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ups: Vast strategic depth coupled with simple gameplay, atmospheric graphics and sound, inexpensive
downs: Awkward unit selection, server selection, Steam

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Shall we play a game? Love to. How about Global Thermonuclear War.
game: DEFCON
five star
posted by: Chris Galbraith
publisher: Introversion Software
developer: Introversion Software
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date posted: 09:48 AM Wed Oct 4th, 2006
last revision: 10:00 AM Wed Oct 4th, 2006

Click to read.For those who have begun heralding the demise of PC gaming, I bring you a shining example of creativity and joy ? DEFCON. For those of you who continue to spew such negativity, a slap to the face and a chop to the throat. Please desist. Your deliverance is nigh!

DEFCON is brought to you by the same studio that previously delivered two other fresh PC games: Uplink and Darwinia. The folks at Introversion Software seem to have their biggest hit yet in DEFCON, and the accolades are well deserved.

The self-proclaimed \"World\'s first Genocide \'em up\" is an elegant and immediate game which pretends to nothing more grand than sheer enjoyment and gaming bliss. Visually and aurally, it is stunning in its sparseness. Its essential game mechanics are also simple, but this simplicity does not hinder elaborate strategy and deep enjoyment.

The premise is straightforward: you control one of six regions of the globe (North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, or Russia) and try to wipe out everyone else via massive nuclear exchanges. Grim? You bet! But damn is it fun.

The game progresses through a series of stages (Defcon 5 thru Defcon 1; Defcon stands for DEFense CONdition), where different actions are allowed to happen depending on the current Defcon level. When you first enter a game, you find your territory and begin placing your units in that territory. The units consist of mobile and immobile types: radar, airbases, silos, and fleets.

When you begin a game of DEFCON, you start at Defcon 5 and a timer begins counting down to Defcon 4. During this countdown, you place all the aforementioned units. Any unplaced units after Defcon 4 ends are lost. A good thing to do is turn down the game speed during Defcon 5 so that you do not have to rush your units out too quickly. You can do this by adjusting the game speed at the top of the screen. How you place your units is up to you.

Once Defcon 4 begins, you can begin moving your subs into strike positions. Any enemy units within radar range will also become visible to you. However, no hostile actions are allowed now. Do not worry though, as the excitement starts when Defcon 3 hits.

Defcon 3 sees the initiation of hostilities. Depending on the number of people playing and the locations of hostile regions, this can lead to no aggressive acts and minimal contact or chaos and pandemonium. Naval units will attack foes on sight and you can begin launching fighter scouts into enemy territories. No nukes are allowed yet though. Defcon 2 is an escalation of the hostilities, but you still cannot fire your ICBMs.

Of course this is all buildup to Defcon 1, the mother of all Defcons. This is when the proverbial excrement hits the rotating blades of cooling. All hostile actions are allowed now, including ICBM launch. And this is where the strategic depth of DEFCON really comes into play. The easiest and most tempting thing to do first is to launch fiery nuclear death at your opponent or opponents. However, this is probably the worst thing you could do.

You must strike a balance between offensive attack and restraint at this point in the game. If you launch all your nukes too soon, you will have nothing left for counterstrikes. Conversely, if you hold onto your nukes too long, you could run into the problem where you run out of time to use them all effectively. A normal exchange will go something like this: you notice that your opponent has some exposed radar installations around the coast of his region. Is it better to launch some aerial strikes, which take more time, but keep your silos active in a defensive position? Or is it better to launch a salvo at the radar? Personally, I would go for a mix of the two. You can launch your bombers without your opponent knowing, but a previously hidden and unknown silo that goes into ICBM mode will immediately be lit up on the map as being active, thus making it a valid target for your opponent.

This interplay of restraint and attack is what drives the amazing tension of the last, and longest, phase of DEFCON. It is so tempting to want to punch back at an opponent who has already hit you for some significant megadeaths, but you need to know when to strike and where.

