Doom is over 25 years old. The tale of id software’s first-person shooter causing a new wave of clones and derivatives has been told to death. But id wasn’t just content with making games. They were willing to license their technology out to other developers who would add their own spin and magic to it, sometimes those games becoming big on their own. For example, Raven Software ended up using id’s Doom engine to greatness with Heretic and Hexen using id’s fancy engine. The two were practically inseparable for 15 years after that, using id’s engines for their games for a very long time.
But there was one other major game that used that engine. One that had a troubled development due to a multitude of factors. You could say they had a bit of strife. The result is one of the more ambitious games made on that old Doom engine.
Enter Strife. A first person shooter that had a troubling development cycle and came out to little fanfare in 1996. Why did this game get thrown into the world of abandonware? Let’s find out.
Strife had a rough history: Developer Rogue Entertainment consisted of ex-Cygnus Studios people after wanting to make a new game after 1994’s Raptor: Call of the Shadows. The developers had conflicts with their boss, and decided to take their ideas elsewhere. After co-operating with people at id, Rogue got a deal with publisher Velocity Inc, makers of the JetFighter games and Battlezone clone Spectre, to publish their new project. Strife ended up releasing in May 1996, to passable reviews.
Problem was that by 1996, old “Doom clones” like Strife looked incredibly dated compared to the mind-blowing 3D visuals of Descent and id Software’s upcoming Quake, which came out a month later. This, combined with publisher Velocity folding not long after Strife’s release, meant that the game was basically dead in the water, and mostly forgotten by the general PC gaming populace.
Rogue would eventually bounce back, making expansions for id’s Quake and Quake II – Dissolution of Eternity and Ground Zero, respectively – and helping out on a former id Software employee’s pet project: American McGee’s Alice. In an ironic sense of history repeating, Rogue itself would dissolve in 2001 as the CEO left to go join EA, resulting in the remaining people forming Nerve Software, which is still around making games today.
Back to Rogue’s debut. I found Strife thanks to the now-defunct Home of the Underdogs, which was a common go-to spot for so-called “abandonware” titles. (Other games I found thanks to Home of the Underdogs include Blood II: The Chosen, which I wrote about back in 2012, and the amazing System Shock 2.) At the time, I had made a good amount of progress into the game itself, but at some point, I forgot what I was supposed to do and ended up bumping around in a sewer area repeatedly before giving up and moving on to other games.
After not touching Strife for so long, I decided to give it another try, nearly 15 years later, and see if it was as good I remember it. Turns out it’s… alright.
Much like many shooters of the 90s, Strife doesn’t have a complicated plot: You play an unnamed protagonist who stumbles onto the town of Tarnhill, among two rival factions: The Order, an alien society that invaded the planet and started brainwashing people; and the Front, your fairly commonplace-in-fiction resistance. Eventually working for The Front, our hero eventually stumbles upon a sigil, that when pieced together, can be used to stop The Order in their tracks once and for all.
Strife is one of the last major commercial games using id’s Doom engine – sometimes called “id Tech 1,” which seems to bounce between referring to this or Quake’s engine, depending on the time of day. As such, it holds some elements of Doom in terms of movement and gameplay, but it also adds an inventory system akin to Heretic/Hexen, as well as supporting jumping, something that wasn’t in vanilla Doom but was later added in Hexen.
It does have a few unique tricks up its sleeve. Dialogue options and full voice acting, cutscenes with drawn art, a quest system, hub worlds and some dynamic story beats to make it replayable. Rogue was trying some pretty ambitious things with id’s engine, and it’s pretty cool to see what they did with it.
While it has all these RPG-esque elements, Strife is still a first-person shooter at its core. Our hero’s arsenal goes through the common FPS gamut of crossbows, to machine guns, to rocket launchers, to a flamethrower, a very unusual choice at the time.
Then there’s the Sigil itself, something the player gets fairly early on. It works as a powerful weapon that does devastating damage to foes, and is critical to attacking some of the game’s bosses. The downside is that its ammo is your health: it leeches life from the player when used, thus having a stockpile of health kits is necessary to wield the thing without instantly dying.
