"Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living." - General Omar N. Bradley
The sirens are going off in London. 18 hours ago the fragile alliance the EU held with the Chinese was called off, the two diplomatic leaders walking off in a high school-level huff. Tensions were high already, thanks to the constant threat of an African attack on the British Empire. Now, with no allies left, Her Majesty's loyal subjects are crowded in bunkers and bomb shelters, listening to the shrill call of an imminent attack and waiting for the inevitable.
When the first ICBM strikes, 11 million people will die in a fiery instant.
Welcome to Defcon.
Defcon is a war game from British developer Introverson Software, the independent darlings who created Uplink and Darwinia. It's a top-down real-time strategy game built around the concept that every region of the world has the bomb, and are more than happy to use it. The game is divided into phases, represented by Defcon levels, where players have a limited timeframe to place silos, set up radar, deploy naval fleets, and make alliances before tensions reach a head, fingers reach for the red buttons, and the world goes to hell. No one wins a game of Defcon; as the official website of the game states, everybody dies.
The Union of African Nations announces its experimental nuclear weapons development program. "We feel we have as much of a right to defend ourselves as any other nation," the UAN Secretary General says in a press statement. The US and European Union denounce the developments, stating that the world needs fewer nuclear weapons instead of more, while increasing their own warhead production.
Here's how the game works: You and five of your (not for long) friends join the game and are assigned different territories. Once you're on the map, the clock starts, announcing the beginning of Defcon 5, a time of peace throughout the world. Players deploy their units in strategic locations and negotiate alliances with each other. Once Defcon 3 is reached, units can no longer be placed on the map, and naval units can be moved around and engaged in battle. Finally, once the timer hits Defcon 1 (also known as, "Hit the Goddamned Launch Button!") players can begin their atomic assault upon their enemies and, once the foes are all dead, maybe their friends too. If all this is happening too fast, there are speed buttons that let the players control the pace of the game.
China and Russia begin an unprecedented joint naval exercise in the North Pacific as Africa announces their first successful warhead test. Leaders in South America express support for the UAN's fledgling weapons program, while the EU remains concerned about the threat of an African attack.
Your options for ending the world are easy to understand but tough to master. Every silo you place starts off in air-defense mode, on the lookout for enemy attacks. Once you reach Defcon 1, you can switch your silos to ICBM launch mode and let death rain down on your enemies, but then your silos are defenseless, and three nukes will reduce them to a small pile of radioactive rubble. Air bases can launch fighters to intercept incoming attacks, or bombers to launch short-ranged missiles of their own, but the fighters are made of paper and the bombers are slow. Naval units include battleships to take out enemy fleets and aircraft, submarines packing medium-ranged nuclear missiles and stealth capabilities that render them all but invisible until they release their payload, and carriers that launch aircraft attacks and detect hidden subs. The question you face is when to open fire, and when to hide behind your defenses. Like a great board game, the answers are different with each game.
South America launches an attack against a US submarine claiming that the sub's position in Peruvian territorial waters is an act of aggression. Africa moves their carriers closer to North Carolina, causing Europe to launch an air strike on North African radar systems. Chinese and Russian relations deteriorate as Russian battleships attack and destroy a fleet of Chinese carriers in the central Pacific.
Visually, the game is simplistic in its beauty. Introversion has proven itself to be a master of doing a lot graphically with very little, and Defcon continues the trend. The world map is rendered in 80s-style vector graphics, adding to the cold war theme of the subject matter. Units are represented by simple shapes with bright colors designating the different players, all on top of the shade of blue that makes one feel like a general sitting in the Situation Room with his finger on the button. The game requires Direct X 9, but the system requirements are low compared to most current games, so players with aging systems can rejoice. What really stands out, however, is the amazing use of sound. Defcon doesn't employ a soundtrack as much as it uses soundscapes that change dynamically with the progress of the game. It's been done before, but it's never been this haunting. The ambience when a game first starts lends an eerie tone to your unit placement, and when you hear the women in the background cry out in despair once the first nuke strikes, the effect is absolutely chilling.
In fact, this might be the most subtly terrifying game to come out this year. Defcon takes its subject matter as seriously as possible, never going for a cheap laugh to make light of the situation. The gameplay is presented in a somber tone from the beginning, but things take a grave turn the moment the first nuke hits and a message comes on the screen, informing you that 13 million people have just died in Tokyo because of your actions. It's easy to laugh about when you're talking with your friends, but Defcon's matter-of-fact presentations of the death toll makes one pause and consider the ramifications. That a computer game can promote the concept of nuclear disarmament is an achievement for the medium.
Tension builds between the US and Europe as African fleets pummel air defense systems in Spain. US leaders refuse to send aid, spending their efforts on decimating South American airbases instead. Russian submarines are discovered and destroyed near Africa, causing the African Union to threaten nuclear retaliation on all countries that threaten its borders. Desperate for aid, the EU begins a tentative alliance with the Chinese, who promise to send battleships to defend European coastal waters.
There are problems with the game: micromanaging naval units can be cumbersome, AI for single player bots jumps from nonexistent to godlike all too quickly, and the server browser in the review copy feels clunky. But these are small complaints at best, and never detract from the game. Introversion has a bona fide hit on their hands, a strategy game presented with beautiful minimalism that treats its subject matter with respect and provides a unique and compelling experience. The fact that it's being released on Valve's Steam service means it'll be easily accessible, and at $15 it's hard to not consider the purchase. Defcon is, in the end, a great game. It's strategic. It's thoughtful. It's well implemented. And it's well worth your time.
Sirens still blare through the streets of London. The leaders of Europe exhausted their arsenal with retaliation strikes against Africa, never considering that China would turn against them, launching coordinated strikes against what remained of Europe's defenses. With no allies left and their defenses gutted, the people of Europe sit and wait, huddled in their shelters while the world outside goes white from a hundred massive explosions"…"