DEFCON: Everybody Dies is a time capsule of a title that dragged me back to my youth. In high school, I fondly remember a movie entitled Wargames, starring Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy (who still has never called me, despite my obvious fondness of her). However, the most remarkable character in the film was a computer that Broderick’s character was able to hack in to, thus starting the countdown to an all out global nuclear war. I spent many hours in my Cold War youth dreaming of playing that game and now, 20+ years later, I had my chance.
DEFCON is an abbreviation for defense condition and is used to establish the relative threat level during a nuclear confrontation. DEFCON 5 is “normal.” If you reach DEFCON 1 however, to quote Egon from Ghostbusters, “It would be bad.” Enough of my 80’s movie flashbacks (for now). The game utilizes this scale to thrust you into a strategic simulation unlike other any I have seen to date.
DEFCON’s charm comes through its simplicity. The game consists of a world map reminiscent of the grand vector graphics (think Asteroids and Tempest) of yesteryear. The color palate is very limited and the graphics are simple. Units appear on the map as sterile icons. Cities with population statistics, military bases, missile silos and naval units are nothing more than cute little shapes on the map. Given that the world map is locally familiar to us all, it is easy to figure out exactly where you are. Thankfully, there is no real central location except the equatorial line, so you can center the action on any country you wish.
Psychologically, the game was chilling to me, due to the sterility of the units. I imagine the actual war rooms around the globe are eerily similar in dehumanizing something as cataclysmic as nuclear war: giant maps in which cities are reduced to a population number and the casualties are never calculated on an individual level. I must admit there was a brief twinge of guilt when I played it, but I got over it.The game, which can be played against one or more computer opponents, or online against actual people, begins in DEFCON 5. This is the part where you place all units including radar stations which can warn of impending missile strikes. The game is on a timer and each round counts down through the next phase of DEFCON. There are 4 clock speeds to choose from if you want to skip the boring parts and just get to the nuclear cataclysm. My advice, however, if you want to win, is to be patient and think out your placements very carefully. The world is round despite the flat nature of the screen, and missiles can come from many directions. Once the missiles start to fly, the pace of the game can become so hectic it can be overwhelming. In one game, I had a clear advantage through 4 levels of DEFCON, but missed one group of ships. This group which I neglected to locate in earlier rounds decimated my silos. No silos, no missiles. Game over.There is no need to read any instructions to play, as the tutorial does a great job of getting you to understand the mechanics while helping you understand the basic strategies involved in unit placement and time management. Unlike so many RTS titles out there, the tutorial is logical and relatively quick paced. I strongly recommend playing through the tutorial at least once before setting out on your own. I also recommend being prepared to lose your first few games. It is not due to a steep learning curve, but to a large amount of activity that you need to pay attention to. One blink at the wrong time and you could loose a key unit. Again, game over. Since DEFCON is ultimately about who can kill the most people, the endgame is satisfying either way. Watching multi-colored volleys of nukes rain down is morbidly fun. At the same time, it really drives home the fact that no one would every really win a nuclear war.DEFCON will seem very similar to many RTS or board games you may have played in that it is deceptively easy to enter the game with moderate proficiency but extremely tough to master, especially against a formidable human opponent. I suspect that most people playing this online are the type that stick with a game for a while. Therefore I doubt there are a lot of pushovers out there. Combined with the fact that the computer AI is pretty good in its own right, you should find the real competition challenging but not impossible. It is a tough game to completely dominate in due to the balanced nature.
For a title that is selling for just $20 or £10 online, it is easy to justify purchasing. Of course, if you are not the trusting type, you can try the demo. I will warn you, however, that this game is terrifically addicting. In fact, I really did not want to start this review, because it meant I would have to move on to something else.The graphics are simple but terrifically effective. It was the first game that I really enjoyed on my wide screen monitor. The colors are easy on the eyes and it is very easy to distinguish units, even during the most heated exchanges. The sound design is adequate. I cannot honestly think of anything that is missing, given the nature of the game. I usually had music or the TV on while I played, only noticing the klaxon when DECON levels changed.
Regardless of your genre of choice, I would have to recommend DEFCON to just about any real gamer out there, especially if you are jaded by the seemingly endless lines of sequels and copycats. It is not often that something fresh and fun comes along, especially at a price far from the overzealous markups given most computer and video game titles. I would gladly pay double to have this title in my library and will most certainly return to it again, especially when I am missing the 80’s.