This is what makes DEFCON, from self-described "last of the bedroom programmers" Introversion Software, so interesting. DEFCON is a highly stylized multiplayer realtime strategy game in which a match starts right as the world is on the brink of nuclear holocaust. Each player is in control of one or more major territories, such as North America, Africa, or Eastern Europe, and uses a variety of military structures and units to pound enemy civilians with as many nukes as possible while keeping as many of his own as possible alive. As with other video games, DEFCON will not realistically prepare you to take on the world in bit of global thermonuclear warfare, but it is likely to make you feel like it will, and it may well leave you with some genuine unease at the idea of the whole thing.
Visually, DEFCON consists of nothing but an overhead vector-based map of the world and military units and targets, along with some peripheral statistics and options. There is never a realistic rendering of a particular unit or city or a warhead exploding, or of the people who die when it explodes. When a civilian target is hit, the only feedback is a radially gradiated white circle over the city and an unsympathetic text caption in block font that lasts for mere seconds, like a headline ticker on a news network: "NEW YORK, 12.4 MILLION DEAD."
A match starts out at DEFCON 5, or Defense Condition 5. At DEFCON 5, the world is in stable peacetime conditions. Military action is prohibited. During this period, players lay down missile silos, which are capable of launching nukes as well as shooting down enemy fighters; airbases, which launch fighters and bombers; and radar dishes, which reveal enemy units and structures within a given limited radius. Players also construct and place naval fleets, which can consist of up to six of any combination from the given pool of carriers, battleships, and subs. Carriers can launch their own fighters and bombers, as well as drop depth charges against subs; battleships have general offensive capabilities but not nukes; and submarines are invisible to radar and have the ability to launch nukes, making them extremely valuable components of the navy. Fighters can attack only other aircraft but are effective scouts, and bombers can drop a single nuke and return to their carrier or airbase to restock. These eight structures and units comprise the entirety of your military.
DEFCON 4 signifies greater military vigilance, at which point enemy units within radar range and the location of enemy cities become visible. Depending on how deployment is playing out, this may be when the first tinge of paranoia sets in. Your radar dishes may pick up a worryingly large fleet of carriers just off your eastern coastline, leading you to suspect there may be submaries close behind--or perhaps it is just a ruse. Of course, at this point, war has not been declared. In DEFCON 4, there is still no military action of any kind allowed, beyond deployment.
In DEFCON 3, deployment is no longer allowed, and air and sea movement and combat is authorized. During this phase, players scout out their opponenents' territories with fighters or ships and while becoming increasingly paranoid and frustrated at their inability to make pre-emptive strikes.
DEFCON 2 does not grant any further discrete military capabilities, it is merely an escalation of DEFCON 3. At this point, the world map is becoming more clear and, depending on various factors, you may be getting more confident about your strategy or much more worried.
DEFCON 1 is the meat of the game. At this point, use of nuclear weapons is authorized via missile silos, subs, and bombers. To launch a nuke or a bomber, the source unit must first wait for a certain amount of time while it switches to the appropriate mode. This mechanic has a significant impact on the game, as it increases the importance for a broad strategy over the moment to moment reactions one sees in many realtime strategy games. Even more unique is how slowly everything moves. If crossing vast distances, it may take naval units the entire game to reach the target laid out for them in DEFCON 3. Aircraft and nukes themselves are somewhat faster, but the pace does not really reach what one generally associates with video games. There are four timescale settings, from the standard 1x mode to the fastest mode in which in-game minutes pass by in real world seconds. At any time, players may vote on a new timescale, and it will be changed once all agree.
Watching the bombers and missiles sail slowly but inexorably along their criss-crossing paths towards their doomed targets is compelling in and of itself, particularly after enabling the "Orders" option that draws a line between a unit and its current target. Even on the fastest setting, individual elements move slowly relative to the pace of most games, while a dizzying number of actions are occurring simultaneously. Set against the minimalistic and haunting score and bathed in a sterile blue glow, it is like watching a grim performance of modern ballet in slow motion, intricate and nerve-wracking. Once a nuke has launched, it cannot be diverted elswhere. It can be disarmed, or it will travel along to its given target unless the enemy manages to shoot it down. One's supply of nukes is limited, so disarming is rarely an attractive option; in DEFCON, you must be committed to your strategies, because any on the fly adjustments may cost a significant amount of time and supply to execute.
