Thursday, 7 November 2013

Strife

Strife is one of those games that was forced into a situation without realising it. The promise and prospect behind the game is let down mainly by the limitations of the engine in which it was made. Strife is one of the last games made commercially on the Doom engine and it pulls out all the stops to become something far more than just another first person shooter.

The premise is simple, Earth fucked itself up, life got shit and then a meteor hits to really slam a great fat throbbing fuck-you into humanities throat and blow it's alien invasion load down its throat for years to come. You are someone growing up in the aftermath of all this with humans living under a pseudo cyborg-cum-religious order that are steadily offering stability and enslavement in the same sentence. Humans are steadily being oppressed and the ruling factions are locked in an inner conflict of "entities" that are trying to outdo each other and defeat each other to rule over everything by themselves. Naturally, you'll have to take down each of these "entities" and in doing so you gain access to more and more pieces of a weapon that does huge damage but drains your health when you fire it.

The story unfolds with you joining the resistance, getting roped into other plots and plans and trying to determine who to believe and follow while being mindful of back-stabbed by other key players in the grand plot. Eventually leading armies to conquer other opponents and taking control of the resistance, before duking it out with the big nasties of the game, and some of the larger and more powerful opponents, that Strife has to offer. Various towns and locations initially will be friendly and accept trade though with enough hunting around inside other locations, you can acquire enough weaponry and ammo without the need to go the whole barter route.

The game can glitch up big time and if you set yourself on a course, backtracking upon yourself (i.e. realising two characters are about to fuck things up, you'll have to side with one, but if you go midway through that storyline and then opt to kill the other, you'll end up stuck with nothing to do and no progression), may cause issues the game hadn't been programmed to anticipate. A huge mood killer in a game with only one save slot and auto saving will cause everything to fall apart if you decide you don't like which new direction the game is going.

As a new arrival you're given a dagger/blade fist and that's it while someone is about to kill you for being you. What's not apparent straight off is that this game can't be played like doom. You can't run around killing everyone as you'll trigger alarms. Which stops the game from letting you trade and function, the first person you meet is going to kill you if you don't kill them, which is the wrong tone with which to start this game as playing on that line will just have unlimited enemies spawning in until you're brown bread. Likewise, some missions are designed to be traps and if you save along those missions and go the wrong route about it, you'll never be able to progress even if you escape the death-trap.

IF you can look past these bugs, you'll find there's a rich environment, carefully and in many cases, wonderfully designed areas that really do the most with the doom engine, a full inventory of items to help the player along and a fair selection of weapons with which to get the job done. In some cases you're planting rocks to blow up force fields, fighting giant mechs, infiltrating various dungeons for prisoners to save, fighting mechs... and fighting clouds of eyeballs that launch lightning... Ok so the variation isn't great and some of the opponents you'll fight are hugely overpowered compared to the things you as a player can do.

Engine wise, it's more in common with Hexen in that it utilises a hub system and quite an expansive one at that. There are a few quick movements and teleports but otherwise you'll find yourself running through a large part of levels with newer opponents and enemies in your quest to get to the bottom of the invasion, stop the plans and force back the alien invasion. You'll find yourself running from one area to another, through missions based around that area, then through a channel-level to get to another hub with more quests to do there. Thankfully the HQ moves depending on the point of the storyline you're in so there's less running about to do, though this breaks down when realising that there's teleports put in to move you around and leaves you wondering why they didn't just use them from the start.

Sadly, the levels do become less plot driven and less interactive as the game progresses, compared to the first few levels where you'll meet and encounter people, trade items with them or threaten them for answers, do various missions and submissions before the game soon becomes, "Hi, go to point B, kill dickface C, come back" upon which you get "umm... now go to point D as it's really important, then kill G go to H kill P eat J and take a dump on Y" and you're just running through landscapes killing everything. Especially jarring when you consider that earlier levels had a large focus on stealth, not alerting people to your presence and making silent kills rather than alerting the guards. In fact in some levels you're even given the opportunity to dress up and re-stealth the mission from there on; though some levels also have a compulsory alarm sector you have to walk over. You could run through and kill everything with a gun, but you could try harder to not have to.

But then that defeats the point, it's too difficult in places to try the stealth route that ends up with you going murder-death-kill spree on everything.

It's as if the game can't make up its mind as to what it wants to be and then just decides to say bollocks and become a generic shooter. Which is a shame as the potential here was fantastic. The first half of the game, up until the death of the Programmer, is very plot driven. The levels are very well designed and you get the sense and possibly the feel of actually doing something towards helping to overthrow a controlling faction. The push towards attacking the enemy base is done with the support of other rebels, making it rather surprising the first time you see it, given the previous games hadn't had things like this in Doom, Doom2 etc (but had in Marathon), to see AI supporting you was quite the shock. Though they're shit at actually getting to the boss and help in no way at all.

Ignoring the dullness of the storyline towards the end, the game is rather expansive and harder to gauge on the account of hubs changing and levels adjusting as you progress through the game. Of the 31 maps, some of those are hub levels, some are just missions stemming from the hubs, and a few are changed for other maps depending upon the plot, such as the programmers lair being a point of destruction and battle, then becoming a HQ for the rebellion and looking like it's been torn apart through warzones while the old HQ is left very empty even going as far as to remove all the parts of the level that resembled storage crates and boxes. It's a very unique aspect and the surprising attention to detail is impressive to realise. IF it's realised at all.

That said, the game does take the doom engine into a much larger field than just grab guns and ammo. There's a whole host of items you can collect from suits and hazmat, health packs and targeters, gold for trading, quest items and so on. Some of which are really useful while others are just there because someone thought "let's put that in" and someone sadly, agreed. It does make for a rather redundant system in places but it also allows more choice on the player's part rather than just running over an item and automatically picking it up AND using it. Given that in some levels, hazmat suits are used to avoid poisonous areas found IN that level, stealth suits however can be used later in the game assuming you're not up against enemies that can negate the effects. (Read: Most of them by that point)

There are problems with the game, it can be very hard to work out where to go in a level and the waypoint guidance only informs you with written instructions which can be misunderstood or misleading. However it does make you explore things more thoroughly and when you check the map you'll start to identify where somewhere has not been seen or explored properly, at very few times will it be a case of "hit all switches" to progress but when it does, it reeks of the old Doom style of gaming that Strife has tried hard to distance itself from, then falls back to it with enough force to kill any engrossing sensations you might have had.

Having said that, it is rather surprising to hear a full audio accompaniment for the entire game with everyone's speech, which can get a little annoying when your built in ear-piece squawks off your mission like a parrot needing its head shoved up its arse, though given the scope of the game and effort put into the production, there's evidence of a LOT of work involved in taking something like the Doom engine and putting up and beyond expectations, while still a flawed piece of work, those with a keen eye on Doom and its engine's limits, will respect the work gone into this.

Otherwise it's an RPG that can be rather unforgiving and have a case of some of the most nasty traps of all time where players will need to start over by making a wrong choice at a wrong time, even as far as quite late into the game.