Strife. The hugely ambitious game that came from developers looking at the Doom engine and thinking "We can start down the road towards Deus Ex before anyone even thinks of it!" The game that merged cutting edge shooting and equally advanced RPG action, its only mistake being to come out several years later? You know. Strife! The little game that could... or to be more accurate, could have, had anyone been paying attention to a Doom game in a world with Duke Nukem 3D out, and Quake only a month or so away from shelves.
The fact that most people have never even heard of it remains sad. Not surprising. But still sad.
Let's get this out of the way first: Strife has aged about as well as a carton of Ribena left behind the radiator for an equivalent amount of time. It's not a good shooter, and by modern standards, yes, it's a simplistic RPG. The key words there are 'by modern standards' though, as so much of what it did simply hadn't been done at this point. Take the city it's set in. At this point, shooters were primarily done level by level, with only a couple of exceptions like Hexen dabbling in hub worlds. Strife gave it a shot though, with levels that weren't just linked together in an overworld-style, but changed and evolved.
That story begins with you, as an anonymous freedom fighter, captured by a group called The Order. So, evil, obviously. There will never be a good organisation called The Order, any more than The Cabal or The Legion; it's the kind of name that people only choose if their five-year plan ends with "Become complete dicks." The Order has achieved this with style, turning the world into a theocratic dictatorship and equipping their troops with the scariest helmets threatening to castrate craftsmen with their own sharpened femurs can provide.
Luckily, either the medieval/sci-fi technology of the city not having stretched to scanners or the Order's guards being too squicked to conduct a full cavity search, you've managed to hold onto a punch dagger. With this in hand, though probably kept at a bit of a distance, imprisonment isn't exactly a big deal. Hey! Guards? You just got punched with a dagger!
It's what happens next that starts Strife down the road to being memorable, though. Wandering into what we can charitably call a shop that's right next to where the punch-daggering happened, nevertheless the owner, Rowan, decides he's going to act like he's Connected.
"In a small world, word travels fast," he says—winning the official Saturday Crapshoot "No Shit" award for understatement. "I hear you just removed some obstacles from your path. Nice work." Hmmmmm.
I'm pretty sure what he meant was "I just heard you remove some obstacles from your path," since he couldn't really have missed it. Or alternatively "Hi, the designers weren't sure where they were going to put me."
In the demo version, someone else was standing here—a guy who sends you on a bullshit assignment to steal a chalice. Actually doing this just ends up being a pure trap. You do it. You go to collect your reward. It turns out he's sent you to go see the guy you stole it from, who also turns out to be the guy who runs the city. He summons his guards to kick your arse, and even if you kick their arses instead, it doesn't matter; you can't win the game any more. This is extra-bullshit in a game with exactly one save slot. Overall, Captain Information is probably a better intro, and only wants a harmless murder.
On the way though, it's possible to explore the town a little. There's extra gear you can't afford, and lots of doors you can't go through, but also a few NPCs around who can be talked to and guards to tell you to piss off. The writing in this game being... well... you'll see... the main character can come across as a bit weird. Try to use anything that can't be used and he announces "Nope!" in a really weird way.
As for character dialogues, they tend to go from endearingly polite...
...to a little creepy
The first mission takes place in the Order's Sanctuary, where a traitor to the cause has been locked up pending interrogation by the Programmer—one of the Order's heavy hitters. It's a level, but it's designed more like a real place than you'd expect. Give or take the limitations of the Doom engine, obviously. You can just nip in, shoot him and leave, with nothing really to distract from that. Grab his ring, return to Rowan, and for demonstrating front, you're given an invite to join The Front—this world's Rebel Alliance. Nice and easy. I'm almost positive that won't hint that they're a bunch of complete incompetents.
Specifically, the invite is a comm unit featuring something literally unheard in the rest of the game: a woman's voice. "If this comm unit is working, that means you're 100% human," she starts. "Betray me, and pay. Oh, and by the way, you can call me Blackbird." So, she sounds nice. The plot explanation for this is that the Order is actually being controlled by mysterious voices in their heads after a comet destroyed the world, and all the women have either been kidnapped or hidden away for safety.
Normally, I'd say this is to cut down on the characters that would need to be rendered, but with these graphics... yeah. Moving on. And past Outcast, another awesome game that did the same thing.
The Front turns out to be based out of a futuristic science base that no rag-tag group of rebels could possibly have built, which turns out to be a bit of a hint, now I think about it, and led by a man named Macil. He explains that while obviously his team is full of great minds and brave revolutionaries, they're depressingly lacking in people who can... how to put this... actually do stuff. And that's where you come in, with Blackbird acting as Mission Control, chipping in at regular intervals. This had been done before, but was still pretty neat, adding to the liveliness of the world and filling in details the graphics couldn't.
Most of the actual missions aren't worth covering, being things like a choice between two tasks, "One messy, the other... bloody..." Over the next few, you essentially bop round the town and dismantle the Order piece by piece. Strife though had one big feature on its side—escalation. You'd think from the setup the goal was to free the town from the Order, with a final assault on the Castle to save the day, take out the baddies, and probably lead the way for a sequel where the Front goes on to try and do the same for the rest of the world. That seems about right for a game like this, doesn't it?
Well, nope! The castle is Mission 3. And it is amazing.
