By Trevor Fehrman . October 13, 2006 . 1:36pm
The still nascent IGA’s were rightfully kind to indie developers Introversion with their cult masterpiece Darwinia, and now the underdogs from the U.K. are back to put the fear of God into you (with merely a few hundred nuclear ICBMs) in their finely honed RTS Defcon. As the commander-in-chief of your choice of one of the worlds factions (split into rough geopolitical categories: North America, South America, Europe, Russia, etc.) it’s up to you to plan, deploy, and ultimately launch your nuclear arsenal at your enemy in an attempt to obliterate them before they obliterate you. The die is cast, the proverbial Cuban shit has hit the Missile Crisis, and there’s no turning back now. It’s your job to make the terrible and unfathomable decisions in search of the Devil you know: do you vaporize Paris or Shanghai? Dallas or Minsk? Do you sacrifice Washington D.C. in the hopes that you might save Detroit? Well, maybe Detroit was a bad example, but still, you get the picture. Defcon puts to you, the player, that most hardnosed and primal of truths: a few hundred thousand survivors from 300 million are still better than none.
Defcon represents a departure of sorts for Introversion. With Uplink (their freshman effort, an under-heralded hacker sim) and Darwina the developers offered unique and rich single player experiences, but Defcon is pure multiplayer mayhem. The moment the game begins the countdown toward Defcon 1 (and nuclear annihilation for one side) begins. You have a limited amount of time to hastily make whatever preparations you can before the nukes start flying so choose carefully, because if you silo where you should have radar-ed it’s bye-bye Portland. The countdown feature of Defcon is one of the mechanics that makes the game so good. You’re not allowed to perform certain tasks before their respective Defcon stages are reached so certain tasks involving your mobile units are not allowed until the timer has reached Defcon 3, and you’re not allowed to launch missiles from your silos until the dreaded Defcon 1. This lends to the game a terrifically tense atmosphere as everyone knows it’s only a matter of time before the fire begins to rain from the heavens and unless your defenses are in place before then, (or, alternatively, if you manage to strike first) you’re toast.
Defcon also lends credence to that old trope about fear being found in what you can’t see rather than what you can. Resident Evil 4 may have had some nasty weather and a few shambling Spaniards with particularly bad cases of tapeworm but show me one generic exploding head effect, regardless of how high its poly count is, that can match the profound horror of this typical rollover readout from Defcon: “Moscow: Population – 2.9 million Dead – 17.2 million”. Put that in your infinite rocket launcher and smoke it. Because while Defcon may have moved into new multiplayer territory for the company, the presentation and meta aspects of the game are pure Introversion. It’s no secret that Defcon isn’t Crysis. While the interface is gorgeously minimalist, there’s no reason that this game (or either of their other titles) couldn’t have been pulled off on any given system ten years ago, but Introversion has a way of making the built in disadvantages for a small team work for the title, rather than against it. The interface’s simplicity adds so much to the game’s evocativeness because its simplicity stands in such stark juxtaposition to the massive scale in which the game persists. It may sound implausible to the uninitiated, but the first time you see one of the world’s major cities perfunctorily wiped out by a rather unpretentious white circle you might get goose bumps, I did. This is very shrewd gamemaking, and not only has Introversion managed to do it three times in a row, they’ve managed to do it three times in a row in drastically different ways. In an industry overburdened by bloated software behemoths and their four year development cycles, Introversion stands as a shining beacon to the tragically under-populated independent game community. Their ingenuity and resourcefulness continues to astonish this critic.
Defcon is not without its problems. While it’s true that introversion has done a superb job with what they had to work with, one neon map of the world may have our more graphically minded readers thirsting for more. There’s also a little bit too much micromanagement for my tastes (though it should be mentioned that I have a somewhat irrational vendetta against micromanagement, thank you very much Warcraft 3), but for every weakness Defcon more than compensates with a hundred strengths. Defcon is nothing less than one of the most compelling and engaging strategy games I have ever played. Easy to learn, difficult to master, infinitely replayable, stylish, subversive, and on top of all that, budget priced: bravo, Intorversion. And as for you, gentle reader, I’ll see you on the horribly irradiated battlefield.
Version Covered: North American
Release Date: 09.29.06
+ Pros: Great multiplayer game with moments of nail biting tension unparalleled in the genre. Calling Defcon "Stylish" is like calling the moon dusty.
– Cons: Single player with bots is about all you get for single player.
Overall: When your pony can perform a trick like this, it doesn’t matter that it’s its only one
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