My favorite game on my Apple IIc was a proto-real time strategy game called Rescue Raiders. The premise was as ridiculous as it was arresting. Time-traveling terrorists return to France during World War II to turn the tide of the war in Hitler’s favor. Your mission is to follow the terrorists back in time with your Cobra attack helicopter and launch wave after wave of attacks on the terrorist bases, reclaiming strategic points and destroying enemy outposts.
God, I loved that game. I could play it for hours. Matter of fact, I was still playing it until just a few years ago, when the ancient 5-1/4-inch backup floppy I had finally died. I especially loved the higher levels, when your helicopter’s machine gun was replaced with a salvo of napalm-equipped rockets. But getting to those levels took forever.
And I hated that—Rescue Raiders was hard. You needed to amass thousands of dollars to buy men and matériel. And then invariably you ran out of ammo and had to return to base just as your convoy approached the enemy base. All of your anti-aircraft trucks would be lost, leaving your tanks and trucks sitting ducks for the enemy.
Strategic Assault, a real-time strategy game for the iPhone and iPod touch from Xen Games, reminds me a little of Rescue Raiders. Here again you have two armies pitted against each other in an improbable conflict. Here, too, you need to capture strategic positions and accumulate resources to build your forces and destroy the enemy’s bases.
And like Rescue Raiders, Strategic Assault is a frustrating nightmare of a game. I love it. I also hate it.
Strategic Assault offers 15 levels of ever more diabolical game play. I got hung up on level four, but eventually prevailed though sheer tactical force of will (and changing the difficulty level from normal to easy and back again). Your nameless green enemies—I refer to them as the People’s Republic of Jerkistan—always have more resources than you do.
You start each level with a certain number of resources—1,000 or 1,500 credits early on, more presumably as you successfully complete each level. You need to accumulate resources to build factories, which lets you then build ever more powerful weapons, from relatively light and weak APCs and light tanks to heavy battle tanks, mobile missile launchers, gun boats, and attack helicopters. Curiously, infantry units are nowhere to be found. This game is all about vehicular drive-by shootings and frontal assaults.
Strategic Assault’s interface is frustrating. Cumbersome, too. I hereby declare war on any developer that does not incorporate a landscape feature into their applications. The app forces you to tap back and forth quickly between the radar menu and the build menu. Oh, how I wish the radar remained on screen. Wouldn’t a landscape view help here?
Select a vehicle (or vehicles) by tapping or tapping then sliding your finger. Solid green lines above your forces shows their strength. Tap a location on your radar, and you jump to the spot—most of the time. Maybe it’s my sausage-like digits, but I would swear that I had tapped on a strategic location, only to land a screen or two to the left or below the target. You can move around the battlefield by dragging two fingers over the screen. Once you have eyes on your target location, tap the location again and the vehicles you’ve selected will deploy.
The game is frustrating, too, because your forces are so stupid. Artificial intelligence, much like the military variety, is a contradiction in terms. I constantly had to corral stray SUVs, armored personnel carriers and tanks driving in circles near my base—but nowhere near where I thought I’d deployed them.
Speed, obviously, is essential. The cursed Jerkistani gunboats and hovercraft weaken my forces, and fast, light tanks sweep in to clean up the stragglers and lay waste to my bases. I never can seem to build fast enough, nor accumulate enough resources to mount an effective or lasting defense. But I’m getting better—I just made sergeant!
Managing multiple deployments is a pain. Sometimes units will amuse themselves by driving in circles or venturing off to the edge of the map, where they stall. These rogue units are sometimes difficult to see on the tiny radar, but if you look really hard, you might spot them and bring them back into the fold. The game tries to make tracking forces easier by letting you change the colors of your forces and those of your enemies. I find that red and blue works best on the sandy-colored maps.
Strategic Assault isn’t as captivating or addicting as the old Rescue Raiders game. Its frustrations are not outweighed by the game’s rewards, and I find it easier to set aside. But for the short bursts that Strategic Assault engages, it’s an enjoyable real-time strategy game for the would-be armchair tactician.
The application is compatible with any iPhone or iPod touch running the iPhone 2.x software update.
[Ben Boychuk is a writer and columnist in Rialto, Calif.]