The RTSC Games List DefCon

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Its the end of the world as we know it. There are no winners: the idea is to be the one who loses the least.

DefCon is another excellent game from Introversion, the "last of the bedroom programmers". A radical departure from the rigid conventions of your standard issue Real Time Strategy games, DefCon is all about nuclear Armageddon. The obvious reference is from the old Eighties' teen flick Wargames, where a very young Matthew Broderick nearly triggers a thermonuclear war when he hacks into the Pentagon computers and starts playing what he thinks is a simple computer game.

Like their previous effort Darwinia, this has a very "retro" feel, in that the war map is presented like a luminous wire frame, with dotted lines showing trajectories of ICBM's and simple pictograms representing units. This is another excellent small budget production, the antithesis of all those bloated mega-productions with hundreds of people, millions of dollars and gigabytes of data. As a war game, its bloody brilliant. Its simple, and very easy to learn but you'll never master it. DefCon is about as pure as strategy gaming gets. The permutations and possibilities are almost endless; I should imagine armchair strategists will be playing this one for years.

You have generic units. Everyone either plays as a continent or bands together in huge blocs. You can switch allegiances as often as you like. Your silos double as both offensive ICBM launchers or as anti-air defences. You get to plonk down radar, airfields, silos and naval task forces, and then as the countdown takes you down through ever escalating Defence Conditions (5 for peace, 3 for conventional war, and 1 for all-out thermonuclear war), there's a mad scramble for position, and then the nukes start to fly. Do you go for an all out assault, or try to fend off the incoming warheads? Saturate the enemy or hold off until they open fire and their anti-air defences are down? As the final countdown to the end of the game ticks off, there's often a furious panic of activity as cities disappear under clouds of missiles as players jostle for position on the scoreboard. Somewhere off your coast, there are nuclear submarines closing for the kill, completely hidden from view, biding their time until they surface at the last minute and catch you unawares. Second guessing your opponents is an vital aspect to this game. Your radar coverage never seems to be enough. Your fighters get shot down trying to scout enemy targets or intercept incoming nuclear bombers. With every city hit, millions are killed, while the game calmly logs the grim toll in mega deaths so big that they're rounded off in hundreds of thousands and given scarcely a few seconds notice.

DefCon's surprisingly intense. There's a certain inevitability about watching those slow missile trajectories describe themselves across the map. Actually, its simplicity and directness probably makes it one of the creepiest games I've ever played. That's probably because I grew up in the Seventies, with the Cold War hanging over everything like a Damoclean Sword. The prospect of nuclear annihilation was always there, at the back of your mind, and a lot of people honestly thought we weren't going to make the end of the century.

Now with powers like India, Pakistan and potentially Iran joining the nuclear club, Israel and the Middle East running around like headless chickens, and the US rejecting arms control treaties and stirring the pot, DefCon is just that little bit more scarier. It's minimalist world map lets your imagination connect the dots; in the right frame of mind, the sheer awfulness of what is potentially unfolding before you can hit home. There is no external Evil or some silly plot device threatening the world - its you trying your best to murder as many millions as you can in the name of self defence - or merely claw your way up a scoreboard. This must be the ultimate demonstration of how Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.) actually works. When your world view becomes this remote and this dehumanised, then you can start to see how these sorts of insane decisions and policies can be contemplated, let alone made.

The soundtrack is excellent, and you really get the sense that you're some general sequestered in their bunker, pressing the buttons that launch the missiles and End the World. For a game that has only an abstract world map, DefCon is one of the most atmospheric games around. The music has a suitably funereal quality to it. And every now and then you hear one of the bunker staff, some secretary or personal assistant, break into sobs.

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Last modified Wed, Dec 13 2006 by Lindsay Fleay