Strategy also comes into play when considering which things you target first. You score points for hitting cities with your nukes and no points for hitting radar, silos, or airbases. However, it is very difficult to hit these civilian centers without first hitting the defensive capabilities of your opponent in the gut. My tip is to go for exposed radar installations first. Without radar to guide them, silos cannot detect incoming nukes soon enough to be effective. But if your enemy\'s radars are protected by silos, it becomes a tricky situation.

Meanwhile, you have your subs and fleets sitting off the coast of your enemy\'s region. When do you hit with them? If you strike too early and do not properly coordinate an attack, most of those launches will be shot down and wasted. Launching with your subs will also make them visible to your foe\'s coastal defenses and subs do not have much in the way of defense.

This continues until someone reaches the point where the Victory Timer starts, at which point there are 45 game minutes left for all attacks for all participants. Normally this means that someone is clearly out in front, but you can still catch them. Oftentimes this is when you see Armageddon and there are dozens upon dozens of nukes flying through the air. It is an awesome sight indeed. Eventually the Victory Timer will expire and the game will be over. A scoring window will pop up and you can see the number of kills (in the tens of millions normally), deaths, and survivors. Depending on the scoring scheme you have chosen, the winner will be decided upon these numbers. The tagline for DEFCON is that no one wins you can just lose the least. This is certainly true.

I could continue to write ad infinitum about how great the gameplay is, but there are other features that need to be mentioned about DEFCON. First, the graphics are brilliant and really reflect the ethos of the game. They are stark and simple, depicting information and trajectories in bright neon colors against a black background. Everything is abstracted to a certain degree. Cities are simple diamonds that reflect population size according to the diamond\'s size. The units discussed earlier are also simple abstractions of what they are. Nukes fly across the screen in simple, beautiful arcs and when they hit there targets, a bright flash of white blossoms around the target, and text information about the number of dead pops up momentarily under the explosion. There are no complex graphics to bog down the strategic experience, but the graphics that Introversion chose to use accentuate an already deep experience. There are options to change the default color scheme which might help out your eyes and the contrast of factions.

The sound is also sparse, but adding to the foreboding sense of the game. It is very atmospheric and quiet, filled with strange ambient sounds like a woman crying and coughing. It is subtle, but contributes mightily to the game\'s sense of Armageddon.

There are also different game options and scoring methods. You can play a free for all where six factions nuke the hell out of each other, you can start games in alliances and fight that way, or you can try a game called Diplomacy where you all start in the same alliance and eventually stab each other in the back. Scoring can be by most kills, least deaths, or total genocide.

Despite the overall grimness of the game, there are lots of humorous additions. There are occasional references to the film Wargames, the inspiration for the game, in some of the background animations. The instruction manual is entirely too hilarious to describe properly in words alone. Make sure you download it. Lots of small things are mentioned in odd ways too. Keep your eyes open for them.

The only negatives I can think of about DEFCON are some of the awkwardness of selecting units and changing between modes (you right-click and select using a drop down menu, it can be messy when units are close to each other) and Introversions usage of Steam (which is negative or positive depending on what you think about Steam; however you can purchase DEFCON directly from Introversion bypassing Steam altogether). Server selection could use a sorting or searching feature as finding your friend\'s game can sometimes be quite difficult. Additionally there are some connection issues but that could be due to the numbers of people playing, but occasionally you will lose people during a game and the computer takes over for them ? and the computer is very aggressive.

DEFCON is a fantastic game because it is simple and easy to understand, but extremely difficult to master. I have played dozens of DEFCON rounds so far and each has a different flavor and style to it. Some are fast and dirty; others last for nearly an hour and swing on the launch of a final nuke. There is entirely too much to be said about this game and I hope I can convince you to try it out. Luckily, you can download the demo of DEFCON from Introversion and test it out for yourself; there are plenty of games running at all times of the day.

Happy nuking.

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