First Impression: Nuclear Option (Early Access)
Updated: Nov 29
A long-awaited modern flight sim lite
The gulf between flight arcade and flight simulation has been a wide one for decades. It is one thing for an arcade game to maybe include some extra aircraft functions like retractable landing gear, and it is another thing that a full-fledged simulator may allow you to use infinite missiles or similar things within its extra option. However, finding the happy medium between the two is hard to do and still uncommon.
I have been wanting to write this piece for some time now. Flight sim lite games are something that is badly needed in my opinion. I'll do my best to not absolutely gush about Nuclear Option from Shockfront Studios and give it a fair first impression.
While this game has officially entered early access on October 16th, 2023, its first public posts go as far back as November 2021. Its earliest semi-private play tests started in November 2021. They were shared by its developer under the username "B25Mitch" in the official Discord server via Google Drive links. Later on November 7th, 2022, the higher profile public play test on Steam was released. My experience with Nuclear Option starts during the last three to four months of the public play test specifically. This article will discuss Nuclear Option as it launched on October 16th, 2023.
Flight Model and Controls
Arguably, the part of Nuclear Option that I did not specifically come in for but now happily stay for. It touts realistic flight physics simulated along many aerodynamic surfaces per aircraft. Its detailed damage model isn't just for show either. As flight surface are damaged or parts of the aircraft itself are blown off, the effect of their altered status is apparent during all regimes of flight. The damage model has between 30 to 50 detachable parts, depending on the aircraft. The damage also extends to the cockpit with flight instruments able to be knocked out, including the all important camera on the internal targeting pod which gives players a massive boost in situational awareness against targets in the land, sea and air.
Though this game can easily be played with a game pad, the October early access release has overhauled control inputs to increase compatibility for even more controllers; like hands on throttle and stick, rudder pedals, etc. I have yet to try more advanced controllers, because the previous public play test mainly relied on using the game pad or keyboard mouse controls.
But even with a game pad, I find myself still using skills and tactics I would need to use in full fidelity flight simulators. Nursing a damaged aircraft with low thrust back to base by finding the ideal power setting, flap position and somewhat gliding to the runway. Maintaining maximum rate speed in a lightweight counter insurgency aircraft as the only means to survive an engagement with high performance fighters. Gaining speed and altitude to extend the range of munitions at the expense of opening yourself up to long-range air defenses. As I learned the hard way in the strike bomber, even overspeeding and turning just a bit too hard will result in pieces of the aircraft being torn off the airframe. Effectively disabling your own aircraft without enemy action.
The flight model being so detailed further adds to the unique feel of each player controlled aircraft. I believe that if Nuclear Option did not have such a detailed flight model, the aircraft would not be as engaging as they are now.
Due to recent experiences on a completely different platform, my gratitude for original models and original designs has exponentially increased. Nuclear Option has an entire roster of original designs that are both completely fictional or based on recognizable real world vehicles and weapon systems in varying degrees.
There are also plenty of buildings, transports, trucks, infantry fighting vehicles, main battle tanks, air defense units and other structures that are modeled. Fortunately, these models are also fully available in the mission editor mode of the game. I do not have much experience with the mission editor, so I will not go into it deeply, but it is exactly what you would expect it to be. Comparable to mission editors in games like VTOL VR or even Digital Combat Simulator. For me, it is something worth looking into at a later date.
As of its early access release, Nuclear Option has only one map. However, this 100km-wide map can easily be used to create multiple campaigns and one-off missions. This map features varying biomes (forests, deserts, snow, etc) and terrain (mountains, hills, ocean, lakes, etc). However, much like the large maps in Digital Combat Simulator World, a time will come when more maps will be needed before players burn out. There is only so much you can do even with this much space available.
The nuclear weapons in this game are touted as accurately simulated with shockwave propagation which really drives the awe and terror of seeing these weapons on the battlefield. You would think that any game that includes weapons of mass destruction, with a relatively low cost to access them, would be completely unbalanced. In player vs player and player vs enviornment missions, these weapons can be toggled on or off by mission creators and hosts. In single player, these weapons are eventually unlocked as large scale battles progress in one sides favor. When nuclear weapons are enabled a general warning across the battlefield is given. All units on all sides are notified.
The general blast zone of these weapons is shown on map when they are launched, giving players a further warning. But just knowing where the weapons may land can often be too little too late. It is up to the player in game to monitor the movements of nuclear capable aircraft and interdict them before they can deliver a payload. When in an especially perlious situation, it is possible to try and destroy these weapons while they are sailing through the air towards their target, but this brings player closer to the blast zone of the munition.
Thus far I am surprised to say this is working out well for the game. Its limits are sure to be continually tested in multiplayer envorinments, as players are always pushing to be as effective as they can be. It will be up to the developer to constantly monitor how players use or abuse these weapons to protect the overall user experience.
Player Controlled Aircraft
Of course, the highlight of the game are its five player controlled aircraft. Though without the game's flight model, I doubt they would be as distinct from one another. These aircraft represent different capabilities of aircraft seen in air forces around the world. There are some interesting things going on between aircraft handling, combat capabilities and weapon commonality.
