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

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.

37 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Henke says:

    I’ve also spent a lot of time STRAFEing this week. 8 hours total. Furthest I’ve made it is level 3-3. Hadn’t really paid attention to the development since the Kickstarter, so I was surprised by the shape the final product had taken. I was expecting something along the lines of the new DOOM, but very often it feels more like a first-person Teleglitch. Very tense once you start making it further into the game, constantly checking your remaining ammo and health.

    I like how little hand-holding there is. For instance it wasn’t until last night that I figured out what the four dashes under your health-meter mean. And I also only just recently heard about how to find the secret areas with armor pickups. Haven’t managed to repair any of the teleporters fully yet.

    Anyway, overall, I’m loving it. It plays great and, personally, I love the aesthetic. My only real complaint is the lack of a save feature. I play quite cautiously, and getting through the whole campaign will probably take close to 2 hours. Would prefer not to have to commit to doing the whole thing in one sitting.

    • LTK says:

      Hold the phone! That’s the first time I’ve heard a game compared to Teleglitch, and it suddenly makes me very interested. I loved Teleglitch, it’s the best horror shooter I’ve ever played: it had periods of heart-pounding action in between stretches of tense exploration, and you were actually dreading what would be around the next corner. It was one of the toughest games I ever completed.

      I could easily overlook Strafe’s tropeyness if it meant getting an experience like Teleglitch. I’m guessing there’s no inventory system, so crafting and scavenging for parts are out, but the procedural generation and limited ammo are very Teleglitchy. Could you elaborate on how else they’re similar, if at all? Do you have a melee attack?

      • Premium User Badge

        Henke says:

        Actually, it DOES have scavenging, crafting and an inventory system! Tho none of these are as fleshed out as in Teleglitch. The inventory is non-interactive, just for seeing which powerups you’ve found/bought. And you pick up scrap from defeated foes and use it at certain terminals to build armor or ammo. You also find terminals that let you upgrade your main weapon.

        There’s no proper melee-attack, but you can buy something called Stomping Boots which basically let you be a gorier version of Super Mario.

        • LTK says:

          Hmm, this sounds very appealing indeed! I’ll put this on the wishlist. I just hope the gamefeel isn’t too lacking. Teleglitch nailed that as well.

        • Ardhanarishvara says:

          Actually, there DOES happen to be a proper melee attack. Just not while you have a gun unless it’s cracking an empty throwaway over someone’s head. The two melee options you have happen to be, essentially, secret.

          The first is accessed by going to the teleporter without picking a gun. You will go in with just your bare hands, and then proceed through the game like that.

          The second is accessed by doing the above to go in with bare hands, then grabbing a wrench from the initial room’s corpse. This can be used to smash enemies over the head, but has the additional property of being capable of essentially playing baseball with enemy projectiles.

  2. Eraysor says:

    Everything lacks a punch to the original Quake. I think it’s probably the sound design. Quake’s starter shotgun still sounds way better than any of the guns in Strafe.

    Also, all of the enemies just charge at you in the hundreds. I don’t think people come to Strafe to play Serious Sam (which is a better game than Strafe for sure!)

    • House says:

      I actually uninstalled and reinstalled it, thinking that maybe I was missing some sound files. The music is fine, but the audio for weapons and enemies barely exists.

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      The original Quake was a fantastic and at times beautiful game with terrific combat if you got properly invested in it, BUT

      all of its weapons are truly awful. They were awful when it was new and they’re even worse now. They felt limp, they had no satisfying action or feedback of any kind (although now that you bring it up a couple of them had good audio, I’ll admit), they couldn’t compare favourably to Doom1/2, let alone to the shooters that would follow.

      As I’ve said before, Quake 2’s guns more than made up for it, though.

      • Darloth says:

        I thought the nailgun (not super, just normal) was fine.

        Rocket launcher… eh, it was okay at the time.

      • Kasjer says:

        I dare to disagree. The only weapon I do not like is the nailgun, and only in QW multiplayer, where it’s basically useless. It is fine in singleplayer, though. And no game since had rocketlauncher so deadly and fun to use.

