DEFCON PC Review - 04/07/2007

DEFCON, drawing many comparisons with the 80’s film WarGames is, to put it simply, a nuclear Armageddon simulator. And although the conclusion reached by the "War Operation Plan Response" or WOPR computer in the film was that the ‘game’ was un-winnable, the point of this game is to carry on regardless; winning being defined as inflicting more casualties on your opponent than you suffer yourself.

The DEFCON world comprises 6 superpowers: Europe, North America, South America, Russia, Africa, and Asia, with the conflict between these powers progressing through the five DEFCON stages – with nuclear destruction reserved for the infamous DEFCON 1.

Each DEFCON level has a clearly defined set of ‘moves’ available. At DEFCON 5 and 4 you place your units: land units including SAM batteries, radars & airfields; sea units being carriers, subs & battleships. Once placed (within the ‘area of influence’ of your nation), the sea units can be instructed to sail anywhere else on the map: giving you the option of sending subs up to the enemy coastline for a sneak attack. Any units left at the end of DEFCON 4 are out of the game – leaving you at a severe disadvantage.

DEFCON 3 brings the ability to launch fighters & bombers – fighters having a small radar coverage which can give you vital information about the placement of enemy units. Since all you can see at the start of the game is the location of enemy cities you won’t know where their land units are and taking out airfields & radars later in the game is an important tactic. Bombers can attack naval units at this point, but are vulnerable to fighters. It’s at this level that hostilities really begin with combat between naval and air units kicking off the instant they set sight on each other. Naval combat can be crucial since if your enemy takes out your carriers you’ll have nothing to detect their subs, and additionally they’ll be able to launch quick air sorties into your territory to scope out your land units, and at DEFCON 1 the carrier based bombers will be all too quickly in range to deliver warheads at your silos.

Defending these silos is key – they are the only real defence against incoming nukes (when in air-defence mode) and also take down fighters and bombers entering your airspace. While they are well hardened to nuclear attack, three hits is enough to destroy them, leaving that area of the map defenceless and you with no retaliatory nukes available. They are most vulnerable when switched to ICBM launch mode as your launches are notified to all players & your silos become all too visible. Switching back to air defence mode takes some time & during this period you are more or less defenceless to a quick retaliatory strike.

When I first tried DEFCON the ambience in the room wasn’t really suitable – the sound was turned down & there were plenty of distractions. I must admit I was fairly well decimated by the artificial intelligence (AI) and the game didn’t really do much for me. But I gave it another try and this time I was set up in a darkened room, just lit by the glow of the monitor. And for more immersion I plugged in some headphones to give the much vaunted soundtrack a decent trial. That game was a whole different experience. The sheer intensity of the game had me hooked and as it came to a close I felt emotionally drained. And there’s no doubt that the soundtrack’s subtle shifting in tone, from a muted orchestral score that starts the game to soft sobbing and coughing as the bombs start to drop had a big hand in that.

Multiplayer is really the main attraction of DEFCON – as in most online games, beating the AI is nothing like taking on a real opponent. During play the forging of alliances is possible through an in-game comms window. This can bring you mutual defence and attack possibilities, but you always need to be aware that your allies are likely to be temporary – once they spot a weakness in your defence they are just as likely to turn against you.

There is a spectator mode available where you can watch others duke it out and this may be helpful for picking up some strategic hints. From the game I watched, four vs. two is definitely an uneven contest, with certain players barely taking any hits while their opponents were ruthlessly decimated.

I really liked DEFCON – it’s a simple looking game, but the subtleties of play available make it much more than it first appears. Multiplayer – either on a LAN or online is a blast and at the price it’s a steal. Available as a demo download its well worth a try – go on, give it a go, you know you want to.

- Paul Andrews