Aircraft like the CI-22 and SAH-46 can easily operate from forward deployed road bases, because of their ability to lift off vertically or in short distances. Their payloads primarily consist of short-range air-to-ground missiles (AGM), gun pods, rocket pods and infrared air-to-air missiles. Their relatively lightweight payloads make them quite valuable in maintaining ongoing support for ground forces. They are especially good at going toe-to-toe with ground forces for long periods of time.
The CI-22 is surprisingly capable despite being a "starter" aircraft. It can survive air-to-air combat in the hands of a capable pilot, while still being able to perform pop up attacks on even the most dangerous ground vehicles.
The T/A-30 is arguably the most well-balanced aircraft in the game, still capable of operating from certain forward bases while carrying more capable weapons like medium-range AGMs and unguided bombs in medium quantities. It can even carry a single 1.5 kiloton nuclear bomb internally. All while introducing the speed, altitude and acceleration of a fixed wing jet fighter.
The FS-12 is more than capable than sweeping a flight of opposing aircraft with up to six infrared missiles and newly introduced medium range Fox Three missiles. Its high speed and unmatched maneuverability - sometimes unbelievable maneuverability - do make it a genuine menace even in small numbers. Though, its air to ground capabilities are very minimal.
In a way, the SFB-81 is the titular aircraft for Nuclear Option, as it is the primary delivery platform for nuclear weapons. These include nuclear tipped free fall bombs and cruise missiles. Its conventional weapons include unguided bombs, short-range AGMs and standard cruise missiles. Cruise missiles in particular can be launched in large volleys deep into the rear support areas, potentially overwhelming local air defenses. While the SFB-81 is by far the largest aircraft in the game, it remains decently maneuverable considering its size. It also benefits from an onboard self-protection ECM jammer as a part of its countermeasures.
Nuclear Option's damage models and flight model heavily influences players to fly their aircraft of choice to its strengths. In a heavily contested environment, you won't be pulling off unbelievable deep strike missions every sortie. You will be fortunate to survive a handful of missions back to back, if anything else.
Within Visual Range Combat Emphasis
It would be technically correct to say that this game favors within visual range (WVR) combat. Though at least a third of the weapons available can strike targets just at the edge of the human eye's range, the inclusion of a targeting camera with a great camera zoom keeps the player visually engaged. There are also many optically guided AGMs that require players to focus on the targets they fire upon, keeping them within the gimbal limit of their camera. It should be noted that AGMs can be launched at air-targets. They are not great in that role, but I have landed a few lucky shots on non-maneuvering aircraft in a pinch.
While WVR is the primary focus, the inclusion of more beyond visual range weaponry may be something that upsets the balance of gameplay - it is hard to say.
The Dynamic Battlefield
While there is a bit of an implied story between the two factions at war in Nuclear Option, there is not a single player campaign with the base game. There are a handful of one-off missions that have players try each aircraft as an introduction to their capabilities. These are short to medium length missions with players focused on a single aircraft. Besides that, there are three tutorial missions, though these are focused on things like taxi and takeoff, targeting and weapons and countermeasures.
The mission called "Escalation" is by far the best way to experience Nuclear Option in my opinion. It provides a large scale dynamic battlefield with each faction combining the efforts of land and air forces to capture bases, disable airfields, destroy factories and other objectives. With this game mode not easily won in just thirty minutes, players gradually gain points for destroying hostiles and returning back to base successfully. As points are gathered, the player's rank increases and further aircraft are unlocked to fly. This encourages players to get creative to tackle hard objectives and reward them for making progress. Depending on how advanced the target destroyed is, more points are given. My proudest moment is still taking down a stealthy strategic bomber with a twin turboprop light attack aircraft; that immediately unlocked every available aircraft for me.
However, I can recognize that with only about 11 missions - most of them being on the short side, there is a real chance gameplay may become stale. Shockfront Studios' decision to open up to Steam Workshop support may be the long-term compensating feature that keeps this game going while further core content is created by the developer. This type of approach can work; VTOL VR comes to mind. Relying on the quality and steady stream of missions created by the community does have its risks. It will be interesting to see how it holds up over the next three months.
I am pleased with the initial early access state of Nuclear Option, but I do acknowledge that its initial limited content will seem like its greatest drawback. I do believe there is enough here for players to jump in and immediatelly get a feel for what this title is. In my opinion, its greatest strength will most likely be its Steam Workshop support in the next few months, though further content like maps and single player campaigns will be needed or else the core gameplay may not be enough to entertain players over time.
My next piece about Nuclear Option will be focused on using advanced controllers and the PVP/PVE gameplay experience, which is something I believe this game will be known for in the long-term.
About the Writer
Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza
Co-founder of Skyward Flight Media. After founding Electrosphere.info, the first English Ace Combat database, he has been involved in creating flight game-related websites, communities, and events since 2005. He explores past and present flight games and simulators with his extensive collection of game consoles and computers. Read Staff Profile.