Review: Those ninety-nine red balloons seem to be moving awfully fast...
For those who grew up with 1983's theatrical release of War Games, Introversion's DEFCON should strike a familiar chord. This is a strategy game with no tech tech tree, no base building, and no grand invasion - just you, a dimly lit map of the world, and the Cold War Era's nightmare: full scale nuclear war. DEFCON places you and up to five other players in the final hours of civilization, when a global power can walk away with over a hundred-million of its citizens dead and still be considered the winner.
Available over Steam and from Introversion Software's website, DEFCON is played entirely from a sleek map similar to those associated with NORAD. The map is broken up into five pieces with North America and Canada acting as one entity, Turkey through Japan acting as another, and so on. Represented within the borders of each of these territories are the major cities of the region.
DEFCON does not rely on resource gathering or territorial bonuses, instead, each cluster of countries starts with an equal number of missile silos, naval units, radar dishes, and airfields. The basic functions of these units are easy to grasp but most units serve multiple functions such as the silo which can intercept aircraft and ICBMs. On the surface, this system appears basic. In practice, it lends DEFON's strategic gameplay a simplistic beauty which never lets teamwork, bluffing, and backstabbing go unrewarded.
Each player lays out their forces during DEFCON 5 (peacetime) and DEFCON 4. At this point in the game, no combat has broken out. However, opposing naval fleets have usually run into one another and are sharing an awkward moment of peace while alerting each player to what their coastlines will be up against. Additionally, this is a time to forge public and secret allegiances, and to watch the movements of your allies for posturing that hints at future betrayal. Knowing who to side with and how long to maintain the alliance(s) are invaluable - easily making the difference between complete domination and complete obliteration.
DEFCON Three signals the beginning of War and the map becomes alive as its tracks the worldwide outbreak of violence. Despite the obvious power hiding underneath each silo, nuclear weapons must lay dormant until DEFCON 1. Because of this, most of the chaos centers around naval and air units. This leads to desperate struggles to position fleets near the enemy coastlines while detecting and destroying invading submarines.
Controlling the action is simple as most units will pick their targets and begin hammering away. However, the player can step in and direct much of the action by hand which is all but required in heated multiplayer matches. Additionally, airfields will not take action unless given your order, so launching and directing your aircraft wisely is vital. The manual controls, while still simple and largely intuitive, but work poorly when attempting to move units in small increments.
DEFCON 2 sees the continuation of fighting but is typified by reconnaissance flights and - as naval battles draw to a close - gaining a better understanding of how the impending Nuclear War's theater will be set. There is also a noticeable tension as it is each player's last stand before the DEFON 1: the beginning of the end.
Interestingly enough, DEFCON 1 rarely begins with silo's purging their missiles. Instead, there is an eerie period of silence as each player waits to see who will strike first and how. This moment and the use of diplomacy are where the aforementioned simplistic beauty of DEFCON comes into play. Here the Fog of War in is not a gray blob surrounding a unit, but rather by a very real a pervasive uncertainty of what outcome your actions will produce.
While firing its payload, a silo cannot intercept incoming ICBMs and aircraft. Its position is also given away and there is a dangerously long span of time when the silo is inactive as it switches back to its defensive mode. As such, a few unseen submarines can decimate not only the silo, but the major cities that the silo was protecting. Just as a player may lose their silos to submarines, a hidden submarine is blind to nearby units but must surface to fire their payload. Should there be a battleship or airfield nearby, the once potentially lethal and stealthy attack will end abruptly as each submarine is wiped off of the map.
Early reconnaissance flights are also limited as the fighters are usually knocked down before an enemy's territory can be fully mapped. This means that bombers may end up flying into a hornet's nest of fighters and AA fire. Lastly, moving all of your forces to confront an enemy opens the door for your ?allies? to turn coat and score a few quick hits that will leave you reeling and permanently crippled.
The result is commonly an initial wave of tentative attacks against known targets using weapons that are most likely to be safe from retaliation. Simultaneous attacks from multiple submarines or bombers on silos and large, easy targets such as London, Tokyo, New York, and Los Angles yield limited results but evoke a counterattack which in turn gives insight into the enemy's layout and tactics. It is this organically created pattern, consistently producing different results in every match, that makes each game of DEFCON unique and intense.
Of course, there comes a point when caution is no longer in your best interest and it is time to unleash your silos. This global explosion of lights is the guilty pleasure that everyone has shown up for. The screen is filled with ICBMs, the lines plotting their trajectories, and there is little else to do but cross your fingers and hope for the best. Each impact results in a disc of white light while highly populated areas, represented by a brilliant glowing, flash and then fade to nothing. This nerve-wracking but visually beautiful onslaught continues until there are no more nukes left and the map, once bathed in color, is now littered only with the dim specs of obliterated cities.
There are settings to extend the game, but this string of events usually lasts no longer than thirty minutes and the experience is absolutely riveting. While the AI loses its shine quickly, online play is always fun and highly engaging. The short matches make for perfect midday play sessions while the diversity of each game makes DEFCON equally suitable for hour-long stints.
As expected, DEFCON is not without its issues. Playing against five players on a highly populated map will commonly result in choppy gameplay. Second is DEFCON's ?all or nothing? sound: excellent mood music is directly tied to sound effects which can be aggravatingly loud. Some independent volume control here would have worked wonders.
Most troublesome are the considerable stability issues, especially when playing on a full map. Crashes are far too frequent, and inexplicable stuttering will appear in the oddest of places such as the main menu.
Beyond its sound issues, DEFCON's presentation is more than adequate for an online purchase. Graphically, the game is attractive and its system requirements will leave few out in the cold. While you will not be overwhelmed by a list of bleeding edge technologies, the NORAD display has some impressive lighting effects and the overall look of the game is aesthetically pleasing. Better still, DEFCON's atmospheric music creates an eerie and foreboding ambiance which perfectly compliments the gameplay. In place of a traditional manual, DEFCON includes multiple tutorial missions and an online spectator mode which should quickly acclimate players to the game's basic principles.