Review by Pluvius
"Good for 15 dollars, though I wouldn't say that playing it is "the only winning move.""
Some people might think it odd that I would buy and review a multiplayer-oriented game when multiplayer-oriented gaming is one of the few major genres that I get little enjoyment out of. But this particular multiplayer game was created by Introversion Software, one of the rare independent companies that makes interesting games that people actually pay attention to. So I bought Defcon simply to support that company, because I figured that even if I didn't care for it, it would help Introversion create new games that I probably would like. As you can imagine, Introversion is one of the few companies that I respect enough to treat like this. (Besides, it was only 10 bucks on preorder, and getting games from Steam is as simple as pointing and clicking.)
The reason I mention all this is so you can understand where I'm coming from. As someone who naturally dislikes multiplayer games, I have an obvious bias against Defcon from the start. Even though I'll try like usual to be as objective as possible regarding Defcon's elements, novelties, and flaws, you must be forewarned that my comments about it, especially concerning the parts that are multiplayer-specific, may not match your own opinions. In short, take this review with a grain of salt.
This rather low mood that I've started the review with is very appropriate considering the type of game that Defcon is. Like Introversion's other games, Defcon is an innovative game based on a relatively old idea. In this case, that idea comes from the 1983 cult hit movie WarGames, where an AI in NORAD, the United States' nuclear defense center, becomes rampant and nearly starts World War III by fooling everyone into thinking that its simulations of nuclear war are really happening. I'm sure it's also no coincidence that a few days before the game was released, we saw the 23rd anniversary of Soviet missile commander Stanislav Petrov's refusal to launch ICBMs when a defective satellite told him that the US was launching its own. Defcon, however, considers the question of what would happen if those computers and satellites were telling the truth, and nuclear apocalypse were upon us.
In Defcon, players are presented with the choice of six regions of the world from which to wage their final conflict. Two of them are Russia and Southeast Asia, while the other four correspond roughly to the rest of the major continents. (Sorry, Australia.) After selecting a region, a player places within his territory early-warning radar bases, airbases, various naval fleets, and, of course, the ICBM silos. After that comes the pre-nuclear war, during which the fleets duke it out and fighter planes scout enemy territory. Then, at the end, full-scale nuclear exchanges occur when the regions launch their arsenals at each other.
In order to keep players from simply launching nukes at each other at the beginning of the game, Defcon is broken down into various phases. Fittingly, these phases are marked by the DEFCON number, which the US uses to gauge its nuclear readiness, ticking down from 5 to 1. At DEFCON 5, players can only place and move units; at DEFCON 4, you can see enemy units which are illuminated by your radar; DEFCON 3 and 2 herald conventional warfare... and you don't need me to tell you what happens at DEFCON 1. After most of the world's nukes have been expended, a victory timer starts giving the players a finite amount of time before the game ends.
There are many weapons that a player can use to inflict the most damage upon the enemy. First are the naval fleets, which are made up of battleships, carriers, and subs. They have a rock-paper-scissors relationship where battleships are highly effective against units above the surface but are helpless to subs, carriers can detect subs and destroy them with depth charges but have no guns, and subs can blow up battleships with ease but have weak radar and are defenseless against carriers. In addition to these relationships, carriers can launch both fighters and bombers, while subs are normally invisible to the enemy up until they launch their onboard medium-range nukes.
The air units, which are launchable from airbases on the ground in addition to the carriers, also serve multiple purposes. Fighters can be used to attack opposing air and sea forces, escort bombers, and look for enemy units anywhere on the map within range. Bombers can also attack naval units, but they're more important for their short-range ballistic missiles. Both types of plane have fuel limits which keep them from flying beyond a certain range, but Defcon has no problem with allowing you to send pilots on suicide missions; everyone else is going to die, after all. To make up for this, airbases (but not carriers) will eventually replenish their complements of fighters (but not bombers) given time.
Finally are the most important units in Defcon, the missile silos. Each of them can launch up to ten nuclear missiles to anywhere in the world, making them devastating if used properly. However, they are also your most important line of defense, as they can fire barrages of projectiles at anything within a close range; they are the only units which can effectively enemy nukes once they're in the air. It takes a long time for the silos to switch between attack and defense modes, and once a silo fires a missile its location becomes known to everyone on the map. Therefore, one must balance the protection of his own people with the decimation of everyone else's.
The nukes themselves can't be used against mobile units, but everything on the ground is fair game. Radar bases can be destroyed with only one nuke, blinding the enemy and reducing the effectiveness of his nuke defense; airbases can be destroyed with two nukes, crippling the enemy's air superiority and a significant part of his nuclear arsenal; and missile silos can withstand three direct hits, befitting their elite status. Of course, you can also nuke cities, which is the object of the game. Each region gets a certain number of people spread about a certain number of cities, with some cities naturally being larger than others. If a nuke manages to make its way through the defense web and hits a city, it will immediately kill millions of people.
On the bright side, not everything in Defcon is about killing. Not directly, anyway. You can make alliances with other regions if you wish, giving you mutual ceasefires and the ability to see each other's units regardless of radar coverage. In most games you can break these alliances at any time, however, which makes alliance a very iffy proposition on the whole. It gives the allied parties a very strong incentive to break it off and attack each other, as they will know where all of their allies' ground units are for the rest of the game. This means that you usually won't see reasonable people ally with each other unless they set it up at the beginning of the game or unless it's required in order to defend against stronger enemies.
