avatarby Tab TimesMarch 15, 20140 comments

Children of the 1980s (like me) are probably overly familiar with the doomsday scenario, whereby an unprovoked nuclear attack by a nuclear nation results in a cascade of missile strikes around the globe. In the nihilistic fantasies of the 80s, the end result was total apocalypse.

First Strike, which is available for both the iPad and Android tablets, posits just such a scenario, without the moralizing of a made-for-TV movie. The beginning of the game casts you as a single nuclear-armed nation. You essentially have five decisions to make for each country: Build nukes, build nuke-busting cruise missiles, expand your nation into a new territory to extend your strategic capacity, research new technologies on the tech tree, or launch a nuclear attack.

Each decision costs time, and cool-downs after you make each tactical decision prevent you from doing anything else. This leaves your nation vulnerable, and unable to defend itself.

(Game developers: submit your iPad or Android app to the Tabby Awards before March 16; sign up for TabTimes' free Tablet Game Business newsletter)

If First Strike were a turn-based game, this would be a fairly straightforward set of rules, and a fairly orderly progression of play. Because it all unfolds in real-time, however, the end result is a frenetic, stressful, and awesome scramble. Expand your territories in an effort to extend your nuclear strike capacity, for example, and you suddenly find yourself juggling the decision-making for so many nations that it is hard to protect everyone.

Like many modern games, First Strike leaves it up to the player to explore and understand the interplay between all the rules and gameplay systems, up to and including how exactly you win. (Essentially, each nation has hit points, and once one player has destroyed most of the nations each enemy controls, the game is over.)

Where it departs from most tablet games is the level of focus required to play. This is not a casual, pick-it-up-and-put-it-down experience. You’ll spend between 30 minutes and an hour completely absorbed in each match. In this regard, First Strike resembles a fairly hardcore PC strategy game. Titles like this make it very clear that the iPad can be a serious gaming device, and my bet is that we’re very close to the tipping point where we begin to see numerous lean-forward gaming experiences on tablet devices.

So why all the nukes? That is not relevant here. While First Strike is unapologetic about the fact that the goal of the game is to destroy the Earth, more mature gamers will appreciate the fact that it doesn't play the destruction for laughs. In fact, each time someone nukes a big city, you see the death count in stark totals. I destroyed the greater London area, for example, and grimly acknowledged the 18 million casualties I had created. (In a touch of humanity, a small percentage of First Strike's revenues will go towards organizations founded to help reduce the global arsenal of nuclear weapons.)

One of the most interesting aspects about First Strike is that developer Feinheit Gmbh have built a game that appears to be expandable. They haven’t said as much, but I can easily see a series of unlockable offensive and defensive upgrades being developed and released in subsequent versions. Think auto-targeting missile defense systems, nuclear submarines, more powerful missiles, and more.

Fun, quirky, and without clearly defined rules, First Strike is a modern mobile game in every regard. Assuming it sells well, it will probably never be finished. If this is the case, I will make my first two request for the next version now: Can we have multiplayer and a save game feature, please?

Other tablet games I’m playing

Surgeon Simulator: I’ll confess that I’m not quite sure what to make of this campy, over-the-top experience. It’s kind of riveting, but also kind of weird. It just released for the iPad.

Threes: Now available for Android as well as iOS, this puzzler game hasn’t gotten old yet.

Autumn Dynasty Warlords: A fantastic and deep empire-building real-time strategy game for the iPad.

Devious Dungeon: Randomized levels, 8-bit graphics, and surprisingly clever action platform mechanics make this a winner. (Available for iOS.)

(For the best iPad games, sign up for TabTimes' free iPad Games newsletter)