Review by Eric43

Reviewed: 10/03/07

Show off your nukes and blow up dots on a screen

Leave it to indie developers to come up with ideas long forgotten—in this case, global thermonuclear war. Introversion Software has created a game reminiscent of the the Cold War and other 80’s cult classics such as Wargames and applied it to a simple RTS strategy game, one that is not very complicated but is very intriguing, to say the least.

Defcon: Everybody Dies is an engaging strategy game between up to six players. Each player takes control of one of six world territories, in this case—North America, South America, Europe, Soviet Union, Africa, and South Asia (somehow, Australia is the new Switzerland and is not playable). Each player has an equal population distributed among real life cities, such as New York and Moscow, as well as a set amount of units to deploy and use to your will. The goal of the game, morbidly enough, is to nuke other players cities. In general, nuking opponents’ people will gain you points while losing your own people will lose points. The player with the high score at the end of the game is declared the winner, or as the game suggests, the player who “lost the least.”

Even though the content matter is shocking, the game boasts a simple interfaces that dehumanizes the genocide. The world is reminiscent of a simplified world map with glowing lines and vectors for borders and coastlines, diamonds as cities (with size proportional to the amount of survivors), and rudimentary sprites for air and sea units; something you’d expect to see on the main screen of a concrete bunker. The music consists of low, moody tunes as well as some additional sound effects of recycled air and radio chatter. When a nuke reaches its target, all that is seen is a small white circle and a low rumble from the speakers. When big cities are hit, small tool tips such as “LONDON HIT: 12.3M DEAD” appear and disappear as fast as they arrived. This game doesn’t boast great textures but the presentation leaves you in awe and the interface is pleasing to the eye, something unprecedented from a 60 MB game.

Each game progresses along according to the Defcon meter, which automatically progresses the game to full-blown destruction. At Defcon 5 and 4, players are given a handful of units to place at their will, and at Defcon 3 and 2, conventional warfare between air and sea units begin. At Defcon 1, nuke launches are permitted. Units include battleships, carriers, submarines, bombers, fighter, radars, air bases, and nuke silos. Each one has specific strengths and weaknesses, and despite the simplicity compared to more popular RTSes such as Starcraft, there’s a lot of depth to be found in trying to stop the enemy while pushing your own units forward.

Like most games of this genre, radar coverage is very important. You cannot see what you can’t shoot at, so far-seeing units such as carriers and radars are vital to success. Also, the game introduces odds into combat. There is no such thing as a damaged unit in Defcon; only alive and dead ones. When a unit is shot, there’s a chance that it will immediately die. The game plays out like Risk as in luck plays a minor role in deciding the outcome, but strategy will always overcome, and thankfully, this game doesn’t require any lightning-fast micromanagement to do that, which is a welcoming relief from the drubbings I received playing Starcraft and Command and Conquer.

Nukes slowly creep across the screen in an arc until their arrive to their terrible conclusion or are shot down by enemy anti-airs. They can be fired from three sources—bombers, submarines, and silos. Each one has its own pros and cons. Bombers come in many numbers and can unleash one nuke at a time, but are vulnerable to fighters and battleships. Subs are invisible to conventional radar, but have very little radar coverage themselves and are vulnerable when they surface to unleash their nukes. Silos are the most important of all as they, in defense mode, are the ONLY defense against airborne nukes, and have good odds of stopping a single nuke by themselves. However, they each contain ten nukes that can fire anywhere on the map but must sacrifice defense and, possibly millions of your own lives, to launch in time.

Most of the time, you will launch at enemy cities, and any successful nukes will kill off half the population of that city. Cities can be nuked multiple times for additional points. Also, enemy radars, air bases, and silos can be nuked, assuming that, at some point in the game, you spotted one in your radar vision. These units can take from one to three hits before they are destroyed, devastating your opponent’s infrastructure and making him less likely to retaliate and score.