      • Premium User Badge

        Phasma Felis says:

        I’m glad somebody else feels this way. The booming super nailgun and the *clong* of ricocheting grenades were okay, but everything else about the weapons was pretty awful compared to Doom. The Doom shotgun’s fullscreen reloading animation was staggering at the time, but Quake’s just twitches a little and makes a noise like a BB gun. The howling scream of the plasma rifle becomes the asthmatic crackle of the thunderbolt. Quake was great, but the weapons were pretty disappointing.

        They got the message with Quake 2 and brought it back in spades.

    • Ardhanarishvara says:

      You say all the enemies charge at you in the hundreds, but that’s only really in the first zone and, to a lesser extent, the second as well. And even then, stalkers will deliberately hang back to take potshots. Once you hit Zone 2, you get fewer of the cannon fodder mooks, and start getting specialized melee enemies, one being a tanky monsters that will do a leap-slam attack, and the other being smaller and less tanky… well, zerglings, that will pause to lunge forward. Once you hit Zone 3, new enemies with new ranged attack behaviours begin to show up.

      • haldolium says:

        Sadly it is even true for later enemies, since the A.I. is very basic.

        Once they magically hear you through every possible obstacle, they just follow to have line of sight. That goes as far as sniper enemies following you into cramped rooms instead of waiting outside until you re-surface.

        So even for the (much better) diversity later on, the A.I. system is still very bad and one major cornerstone of why the game isn’t as fun as it could be.

  3. Premium User Badge

    subdog says:

    I would be 100% more interested in this game if the term “roguelike” didn’t come anywhere near it.

  4. smoke_th says:

    Agree completely. I basically had all the same points for the first 40 minutes of playing it. Then it relaxed a bit at 1-2, then came back in full swing at 1-3. *sigh* I bet a doom mod using it’s textures and weapon models, but with proper everything else would do better.

  5. haldolium says:

    I find the worst of STRAFE that it feels like a hastily welded FPS of default unity code where most of the development time went into graphics.
    The A.I. is abysmal and frequently detects you through every geometry, the entire movement is wonky, typical for bad Unity games, it has microstutters, the mouse precision is as great as a piece of soap and the overall feedback is questionable. Even the high FOV doesn’t make it any better.

    Level pieces are awful, giving way too little freedom of movement which leads to serious sam style gameplay more often then it would be good. Sound fx is mediocre, and also lacks massively in proper feedback and detection of enemies. Soundtrack is great though.

    That said, the developer(s?) is very nice and takes feedback into account for patching. Maybe a few patches in, most issues will be dealt with. The idea of making it a bit more difficult with permadeath works for me, but the gameplay doesn’t.

    Oh and head bobbing? That was horrific 20 years ago and it is today. Worst idea for FPS ever.

  6. stringerdell says:

    That is preposterous! Doom is clearly the best FPS ever

    • spectone says:

      Quake is clearly better as it has better multiplayer and mods. Though in single player Doom is the better game.

      • Kaeoschassis says:

        If you think Quake has “better mods” than Doom, I feel like maybe you’ve been out of the loop for a couple of years/decades. I say this not as some weird and useless criticism of taste, but in genuine dismay that you might have missed the last twenty years of stellar community-made content.

  7. vorador says:

    Roguelike aaand procedurally generated levels :-/

    It’s true that proc-gen if you do it well it can be almost unnoticed, like with Shadow Warrior 2. But beside Devil Daggers, i can’t think of a roguelike FPS that was good enough to stand out.

    And Devil Daggers was designed around very short playtroughs.

    This one a miss.

    • shoefish says:

      Just curious but what makes you lump Devil Daggers in as a roguelike?

    • April March says:

      Well, I really like Tower of Guns and Eldritch (and Ziggurat is pretty good, although it never really clicked for me). But I also liked Rogue Shooter: The FPS Roguelike, so I guess I’m easy to please.

      • prakhar says:

        I really like to play roguelikes and roguelites too and I loved the first three shooters you mentioned. Haven’t played Rogue Shooter though, think I’m gonna give it a go.

  8. Spacewalk says:

    I had a feeling that this was going to be a pose so I guess this is confirmation.

  9. April March says:

    Aw. :(

  10. Mikko Eronen says:

    I have not personally played the game yet, but the one thing that has bugged me the whole time is the crosshair. It does not fit in the graphical style “resolution differency”.
    Crosshair should be more retro.

