“Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” -The Bhagavad Gita
Quoted by J. Robert Oppenheimer as he witnessed the successful testing of the atom bomb on July 16, 1945.
The goal is quite simple: cause enough mass destruction on a global scale – using missiles, navy ships, and aircraft only – while attempting to protect your own cities from enemy attacks. Achieving this goal however, is far more difficult than it may seem. Without the need for resource management, all players can freely focus on the annihilation of their opponents in a game that pits players in both a physical and psychological PVP match-up. Having the ability to ally with others during a match can prove to be the downfall of a player as in the final moments of the game the person they thought of as a friend slips the dagger into their back to ensure he is the sole victor.
The group of players are split up into North America, Latin America, Europe, Africa, Russia, and Asia, and from there the game begins to get a bit more interesting. There is no economic or micro management to speak of in DEFCON. Players place their units & buildings in strategic locations right off the bat, and when the time comes they simply send their units to the designated targets and engage in the action they want.
In most RTS games the majority of the match is spent amassing forces and securing additional resources to begin a final push into the enemy’s base. However, in DEFCON, there is a lack of unit production, and all combat is relegated to the units placed at the start of the game. This allows for new players to quickly pick up on the game mechanics and compete at an equal level with seasoned players. The game also casts off technology tree upgrades and faction specific units so that balance isn’t an issue; every faction on map is able to be played exactly the same way. The only difference between one country or another is geographic location.
Combat is mostly controlled by air and naval units, which are primarily used to prod and maneuver towards successful nuclear strikes on enemy players. Each unit can activate one of several operating modes for different functions. For example, the submarines can be detected by aircraft carriers, but only if active sonar is engaged. Doing this will not only take precious seconds to transition into, but it also restricts that unit from launching attacks of its own. This switching of states is as close to micro-management of units as DEFCON has.
A game of DEFCON is comprised of five different stages designed to represent the countdown to a nuclear war. The first four of these stages are time based, but DEFCON 1 lasts until a certain percentage of nukes are launched; after enough are sent, the game begins the two-minute victory timer, allowing the game to set a unique pace. The clock speed can be controlled at any time but it’s restricted to the lowest speed any player on the map sets.
This means that players who determine their strategy early on are forced to sit there and wait while the slower player tinkers with their placement options. This same issue can also happen during the combat phase which brings what starts to be a conflict of global proportions to a sluggish crawl. This isn’t a game breaking mechanic, but it certainly can be manipulated to ensure a specific outcome. Although the game will progress, other players can become annoyed because someone is either tinkering too much, or intentionally being a nuisance.
During the first two stages the main focus will be on setting up the board. A player will be anxiously placing their silos, radar towers, air bases and fleets during an attempt to work towards forming an alliance with someone on the map. There is, of course, the option to not align with any group and venture deeper into the game independently, but that’s rarely the best course of action.
At this stage, the metagame is revealed and diplomacy between players takes a heavy focus. As Europe, an alliance with Africa can help protect the precious citizens (a unit of measure for the end score) from the potentially attacking forces from Russia and Asia. However, Europe could opt to deny that alliance with Africa and choose to ally with Russia to ensure their offense is simply a top-down maneuver on the map. Another useful feature for the game is the “Whiteboard”, which allows players to coordinate with their allies silently during a match, or to illustrate how bad they have it. Skillfully placing units in this stage is one of the main goals, as placements will help determine if that player can survive an opponent’s attempts at destroying all their citizens, fleets, and buildings.
During DEFCON 5 no physical combat is allowed, but the meta-level pvp will clearly lay out where the battles will mostly be fought.
Once the match reaches DEFCON 4, the battle lines will be mostly drawn and still no hostile action is enabled. Each player, through their radar towers, will begin to see what is within range of their borders and they can add any units that weren’t already place to the game during the previous round. During this stage the players will also begin to position their fleets into more strategic locations, although those units can become visible to other players if they venture too close to the radar towers.
There can be some frustrating parts to the game this early on. Each of the buildings occupy a zone in which no other building can be added, but thanks to the stylized neon map, a player can sometimes misread where that zone is and think their setup is perfect only to find out they can’t put that one silo where they really wanted to put it. That’s not a major problem, but during a stage in which players are attempting to balance setting up defenses and determining who on the planet is their friends and enemies, it is a bit irritating.
The war officially begins as naval and airborne combat starts. The ability to place fleets & units ceases and now the game focuses on destroying any valid targets during the stage. Having submarines take out an enemy fleet is all the more crucial as those ships could begin a naval attack with missiles later in the game. The posturing and positioning of naval units is only part of this stage as aircraft are also available to attack units. These early units cannot destroy buildings, but are used to prevent any positioning an opposing player attempts.
DEFCON 2 is notably similar to DEFCON 3. The combat of naval and airborne units is still the main focus. The combat becomes more aggressive during this stage, but nothing is added to the overall game mechanics. Just like in DEFCON 3, each air or naval unit that is lost becomes more and more painful as the clock ticks down to zero.
Arguably, DEFCON 2 is the most useless of the stages in the game, as there is no escalation in any of the available combat mechanics. DEFCON 4, the closest to being as unneeded as DEFCON 2, simply allows for additional time to determine unit placement and start the positioning of a player’s fleet. Perhaps Introversion felt the added time was really needed, or that they wanted to keep to the script with the number of DEFCON levels, but in the games I’ve played, nothing of note starts during DEFCON 2 that didn’t carry over from DEFCON 3.
This is the true combat stage. The use of nuclear weapons becomes available to everyone and players can use their stealth bombers (found on airbases and aircraft carriers) to bomb enemy defenses with nukes. Submarines can attack coastal cities and buildings with their medium-range ballistic missiles. While it is a risky move to do early into the stage, silos can turn from their default defensive mode shooting enemy aircraft rockets to offensive ICBM launchers. In their offensive state, however, the silos become globally visible, allowing the enemy players to know where the placement of that silo is. Launching too many at once will reveal entire silo placement plans, assuming it wasn’t discovered during DEFCON 2 and 3.
As much as I would like to say that is the pattern in which all DEFCON games play out, I can’t. The game is uniquely different each time the clock starts to countdown, and varies wildly based off the players who are participating. In addition to the matches being unique even on default mode, there are numerous game mode variants available to play.
“Diplomacy Mode,” for example, puts the players into the same alliance at the start of the game, and as the match progresses the alliance crumbles into disarray as people are voted out. Unlike the default mode, the end score is not based on how many citizens and units that a player destroys, but on the highest percentage of survivors.
Alternatively, “Office Mode” is a game variant where the clock cannot be sped up and runs the full course of the game from start to finish. The game can be quickly Alt+Tab’d out and will continue to run in the background. There are even notifications that will pop up in the computer’s system tray displaying events that happen in the game. A game of “Office Mode” will last no longer than six hours, meaning Introversion made it possible for people to play, and attend to, a game of DEFCON while at work or doing other things on the computer.
Existing in a genre where economic management and micro-managing of unit’s skills is the norm, DEFCON’s simplistic approach towards combat is a breath of fresh air and surprisingly deep. DEFCON is a very well made game that, despite being released around seven years ago, still stands strong.
This article originally appeared on TheMittani.com, written by Hendrick Tallardar.