STRAFE Review – Not What it Wants to Be

STRAFE is billed as a ‘first-person shooter from 1996’ and has been universally praised in previews. Which is shocking, because if I’d have played this game back then, at the ripe age of nine, I’d have thought it was bad. But it isn’t 1996. It’s 21 years later and STRAFE is inexcusably terrible, but will probably still sell well thanks to nostalgic marketing.

STRAFE is being pitched as a brutally difficult game, and that isn’t a lie. But the only way in which the game is made difficult is the problem. There is only one difficulty setting, unlike the games that inspired STRAFE which had three or more. The rudimentary enemy AI sprints straight for you once you get a certain distance away from them, even if they aren’t in the line of sight. Enemies also spawn behind you, releasing from hidden doors.

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While this is fine and dandy, and did happen on occasion in the original Doom, the problem is the majority of enemies make no sounds whatsoever when moving or attacking. I thought that maybe the bumping soundtrack was just too loud so I put on some headphones and turned the music all the way down to confirm this. This means the only way to know if an enemy is attacking you is to either hear or see yourself losing health, or constantly strafe with your back towards corners if possible. I realize STRAFE is the name of the game and all, but I think the developers may have taken it a little too literally here.

Enemies that shoot projectiles have perfect aim, though the actual projectile itself is slow moving enough that you can dodge it. That wouldn’t be a problem if you weren’t dealing with enemies rushing at you at the same time. Aside from the lack of enemy audio, the sheer amount of enemies STRAFE often throws at you at a time is near impossible to deal with. Even when I took my time and slowly making my way through the level being careful to only aggro an enemy or a two at a time, I’d still get ambushed by floods of enemies that pour out of aforementioned hidden doors.

Then come the health and ammo problems. You start with 100 shield (which I don’t think I’ve ever been able to keep through the first stage) and 100 health. Health can be replenished via food vending machines found on walls, which are extremely few and far between, partially because of the randomly generated levels, and surely also by design. These vending machines can contain anywhere from 10 to 40 health in my experience, which is maybe 5 or 6 hits at best. Ammo and shield can be replenished by collecting and spending space junk, which enemies drop, at vending machines, however, the amount of space junk it takes to do so is so high it rarely provides much help. Ammo can also be replenished via pickups that are found laying about.

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When first starting, you’re given a selection of three weapons to choose from: a shotgun, a machine gun, and a long-range laser beam. Unlike the other guns you’ll find throughout the game, these weapons are permanent and don’t break after whacking an enemy with them when you run out of ammo. The starter weapons also come with ample ammo and can be upgraded via a machine found in levels. In my time with the game, I’ve found the only viable option to be the machine gun as it has both range, and clips big enough to kill more than 5 or 6 enemies before having to reload like the shotgun, and is way faster than the laser.

Speaking of reloading, for some reason, the developers opted to make it a bit too realistic. Sure, the reload animation only lasts a couple of seconds, but the problem is if you reload before you’ve finished the entire clip, you lose out on that ammo. Ammo isn’t exactly plentiful in this game (don’t bother using the alternate fire as it uses an entire clip, at least for the machine gun), and sometimes a poorly timed reload alone can lead to your death alone, let alone missing out on ammo. That is perhaps the cherry on top of this terrible and bloody ice cream sundae.

But wait, there’s more! More bugs, that is. I’ve seen enemies glitch through walls, get confused after being aggroed and run in circles while I stand there, and had the game crash multiple times when trying to restart after a death.

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I’ve been playing the PC version and have played with both mouse and keyboard as well as an Xbox One controller. This game, at least on PC, is not controller-friendly. While it fully functions on a controller with no tinkering, the default sensitivity is through the roof. To get anything even close to manageable I had to turn the sensitivity slider nearly all the way down. Yes, it is only a single slider, not a couple that allows for X and Y sensitivity to be adjusted separately. I’m not huge on using mouse and keyboard, but I found using them just an all around better experience than trying to use a controller thanks to the increased accuracy and therefore speed, which I’d argue is required to even think of getting to the second world.

As for the randomly generated levels, I found myself recognizing rooms almost immediately. As is the game with many games that call themselves randomly generated, levels are made up of different rooms from a selection of many stuck together to make a coherent level. While none of the rooms was bad or anything, the repetition I saw after only a few lives shows just how few rooms there seemingly must be per each world.

I can’t speak to any roguelike elements in the game, at least as far as a progression system goes. I never unlocked any permanent upgrades of any sort. During levels, you can get buffs from boxes scattered around stages, though exactly what they buff isn’t quite clear. Between the second and third stage, there is a store where you can buy upgrades such as a drone that flies beside you shooting enemies (which is mostly worthless), the ability to double jump or jump on enemies to kill them, and even a perk that lets you can HP from killing enemies. You’d think that last one would be useful, but it is something like 1 HP per kill and made little to no difference in the run I had it. At this point, the term roguelike seems to be a buzzword to sell indie games, as many use the term and feature nearly none of the qualities associated with the genre. But as I couldn’t get past the first world, I can’t say for sure what may or may not be unlocked.

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For a game that takes heavy influence from the original Doom and Quake, it is somehow far worse than both of those games, making amateur mistakes even they didn’t make. Amateur is a good way to describe STRAFE in a nutshell, from the dull enemy designs (many of which look like possessed adult versions of Stewie from Family Guy) to the same-y randomly generated levels, to the downright garbage AI and broken difficulty. The only redeeming qualities the game has is full motion video tutorial and the soundtrack, most of which I haven’t been able to hear as I’ve yet to get past the third level of the first world of 4, after 15 hours of trying.

If you’re going to play so heavily on 1990s nostalgia, you best be able to at least stand beside the games from that time. STRAFE can’t manage that, let alone standing beside modern shooters.