Defcon is a game about nuclear war. You choose a continent, ally with other players and then everyone kills as many people as they possibly can; launching off nukes in a final strike for worldwide supremacy as you coldly gaze upon the sterile vectors of the world map, a style reminiscent of the 80’s classic Wargames and the seminal Dr. Strangelove.
Now, when you’re playing a game, things get shaken up a bit. That is the idea of it all, really, you plug it all in and then suddenly you feel like you are somewhere else, detached from reality ever so slightly whilst you whip around whatever new custom world those lovely boys from the computer game factory have churned out for you. Striving for photorealism and surround sound, it is safe to say that the key word in pushing the games industry forward is immersion, ramping up the quality and the consistency of what we perceive when playing a game as an effort to make the player feel more involved with the experience as a whole. Now, the guys who made Defcon don’t aim for the sky with immersion; they just give you exactly what it says on the tin: Introversion.
Defcon is a title that feels reminiscent of one of Introversions earlier titles, the excellent Uplink; a game which put you in the position of a freelance hacker, trading off traditional computer game polish to imbue the game with a sense of realism. There were no characters of note in Uplink, the focus firmly locked on you as a player. There was no visible avatar being controlled as you frantically attempted to download files illegally from a private database, but in my case there was however a nervous bloke sat behind a keyboard drinking far too much coffee as he attempted to get the data to his client without being caught by the imaginary fuzz.
This is too is the beauty of Defcon: with no characters to empathise with, no avatar to mould yourself to, no enveloping environments to lose yourself in; the sense of immersion provided by this game is a purely introspective one. There are no middlemen here simply you, in a chair, giving orders. If anyone’s going to screw up and kill millions, it will be you. The slight sense of dread this conjures up is a testament to how well Introversion have nailed the hot seat sensation; all the choices you make feel consequential and you only have a few moments to make those decisions which are then followed by an excruciating wait to see if the call you made was a good one; things start to get pretty tense.
Defcon at heart is little more than a very simple strategy game about planning and politics. The unit allowances for each game are fixed; each game you build missile silos, radars, and air strips around your continent along with a small fleet of ships and then you simply sit back, give your fleet some orders to begin moving into position and simply wait for the Defcon counter to tick on down… Despite the pace of battles initially seeming fairly slow, after hitting Defcon 1 however all lights are green for nukes. The haze of missiles gracefully curling between nations quickly becomes chaotic; nuclear blasts mapping out a landscape of blotches depicting a world soon to be in ruin. Unfortunately, often things are just too chaotic. The outcome of ship battles is regularly accountable for the final result of a match and they quickly become impossible to keep track of, appearing to be nothing more than a mashed up blob of vector soup.
An essential factor for winning a game of Defcon is timing; firing off nukes not only to the right place, but also at the right time. When playing on a higher game speed the timing required is often difficult to master and the game often seems to become more a matter of luck. At the same time playing on lower speeds increases the importance of strategic timing, but also tends to make the game rather dull. This is especially noticeable when losing a game of Defcon; making a last minute comeback is practically impossible and it is not uncommon to realize one’s own defeat within the first few minutes of a game.
Defcon is, however, one of the most effective titles I have played in years: watching the millions of deaths rack up as the nukes fall on the cities below, whilst you listen to an ethereal soundtrack interspersed with the coughs and screams of those suffering from radiation poisoning; Defcon is nothing short of haunting. Each game leaving you with a dark sense of remorse at the blood on your hands. This is both a blessing and a curse, the inconsequential figures of millions dead makes the game itself seem deeply futile after not too long; Defcons’ moniker Everybody Dies rings true to a great extent in terms of the apathy you begin to feel regarding who wins or loses.
Defcon is both beautiful and horrible: your view of the world seeming ever chaotic, but also serene. The sharp colourful electronic jagged edges mapping out imagery to please the eyes, but disturb the mind. I have no shame in saying that Defcon is art; it is just not a very good game. I would highly recommend playing it; as an experience it is not one you will want to miss. At the same time, however, as a game there is not enough beef to it to keep you hooked for very long. The prevalence of style over substance feels very much a part of the game’s design and to an extent I am pretty sure that the mechanics I have criticised are purposeful; adding to the sensational experience of playing Defcon.
Unfortunately, once the fun of pretending to be Ron Perlman trapped in a bunker had worn off and I had become desensitised to the guilt of killing millions, most of Defcon’s fun was gone. In terms of presentation Defcon is unparalleled; graphically the game is stunning and the overall emotive nature of playing makes it one of the most intelligent pieces of interactive art I have ever seen, a true exploration of the sterile nature of war and the ease of nuclear destruction. Defcon is amazing, it is just not a very good game. If you have not played the demo already it is worth picking up purely because introversion are bundling in Uplink for free too, which is quite simply an incredible game on all counts.
Introversion have given us a mixed-quality bag of games, but through innovative minimalism they are well on their way to becoming masters of emotional storytelling, Defcon and Uplink as a package may only entertain you for a week or two, but the experience I can guarantee will be a unique one. Horses for courses, eh?
A flawed game, but a fantastic experience.