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DEFCON pack shot
Publisher:Introversion / Valve
Genre:Real Time Strategy
Official Site:http://www.introversion.co.uk/defcon/
Release Date:September 29, 2006 (UK)
Reviewer:Duncan Lawson (Sinna01)

Computer: Shall we play a game?
David Lightman: Love to. How about Global Thermonuclear War?
Computer: Wouldn't you prefer a nice game of chess?
David Lightman: Later. Right now let's play Global Thermonuclear War.
Computer: Fine.
   - War Games, MGM Pictures, 1983

Introversion Software know what makes a game tick, and since 2001 have been producing titles with absolutely everything stripped away but the essentials of your gaming experience. Their first title Uplink enjoyed a cult following and quiet critical acclaim, and got the general recognition it deserved when re-released as Uplink: Hacker Elite. Uplink's visual style was strongly reminiscent of what the 80's told us computer screens would look like in the future, with stark designs of neon blue and white against black backgrounds. They completely ignored most of the rules regarding sane game design, refusing to spoon feed the plot to the gamer or gently tutoring them in the games mechanics or goals. The uncertainty and isolation this evoked perfectly complimented the titles themes of paranoia and conspiracy. Introversion obviously discovered that less is more in some cases -the same trick horror movie creators have been using since time immemorial to allow the audience to make a scarier monster in their minds than the FX guys ever could. This panache for menacing minimalism comes to the fore in their latest offering DEFCON, a strategy game of nuclear war with more than a passing resemblance to the 1983 movie War Games.

DEFCON screenshot 1 DEFCON screenshot 2 DEFCON screenshot 4 DEFCON screenshot 4

Playing DEFCON is very simple, like a cut down version of Risk. You pick a continent, and place upon it radar stations, airstrips, silos, and in its waters a few fleets. Over the next 3 or so game hours, which can be accelerated to 20 times speed, the state of emergency will gradually tick from DEFCON 5 down to 1. With each state, new actions are available, such as moving fleets, scouting enemy territory, until at 1 big red buttons are pushed and the ICBMs start passing each other in the air. The winner is decided by who at time's end has most efficiently burned the enemy's cities from the face of the earth, and racked up the kill count in the tens of millions.

Each unit is represented by a simple line drawing, missiles by tiny cones with dotted line vectors, and explosions by plain balls of light. The lack of unit detail and variety, coupled with your limited interaction with them, should not suggest the game itself is simplistic, in the same way as in chess just knowing how the pieces move will not make you a master. The decisions the player makes in DEFCON tend to be subtle and made early in the game. The distribution of your fleets, the balance struck between strike range and defensive capability, the identification of the opportune moment to unleash your full barrage, are all instances of very subtle choices that will make the difference between the victor and the irradiated.

It is perhaps easy to give Introversion too much credit in provoking subtle tactical thinking, as a games simplicity is often inversely proportionate to how much scheming we put into it. The earlier example of chess holds again, but also applies to everything from Conkers to Hide and Seek. So whether a product of fine balances or intrinsic to simple gaming, Introversion have definitely produced an immediately accessible and rewarding game experience.

DEFCON screenshot 5 DEFCON screenshot 6 DEFCON screenshot 7 DEFCON screenshot 8

DEFCON will not grip you the way a good RPG can steal whole days of your life without you noticing, but is instead more the kind of entertainment you'll dip into once in a while when you have the spare time, like an incredibly morbid Zuma or Bejewelled. Playing against the AI is an unrewarding experience, as even when playing against up to 5 CPU players, their tactics will not vary from game to game. Prepare yourself for the onslaught at DEFCON 1, and when they run out of steam and nukes to throw, go about your business of making them glow in the dark relatively unmolested. Since the actual activities available to the lone player can be pretty much encapsulated in an afternoon - speed mode, one-on-one, six player bunfight, etc - DEFCON's enduring appeal is as a multiplayer distraction akin to Gunbound, and its options definitely lend itself to dip-in participation. One particularly interesting feature is 'Office Defcon', a multiplayer scenario where thermonuclear doomsday is played through at near real time, giving the participants an entire workday to plan when and where to strike, watch bombers inch across continents, and ICBM sailing towards cities at a stately crawl.

There is no doubting that DEFCON is macabre, its stark tagline of 'Everyone Dies' nicely sums up the mood of the game. Upon a successful strike against the green diamonds representing a city, a kill count in the millions will appear over the ball of light that used to be, say, Cairo. The apocalyptic death toll stated so plainly is accompanied by ambient noise, usually just a distant, muffled roar. Other times it sounds fairly convincingly like someone's last breath, or truly unsettlingly the echo of a child's nursery rhyme. DEFCON is a long way from the jolly violence of LAN tactics games such as Worms, and the detached way in which it portrays the end of the human race occasionally succeeds in being quite chilling.


DEFCON is currently doing a brisk trade on the Steam download system, and I would recommend at least giving the demo a go. It's easy to access, has a low enough system demand to be run on a gameboy, and could provide you the opportunity to get that warm glowing feeling inside by making your friends literally glow.

The bottom line
7.5 / 10

Good stuff

  • Immediately accessible
  • Engaging multiplayer
  • Stark, atmospheric sound & visuals
  • Oddly serene and relaxing

Not so good stuff

  • Limited single-player appeal
  • Perhaps over-simplistic
  • Unforgiving to the noobie player.
  • Existentially scary.

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