DEFCON was always going to be an easy sell for Introversion. You just can't beat 'Global Thermonuclear War' as a concept, particularly when it's a multiplayer game. I mean, who doesn't want to launch a few nukes at their mates? But it's more than that, and it's clear Introversion don't want us to treat the concept of nuclear war lightly. Every game has a bigger kill count than every other game you'll have played combined, and although the winner will have a smile on his face at the end, you'll still have millions of casualties under your belt. Are you ready to take responsibility for 100 million souls? Walk this way...
An RTS at heart, DEFCON puts your finger on the button, in charge of one of six coalitions: Asia, Africa, Europe, Russia, North America and South America. A few liberties are taken here and there with some of these unions, but it creates six clearly defined areas from which you can choose to wipe out a fair chunk of the Earth's population. The game itself is broken up into five distinct stages, based around the USA's DEFCON system, ranging from DEFCON 5 to DEFCON 1. The first two stages are primarily for setting up your units. Each player has exactly the same number of silos, radars, airports, ships and subs - none of that tedious resource gathering and building here. With everyone on an equal footing, it's all about placement and timing.
It's here that you have your first strategic decisions to make. Should you commit all your fleets to one side of your territory to defend? Or send them out for a quick attack against your nearest neighbour? It's decisions like this that determine whether you'll win or lose, right from the start. It's not until DEFCON 3 that any action starts happening though, and even then your nukes are still kept in check. It's at this stage that you'll start sending fighters out on reconnaissance, and your fleets tend to become engaged in skirmishes. Reconnoitring at this point is vital for your later planning and attacks, and the skirmishes, minor as they may appear to be, are always useful when it comes to DEFCON 1. The fewer nukes flying your way, the better.
It's not until DEFCON 1 that the game really kicks in, and the sweating starts. You see, this stage hinges upon timing. Due to the nature of your silos, they can only be in one mode at a time; either attack or defence. You're completely defenceless when your silos are firing, so finding the right window for launch is critical: pre-emptive strike or calculated counter attack? It's here that the true level of strategy in DEFCON opens up and it's nail-biting stuff. It's always heart in mouth time when the nuclear sirens start to wail.
'Being able to betray your allies in a heartbeat adds a level of paranoia you won't see in any other game...'
What I've described here is the way most single-player games tend to go, but it's the multiplayer where this game really starts to shine. The ability to make and break alliances, private message other players and launch co-ordinated strikes makes this one of the best strategy games in years. Being able to betray your allies in a heartbeat adds a level of paranoia you won't see in any other game, and against 5 good opponents it's an unparalleled online experience.
Add to this the other game and scoring options and you have a wealth of potential in a game that, at first glance, seemed fairly simple. Diplomacy mode in particular is great fun: everyone is in an alliance, but how long will it last? The tension in one of these games is second to none. Even office workers can get in on the action, with a real-time multiplayer mode that takes place over a working day, and allows players to quickly minimise in order to fool pesky bosses.
You may have noticed that I haven't mentioned the game's graphics or sound once in this review so far, but don't let that dismay you. The game may be graphically simple, but it looks fantastic and only serves to immerse you more into the role of the 'man with his finger on the button'. Combine this with the chilling atmospheric music that plays continuously and you'd almost imagine you were in some hardened concrete bunker, getting ready to fire. Played on a giant widescreen monitor, it's almost as if you really are a powerful military leader.
So, simply put, it's an amazing game. It could be argued that the appeal is limited, as after all, there is only one map to play on. But due to shifting alliances and perceived threats, the game never fails to feel anything but completely fresh. And even if DEFCON may seem limited to some, it's only £10, which is peanuts for a game of this quality. Bought from a store it comes complete with Introversion's Uplink, the rather brilliant hacking game, making the decision to digitally download or buy from retail rather tricky. So, if you love strategy games or simply like interesting gaming experiences, this is for you. So, here's to Global Thermonuclear War. Who knew it would be so much fun?