Strafe

EDGE - - CONTENTS - Developer Pixel Ti­tans Pub­lisher De­volver Dig­i­tal For­mat PC (tested), PS4 Re­lease Out now

PC, PS4

One of the joys of 2016’s Doom re­boot was dis­cov­er­ing rem­nants of the orig­i­nal game lodged be­neath its crust: hid­den ar­eas mocked up to re­sem­ble id Tech 1 maps, with splin­tered wall tex­tures, 2D sprites and flat­tened light­ing. Strafe prompts sim­i­lar emo­tions, at a glance. An ac­com­plished Unity shooter from film-in­dus­try vet­er­ans Thom Glunt and Stephen Raney, it’s flam­boy­antly mod­elled on the pro­jec­tile-dodg­ing and ver­ti­cal de­sign of Doom’s younger sib­ling Quake, and sat­u­rated with glee­ful ref­er­ences to the ’90s at large.

Prac­ti­cally ev­ery prop or ef­fect is a piece of mem­o­ra­bilia. Cer­tain exit doors grind apart to the peal of a dial-up mo­dem. Crates pop open un­der fire to re­veal N64 carts and floppy disks, buried in Sty­ro­foam pack­ing noo­dles. The weapons are boxy and brutish, en­com­pass­ing chain­guns, shot­guns, rocket launch­ers and disc throw­ers (none of which per­mit aiming down the sights). The en­e­mies are a fa­mil­iar blend of swarm­ing skir­mish­ers and ranged at­tack­ers who spit pro­jec­tiles at dif­fer­ent ve­loc­i­ties – the one de­signed to force you back, the other to keep you hop­ping side­ways in a fren­zied bal­let that re­quires you to form a pre­cise men­tal map of the ter­rain you can’t see.

How­ever, Strafe does more than merely ape a few well-known lay­outs or tools of de­struc­tion. It is, in fact, one genre viewed through the lens of an­other, the Rogue­like – its 12 stages, three per themed zone, pro­ce­du­rally gen­er­ated from a li­brary of pre-de­signed cham­bers, in­clud­ing canyons lit­tered with space­craft wreck­age, L-shaped hall­ways lined with treach­er­ous slid­ing par­ti­tions, and taste­ful cor­po­rate hide­outs that con­jure up dim mem­o­ries of Gold­enEye.

The ar­se­nal may evoke Quake’s ado­les­cent ex­cess – there isn’t a gun in this game that can’t rip some­thing’s head clean off – but the cam­paign struc­ture re­calls

Spelunky’s bal­ance of strat­egy, guess­work and the pres­sures of the mo­ment, pit­ting ran­domised enemy and loot distri­bu­tion against re­cur­ring op­por­tu­ni­ties like the danc­ing ro­bot ven­dors who al­ways ap­pear in cer­tain stages. If the ter­rain varies, each stage also ad­heres to its own broad script or theme. You might have to re­cover key cards and fight your way back to a door past waves of re­in­force­ments, for ex­am­ple, or de­stroy ob­struc­tions us­ing a re­ac­tor core that counts down to det­o­na­tion on pick-up.

Strafe isn’t as ripe with po­ten­tial for sur­prises and re­ver­sals as Spelunky, nor are its spliced-to­gether lay­outs a match for the best Quake or Doom lev­els. But it does man­age some­thing qui­etly rev­o­lu­tion­ary: a cred­i­ble au­to­ma­tion of the think­ing that gave us maps like Gloom Keep or The Door To Chthon, ca­pa­ble of thou­sands of vari­a­tions. The com­po­nents do be­come fa­mil­iar af­ter a few runs, but each lay­out cre­ates a dif­fer­ent chal­lenge de­pend­ing on how you move through it. You might have to climb a spi­ral stair­case in­stead of de­scend it, for ex­am­ple, or dodge bul­lets along a nar­row walk­way rather than duelling in the arena be­low.

Cer­tain enemy va­ri­eties shape the ter­rain chem­istry still fur­ther. Among the more an­noy­ing spec­i­mens are ghouls who spray a lin­ger­ing acid across a wide area when shot in the head, po­ten­tially mak­ing choke­points im­pass­able. You’ll also en­counter jug­ger­nauts that lurk in dis­guise as clumps of sta­lag­mites. As trou­ble­some as these mid-game threats can be, how­ever, you’ll die most of­ten at the hands of Strafe’s rank and file – podgy, club-wield­ing grunts who ad­vance al­most noise­lessly to clob­ber you from be­hind.

Enemy aware­ness ranges are easy enough to de­duce with prac­tice, but there are al­ways a few en­e­mies you can’t see – dan­gling from the ceil­ing above a health dis­penser, tucked around a cor­ner or loi­ter­ing on the other side of a fake wall. In the first zone, a Sty­gian labyrinth of cor­ri­dors and blind cor­ners, this en­cour­ages de­fen­sive play to the point that Camp would seem a more ap­pro­pri­ate ti­tle than Strafe. Over time, though, you learn to cut through the crowd, leap­ing over skir­mish­ers and flick­ing through the ar­se­nal with your mouse­wheel in the finest death­match tra­di­tion. You’ll pick a ri­fle, shot­gun or rail gun as your pri­mary weapon at the out­set, which is up­graded in the course of a playthrough with stat buffs and es­o­teric firing modes – an un­der­slung mine launcher, for ex­am­ple. One of the nastier sur­prises is that gun mods may be more bother than they’re worth, de­pend­ing on what ex­actly the pro­ce­dural gen­er­a­tion coughs up. A ri­fle up­grade that trades range for dam­age may not avail you much in the third zone, with its longer sight­lines and zom­bie sharp­shoot­ers.

There are ad­di­tional, souped-up weapons to dis­cover in the lev­els them­selves. These are good for just one clip, though you can al­ways smash the drained gun over an ad­ver­sary’s skull be­fore cast­ing it aside. New abil­i­ties, mean­while, are bought at the shops that pop up at pre­set in­ter­vals – the of­fer­ings in­clude a fly­ing drone es­cort, an ex­tra over­shield and shot­gun heels that in­flict splash dam­age when you jump – though you’ll prob­a­bly want to re­serve your cred­its for tele­porter parts in the first in­stance: once as­sem­bled, these al­low you to warp to the start of each zone from your shut­tle.

Strafe styles it­self as both “the fu­ture of videogames” and “the most ac­tion-packed game of 1996”, and there’s a ring of truth to both gags. In fold­ing to­gether and drilling into lay­ers of FPS con­ven­tion, Pixel Ti­tans has cre­ated a game that is at once sen­ti­men­tal and sharply con­tem­po­rary. It doesn’t so much take us back to ’96 as trans­port ’96 into the pre­sent, pick­ing up threads left by Doom and Quake and weav­ing its own tapestry out of them, ev­ery time you play.

The cam­paign struc­ture re­calls Spelunky’s bal­ance of strat­egy, guess­work and the pres­sures of the mo­ment

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