DEFCON: Everybody Dies Review
Computer-room four star generals should be pleased with the latest real time offerings on hand for PC players. Company of Heroes, Supreme Commander, and the continuing adventures and re-releases in the Command and Conquer series all provide hope for the waning innovation in PC strategy. Does Defcon? Let us find out together, you and I.
Let me start by saying that I'd like to ignore the hype surrounding Defcon. This is a unique independent game that however ends up sounding like marketing spiel itself. We should instead take it on the terms that we are given: simply as a game. And as a game, it's a good one.
Defcon presents us with no story, just imminent doom from nuclear destruction. How much doom is up to the players. There are a number of homages to nuclear war films, from the raster-like map display which is quite reminiscent of Wargames to the vast echo hallway sounds reminiscent of the war room in Dr. Strangelove. Do not be deceived by the screenshots; this isn't just a quick Flash game mood piece. Instead, it is a complete package containing a new take on the somewhat tired genre of real time strategy war games, something for which we can all be thankful. While no one enjoys the next iteration of, "Yet Another WW2 Game, No Really This is a Good One", er I mean Company of Heroes, more than I do, it is refreshing to see something profoundly creative in this well mined genre.
Not to rail on, Company of Heroes is well worth paying attention to. Defcon though manages to avoid the inevitable, "This isn't just another WW2 game", by not being set during the second World War. Instead of World War 2 we get the Cold War; and while there is strong variation between say Company of Heroes and Command and Conquer, it pales compared to the difference in atmosphere, mood and most dramatic strategy seen in Defcon.
So, what is Defcon's take on strategy?
Instead of a standard field of battle, the player is presented with an simple modular command map. No on-the-ground perspective is provided. Another significant deviation from the standard RTS formula is a complete lack of resource management. Not even Kohan with its system of capturing cities to increase your general resources strayed so far from the familiar. In Defcon, there are no resources, no mines, no peons to zug zug and order around; the payoff is raw direct strategic combat. Stripped of logistical warfare, we are left with only naval fleets and various aircraft to move around. Add to that a few basic immobile units: airbases, radars, and missile silos, and your arsenal is complete. Cities are also present but you have no control over them. They merely serve as targets for the enemy to slaughter and for you to protect.
Cities also serve as a tremendous part of the atmosphere of this game, which itself is lush in its sparseness, gripping in intensity, and, if you let it take you in, can be overwhelming and depressing. This is probably the only game I have ever played which can get so depressing. Through sparseness Defcon entices your own imagination to speculate on the wholesale incineration of cities, countries, and millions of people. This can't be stressed enough. The atmospherics, while simple, are tremendously effective at pulling you into the mood of the end of the world. Defcon does make one concession from realism and this not only serves gameplay but also increases the tension. In Defcon, Reagan's delusional dream world has come to life; in-flight nuclear warheads can be shot down by aircraft and missile defense. And this, the fact that one can take action, but in the end millions die anyway, seriously ratchets up the tension. In the real world we learned, as did Joshua in Wargames, that the only way to win was not to play. In Defcon we are given Reagan's dream of missile defense and are still left with the feeling that if only I was faster and smarter, millions might have survived.
So the atmosphere for Defcon is decidedly not fun unless you can get over the hump of stark destruction in the game. Every single person I have played the game with so far has gone quiet whilst playing and being immersed, then remarked about how depressing the atmosphere is when asked about how they were feeling. For some, this will be the game's greatest flaw. For others it elevates the game to high art. If you are looking for simple fun, this is not it. If you are looking for an intensity of experience rarely seen outside of film, Defcon is definitely it. Defcon takes a very upsetting subject, makes it into a compelling multiplayer game complete with moderation of the original subject matter for balance, and then leaves you with that and a tongue-in-cheek manual to play on. I realize that most people reading this review are going to think that no game, let alone one that employs a low graphics 80s movie style, can possibly elicit such an emotional response. Playing this game is much like watching Threads or When the Wind Blows. It's certainly worthwhile, but not for the faint of heart.
It is also true that as someone who was born in 1982, I may not be able to present the attitudes of my older peers who lived under the actual threat of nuclear annihilation during the cold war. Defcon is a great game, but whether it is a great game for you may depend a lot on how you react to the atmosphere of the game. I would advise that you play the demo before you make a final decision about that atmosphere. It is a fairly complete demo and can be later unlocked to provide the full game.
