The launch of Sputnik 1, 1957. The downing of a U-2 spy plane, 1960. The Bay of Pigs invasion, 1961. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, 1979. Able Archer 83, 1983. The Cold War stretched for nearly 45 years, bringing the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear annihilation more than once. Thankfully, after the peak of nuclear arsenals in the 1980s, nuclear stockpiles have fallen by over two-thirds of their maximum counts. Still, the "what-ifs" of history continue to inform geopolitics today. Little Red Dog Games asks us to maneuver either the United States or the Soviet Union through the tumultuous Cold War, playing a high-stakes game of "nuclear chicken" along the way. Does Precipice provide a compelling case for nuclear armament, or should you duck-and-cover?
Forging a Better Future in Precipice
Unfortunately, Precipice fails to provide a compelling strategy experience. While LRDG's earlier Deep Sixed provided a tactically rich, if confusing experience, Precipice has almost none of the same depth. Clearly inspired by the legendary Twilight Struggle, from the "leaders as animals" concept to gaining influence with allies, Precipice captures none of the soul and little of the complexity of its inspiration. From aggravating AI to far too much random chance, there's a good strategy game hidden here somewhere, but it's far too much work to find.
Whereas other games preoccupied with total nuclear obliteration (DEFCON, First Strike: Final Hour) have you launching the missiles in an attempt to outlast your opponent, here, you're trying to prevent all-out war. Instead, you're building alliances with 72 different countries in an attempt to garner enough points to declare victory. How is this achieved? Utilizing spies, launching a satellite, starting wars, and otherwise spending your money and resources to goad other leaders into joining your alliance. Each turn, you get five action points (or funds) that let you carry out various missions. Your rival is bound by the same rules and will use everything at their disposal to win too.
Where Precipice shines is the implementation of espionage. You're only given three spies to use, and if they're killed, they're removed from the game permanently. Without spies, your basic actions are all diplomacy oriented: funding governments, negotiating trade alliances, and so on. Spies, on the other hand, can fund insurgencies, start protests, and even overthrow governments. Ideally, you're then playing a cat-and-mouse game, watching the event logs and diplomatic shifts, all in an attempt to locate and kill opposing spies.
Searching for Strategy in Precipice
Ideally, yes, such events would happen in Precipice. Instead, the AI continually challenges you at every opportunity. For every action your rival takes, you can bring a diplomatic challenge, and it works both ways. Say the Soviets invade Australia on turn 2, an action not unheard-of in my playthroughs. You can challenge your rival, in an attempt to get them to back down, and hopefully preventing further escalation. Escalate actions too much, and nuclear war starts, and your game ends. As far as a representation of "nuclear chicken" goes, the escalation system sounds like it would prevent games from ending immediately. Each escalation is a calculated risk, coming at the cost of influence with your allies if you fail.
In practice, the AI abuses the escalation system to prevent you from playing. For example, on early turns, you'll commonly need to deploy troops as a show of defensive solidarity. The AI is all too willing to start a nuclear war on the first turn, just because you decided that defending West Germany was a tactically sound decision. The AI is also exceedingly aggressive, starting multiple wars early and quickly. Again, the AI rarely refuses to back down from any escalation, leaving you to push the "nuclear button" more out of frustration than anything. It's hard to say that the AI acts in response to your earlier actions or learns from past games. It seems as though Precipice actively punishes players as they play.
Not only that but every action, whether diplomacy or espionage-based, has a random chance of success. This would, again, hope to simulate the complexities of international relationship-building. Of course, when you fail a 55% chance 13 times in a row, it feels more like the RNG is actively screwing you out of turns and actions. Warfare is also needlessly packed with random chance. When invading a country, anywhere from one to six defenders can spawn. You have no way of knowing how many will spawn ahead of time.
Which means that yes, your solid first-world allies will sometimes only muster a single unit to defend, while Somalia or Mongolia pull the maximum number of defenders. While some randomness is appreciated when it comes to starting protests or a coup successfully, such low odds and success rates when applied to foreign aid or diplomatic relations feel more like a punishment than anything else.
Visual Clarity and Stability in Precipice
For all of the promised depth that should come with a Cold War-era strategy game, Precipice's reduction of political maneuvering to a simplistic pass/fail chance cheapens the experience it'd like you to have. In order to avoid angering the AI and ending games early, you're relegated to relying on diplomatic actions. Even with the variety of actions available to you with spies, you're left spamming the same actions over and over again. At the end of the day, you're just hoping that you get enough successes in a row. It neither feels challenging nor rewarding when you do form new alliances. Instead, there's only a momentary relief before the process begins anew.
Surprisingly, Precipice has a fair share of bugs, too. The music and sound effects, while passable, never stay muted in-between play sessions. Sometimes, wars that end in one turn don't mark themselves as "over". This leaves the visual effect layered over the country. The list of actions also sometimes failed to appear when selecting a country, leaving you to back out and try over and over to bring up your options. None of these bugs necessarily ruin Precipice, but they do layer on top of other issues. In the end, they only serve to compound the frustration.
Still, the use of animals in place of world leaders prevents Precipice from dating itself too extensively. The leaders are all distinct and are great reflections of the states they're standing in for. Aside from the obvious choices as an eagle for America and a bear for the Soviets, Iran gets a ram. South Africa has a gazelle representative, and there's a tortoise in Ecuador. If anything, it's a lighthearted way to look at world leaders during the Cold War. Additionally, the world map and country panels have great detail, accented by the strong contrast between the five different colors of alliance status. It's an easy way to see your relationships develop, and also a way to quickly spot influence changes on the wider map.
Precipice Review | Final Thoughts
Precipice is ultimately disappointing. Few strategy games attempt to capture the intricacies of diplomacy and espionage set against the threat of the end of the human race. Unfortunately, Precipice never quite wholly captures the tension of the time period. Whether this is due to the fatally-flawed action system that relies too heavily on random chance, or an AI that is all too willing to end the world over meaningless actions, it's hard to say. Precipice might be more strategic when facing off against human opponents, but much like the Stargate Project, might just be better off forgotten.
TechRaptor reviewed Precipice on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.
Despite promises of great strategic and tactical depth, Precipice relies heavily on random chance and bad AI decision-making. Shamefully shallow, you're better off playing an actual board game for your strategy-game fix.(Review Policy)
- Eye-Catching Visual Design
- Too Much Reliance on Chance
- Little Strategic Depth
- Combative and Annoying AI