PC Game Review: Defcon
"This is a game about a quickly deteriorating situation, nuclear war, that, in real life, would last no more than two to three days. Would you like to play a game?"
How I Learned to Love the Bomb
Unless you spent last couple weeks hidden in your nuclear war bunker, chances are you already heard about Defcon. This game hit the strategy and wargaming forums like a storm. As one poster here on The Wargamer's forums said (quoting from memory) – "one day I didn't know anything about Defcon, next day I was playing the game like crazy; if only more gaming experiences would be like that!" True, we gamers often watch the development of some game for months, if not years, making it a game of our dreams, and placing unrealistic expectations on it, only to be disappointed once the game is finally released. Defcon strikes me as something almost completely the opposite – developed in relative silence by small, independent, although already experienced and awarded developer (Introversion), it spreads like a virus, marketed by the word of mouth.
This game is a) cheap, b) already very popular, c) it has a demo that presents full functionality of the game, and even allows multiplayer matches with owners of the full version of the game. In said circumstances, a reviewer like me feels pretty redundant, as it's very easy for everyone interested to check the game out for himself. Anyhow, being redundant never stopped us scribomaniacs from doing what we do best, so read on...
Gen. Turgidson's dream game
Defcon is a game about global nuclear war, it plays in accelerated real time, which is pause-able if playing vs AI, but is not pause-able in most online games. Turn-based play is not supported. This game is intended to be relatively quick online fun for up to six players, though it can be enjoyed by a smaller group or, of course, played solo vs the AI. In online games, Defcon plays using the slowest speed set by any player. Usually, games are played in 5x time (the second of four speeds available in game), while it is perfectly acceptable to slow down to 1x if a player feels he needs better control over his units during some particularly intense periods of the game. As the game progresses and nears the end, players often switch to 10x, or fastest 20x speed if they feel game is already decided and they need only to bring it to closure. The average multiplayer game composed of four to six players over the Internet takes about 30-60 minutes of real time. Most online hosts disallow pausing the game, and some even prevent 1x speed from being used by players, thus forcing the game to run at 5x speed or faster.
The game supports several alternative modes and variations of play. The quickest way to play is "Speed Defcon" where games last 15 minutes or less. On the other end of the speed spectrum there is a so called "Office mode" which is exactly what the name says. Gamers who play Defcon during a slow day at work, can minimize the game to the Windows tray, let it run in real time, and get popup info on various events in the game (I haven't tried this mode). A Boss key (quick double tap on Escape) will send the regular (non-office mode) game to the tray, and make the desktop appear business-like. Okay, this should pretty much provide a general idea of the game – it's meant as lighthearted relatively quick fun, in as much as any game where players simulate nuclear war and kill millions of civilians can be "lighthearted".
Megadeath and units
Light hearted or not, killing civilians is the main purpose and main goal in the game. Players can destroy other structures, but the killing of civilians is the only way to score – and lose – points in Defcon. If this sounds disturbing, yes, it is to a degree, and if messages like "New York, 8.7M dead", "Moscow, 6.5M dead", "Paris 4.5M dead" flashing across the screen gives you uneasy feelings, you should probably not play Defcon, ever.
Naval units are movable – more on that later – but there are no movable land units in this game, like infantry or armor divisions. The idea is that by the time this game begins, those are already rendered unimportant by the impeding disaster. What can an infantry division do when ICBMs start flying, as, at least in Defcon, they will inevitably do?
The land units at a player's disposal are radar stations, missile silos, and airbases. Naval units are subs, aircraft carriers, and battleships. Each of those has its place in the subtle paper-rock-scissors balance of this game.