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Throwback shooter Strafe doesn't manage to replicate Quake's oddball cool

Past Imperfect

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Strafe [official site] is steeped in love for Quake 1 & 2 (and to a lesser extent the original Doom), there’s no question about that. But it’s also saddled with a desperate desire to evoke retro-cool no matter the cost, clad as it is in ironic faux-’90s videogame advertising terminology, lascivious talk of gore and a widdly-widdly-woo soundtrack. Strafe tries far too hard, and it backfires. Strafe is a deeply dorky videogame. I quite like it anyway.

The elevator pitch is Quake-as-roguelike. Blocky faux-software rendering, notStrogg enemies, big-pixel gunblasts, level art that jumps between wildly different environments, high-speed movement, grunting enemies who charge right at you – and randomly-generated maps, perma-death and resource purchasing.

It’s a fairly natural mix, really, as health management becomes more meaningful than whether you’ll have to reload a savegame or not, with every hit you take lowering the chance that you’ll survive until you can find a level exit.

I buy into the concept and the simple precision of the Quake model fits it well, though I’m not entirely convinced by Strafe’s broader execution of it. Health terminals are too few and far between, armour purchases feel too expensive and surviving for long enough to unlock a new start point a few levels in is a tall order. The reality is that, procedural generation or not, you’re likely to see the first few map styles many times over, and given what an inherently one-note game this is, that gets old fast.

The greater problem for me is that it feels like it’s working from a checklist of real and exaggerated ’90s shooter tropes, which it then amplifies for intended comic effect – lengthy gore-sprays, breathlessly lurid text and a shrill guitar soundtrack – without actually doing anything more than mug to camera.

I guess I’m the target audience here – mid-to-late-30s, played all the id stuff first time around, still make preposterous claims such as ‘Quake is the best FPS ever’ – but it didn’t coax any laughs from me. I like the feel of the movement and the dart-like shooting, but all that tongue-in-cheek retro-pandering on top of it is simply too obvious. My suspicion is that Strafe wants to be this:

…but winds up being this:

The actual, real, true Strafe suffers for this HEY THOSE OLDEN DAYS WERE RAD, EH? preening. The closest it gets to an identity of its own is the extent to which the walls get liberally sprayed in blood, but that joke’s only funny once. Its enemies are so busy trying to appear Quake-like without triggering any lawyers that most of ’em lack any personality of their own and instead look like this awkward mish-mash of Strogg and goblin and zombie.

Same goes for the weapons, which all look like they were bundled with pound shop knock-offs of Lego figures, and lack a sense of punch when they’re fired. I don’t care for the guns at all. Aping iconic weapons is hard when you can’t actually include their iconic sound and vision, I guess. I dig the introduction of weapon reloading to the ’90s shooter model, though. It’s an extra layer of strategy and timing that does meaningfully change the dynamic – this is a game where enemies will swarm at you en masse, and running out of bullets halfway through gunning down a pack ’em can be lethal.

Meanwhile, a combination of the visual repetition inherent in proc-gen levels and its frantic pace means it lacks any of the creeping menace that characterised the games it reveres. It evokes ’90s shooters, sure, but something is lost in translation to 2017.

Nothing quite clicks, visually, and the blend of low-poly models with smooth edges and texture filtering is lost in an awkward middleground between the iconic squares-everywhere aesthetic of Quake and the gloss of a modern shooter. It’s almost more 2001 than 1996.

Strafe looks so damned dorky – more than anything, it makes me think of the sort of mocked-up shooters that a bad police procedural series on TV would create when it does a cringe-worthy episode about obsessive gamers. It’s not that bad in truth, but it definitely looks like a solid-but-unexceptional cover version of an enduring classic. Which is, of course, exactly what it is.

Even so, it has kept luring me back over the past couple of days, which is no slight accomplishment right now, given that Prey is emitting a constant siren call from my hard drive. I am a total sucker for that type of early 3D first-person combat, and it doesn’t put a foot wrong when it comes to movement – the title is apt – or the act of pulling a blocky trigger at speed, even if the weapons do lack personality.

It attempts to answer the lingering question of “why play this instead of an original Quake or one of many great mods for it?” by adding in the permadeath/survival element. Yes, that will see me stick with Strafe at least a little longer, determined to experience the delayed gratification of eventually reaching the later stages. Once that’s done though, in a choice between replaying this or Quake, or the excellent and remarkably contemporary-feeling Arcane Dimensions mod, or even good ol’Doom, Strafe will unfortunately be lost to history.

Strafe is out now for Windows PC and OSX, via Steam.

Disclosure: Though developed by Pixel Titans, Strafe is published by Devolver Digital, who are also due to publish Ruiner, a game which I contributed a small amount of script-editing to some time ago.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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