Saturday, September 23, 2006

DEFCON Review

DEFCON, developed and published by Introversion Software.
The Good: Simple yet deep gameplay with multiple strategies, excellent multiplayer, useful tutorial, intuitive user interface, not much micromanagement, few but comprehensive unit types, wonderful themed graphics and sound, capable AI
The Not So Good: Defenses are exceptionally stout which may annoy overly aggressive players, AI will not sign or break treaties
What say you? It turns out total global annihilation is very fun: 8/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
There was a movie released about 20 years ago where a computer hacker accesses a government computer that launches nuclear missiles thinking it’s a computer game, almost unleashing World War III. I am, of course, talking about Terms of Endearment. Now, wouldn’t that computer game make a good computer game? That’s what the people at Introversion Software thought, bringing their pedigree of low-cost but high-fun PC games to the childish glee of thermonuclear chaos. Sure, watching nuclear detonations is good fun, but what if you were in charge of killing millions of people at the touch of a button? Sounds like a grand old time to me!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
DEFCON has a wonderful theme that resonates through the game’s graphics and sound, simulating Cold-War era computing power complete with wire-frame continents and simple mock-ups of aircraft and weapons. This not only fits the mood and period of the game, but is also makes it easier to code the graphics (good for a small developer) and it allows the game to run on pretty much any system. The overall effect is very convincing in a disconnected sort of way: it’s eerie watching the world light up from countless nuclear blasts on a map, and it’s just as successful as seeing it more “realistically” through 3-D methods. DEFCON feels like you’re using authentic equipment as you rain down destruction upon your foes from the comfort of an underground bunker. Watching the world get destroyed on DEFCON’s map is just as thrilling/disturbing as any more true-to-life game with cutting-edge 3-D effects. The sound is also great, with appropriate warnings when launches occur and subdued explosions when the bombs drop. The background music is spectacular: the haunting score fits the mood of the game very well. In addition, the music will gradually change according to the action on screen instead of being set songs in a set order (becoming more somber as you turn your Mom into a pile of ash, you bastard). Introversion delivers a great visual feast while making the game accessible to all gamers. Plus, the graphics and sound are memorable: screenshots of DEFCON are easily identifiable, unlike the hordes of first person shooters or run-of-the-mill RTS games available that all look the same. DEFCON is a distinct title and delivers a alarmingly convincing atmosphere in which to destroy.

FEATURES
The premise of DEFCON is simple: kill people. Lots of them. You do this by launching nuclear warheads deep into enemy territory by various means and defending against incoming attacks. The game features an excellent tutorial to get you acquainted with the game in addition to the downright hilarious manual, which includes instructions on how to build your own fallout shelter and suggests wearing sunscreen (SPF 45) to prevent against radiation. All of the matches in DEFCON could be considered as skirmish games (there is no campaign, because it would last one game anyway) that can be played against the AI or online (or both). There are some custom game modes available, including Office Mode that features six hour long real time games intended for a working environment (don’t worry: pressing escape twice will minimize the game to the taskbar and the icon will flash indicating important events…awesome) and Speed DEFCON for the attention-span challenged. You can also adjust the settings of the game, altering the number of cities, assigned territories, or the victory timer settings. The default scoring mode gives points for kills and deducts points for losses, but additional modes can give points for kills only or just the number of survivors.

INTERFACE THIS!
The game progresses in real time (that can be accelerated, thankfully) and keeps going until everyone has used a set amount of the nuclear stockpile (then a victory timer starts, allowing for some last second launches). The user interface is very well done and manageable as you can perform all of the actions in the game using the mouse and spacebar: right clicking changes unit modes and issues movement orders, while left clicking selects units and targets. DEFCON also has informative tool-tips giving the user data on the strengths and weaknesses of any selected unit. In addition, the game features a suite of overlays indicating where available nukes are located, population centers, and radar coverage. Everything you need is at your fingertips and you’ll never have to navigate away from the main screen at any point in the game.