Getting back to the actual gameplay. Unlike a standard RTS game, there is also no research and development tree present in Defcon. Instead, you are presented with time limits in a variety of modes. As the clock counts down both in time and from Defcon 5 (peace) to Defcon 1 (unrestricted nuclear war), new actions become available as others fall away. So right away from the start of the game, everyone has the same weapons and technology. Your main weapons are, of course, your nuclear arsenal. Your secondary weaponry is for defense only, and are your fighter jets which can take down incoming missiles and bombers. There are no usual mobile ground units, at all. The scale is global and primarily strategic and they aren't missed. I do think they might be interesting in a more tactical variation on the theme of this game, for at least the actions leading up to the Defcon levels.
The titular Defcon levels are unavoidable. Defcon levels will fall from 5 to 1 within the game and nothing can be done to prevent the level raising. Time progression can be slowed down or sped up in the interface or, if you like, keyboard shortcuts. This only happens, though, if all players agree to the new game speed. Each lower Defcon level allows more action from all parties involved. Players may choose to ally with each other. If you ally with someone and your nukes are in their air toward your allies targets, your nukes will automatically be disarmed in flight so as to not ruin that friendship. In addition, the server host of the game can configure that session in a stunning level of detail covering everything from scoring to the style of alliances.
Speaking of scoring, by default you get points in this game through killing the population of the nations you are at war with. By default, you get points for every enemy killed but you also lose points when your citizens are wiped out. So if you take out a large majority of the enemy population, but not their nuclear arsenal, you can still lose if the enemy manages to take out more of your population. This isn't immediately obvious and you could go from 70 to -50 through loss of your population. Recently while playing online I lost to another player by one point in a similar situation. I'd taken out a large majority of his civilian population, however his nuclear arsenal had remained relatively unscathed.
Technically, Defcon is no incredible achievement. Nor will it provide an engine to be licensed endlessly in an attempt at cashing in on Introversion's hard work. This game was developed in a relatively short period of time when compared to most regular modern games, though certainly due to no lack of good work. The final product as presented without patches in the 1.0 form is so far without any obvious bugs or issues. Though as far as technical quality, there are a few fonts which appear to be pre-rendered bitmaps too small to view on my 1680x1050 monitor. The recently released 1.1 patch made some major tweaks to the server browser, but remember to exit the game before trying to install the patch - the developers forgot to make DEFCON close itself when you try and run the update from inside the game.
Anyway, the 1.1 patch provides for various methods of filtering games, both visually and with dialogs. It doesn't seem to have been broken in any way but this poorly written installer. Of course I notified Introversion about this problem. No reply was available as of press time.
Defcon's interface could probably stand a few months more polish to improve usability. Differentiating between selecting a fleet to move as opposed to say launching fighters from an aircraft carrier in that fleet can be quite confusing and I have seen it lead to frustration as naval units appear to become uncontrollable while the desperate atmosphere of the game claims its psychic toll. The controls are also fairly unintuitive for long-time RTS folks, to which I would suggest Introversion make an optional Defcon Annihilation mode, so that these folks who hate the completely new-for-Defcon control interface don't get frustrated. I fully expect a patch or two in the future from Introversion which may alter the gameplay and controls, much as they did with their last game Darwinia. The "victory timer", presented in an apparent conceit to game play balance, could certainly use tweaking and further user instruction with regard to operation. I generally end up altering the options of games I host so that I don't have to have the game end early with many players.
The only feature I really find lacking is some kind of demo recorder, like in the Quake games, so you can replay the action and really learn about the strategy in each multiplayer game from all sides. Perhaps we'll get lucky and this all of this functionality will be added in a later patch.
As Defcon is almost entirely a multiplayer game, bots are provided but not much fun to play against. The bots have very limited strategy and are fairly easy to defeat. While one can battle a large number of bots simultaneously this challenge by numbers is less appealing than the strategic challenge one can enjoy in the multiplayer modes and hardly prepares you to compete online. This is a huge change from Introversion's past titles, which were all single player affairs. I must say that I've had no problems with network connectivity or lag to players even in the far reaches of the globe. This isn't entirely surprising as the game is fairly simple.
If you're already a bit confused I would suggest you go ahead and get the demo at least before making your final decision to buy or not buy this game. It certainly isn't a graphical powerhouse of a game, so laptop users won't be neglected so long as they have bare bones OpenGL acceleration of some sort. However, the lack of fancy graphics and/or the decidedly depressing tone may cause some people to give up before truly experiencing what Defcon has to offer. I feel, at least, that the tone may be something which is a disadvantage to the enjoyment of the actual gameplay. However, I think that perhaps Defcon wouldn't be regarded so highly if it weren't so depressing. I know I will be enjoying Introversion's latest art house masterpiece for some time to come, though it is understandable if the charm is lost on others behind graphical and atmospheric issues inherent with an indie game of this nature.
So with the compelling atmosphere, and sufficiently original gameplay, Defcon gets a 9 out of 10. $17.50 well spent.