Defcon's default scoring style gives you two points per megadeath you inflict upon your enemies, while taking a point for every megadeath which is inflicted upon you. There are also "genocide" and "survival" modes, in which you gain points only for killing and only for not being killed respectively. It's nearly impossible to keep everyone in your region alive, so the best you can do is make sure that you maximize the death you bring upon your enemies while minimizing your own casualties. As Introversion notes, you can't win a game of Defcon; you can only "lose the least."
Introversion proved itself to be masterful at aesthetic minimalism with Uplink, and it does it again with Defcon. The entire game is played on a wireframe world map reminiscent of NORAD's monitors in WarGames, and everything is represented by simple icons. The font used for the text is similar to that used in Darwinia, which goes along with the oldschool computer feel which Defcon evokes. Explosions appear as white circles of varying sizes, units fire tiny bullets at each other, and nukes leave an elliptical trail behind them. You can view the map in different modes which tell you, using simple colors, how many people are in a given area, who owns what land, and so forth. You can also turn on an option in your personal game settings which shows how irradiated an area is with differing intensities of sickly green.
As for the music, it mostly hovers unobtrusively in the background, but whenever you do notice it, it is invariably haunting. This puts the player in the proper mood perfectly. The "best" part is when, over the somber tones of a Gregorian chant, you can hear a woman sobbing heavily. The fact that this and the chants are the only unfiltered traces of humanity you'll encounter in the entire game makes them all the more effective. The clinical detachment from the horrible events that take place in Defcon is furthered by the sound effects; there are none, aside from the beeps that the interface makes and the alarm that sounds when the DEFCON number changes. Nuclear devastation is completely silent.
Though Introversion says you can play Defcon by yourself, there's not much you can do; the only offline modes are a tutorial and a "rolling demo" in which three computer players demolish each other. You can also play games against bots, but these are online; you have to manually keep human players and spectators off of your server in order to play alone. It doesn't help that the bots are pretty stupid, doing little to protect their own territory once DEFCON 1 comes. You're not going to get a satisfying game started unless you open your game to other people or join someone else's server.
The problem here, of course, is the other people. Thankfully, most of them in my experience just want to have fun destroying the world and don't rock the boat much. However, there are always bad apples. One group likes to quit the game when things turn against them, causing their regions to be replaced with the weak AI. This is especially annoying when you're in an alliance with one of them, as happened to me twice. Another unnecessarily holds up the game by taking advantage of the timer. You see, there are four different speeds in which Defcon can run, and the game will run at the slowest speed which is requested by a player. This means that you can have five players wanting the game to run quickly because there's nothing left to do, but the sixth player can force the game to run in real time. As someone said during one game, everyone has veto power just like in the UN Security Council, and it works about as well. The server admin can boot players, but there seems to be no other method of removal, like voting for example. At least there's not much you can call "griefing" going on, but that's mainly because the point of the game [i]is[/i] grief.
Another problem is the lack of scenarios that exist currently. There's only one map on which you can play, though there are a number of options you can set, ranging from the number of units and cities which each region has to the number of spectators that can watch your game. Introversion has created a few preset configurations based on these options, but there aren't many and not all of them are very fun; BigWorld in particular, where the earth is twice as big and you have twice as many units, is not a good choice mainly due to the fact that you still have the same movement speed and range. That can severely hamper your air capability, as even bombers have a fairly short range in this case.
Related to the lack of scenarios is the sketchy game balance that the single map has. Europe is the favorite region for most people to play since it's the most compact and has a single fairly short coastline; every region gets the same number of units, which means you get a lot more coverage as Europe than you do as, for example, Latin America. About the only way that Europe can lose with a competent player at the helm is if most or all of the other regions gang up on it.
Arguably the biggest problem of all is something that RTSes in general have--a lot of micromanagement, especially in large games. Not only do you generally have multiple fleets at multiple fronts to worry about, but you also have to tell all of your airbase units when and where to go. The hardest part of all of this presents itself when you're trying to get nukes through the enemy's air defense. You can only do this effectively when the missiles from all of the relevant forces--bomber, sub, and silo--arrive at their targets at roughly the same time, not to mention fighter escorts. Seasoned RTS fans probably won't have a great deal of difficulty synchronizing their attacks, but people like me who have no taste and little patience for that sort of thing are left behind. A possible solution would be to allow players to set a destination for each unit to arrive at at a given time, making the computer do the dirty work of launching the units at the appropriate moments.
Despite its flaws and multiplayer slant, Defcon deftly makes use of a great concept and even people who don't like this kind of game can get some enjoyment out of it for a while. People who are interested may want to wait a while, though; due to heavy demand, there are currently authentication problems causing legitimate customers to be temporarily downgraded to demo status. The demo isn't crippled all that much, but it's still an annoyance that will probably be fixed in the near future. At any rate, Defcon is the best sort of game you can expect to get for only 15 dollars. There's nothing quite like seeing the words "LONDON HIT, 10.5M DEAD" flash on your screen, grateful in the fact that it didn't happen here.
Reviewer's Score: 6/10 | Originally Posted: 10/02/06, Updated 08/31/07
Game Release: DEFCON: Everybody Dies (US, 09/29/06)
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