UNITS
As time progresses in the game, the DEFCON level increases and you’ll have access to more nefarious tactics. You’ll start each game by placing your units and buildings. Much like tactical RTS games, you are given a set number of units and buildings to place at the beginning of the game with no resource collection or building of units after placement. This eliminates a lot of the tedium seen in long, drawn out battles many RTS games feature where the losers can keep cranking out units and run around the map like idiots. DEFCON doesn’t feature a long list of different units, but the number of strategic options is still intact. Naval units include battleships (for naval combat), subs (for covert nuclear strikes), and carriers (for long-range bombing and sub detection), each of which have their own advantages and disadvantages (like everything in a well-balanced game). These are grouped into fleets of one to six to make moving units easier. You’ll also be able to place several installations for offensive and defensive purposes: radar to detect enemy units, airbases to launch bombers and fighters, and silos that both launch nuclear weapons and defend against incoming airborne units. Most structures and units have multiple modes of operation, such as launching nuclear weapons and running silent for subs and launching fighters and bomber and detecting subs for carriers. It takes time to switch between the different modes, so your forces can become vulnerable to an attack during transformation; this opens up a host of strategies if you have good intelligence on your opponents.

STRATEGIES
DEFCON is a very strategically interesting game as you try to counter your opponents’ strategies. There are several methods you can use to take down your enemies. Attacks will come from land-based silos and airbases as well as sea-based subs and carriers. DEFCON becomes a game of timing, as the main defensive mechanism to guard against incoming attacks (silos) is also the main offensive mechanism for forming attacks. Silos can only be set to one mode at a time and switching from defensive to offensive settings takes time. Also, all players are informed of a launch from a sub or silo, so be prepared for a retaliation attack shortly if you decide to throw your arsenal at the opposition. Silos are very sturdy defenses as well: it takes three direct hits from nuclear bombs to take out a silo, so successfully taking out an enemy may require a large number of warheads being launched at the game time (or waiting until they are in launch mode). Defensive silos seems a little bit too effective at anti-aircraft operations, but I suppose this discourages half-hearted, infantile attacks. It seems that the main goal is to send more offensive targets than the defender can handle so that some of the missiles and bombers will make their way through the air defenses to their targets. Some players will be content to wait until a launch is made against their land, knowing that the defensive silos are now vulnerable to a counter-attack. There are a number of viable strategies to the game and no clear exploits or set strategies which is always a good thing. You'll strive to counter what your opponent is bringing to the radioactive table and change your tactics on the fly.

PUTTING THE “CON” IN DEFCON
Alliances are allowed during the game, which allows allies to share radar and concentrate on a common foe. Since alliances can be formed and broken at any time, this can make for some sneaky and downright mean tactics during the game, especially since only one person is declared the winner instead of the winning alliance. As an example, I was in second place near the end of the game, so I broke an alliance with the leader and subsequently launched about 50 nukes at them (since we were previously allied, I knew where his units were…ha ha, sucker). This made them mad but I won and that’s all that matters. For those non-social types, you can play against the AI. While the AI doesn’t participate in diplomacy (alliances) like human players, they are a challenging opponent that seems to exhibit several distinct behaviors (aggressive and passive). I have yet to consistently stomp over the AI (especially with 5 or 6 players), so even though DEFCON was made with multiplayer in mind, you can still have a grand time laying waste to the AI.

IN CLOSING
DEFCON is an extremely entertaining real time strategy game that is easy to learn and play, but contains enough strategic depth to keep most everybody interested. The game features a low number of units and wipes away a lot of the tedious micromanagement of other games (as units will automatically defend against enemy threats), making DEFCON much less daunting than a majority of strategy games. The game lets you concentrate on the big picture: building bases, positioning units, forming a plan, and selecting juicy targets. DEFCON can be adjusted to fit any requested pace, from quick matches to drawn out slugfests. Plus, the mood of the game is brilliant; there is a reason DEFCON includes a rolling demo, as the game is just plain fun to watch. Oh, and it’s under $20. DEFCON is ultimate pick-up-and-play multiplayer strategy game and I don’t know why you wasted your time reading this review instead of playing. Now go kill some innocent civilians!