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Defcon Review - CPUGamer: PC Gaming

Defcon Review

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Ever since I upgraded my gaming machine late last year and demoted the old parts to secondary use as a two-generation-old PC, I’ve been looking for a suitable LAN game for the occasional match against my brother.  We went through a lot of candidates searching for the perfect network game and tried a few of them, but none stuck with us, and we eventually gave up looking until DEFCON came along.  It fulfilled a few simple requirements my gaming collection was missing, such as being fun with two players, low system requirements, no thick manual to read through, and being easy to setup and play.

Naturally, the game had to be decent enough so we could play it over and over again, and as you’ve probably guessed by the obviously high score, DEFCON fulfills this requirement as well.  Now, at this point, I’d probably be ordering the game already since I base most of my purchases off a screenshot and score, but if you’re more particular about your gaming, you’ll want to stick with me.


Ordinarily, I can use an analogy comparing the game in question to another, simply to give you a general idea of what I am talking about, but since I find that difficult with DEFCON, I can just say that it’s real-time strategy stripped from everything possible except the real-time strategy.  Players have been relieved from the numerous little details, rules, and responsibilities seen in more intricate RTS titles and put in command of the bigger picture of issuing orders and watching the spectacle in a most impersonal way.  Whereas other games might try their best to immerse you in the experience by giving you as much control and management over it as you can handle, DEFCON completely does away with that and lets you focus on the most vital elements and strategy.  I know there are people who will complain about seeing everything there is of DEFCON in the first match, but the key to any game is not the content but how much time you really spend with it.  At a glance, DEFCON consists of a map of the world, a few types of air, land, and sea units and a goal to kill millions of people, and if a glance is all you give it you can only see what’s before your eyes and not the potential behind it.

Curiously, for a strategy game, DEFCON has a very linear structure in the sense that it limits your actions and forces players to do certain things at certain times.  Each new match starts at DEFCON 5 and eventually ends with DEFCON 1, where conditions have completely deteriorated and the battle is at its peak.  Instead of giving you the freedom to grab a victory at your own pace, the game slowly leads you on and expects you to busy yourself with a particular task depending on the condition level.  This method actually builds tension among players since each knows what everyone else is doing at that moment and they begin to anticipate the eventual clash.  What begins with a simple positioning of units transforms into tense naval and air battles and ends with a nuclear war.  Knowledge of the whole timeline of events step-by-step is quite different from the usual obscurity involved in regular strategy games and actually requires active planning rather than guesswork.  Since all players always have the exact same resources at hand, all know a lot more variables about their enemy than usual, and are thus able to plan well ahead and in a more elaborate manner.

"What begins with a simple positioning of units transforms into tense naval and air battles and ends with a nuclear war."

Knowing what you are up against helps you build a more complete overall strategy, a thing which is hardly possible in regular RTS games where you have to concentrate on the individual skirmishes and let them be the major factor towards a victory.  In this game, you simply use such skirmishes to get you closer to a plan you visualized long before conflict started.  What you don’t know, however, are your opponents’ next moves so you must be prepared to act accordingly, and ultimately DEFCON really uses strategy on two different levels.

It’s also a game where timing is absolutely vital, and the numerous countdown timers may be a clue to that.  Units with several modes of operation such as airbases and silos can be used in more than one way by switching between their different functions.  A silo, for example, can either be an anti-air defense tower or a nuclear launch site and is inoperative during the transition.  Since players start with a set number of units without a way to produce more, they need these timers to precisely know where and when to activate a certain function, to coordinate an attack, or give orders. These all-in-one type of units require precise and continuous assessment of the situation by players, who must know which tool they need and when.  Other units like the fighters and battleships are simpler to use because they can do one thing only and may seem like expendable tanks for suicide scouting missions or decoys, but in most cases I find them too valuable for that.  If you must sacrifice them at some point, at least do so in a useful way, because you won’t be able to acquire more, and DEFCON is all about managing one’s resources in the smartest way possible.