Alliances play another big role in the game, and increase the mounting tension every minute. Players can join up under alliances, meaning they both cease fire with one another and can see each other’s units. While alliances serve the obvious purpose of two or more players pursing a temporary goal, they are usually broken as players willingly backstab each other just for more points. Technically, you can see backstabs coming if you watch your opponent closely, which just makes players more nervous. If you are hesitant of backstabbers, you can always refuse alliances or kick scheming players out and, all in all, have some fun goofing around while millions of people die.

One of the game’s only weaknesses lies in the clock. There’s four speeds the game can progress at, and the slowest one is nearly at a stand still. At any point in the game, the game will comply with the slowest requested speed, meaning players can slow down the game as opposed to the other players. This is a good option because it permits some time to relax and micromanage your units. However, with a full game of six players, all it takes is one player to halt the game, enough to annoy most non-patient players. Thankfully, several game options allow you to alter the clock so that players can't slow down the game, but few servers have that option enabled.

Another slight weakness would be that the game is almost too simple for its own good. Usually, simple strategies such as lumping your silos together for solid anti-air coverage or launching every bomber at once works well no matter what and usually racks up plenty of kills. For players on the defense, it’s almost impossible to finish the game with over half your population intact in hectic games, and that’s disappointing if you are swarmed in one fell swoop. Speaking of insurmountable odds, you only get so many units to use and if you are double- or triple-teamed by an opponent, you will lose most of your people, units, and nukes, making the rest of the game quite boring for you.

And last but not least, the AI players. When a player quits the game, the AI takes his place. You can also assign AI players in a single-player game and practice against them. Hence the word “practice”—the AI is incredibly easy to beat and is incredibly predictable. A smarter AI would be nice, but you should be playing against actual people instead, so it’s hardly a flaw.

There’s a few options to the game that give the game a little variety. Scoring methods include Default—gain points for killing enemies but lose points for losing your people, Genocide—you don’t lose points for letting your people die, and Survivor—each country starts with a set score and loses points as their people die. There’s an intriguing mode called Diplomacy, which plays off of the Survivor scoring mode. Each nation starts on the same alliance and the player who “loses the least” wins the game. It’s unusually different and more reliant on not getting double-teamed by enemies, but it’s a good alternative to the regular scoring rules. You can also adjust the number of cities per territory and even randomize city populations for a different experience each time. You can also download and play some game mods that either change the way the units look or the world geography altogether, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone playing a custom mod on the internet.

And then there’s the ethical portion of the game. Possibly the real reason why people don’t enjoy the game is because it’s unsettling to watch millions of people die with each nuke. However, it’s not so bad if you allow yourself to think so. The multitude of flying nukes and resulting white circles will provoke nuclear fanatics to play, but the game has a casual appeal that just plain looks cool. Also, the fact that Africa and South America are equal to United States and Russia in terms of nuclear capability, the population of Asia is scaled down, and that people in cities don’t flee from their homes when the first nuke hits just means that Introversion went for an arcade approach, not a cruel, simulation-like one.

Defcon is a very addicting game that isn’t very complex and has its pet peeves such as the clock, but it’s probably for the best. The negative shock of playing the game usually wears off and the game comes off as a fun little RTS that packs plenty of value and an incredible interface. There is a comprehensive demo available that allows play versus one AI opponent or online play in specific games. The demo is worth a shot and may warrant the $15 price tag for such a fun game.

Presentation: 10/10 – Incredible-looking wire-frame earth with simple vector-like designs an a moody soundtrack to top it all off. Even spectating online games are fun.
Gameplay: 8/10 – Basic dice-rolling combat and nuke launching can be slow-paced but offers some room for strategy and enjoyment of watching nukes fly en-masse towards enemy cities.
Graphics: 7/10 – Simple sprites for units and explosions aren’t technically impressive but the visual designs are dynamic.
Sound: 7/10 – Sorrowful music captures the mood well. Sound effects are low-key but when you do hear them, they contribute to the presentation nicely.
Replay Value: 8/10 – Six-player fun can get repetitive but with a multitude of options and different countries to play as, the game is quite generous.

Overall: 8/10.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

Product Release: DEFCON: Everybody Dies (US, 09/29/06)

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