  11. horrorgasm says:

    Nothing’s ever going to replace Quake or Quake 2, but you know what? It doesn’t have to, and this game isn’t trying to anyway. It’s not an either/or situation. You won’t be cheating on Quake if you enjoy Strafe for what it is.

  12. ItsMori says:

    Did you play past the first zone? The game gets way less quake/quake 2 as it goes on. The later zones are a lot more imaginative and interesting to play. I think the game has its flaws but they seem to be patching issues really fast based on feedback which is good. I was mixed on the game at first but it’s super addictive and I find myself liking it more and more.

    • Hypocee says:

      I love roguelite design and think it’s maybe the best thing to (re)happen to gaming since 3D, but every rose has its thorn. One of roguelite’s is that it instantly validates a reviewer who doesn’t progress or write farther than the first area.

      Given what low percentages of players get any way into even the shortest linear games, it’s interesting to debate how much weight a slow build should carry with a designer, or how much ‘it gets better later’ should carry for a reviewer. But roguelite design raises that factor to so many powers that everything else fades into the noise. The first area of a roguelite game is not an advertisement for the rest, or at best a microcosm. There are so many nines in the proportion of time spent that for all practical purposes it is the game. If it’s not great on its own, well, maybe it should have been cut and started the player where the ‘real game’ begins.

  13. MechanimaL says:

    Has anyone of you ever tried “Reflex” I think it’s more likely to please quake veterans and such folks :)

  14. frozbite says:

    Tried it… while style is nice, i think Subleve Zero does everything Strafe trying to do… just better!

  15. Premium User Badge

    DelrueOfDetroit says:

    Zenimax should sue John Carmack for wearing those shorts.

  16. Kasjer says:

    Well, after reading quite a few reviews, I think I’ll wait for this to be put on sale. I actually had high hopes for Strafe, mind you – I’m die hard Quake fan (first one, nothing after comes close).

    If you look for better alternatives to this, you can have pricetag free* fun with following mods:

    -Brutal Doom – if you fancy some pixelized gore, that’s a great mod for Doom1&2. Great with original episodes, even better with maps made specifically for it.

    -Arcane Dimensions for Quake (mentioned in article) – this is basically “best of” community made maps and mods, connected by new hub maps and polished to have more consistent quality. This is vanilla Quake on steroids – not full TC, but loads of new enemies (and they fit original art style well!), some new guns and very challenging difficulty. I still can beat original Quake campaign on Nightmare, but AD is kicking my ass on Normal.

    -Pax Imperia mod for Quake 2 – if you fancy moving down hordes of enemies, this one is for you. It includes some remixed enemies and weapons from official mission packs. It’s rather old (almost 15 years) but quite impressive how author pushed the engine and solid fun.

    There is of course almost bottomless pit of other great maps and mods for old shooters. And what is more, they will all run butter smooth even on Intel integrated graphics card.

    *I’m not quite sure if you require full version WAD file for Brutal Doom, I have set it up ages ago. And if you do not own Doom1&2 and Quake(s) yet, seriously, what are you doing with your life?!

  17. panzermagier says:

    Writer:”Oh noooo my beloved quake genre has is a difficulty higher than I’d like it to”

    The developers intended for a rogue-like Quake, you know where you’d have things like reload and not a health pack every 4 goddamn feet.

    My response: “oh no that sucks… git gud”

    No really as someone who enjoyed the original doom, quake 1, 2 and beyond. This game is amazing and unique in its own right. I didn’t get it for a quake difficulty, I got it because its quake with an ACTUAL challenge.

    I’m not hailing it as the next best thing to the old titles, but it has a great spin on things. Some may complain about the game breaking speed run bugs (myself included) but the developer to this date has put out 3 patches in less than 30 days to fix them. I’ve never seen in my entire gaming career a AAA company do that.

    At this point if I’d have to review RPS’s review on STRAFE as nothing but a glaze eyed idealism that was met with some reality.

    It does capture that “quake” feel. It does it in its own unique way. What the hell is wrong with you? Can you not compliment something you like without throwing a few nitpicks just to keep your pretentious “I’m a reviewer and I shouldn’t let my bias interfere”? Really?

    At best this article is written quite watered down and heavily edited with the original narrative buried under “proffesional” jurnazilmz

    • Premium User Badge

      Drib says:

      This comment may be the most obnoxious thing I’ve read in weeks.