A breathtaking anti-war game
Most classic war movies are actually categorized as "anti-war movies" in the media. Not because they avoid the subject of violence and destruction, but rather because they point the camera where it hurts, giving the viewer chills of terror as on-screen soldiers (and more importantly, civilians) relive real-world nightmares in all disgusting detail.
There are many games that deal with war, many of them I played. And so far, I had troubles pointing out a single one that tries to address the true atrocities of war. In Civilization, an atom bomb is a powerful but otherwise neutral resource, Command & Conquer has the emotional depth of a badly written comic book and most of today's WW2 themed games are either nothing but virtual hero worship or feature a plot involving telekinetic Nazi-zombies. And whenever that stupid reviewer guy from MTV interviews the executive producer he will proudly ASSURE you that the single most important purpose of his dramatic war game is... to be "fun".
DEFCON is different.
It is a cold game. Ice cold. It gives you chills. Numbers are running through the decorative background of the green-on-black retro vector graphics of the main menu. As your eyes wander over them, you realize, they are statistical data about survival rates in case of a nuclear holocaust and a detailed list of symptoms of radiation poisoning. Deep, menacing noises hum while a melancholic chorus sings a minimalist score in the background. Somebody coughs, unintelligible loudspeaker announcements echo in the distance.
All you see is a huge, blue screen filling your entire field of view. On it, in black outlines, the shape of the major continents of earth. Simple symbols represent missile silos, submarines... and all major metropolises. DEFCON 3. The first ships and airplanes start to move to strategic positions. DEFCON 2. Bombers launch, carrying nuclear SRBM closer to enemy territory. DEFCON 1. Dotted lines appear all over the map, each representing a nuclear missile headed for a major city. Panicky, the attacked try to intercept, but it is to late. A big, white glow spreads over the impact point. SVERDLOVSK HIT, 2.2 M DEAD. It will not be the last city to fall.
One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic. You begin to crunch numbers, sort out the biggest targets and decide to sacrifice another vulnerable target at the eastern border. You make plans not to win, but to lose... less. And the concept sends a cold shiver down your spine.
The simplicity of DEFCON's graphics can easily hide the complexity of its gameplay. There are only a handful of units and building structures, but each is essential and covers one unique aspect of gameplay. Radars, Airbases and Missile Silos have to be placed strategically during DEFCON 4, to cover important parts of the region whose side you decide to play on (Africa, Europe, North America, Russia, South America and South Asia compete). Nuclear submarines are invisible to the enemy except for ships in active sonar mode (switching modes takes precious time and should not be done thoughtlessly). Carriers can launch bombers and fighter planes closer to enemy borders. Fighters can intercept ICBMs in mid-air but can also be used to attack enemy units or scout territory for key targets such as missile silos or radars. When damaged, they can be repaired at airbases, but not on carriers. Having a well-distributed radar network is essential to catch enemy units before they can reach critical targets. Each move takes time, each unit is essential. Diplomacy lets you form alliances - if you are not betrayed in the last minute. Speed can be chosen between 1x (real time) up to 20x. It's an RTS with the graphics of a futuristic chess game and the atmosphere of a busy command center in the White House nuclear bunker.
Although the game features a solid AI, it is a multiplayer game at heart. Games of different sizes, settings and modes can be played with others on the internet. A maximum game speed can be chosen by the players and a solid lobby system for each match makes finding or opening a new one quite comfortable. The nicknames and conversations are shaped by the game's atmosphere. Chat partners with names of forgotten war lords or peace activists make sarcastic jokes as Europe is wiped off the map and new alliances are formed.
There is something dark, cynical and menacing about DEFCON that is pretty much unlike any game I have ever played before. The gloomy graphics and atmosphere, inspired by movies such as Wargames or Dr Strangelove, work on so many different levels, it's a truly outstanding experience. Never before plain numbers and statistics had such an emotional impact on me when playing a game. I remember the first time I saw the virtual version of my home city being hit by an ICBM and... I cried. Yes, I CRIED while playing an RTS game and I don't even feel ashamed.
There are more complex, more accessible games that might provide deeper game mechanics on the long run. Civilization might be more fun in this regard. But you could argue that this is not what DEFCON is about after all.
The Bottom Line
DEFCON might be the only war game ever made that doesn't slobber over technical details, shallow heroism or spectacular action sequences. It is the rarest of exceptions in our young, naive and action-packed medium of computer gaming: A game that is grown up, in every possible sense of the word.