As any kid who’s ever tried to play with his pet guinea pig and his pet snake at the same time can tell you, two things that you love don’t always go great together. Call of Duty: Strike Team is two beautifully rendered, lavishly produced games joined together into one wobbly Franken-game that never really figures out what it’s supposed to be.
That’s not to say that Strike Team is entirely without merit, however. The combination may not sit comfortably, but it’s probably worth experiencing for most folks.
Call of Duty’s Modern Warfare games on PC & console started out as tributes to Hollywood military action films, but in terms of sheer over-the-top spectacle, the series has long since eclipsed anything the movies could possibly offer. The last couple of COD titles were the sorts of visions that Tom Clancy would have in a Lakota sweat lodge: three-way wars between America, Russia, and China throwing billions of dollars of hardware and countless lives at one another in an orgy of military destruction. COD games occasionally remember to make reference to the horror of war, but that always comes off with the obligatory tone of the medical warnings in the last ten seconds of a TV ad for Viagra.
Strike Team for iOS is a true inheritor of Call of Duty’s mantle: the shooter/RTS hybrid is full of sexy near-future guns, awkwardly strung together military argot (“suppress their AO!”), and the sort of twisty, vaguely coherent plot that the last few COD games have favored. A mysterious force has landed on an Alaskan military installation, and your special forces operators just happen to be in a Navy attack submarine in the vicinity. You set out to find who’s behind the attack, employing some Kojima-style overhead-view sneaky-sneaky, some casual Jack Bauer-flavor torture, and good old-fashioned shootin’ dudes. You can switch between the top-down “drone view” and first-person at any time.
Part first-person shooter, and part real-time strategy game. The first half of that formula is all-too-predictably poor: the controls are awkwardly placed (it’s routine to fire off a shot when you simply meant to move your aim reticule) and as with all iOS shooters heretofore, the general effect is one of playing an FPS underwater. I found myself playing in drone view as much as I possibly could, resorting to the shooter mode with only the greatest reluctance when my operators were incapable of hitting a target they could see.
To design around the fact that playing an FPS on a touchscreen is like trying to steer a car with your teeth, Strike Team’s makers have made your soldiers into nigh-invincible bullet sponges and the AI troopers have reaction times that suggest their canteens are filled with Four Loko. When you do manage to get one of your grunts hurt, Strike Team is designed with contemporary gaming’s favorite sawhorse: regenerating health.
Weirdly, this mish-mash of mis-matched parts actually works sometimes. Missions where you’re trying to infiltrate a facility without being detected are genuinely thrilling tactical puzzles where you’re jumping out from the shadows to knife unsuspecting guards and hiding their bodies where they won’t be stumbled upon. As a top-down RTS with an emphasis on stealth, Strike Team is quirky but occasionally brilliant. The problems start when somebody hits an alarm, or where you have no choice but to go loud because the mission is scripted that way.
Even with the slightly numb enemy soldiers, the action sequences in Strike Team are tough to grapple with. Shooting — especially the precision kind done through a sniper scope — is too fiddly by half, making lining up a headshot a comically slow affair. If you could avoid the faff of shooting entirely by remaining in the overhead view full-time it wouldn’t be as much of an issue, but because your guys are so unpredictable about hitting targets in the overhead view, you’re often compelled to switch.
It’s exciting to have one of gaming’s biggest franchises on iOS, arriving as it has with the high production values that are its hallmark, but Call of Duty Strike Team is held back by features that feel like obligations rather than necessities. Like any Call of Duty game, Strike Team features unlockable weapons and perks, but as the conventional wisdom apparently demands for mobile, you can unlock them early with in-app purchases. You also have to expend in-game currency to acquire things like grenades and medkits (or revive downed troopers), but the game showers you with so much currency that it seems like an afterthought.
Likewise, the shooter aspect of the game is so painful that it must only exist because Activision thought that consumers wouldn’t accept Call of Duty-branded game that didn’t involve first-person gunplay. If the developers had possessed the confidence to focus on the overhead RTS aspect of Strike Team, they probably could have made a great game out of it: there’s hours of single-player content here, completely voice-acted and full of variety. Instead, we have a game full of half measures that manages to elicit some oohs and ahs, but that you won’t be likely to revisit.
The game was played on a 3rd-gen iPad for this review.