Doing all of the above against five nuclear armed enemies sitting patiently at your borders while each move you make is critical requires time, and, thankfully, in real-time mode the game literally plays in real time.  Speeding up the game is, of course, allowed and is useful at the beginning stages, but once fighting breaks out and micromanaging your army becomes vital, you really need that time to properly handle the situation.  Fully commanding your armies on all fronts becomes harder and harder with each speed increase, so if you want total control over your game you’d have to settle for the slowest speed, otherwise the AI will start making decisions on your behalf if you are not able to react fast enough.  Playing in real time, however, works well within the context of the game, because seeing a battleship slowly crawl through the Pacific is nothing unusual.  As time goes on, and the number of units goes down, speeding up the game is not a bad choice, but at the end it all depends on who is the opposing player.  If you and your opponents are experienced enough, you can probably handle a higher speed all the way through, but at this point in time anything faster than real-time is too much for me.

To those just now reading about DEFCON, it may seem logical to think that once you get the all-clear for your nuclear arsenal, it becomes a matter of minutes before it’s all over, but DEFCON 1 can actually take longer than the previous four stages.  Naval and air battles are still taking place when you reach the final level and since each nuke lost by enemy AA defenses are potential points lost, players still have lots of decision-making left to do.  The nicest thing is that this kind of strategic activity is encouraged throughout a match, starting from DEFCON 5 and the seemingly simple positioning of ground and naval units, to the final order you give before the last seconds tick by.  It’s funny how all the hard strategic labor you put your brain through is not just about crippling the enemy’s forces, but about crippling the enemy’s forces to get to their civilians and bomb as many millions of them as possible.  It’s brutal stuff, but somehow this game makes it seem like the coolest thing.  


DEFCON is made for multiplayer, and, like all such games, the AI is only useful for training purposes, so if you want to experience the alliances, backstabbing, treachery, different tactics, and general drama, then you need to be online.  Since Earth is the only map to play on, Introversion have added lots of game modes and customization options for those seeking variety, and yet the true strength of the game lies in its core gameplay.  Thus, one can spend months playing a single mode and never grow tired of it.

"...one can spend months playing a single mode and never grow tired of it."



A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic,” and this nowhere more apparent than in DEFCON.  Without a fuss and in the most casual way a successful hit of a city is announced along with an estimate of the dead, and then it’s on to the next target.  Similar to the way it skips the small gameplay details in favor of the bigger picture, the visuals distance you from the events on the ground as much as possible, to the point where all you see are outlines and text.  When you think about it you can’t really go any further than that unless you want to get the events narrated to you, so what you see in defcon are purely serviceable graphics whose purpose are to give you visual representation of what is happening below and no more.  Everything else is presented in the same fashion.  Visuals in DEFCON are like reading the screenplay rather than watching the movie: you know what happens and not much else, yet, no matter how bare, they somehow fit the game’s theme perfectly and its emotionless approach.

Since you are someplace far away from the battle quietly orchestrating the events on your screen, the sound effects are almost non existent, but the silence helps you fully concentrate on your strategy.  Repetitive yet unobtrusive music is played throughout the match, and seeing the expanding trajectory of a nuclear missile disappear as the bomb makes a successful hit, followed by a flash and a note saying 2.5 million just died, all accompanied by a soft melody in the background, really convinces you that all this could not have been presented in any other way.  Meanwhile, the game itself tries to keep a neutral stance on the war it simulates, yet it still makes one reflect back on what you’re seeing.


Without a doubt, the major attractions to DEFCON are its unique presentation and gameplay, and such games often have a clear advantage by simply being original.  After all, a hardcore first-person shooter player trying a strategy for the first time will be intrigued regardless of its quality, but after the initial sense of novelty gradually expires, the good game remains a good game, and the bad game gets exposed as such.  For me, a game needs to be well-made first, original later and Introversion have proven before that they can easily fit both in the same package.  DEFCON is no exception.