Besides the sigil, some of the more oddball weapons in Strife include a grenade launcher which shoots two bouncing grenades at a time; and the Mauler, an energy weapon that alternates between being a futuristic laser shotgun to a BFG-9000 replacement.
It’s a shame that most of the weapons are practically frustrating to use. The machine gun is woefully inaccurate until you acquire some accuracy upgrades throughout the game’s story to make the spread not completely garbage at longer ranges, though the common Doom tactic of tap-firing can mitigate some of this. The mini-missile launcher feels too weak even on common foes like acolytes, and the grenade launcher’s bouncing projectiles make it difficult to really judge one’s shots, making it really easy to accidentally blow yourself up or set yourself on fire.
The complex weapons are not the only that make combat frustrating: Everybody feels like a damage sponge, requiring tons of ammo in even the machine gun or missile launcher to go down. This lead to me constantly running out of ammo of the good guns in the late game, having to scrounge whatever I could off of dead enemies or use the rather weak and ineffective crossbow. This was on Veteran difficulty, the game’s normal difficulty, which is the equivalent of Hurt Me Plenty in Doom parlance.
I do sound down on this, but in spite of the poor balance and crushing difficulty, there’s a certain charm to Strife. The overall look and feel gives a nice mix of Doom with some ‘90s comic aesthetics. Even the soundtrack by the late Morey Goldstein has some decent little jams in there. It’s not god-tier like Bobby Prince’s Doom or even Kevin Schilder’s stuff for Heretic and Hexen, but it gets the job done without being too obnoxious. Strife is one of the rare cases where the things built around it, from the comic book-like art to the interesting architecture to even the game’s sound, counters some of the problems with the gameplay.
While a lot of us can reminisce about the greats that held up like Doom, there’s a bunch of games around this time that have niche audiences like Hexen or Rise of the Triad, with a modest following among hardcore PC FPS nerds. Sadly, Strife doesn’t even have that going for it, this game was pretty much forgotten unless you were like me and roamed abandonware websites, or you just absorbed anything related to Doom, even games that used that engine.
I recommend playing Strife, because it’s an interesting footnote in the world of old-school FPSes, and it did some cool things not many games of its genre were doing at the time. Games like Strife show that there’s people making great things that eventually become more commonplace in the years to come. Had this not come out one month before Quake, it probably could be mentioned in the same breath as Heretic in terms of familiarity to retro PC gamers. It doesn’t deserve to be shuttered to the annals of obscurity.
Thankfully, it isn’t abandonware anymore. Around 2014, some ex-Rogue developers had the rights to the game and went to developer Nightdive Studios to make a remastered version of the game. The result was Strife: Veteran Edition (available on Steam and GOG). Nightdive’s remaster was reverse-engineered by some modders in the Doom scene that are still with Nightdive to this day, remastering games like System Shock and Turok: Dinosaur Hunter (something I wrote about back in 2017), and are currently hard at work remastering Doom 64, SiN and, oddly, Shadow Man.
Veteran Edition adds a lot of quality-of-life changes that make the game a little bit easier, such as highlighting locations on the map and highlighting critical mission items. It also runs at a smoother framerate, with support for 16:9 resolutions, and even adds things the original game didn’t have like full mouselook and lighting effects. However, if you’re a purist who wants something close to the original 1996 experience, you can turn those features off.
It’s the version that I used to play through the game again, and it’s a much more streamlined experience compared to vanilla Strife. If you wanna play Strife, I recommend picking up Veteran Edition. Thanks to this remaster’s existence, Strife is no longer a piece of abandonware obscurity, another entry at Home of the Underdogs that went unnoticed by PC gamers. It’s now a game that can hang with its peers, from the famous Doom and Duke Nukem 3D to fellow niche games Eradicator and Redneck Rampage. It’s a great redemption arc.
Come to think of it, when I think about all the commercial games that used the Doom engine, I never did get around to playing Hexen. The big question is if it’s worth suffering through massive switch hunts.