There are two problems with me reviewing Defcon: Defcon, and me. You see on the one hand Defcon is a game, while on the other it's an indictment of nuclear warfare, MAD, and the inevitable callousness of men in charge yet far from danger. These are two very different things, working in tandem. I can't handle two or more things working in tandem. I need to list elements and explain them one by one, then try to synthesise what I've learned into one big clunky explanation; so, with no other options, that's exactly what I'll do. Now that we've all had a good look at my navel (innie, by the way) let me start the review proper which, in a coincidence that you could pass off as PoMo, is as clunky as a 1980s supercomputer with the keys to America's nuclear arsenal in the hands of Matthew Broderick. That sentence was terrible.
Defcon is a game about thermonuclear war; almost a contradiction in terms. Introversion clearly know this, as the catch phrase of the game is "Everybody Dies". Defcon, though not a close simulation of World War 3 as Albert Einstein guessed it would be waged, gets the generalities of nuclear war correct. Winning-something measured by numbers left presumably- is achieved by swift, concentrated strikes that neuter the opponent's ability to do the same. Winning is hollow, though, as in an evenly matched Defcon game the winner, in materiel and population, will be barely separable from the loser.
The first thing that Defcon hits you with is presentation. There's that archetypal muffled radio sound. Every once in a while you'll hear a woman gasping and crying. The ever-present background is plain black, with the foreground coloured by neon lights reminiscent of...well you know that look. Graphically, everything is sterile and functional. Continent and nation borders are stencilled in, your units are simple icons and nuclear explosions are represented by white circles.
Simplicity wasn't forgotten when Introversion got to the game's units and mechanics. Instead of the extended, complicated and quite boring base-building process of most RTSes, you get a few of several different types of units to place by Defcon 3 and then have to make do. You have three naval units- battleships, carriers and subs- two air units- fighters and bombers- and three ground installations- radars, airbases and nuclear silos. Their fundamental rock-paper-scissors relations are easy to grasp: fighters beat bombers, bombers beat ships, battleships beat fighters, carriers beat subs beat battleships beat carriers. Like the Pirate Code, though, these are more like guidelines: especially as units don't have HP or damage outputs but rather a random chance of killing with every shot, modified based on their target.
Suck it up soldier! Why, in my day, we didn't have any unit-materialising buildings for reinforcements and we didn't have spreadsheets telling you the precise time it took to kill the other bastard. And we LIKED it!
Which is my way of saying I love these changes because they extract the needlessly complex piss from RTSes while still preserving depth. Oh, and also my way of ruining the carefully raked tone of this Japanese rock garden of an essay. The intro doesn't count; don't be pedantic, you pedant. So where was I? Oh, yes, now's about the time to talk about how this game plays. Silly me, I thought games were about graphics and features and rock, paper, shotg-... scissors.
So let's assume you're playing multiplayer*. There are several modes, the only two that are ever played (sadly) being Default and Diplomacy. Default is a free-for-all (though not nececelery) in which the highest score wins meaning you killed the most, as killing 1 million people 2 points and losing 1 million people of your own is -1. This creates a not-so altruistic mindset. Nukes will sail at your cities and your response will be "meh, it was bound to happen", but when the nukes fly at your silos or airbases you will PANIC:"Not my nukes! Those things are how I score!"
Diplomacy, according to anyone that matters, is the best gametype and if you disagree you clearly don't matter. Imagine a cold war involving all 5 nations except Australia- which Introversion clearly agrees is the Lucky Country destined to be spared nuclear doom. Everyone begins on the same team, with Survivor scoring set on (you lose people, you lose points). The goal is to keep your score the highest while everyone else decimates each other. But how do you do this? Form a sub-alliance and kick out the others one by one, as you dogpile them each in turn? Leave and create your own alliance? Pick out one ally and neuter him quickly in the hope that his soon-to-be defenceless continent will draw the flak from your world partners who have now agreed that Realpolitik is the spice of life? Something else? But what are your "friends" doing while you're making these plans? Why is that fleet heading towards your coastline? Where have those mystery subs gone? Is Enterndre really sending his bombers to Africa, or is he hoping to sideswipe you on the way? Diplomacy is tense and political and when it's good it's very, very good.
Dear me, I've gotten carried away with the beauty of killing millions of people: it's time to discuss the political protest aspect of Defcon and conclude abruptly so as to dodge the heavy philosophy (whoops, spoilers). You might be overseeing your final dust-up flight over South America's radiated population centres when suddenly that woman cries again. Who is she? Who amongst millions? Why is she crying? Did she lose family or friends? Did you kill them? Did you fail to protect them? You realise that you were too busy in your safe nuclear fallout bunker, running your petty little war with your cold little icons moving about the gameboard. You stop, aghast at your immense callousness.
Well you might. I didn't. I'd long since gotten drunk on the power, one shot glass of "nuke" at a time.
*I barely touched single player as it's beside the point and its design is a bit by the by. The AI always launches its nukes at the same time every game. There is no scalable difficulty. You can't really blame IV for this as the mechanics of the game aren't suited for standard RTS AI fixes: it would be weird if the AI had more units than you since base- and unit- building is gone; and beefing up unit toughness is cheap, though perhaps easier to conceal from the player.
Subscribe to posts?
Interested in joining us when we play Defcon? Head over to the Steam group.