Nuclear war, to understate the issue enormously, is scary. So scary in fact that it drove the entire world into a frenzy back in the Cold War when any day could be the last. Films, music, video games, literature – nothing was safe from the rosy glow of the mushroom cloud, the metallic sting of fallout wind. Thankfully, here in the enlightened and peaceful 21st century, we can strike that worry off our lists. Right?
Wrong, obviously. Blindflug Studio’s First Strike: Final Hour is a strategy game in which you control one of twelve global superpowers circa 2017 vying to be the last nation state stood upright in irradiated soil. During a single game – roughly representing one apocalypse each – you conquer other countries to expand your territory, branch out your capabilities across a technology tree, and most importantly stockpile your arsenal to obliterate your rivals and keep your own turf safe.
Unlike many other strategy games, however – especially ones on a global scale – First Strike is fast-paced, requiring keen awareness and reflexes. It’s one thing to scan through a menu for your options, but the game doesn’t pause for you to do this (without a particular bit of research, it doesn’t even slow down), and you’ll quickly find your empire growing larger than you can manage all at once – and nukes inbound on all the countries you looked away from for even a second.
This makes for fairly frantic gameplay, which – in addition to its lovely graphical flair – gives it an edge over its spiritual predecessor, Introversion Software’s DEFCON. To say First Strike borrows from it would be almost sarcastic: in many ways, they’re practically the same game. However, there’s enough subtle tweaks to give First Strike a very different feel.
It’s a fun timesink, and I found myself happily absorbed in the simple-minded brutality of bombing capitals into glowing dust.
For one, there’s the aforementioned graphical design. Throughout the game, you scroll around a globe divided neatly into colour-coded nations, with cities visible by their glowing points of light. Fifteen minutes later, it’s practically unrecognisable: ashy continents with borders buried beneath ruin, and only dim fires left. First Strike and DEFCON approach the same theme in different ways, but it’s as effective here as it was in the 2006 nuke-’em-up: instead of morose, haunting music, there’s a tense score that matches the ebb and flow of the nuclear conflict unfolding below. Where DEFCON used a subtle war-room aesthetic, First Strike opts for a slightly more stylised look, but it’s no less effective – especially when you see the sheer volume of nukes hurtling around the globe.
It’s a fun timesink, and I found myself happily absorbed in the simple-minded brutality of bombing capitals into glowing dust. However, it doesn’t offer much in the way of a challenge. First Strike’s difficulty is defined by the country you choose: for example, the USA starts with a more established arsenal and a better standing on the tech tree, compared to North Korea which begins with only one country, one missile, and no upgrades.
But in spite of this, after easily beating the AI opponents as the USA (‘Easy’), Western Europe, and Brazil (both ‘Normal’), I tried my hand at North Korea – a difficulty which called itself ‘Impossible’ – and found it to be anything but. The AI barely expanded even as I quickly devoured Asia and Oceania in the name of Kim Jong-un, and without any resource management aspect, maintaining a hold of my grotesquely swollen territory wasn’t much of a task at all. Even when a country is bombed into oblivion, it only takes seconds to reclaim it.
What’s more, as I quickly ascended the tech tree thanks to my two continents’ worth of science teams, I was able to develop weapons that my enemies couldn’t even approach. The AI in this game does very little to help itself. It targets countries seemingly at random regardless of tactical value; it picks fights it can’t possibly win instead of securing its own borders; it launches assaults on Brazil when it should be pushing me out of Alaska. Far from being impossible to win, First Strike on any difficulty seems to be impossible to lose.
The missing factor, in addition to competent AI, is resources. There’s nothing whatsoever to stop you expanding into neutral or destroyed territory, nor anything you need to invest to do so. There’s no price for ICBMs, cruise missiles, research or anything at all. I can’t imagine what the infrastructure of these countries must look like: they have a seemingly infinite defence budget. Where’s that money coming from, Theresa? A resource to manage would really raise the challenge of First Strike, and turn it from an indulgent nuke-fest into a simple yet undeniably smart RTS.
But a challenge isn’t a necessary ingredient for a good game, and First Strike is just that. If you’re looking for something that will test you, keep on looking; but on the other hand, if you like your strategy games quick to pick up with short sessions, you’re onto a winner. There’s a lot of glee to be had when you empty your entire nuclear arsenal into your last remaining enemy and watch half the planet dissolve into white light. So you might as well play it now before that happens for real, in about a year.
This copy of First Strike: Final Hour was provided for review by developers Blindflug Studios. Contributor James McCoull spent 3 hours amassing superweapons, shooting down missiles, and proving Robert Oppenheimer right.