Monday, October 09, 2006

Everybody's Gotta Die Sometime

And a lot of people die in a thermonuclear war, especially if you are playing the new game by Introversion Software, Defcon. Loosely based on the game shown in the movie Wargames, the game is simply a nuclear showdown between up to 6 computer or human opponents. With a ratcheting up of the action via the Defcon tickdowns (5 is peace, 1 is nuclear war), this easily learned, yet difficult to master game, achieves a serious "one more time" vote from me. I have only just started playing it, and although I feel that I grasp the basic concepts, I am often completely devastated by the computer AI, something that does not happen often in any other computer strategy game.

The world regions in Defcon

My radar coverage after I drop all my units on the board

The premise is simple. Starting with a major geopolitical section of the globe (America, Middle and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and what is essentially the former Soviet Union), you place radar installations, missile silos, airbases, and nautical fleets during Defcon 5 and 4. No military attacks can occur in defcon 5 and 4, but starting in 3, and after military units cannot be placed any longer, you are allowed some conventional (non-nuclear) attacks. When defcon 1 hits, the nuclear arsenal is unleashed, and the endgame begins. All of the placements and skirmishes that have taken place in the first 4 defcons now play out as nuclear bombers are unleashed, nuclear subs surface and launch nuclear missiles on coastal cities, and nuclear silos switch to ICBM mode and launch up to 10 missiles anywhere in the world.

The major population centers on the map, the places to strike

The constant ticking of the clock and the defcon levels makes for great gameplay. It forces players to act quickly, and yet it prevents the typical 'rush' that is found in other strategy games. Since you cannot drop nuclear weapons until defcon 1, the entire game plays out like a chess game, with a clear beginning, middle, and endgame. AS every palyer hits these points at the exact same time, it makes for a very equitable playing field at every phase of the game.

Defcon 3 hits and the war in the Pacific gets underway

The other interesting gameplay element, is that missile silos play a dual role. Until you switch them, they act as air defence units, knocking fighters, bombers, and most importantly, nuclear missiles out of the sky. If you switch them to ICBM mode, you can launch up to 10 missiles, but the switch to and from both modes requires 120 seconds, which means while you are switching, and while you are launching missiles, that particular silo is defenseless. This means that the choice to switch a silo is a key element in the game and one that can often lose or save a game.

I decide that a concerted strike on the east coast of Africa is in order

There's a variety of gametypes, of which I have only sampled a few, and have not yet tried online play with other players, something that sounds like a lot of fun (with all of the political intrigue of the U.N.). Apparently players can join and switch alliances, and there is even one game called Diplomacy in which everyone starts on the same side. As the game progresses more players leave the main alliance and either go it alone or form their own alliances. Hilarity ensues (and I presume much swearing).

Defcon 1 hits and the first nuclear missile launches begin

The casualties begin to mount, (Boing Boing is immediately wiped off of the face of the map)

The graphics are very simplistic, and reminiscent of Introversion's previous game, Darwinia. The music is absolutely ethereal, and very haunting, fitting perfectly with the game. In fact, I'm positive you can hear a woman softly crying in the background at one point.

I am in for a world of hurt, and nuclear fallout

What's really fascinating is just how topical this game is. Iran appears to be flaunting the security council resolutions to suspend uranium enrichment, and North Korea has apparently just set off a nuclear test device. I wonder if Introversion was stimulated by current events, or whether this was just a coincidence and if any of this will impact the game, how it is perceived and sales (I wonder what will happen if the mainstream news outlets get ahold of this?)?

I highly recommend this game. The speed games can be played in 15 minutes, while the extremely long office mode allows you to play at work during a 6 hour period, perfect for those slow days in the office (with a quick exit mode for when the boss pops in). I am also looking forward to seeing what the community does with this game in terms of mods, new maps, units, gametypes.

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