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First Strike grants a God's-eye view of the end of all things, and inadvertently shows us the beauty in chaos. Like trout leaping from water, nuclear bombs plop down to Earth, slaughtering millions. Mushroom clouds bud like fungi on lumber, and the stars, unjudging, watch Ragnarok in the inky blackness beyond. Were it not for radial menus popping up and shifting national boundaries, a passing observer might mistake it for a new feature in Google Earth.
The fears of the Cold War come to life in Feinheit's deceptively simple strategy game, but it determines its difficulty modes on the advantages of contemporary contenders in the arms race. Choose the United States, armed with decades of nuclear research, and you'll have at least a fighting chance; choose North Korea, and you'll find the country's "Impossible" difficulty rating lives up to its name.
But even the easiest settings ooze with tension. First Strike lets you build cruise missiles capable of punting warheads from the sky, but it wisely counters such advantages by limiting each region to one action at a time. Building powerful IRBMs (intermediate-range ballistic missiles), annexing new territories, even digging in the skills trees under Research—everything takes time. Involve yourself too much, and you leave yourself exposed for the titular "first strikes" in which every region an enemy owns unleashes warheads against you.
An interface straight out of Minority Report makes orchestrating the apocalypse enjoyable. Swipe your screen and pinch your fingers and the world spins and zooms closer. Tap a country and radial menus pop up, letting you intercept enemy missiles as they fall from space. Playing puppet master has its downsides; once the war grows thick, it's hard to tell which countries still pose threats.
First Strike delivers solid entertainment nevertheless, not to mention awareness of the nightmares in store if hotter tempers prevail in the real world. "The only way to win is not to play," said the computer in the 1983 film War Games, but that's never an option here. In First Strike, you win or you die.
The bottom line. First Strike is a fairly simple strategy game, but its fast-paced games and demands for smart thinking yield challenges on all difficulties.
iPad running iOS 6.0 or later
Beautiful interface complemented by intuitive touch controls. Simple mechanics, but employing them correctly takes smart thinking. Multiple difficulty modes based on country.
No multiplayer. Seeing which regions are still in play gets tough in busy battles.