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‘Strafe’: Our first take

The dream of the ‘90s is alive in ‘Strafe’

It’s surprising how old and new Strafe can feel at the same time.

The game bills itself as a bleeding-edge PC first-person shooter straight out of 1996, and that’s a promise it delivers on. The second you fire it up, you’re treated to a pixelated sci-fi scene with the sort of graphics whose screenshots would have covered gaming magazines and elicited drooling from wide-eyed gamers some 20 years ago.

Strafe has a few new-school tricks, too.

Strafe isn’t simply a replica of past ideas, though. It certainly looks like old games – stalking through a blinking, but sterile space station-like level will no doubt bring Doom, Quake and System Shock to mind. But Strafe has a few new-school tricks, too, which make it a fast-paced splatterfest meant to invoke nostalgia without its more irritating elements.

The setup for Strafe is simple: Grab a gun and get shooting. Players pick from one of three weapons at the start of the game — assault rifle, rail gun, or shotgun — and step through a teleporter that sends them aboard a ship called the Icarus. It’s full of gross, cleaver-wielding zombie things, killer robot turrets, and gun-toting creatures. Your goal: Blast them all before they cut you apart.

And for the most part, Strafe is about scratching that fast-moving, twitch gameplay itch. Enemies come at you in droves, and your shotgun them back, dodging incoming fire and jumping around to keep them from getting behind you. Shot after shot sends heads, arms, and legs flying in all directions as fountains of pixelated blood spray in all directions. It’d be horrifically gory if it wasn’t hilariously low-res.

Gameplay-wise, it’s the kind of mouse-and-keyboard carnage that’s all about moving fast, avoiding getting stuck in corners, and reacting to every threat as quickly and decisively as possible. And there’s no shortage of threats: Strafe sends enemies, often by the dozen, pounding forward in mixed packs that include leaping creatures that hang from ceilings, slow-moving melee fighters, and smarter, quicker shooters that hang in the background. And that’s just the first level.

Unlike the classic shooters that inspired it, the point in Strafe isn’t really about finding your way: You don’t need to by track down keys or memorize the map as you would in Doom. Your goal is survival. Underneath the game’s retro façade is the heavy pumping heart of a roguelike. Instead of focusing on weapon-gathering, secret-hunting, and health pack-hoarding, Strafe makes you move fast and react faster, just so you can stay alive as long as possible.

A shifting ship

Each of Strafe’s levels is generated procedurally, so the game compiles the layout of the level on the fly by sticking a series of rooms together according to an algorithm. Every time you enter the game, you’re facing a new level with a new layout. Where enemies spawn, where weapons are found, and where strategic advantages lie is never clear until you’re in the thick of it. You can’t memorize the nuances of a map to make yourself more efficient — you can only react.

When level layout and power-ups aren’t on your mind, the spotlight on core mechanics is much brighter.

The game includes four different areas with four separate levels in each (We had trouble getting past the second or third one in the few hours we spent with the game). With each new level on every attempt, we found an interesting variety of ’90s level layouts. One version of just the first stage, for example, had us wandering a flaming garbage pit, a catwalk-lined area ringed with rooms that looked kind of like the ship’s waste disposal sections. On another run, the layout was full of Doom-like wall elevators, with whole rooms lowering to meet you at the push of a button, complete with a host of bad guys waiting for you to let them out.

Strafe is hardly the first game to use procedural generation to keep its levels changing, but the effect achieves some interesting things in the context of this retro shooter gameplay. When level layout and power-ups aren’t on your mind, the spotlight on core mechanics is much brighter. In Strafe, you’re never especially worried about searching for ammo, for instance, and stumbling across new weapons is a random boon.

Keeping yourself healthy is a huge concern in every entanglement with bad guys, but mostly because you’ll rarely find more health or armor pickups. With only one life to try to get as far as possible, every hit you take is important. Die, and you have to start all over, with one gun and no idea what you’re in for.

Strategic scrapping

You’re not powerless aboard the Icarus, though, even if you’re at a disadvantage. Weapons have been scattered throughout the ship at random, which adds an element of improvisation. You’re never sure if you’re going to find a fast-firing plasma rifle or a long-range laser sniper, but once you do, your approach to every situation changes. Suddenly, you can start playing smarter — as long as the ammo holds out.

Some weapons also carry alternate fire modes that are great for emergency situations. The shotgun fires a burst of ricocheting bullets in all directions, while the assault rifle has an underslung grenade launcher, for instance. The secondary weapons suck down ammo in a hurry so they can’t be abused, but in any given situation, even with the default guns, you have some options.

There’s some long-term strategy in grabbing up any guns you find, also. Mostly you’re stuck with however much ammo was in the weapon when you found it, but gathering “scrap” allows you to purchase upgrades, armor, and ammo from a station in each level. It’s a big tradeoff — scrap is hard to come by but health is even tougher — but if you want to survive, you’ll have to make strategic decisions about what to purchase and when.
All those strategic considerations are a moot point, however, if you can’t stay alive. And the game doesn’t make it easy. Moment-to-moment, Strafe is laser-focused on capturing recreating that old-school speedy shooter feel, and every system in the game seems geared toward enhancing your ability to spray baddies all over the walls.

It’s impressive how Strafe uses newer, trendy design ideas specifically to put the emphasis on that old-school feeling. Everything is carefully pushed to the side so that all you have to worry about is where the next guy to shoot is coming from. And Strafe manages to be tough and quick enough to offer a lot of challenge, requiring players to dig deep and get their ’90s shooter muscle memory back.

But once you start to get the feel for it, Strafe becomes a pretty refined time machine for shooter gameplay from two decades ago. If you’re pining for a quick and clean return to Doom, Strafe has you covered.

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