Again, time is a factor. But imagine this. It's 1996, a time when 'lone space marine saves the world' is still considered a fresh take, more or less. Then you find yourself not simply charging into a castle with a crossbow and a couple of other weapons to conquer it, but being part of a mass invasion of friendly soldiers, stomping battle mechs and pumping music. You arrive with the battle in full swing, with the Front already having seized parts of the map and warring over others; your goal as King Rebel being to go after the big prize—the Programmer.
This was awesome stuff, even if by modern standards the lack of characters on screen makes it more a minor squabble than an all-out war, and a squabble between morons with lobotomies at that. Only Marathon and a couple of other games had factored friendly AI in at this point, and again, once you take the castle, the castle becomes the Front's new base. Nothing else was changing world state like this at the time.
Of course, the Front remains pretty stupid. Hunting for the Programmer, King Rebel finds a guy in a room full of computers. "Programmer? Who told you that?" demands the guy whose name is 'Programmer'. There is no Programmer. Don't tell me the Front actually believed that crap."
"Dead end here," sighs Blackbird, making her the most gullible rebel since the guy Darth Vader tricked with "Obi-Wan never told you there were cookies at the bottom of this shaft." She's right of course, but still, the baddie just being able to send his murderers away by mocking them would have made for a much funnier ending.
There is, however, a Programmer who fits the bill; it just isn't this guy. It also isn't the Programmer in the extensively booby-trapped and heavily guarded Keep, who sounds too sleepy to keep up the facade and just points out "Do I look like I wield ultimate power?" without quite going as far as "Look at me. Look. I'm a generic NPC sprite. Give our developers some credit here, pal."
Of course, the real Programmer is safely concealed in the mysteriously named "Programmer's Keep". Clearly, he is a master of Subtlety. He also apparently has far, far too much time on his hands, having built this special welcome area just to dick with anyone who comes visiting.
Well, if you say so...
You've been waiting years for someone to break in so that you could do that, haven't you?
"When the going gets weird, the weird get going," says Blackbird, as the inevitable trap fires. It's all pretty standard, until you get to the end and meet the Programmer himself. As expected, no generic NPC sprite he.
Ah, game bosses. Nothing ridiculous about the torso of a man flying a UFO and hurling down lightning on those who displease him. Certainly, more powerful than the average programmer, naming garbage collection functions after them and giggling while typing "void bobsbrain(void);" He probably doesn't have Futurama posters on his cubicle wall. Or, being the god of the city, a cubicle.
Killing him makes him drop a magic weapon, a piece of one of those DIY superweapon things called the Sigil. This is what the Order is worshiping, and now a fifth of it is tuned to your life force. "One piece constitutes awesome power. Possession of all five pieces would be devastating, and would give the user complete control of the planet," declares Macil, dramatically over-selling a weapon that's at best OK when assembled and even then is as good at killing you as anything you shoot it at.
Again though, Strife opens up. Now you get to leave the city and head out into the Borderlands to go and speak to a guy called the Oracle—though not without noting that the Front has taken over the entire castle. In a wonderful detail, it's still possible to head back to their old base and find it completely deserted. There's a medical station, a training area, a new item to buy that will teleport Front soldiers to your location—officially the coolest thing ever at this point, even if Marathon did do it first—and a few other bits and pieces. Best of all, as the hero of the rebellion, the man who destroyed the Programmer and wielder of one-fifth of godlike power, all of your equipment is now provided for free.
Hahahahahahahaha, just kidding. That never happens.
Again, the plot that follows isn't desperately exciting, essentially you move from saving the city to taking out the Order's heavy hitters. Adding a little interest is that you get to choose the sequence, which affects the ending depending essentially on how cynical you were. Each has a piece of the Sigil, and it will of course come as exactly no surprise that Macil is one of them and has to be put down like a dog.
Each piece improves the Sigil's lightning powers until finally it's spraying stuff out all over the place, and I'm not saying that couldn't be useful in dealing with problems in daily life. If you actually wanted to take over the world with it though, it'd take bloody forever and cost a fortune in medical kits. It's only really useful here because the bosses ignore attacks from anything else, and even then its random attack spewing usually pales in comparison to a regular Big Damn Gun that doesn't suck your HP dry.
However you play, you end up at the same place: an alien ship, fighting a big blobby entity whose intro speech in my head at least is "Yeah, so, I'm a little disappointed about myself too. Let's just do get this over with." There are three endings in total—one good, one bad, one meh—with hints in one that Blackbird isn't actually the helpful lady everyone thought she was but may actually be the Entity. Unfortunately, there's no two-way communication, giving no chance to ask "So, what the hell are you, anyway?" before applying a dozen medical packs and emptying the Sigil into it a few million times.
The plot isn't the point though. The fact that Strife actually tried to have one beyond 'Uh... that guy's being a dick, go kill him, here's a pistol' put it well above the competition for the time, and the effort that went into branching paths and NPC interactions and even little details like the Programmer having a bedroom complete with a four-poster bed in his lair rather than it simply being lots of gunmetal grey and computer screens really made all the difference. Unfortunately, a first glance made it seem like an out-of-date shooter, and the bits where shooting was involved... that was a fair comment.
Still, as much as we remember games like Deus Ex that tried something new and succeeded, it's important to remember those that didn't quite get there. Without Strife, we'd probably still have the games that took these ideas and ran with them, but playing it when it came out was a great preview of what we had to look forward to, once the details had been hammered out and the technology was ready. It's a pity it didn't do better, but that's the cruelty of life—not everything can get the success it deserves.