Nuclear weapons, other than being a terrible real world threat to our continued existence, are used in games a heck of a lot. Some games treat nuclear weapons as horrific, real and a part of their fiction, while others, mostly strategy games, use them more frivolously. In any case, ever since the end of the Cold War, they've been a fixture of PC gaming when it comes to themes and set pieces.
Here, we explore the different ways PC games present nuclear strikes—from the horrifyingly real to, well, whatever Command & Conquer is.
Everyone who played Fallout 3 remembers Megaton, the town built around a nuclear bomb. As a player, you face the choice of deactivating it or blowing it up. I blew it up, mostly because I found Megaton to be a bit of a nightmare to navigate. And I wanted a nice apartment in Tenpenny Tower. And I wanted to see what it looked like when it went off. Is that so bad?
Alright, yes it is, so much so that Liam Neeson dad expressed his disapproval later in the game. But it also gave me a moral arc for the rest of the story, as I relentlessly tried to earn good karma to balance out this one terrible deed. And the game, to its credit, makes you feel the weight of the decision you've made. —Samuel Roberts
Nukes are a mainstay in Civilization, but it was Civ II's nukes that chilled me the most as a young man—mostly because I think that 10-12 is probably the age I worried the most about nuclear war. As an adult, with easy, cheap access to alcohol and many additional things to worry about like property ownership and that persistent pain in my side right now, it doesn't haunt me quite as much. While it's not captured in the video above, it was the air raid siren sound effect that made them particularly scary in Civ II, followed by the skull icons left on the map afterwards. Somehow, moving tanks into the target city afterwards didn't feel like much of a victory, which was probably the point.
That said, Civ's atomic weapons gave us the (now slightly overplayed) 'nuclear-loving Gandhi (opens in new tab)' meme, so that's something I guess.—Samuel Roberts
Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2
As nukes go, the first Red Alert's were actually a little underpowered, in that they'd murder all the infantry in its radius but do tiny damage to vehicles and buildings. You were mostly better off blowing that cash on some mammoth tanks or allied cruisers instead. Red Alert 2's were a little more harrowing and destructive—underlined by the bright lighting effect, followed by a radioactive green aftermath. And when paired with a Soviet nuclear reactor or five, as illustrated in the video above, the destruction gets out of control.—Samuel Roberts
Mercenaries 2: World in Flames
Pandemic's decade-old Mercenaries 2 (which is still available on Origin, minus multiplayer functionality) doesn't have much to recommend it beyond amusing explosions and throwaway action, but it commits to those two things extremely well. The Nuclear Bunker Buster is required to complete one mission of the game, and can later be unlocked for general use for $1 million, which seems pretty cheap to me. Look how powerful it is!—Samuel Roberts
World In Conflict
Nukes are used to dramatic effect in World in Conflict’s campaign, which addresses some of the terrible consequences you’d expect from the fallout of such a bomb. While on the one hand dropping the bomb is a serious and grave decision, on the other hand the game had some sweet new volumetric lighting to show off and as a result the nukes look incredible. The initial white-out resolves into a pillar of smoke that creates realistic god-rays if you angle the sun just behind the cloud.—Tom Senior
Nukes are a vital part of Supreme Commander’s tactical ecosystem, to the extent that there’s an option to turn them off completely to free up each army from having to constantly deter them. While the nuke/counter-nuke economy drain could prove overly limiting, they are still spectacular and destructive weapons. When you destroy a commander, they almost always go nuclear, and often destroy their own nearby units in the process. The video above shows the Seraphim nuke from the Fallen Alliance expansion, which is even prettier because it’s blue.—Tom Senior
You would expect a game entirely built around a worldwide nuclear arms race to have impressive explosions, but DEFCON shows them blooming in cold near-silence. The death toll of the city flickers up next to the pure white explosion to really rub it in. It’s a really neat effect if you like feelings of icy dread and/or the movie WarGames.—Tom Senior
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
The nuke in CoD 4’s campaign was a shocking moment at the time. Now the actual explosion itself seems pretty low-tech, instead it’s the shockwave that really communicates the forces involved. Nearby choppers are flung around like flies and your vessel goes into a deadly tailspin. After the crash you’re greeted by a glimpse of the fiery hellscape of the aftermath. It’s grim, but one of the most effective attempts to simulate the effects of a nuke in any game.—Tom Senior
Metro: Last Light
Metro competes with CoD 4 for the most harrowing moment in this list, and it's one I still remember vividly five years later. You explore a downed plane in Metro's irradiated overworld, and flash back to the moment the nuclear weapons hit Moscow in the game's alternate history, as the bomb's EMP blast takes out a passenger aircraft. It's nasty and all-too-real, but then this is why Metro's world building is so effective.
After watching that again, I could do with writing something light. How about we just list PC gaming's best dogs next time? —Samuel Roberts