Review: First Strike

By Owen Faraday 14 Mar 2014 0
Don't pull the thang out, unless you came to bang Don't pull the thang out, unless you came to bang


First Strike, more than any other game, reminded me of Call of Duty. Bear with me.

Every game in the Call of Duty series has a scene or two that temporarily derails the high-budget military action thrill ride to ask us to pause in quiet consideration of the horror of war. In last year's installment, we got to spend a couple of minutes enjoying the idyllic surburbia around San Diego -- which was then vaporised by space-to-ground missiles in the Michael Bay fantasy sequence that followed. Isn't war just awful?, Call of Duty asks, shouting so you can hear its lament over the crash of the space missiles.

First Strike is doing its utmost to both eat and have that particular cake. The game aspires to be a stern lecturer, opening and closing with dark admonitions about mankind's suicidally large stockpiles of horrific nuclear weapons. And we need to be reminded, especially now that the Cold War is remote, unlived history to an entire generation of adults.

But First Strike the game--the thing you're actually playing in-between those dire bookended warnings--loves nuclear war. It makes the prospect of ICBMs hurtling through space to targets on the far side of the globe look downright lovely. First Strike is a reasonably clever (though flawed) game -- but as pure spectacle it's second to nothing on mobile.



First Strike is an RTS that treads similar a similar thematic path as that much-loved PC game DEFCON. You command the nuclear arsenal of a nation and decide when and how it's deployed, with the goal of wiping out every other country on Earth. DEFCON was primarily a multiplayer game, and its gameplay revolved around cooperating with or (often and) deceiving your fellows.

We were counting on you to stop this, Dennis Rodman. We were counting on you to stop this, Dennis Rodman.


By contrast, First Strike is a single-player-only affair, with reasonably competent AIs controlling the other countries. The game starts you out as the United States facing just two other opponents, but as you win you unlock other countries and more opponents for greater challenge.

The primary resources in First Strike are time and attention. Every province on map (there's about a hundred) can perform one of a number of functions: build a new missile, research a new technology, take over an unoccupied adjacent country, or launch a missile strike (either to destroy another country or to shoot down incoming missiles). If you tell Egypt to conquer Sudan, for the next thirty-odd seconds, Egypt won't be able to do anything else--that means it can't defend itself, either. Every action in First Strike is a bit of a gamble. You want to do that research project that increases the range of your ICBMs, but can you afford to have one-fifth of your missiles offline for a whole minute right now? Brazil has been getting pretty trigger-happy. This is First Strike at its very best, when its asking you to spread your attention across multiple fronts while you weigh the pros and cons of launching your attack now or waiting for someone else to go all-in first.

First Strike reinforces a little bit of its warning about nuclear war through the game mechanics. It forces you to be a sociopath. Cities and civilian populations don't matter, though a flavour text pop up duly informs you when a burg like Beijing or Oslo or New York gets incinerated. The reason to protect a province is because getting nuked opens up a country for conquest and halves its capacity to hold rockets. The finger that you've got on the launch button is completely cold-blooded.

The salted earth. The salted earth. The sound of a Geiger counter plays as you pass over nuked territories -- another masterstroke of the game's presentation.


The most powerful ability in the game is the titular "first strike", where you select a nation and every single offensive missile you've got is loosed at the target in the hopes of overwhelming its missile defence. The nation you've targeted almost always reciprocates with a massive launch of its own, and since most of your provinces are busy getting their rockets in the air, you will have left yourself quite exposed. These are the only moments where First Strike feels "twitchy" like a traditional RTS -- you have to find your anti-missile "cruise missiles" and manually launch them at the incoming ICBMs and faster, shorter-range IRBMs.

Where DEFCON adopted a minimal early 80s vector graphics aesthetic to evoke WarGames, First Strike's presentation is bold and dramatic. Launch a first strike and dozens of missiles arc over the globe like a time-lapse bloom of flower, and when the warheads meet their targets, First Strike makes the best use of the screen shake effect I've ever seen. It's singularly majestic and feels like bottled power. Still images don't do it justice. First Strike knows just how pretty it is, because time passes very deliberately in the game, giving you plenty of time to admire the show. For my money, there is no better-looking game on the App Store or Android markets right now.



Where things go a bit wrong is First Strike's pacing. Simply put, there are just too many provinces in the game and after fifteen minutes of massive nuclear exchanges and territory grabs you'll often find that there's still a whole continent or two left to conquer. The enormous number of countries also undercuts the importance of individual decisions. If you accidentally leave Colombia exposed to a rain of missiles from the Western European Alliance, oh well. You've got about a dozen other South American countries chock full of rockets. First Strike with twenty or thirty provinces would have been just as beautiful to look at, but quicker, and much more incisive. The loss of a single province would felt like a maiming and not a kick in the shins.

That's a big flaw; one that had me on the fence between tacking three or four stars at the end of this review. But it's not enough of a failing to keep me from firing it up for another go. First Strike is a pretty good game with the presentation of an extraordinary game. And hey, that's another flaw -- the one we were talking about back at the beginning of this review. As a condemnation of thermonuclear war, First Strike is probably too subtle by half. It is good that actual war isn't beautiful, lest we grow fond of it.

First Strike was played on a 2nd-gen iPad for this review.

Review: First Strike

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