A given game may take anywhere from about fifteen minutes to an hour. This is not necessarily any longer than how long it takes to play a match in other realtime strategy games, but they play out very differently. Here, there is no continued unit creation or resource management of any kind. While it takes a significant amount of time before the full effect of a strategy is put into play, the game does become quite chaotic at that point, and destruction occurs essentially nonstop until one or all of the players have exhausted most of their nuclear capacity. Then, a victory timer starts, allowing for final plays before the score is tallied. Rather notably, in the standard gametype, you lose a point for each loss of a friendly civilian, but gain two points for killing those of your enemies.
In the multiplayer setting, players can form or break alliances with other players. These are uneasy at best, particularly given that the game already encourages a sense of nervousness and unease. Once, while playing as Eastern Europe allied with the United States up against Russia, I became rather worried at the site of my ally's enormous fleet of bombers sailing towards my cities. Before I realized that in reality they were simply passing through my territory to reach the enemy, I had launched an enormous salvo over to his missile silos and cities, and before he had the chance to comprehend what was going on, there was little he could do about the multitude of long range warheads sailing over the Atlantic to his shores.
Though the game's low key minimalist score is peppered with subtle but stirring crescendos, it never manages to reach a climax. Like the visual depiction of the game's catastrophic events, it is intense, but understated; stirring, even epic, but never too overt. This soundtrack is an integral part of the game's atmosphere. Stretches of relative silence are punctuated by quiet muffled coughs, and all of the sounds have a pronounced echo filter, creating the sense of being in a cavernous underground bunker, orchestrating the armageddon up above.
As a game, DEFCON is not immaculately balanced in all respects. Since every player starts with the same type and number of units, the only inherent differentiating factors in balance are the attributes of the various territories. Simply because of the nature of geography, some are better suited for certain situations than others. For example, since the North America territory spans across both coasts of the continent, it can be difficult to defend against a full naval and airborne assault if opponents are coming from both sides. If Africa happens to be playing against Russia, the African player can park his subs in the Indian Ocean right from the start and launch a nuclear assault that can be difficult to counter. For players who enjoy multiplayer games largely for competitive reasons and who demand a perfectly tuned and balance match, DEFCON may fall short in certain ways. DEFCON is about the atmosphere, the slow unfolding of grand destructive schemes, the bizarre juxtaposition of inevitability and unpredictability. Despite the game's online focus, it is worth playing some matches against only computer-controlled opponents. When playing against live enemies, particularly those with whom one is familiar, any game can take on a less weighty atmosphere with good natured (or malicious, for that matter) textual communication. Against a faceless CPU, which gives no feedback, no frustrations or boasts, it is much easier to imagine a foreign entity dominating the rest of the world or having its frightened citizens stamped out millions at a time; the somber kill counts take on an even more striking quality.
It is unlikely that there are many other widely known games, if any, that depict death and destruction on such an immense scale as DEFCON. There are no doubt equally few that do it so abstractly, so fully disassociating the player's actions from their consequences. Yet, somehow, the game manages to hit home in ways that many of the more visceral and action-packed games cannot. DEFCON does not depict some historical battle long past; it does not imagine a far-fetched scenario of fantasy or science-fiction; it does not see the player single-handedly take on implausible numbers of enemies in direct combat. Rather, it presents a situation that is frighteningly realistic. Though we are largely past the constant fear of nuclear conflict that accompanied the Cold War, we are familiar with the modern concept of push-button warfare, and we certainly have no illusions as to the ease and quickness with which war can be declared. Alliances that fall apart at the drop of a hat, attacks and counterattacks that escalate for no other reason than fear that they will in fact do so, plans that frequently go awry no matter how well laid--these are the meat of DEFCON, and they are presented chillingly well.
Introversion Software's DEFCON is released today, Friday, September 29, 2006, via Valve's Steam service and Introvesion's own official site. Download the full client, which includes a multiplayer-enabled demo, from FileShack.