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On Site Review: Defcon

October 13th, 2006 by Troy Goodfellow · 1 Comment · Uncategorized

First let’s get this out of the way.

Defcon has as much to do with the Wargames movie as Redneck Rampage does with Deliverance. It takes the look of the of big battle screen in the movie and has many homages to the film, but this is not a message game. In spite of all the reviews from other Cold War children waxing about how nobody really wins a nuclear war plus the cute domain name for the game, Defcon declares a winner. It even says “So and so wins”. The faint coughs and cries in the background do nothing to remove the zeal of a perfectly executed late submarine attack. You don’t regret hitting Cairo, you regret not hitting it first. And, given the right amount of planning, you can actually emerge with only a million or two dead.

This is the early favorite for independent/budget game of the year and it’s not hard to see why. Defcon is one of the purest strategy games I’ve ever played. You have to balance your planned attacks against where you think you need to defend. Timing is everything – if you wait too late to launch, you expose your cities to counter attack. If you start too soon, you will waste missiles and expose a launcher. Multiplayer games larger than 2 require a lot of counting and guesswork. Since there can only be one winner, should you stab your ally in the back? All you have to go by is the simplest iconography imaginable.

And it all comes down to very simple choices. Your missile silos are also your anti-missile shield, but can only do one task at a time. Once you open the silo doors, the platform becomes an easy target if there aren’t other ABMs near by. Aircraft carriers carry bombers, but are also your only chance to spot the submarines before they launch. Subs are nearly invisible but are only real players once they expose themselves by launching. Every weapons platform has a trade-off and you must balance all of these against the geography you face and the race to detect what the other guys defence looks like.

The purity and simplicity of the design does cause some problems. Your defenses will attack any enemy missile even if its not headed for you, making North America one of South America’s best defences from a European attack. The emphasis on the stylish arcs of the missiles means that they don’t always take the shortest route. West Europe is so small that you can get almost perfect AA coverage – the price of this is that it is easy to find all the defenses. Eastern Europe can get squeezed between Asia and Europe in an unhealthy way; a third player is in for a world of hurt if two decide to beat on him at once. More complex rules or less stylish presentation might mitigate some the missile stuff, but a third wheel will get ripped off in most games, anyway.

The speed timer is a curious little feature that could open Defcon to subtle mindgames. The action takes place at the speed set by the slowest player. So a more patient individual could slow things down to a crawl if only to provoke more excitable opponents who want to do something. You can give the AI lots of cute names like Chavez and Putin, or the tough Joshua (from the movie) and pre-emptive strike prone Reagan. These are nice touches that allow for a little unpredictability in an AI that does tend to fall into patterns.

This is not a serious game, but any serious gamer has to play it, if only to remember what makes a strategy game good. It’s not historical fidelity or flashy animations or a story based campaign. It’s the balance between aggression and timing. The pleasure in seeing a plan work. The behind the scenes action to get an ally before everyone starts screwing you over. It’s detection and diversion and pushing your enemy into unwise actions.

This is Introversions third instant classic (after Uplink and Darwinia) in three games. Nobody should be this good.


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