It's amazing what can be accomplished with a handful of previously used concepts and carefully balanced rules. DEFCON: Everybody Dies, the latest title from UK-based Introversion Software, places you in the middle of your very own nuclear bunker, planning the demise of the world above. Surprisingly enough, the most attractive aspect of this game is its simplicity. A single glance at a screenshot will quickly illustrate that this isn't a graphics-intensive game which, like so many on a nearby retail shelf, incite purchases with incredibly realistic rendering. Nor will a first run of the demo blow you away with astonishing audio. In a market saturated with incredibly complex games, one might wonder how such simplicity has generated so much buzz.
DEFCON is like a game of chess with a deadly spin: a series of units is placed on a pre-defined map and a set of strategic actions take place. However, when the king falls, more than half of the world's population has been killed. As the website suggests, it's not about winning, it's about losing the least. The game divides the world into six territories (leading one to wonder how South America obtained a nuclear arsenal) which are pitted against each other in an epic struggle of who will press the big red button first. If you're one to think that neutrality is the best strategy, you'll soon find out that human and AI players alike are discomforted by impartiality and will soon invest a steady supply of nukes into inciting a response from such parties.
Since the rules of the game are so easy to understand, anybody can quickly join in on the mayhem. As the game timer advances, the DEFCON (DEFense CONdition) level increases, changing the combat options of the players. When DEFCON 1 is reached, it starts raining death. Until then, players can use lesser units (ships, subs, fighters and bombers) to kill each other but the scoring is based solely on the amount of people you kill (and your own surviving population) in the world's cities. However, like chess, it takes a while to master this game. After playing a few games, one starts to notice that there's really only two ways to win: strike early by throwing everything you can at a small area, or wait until someone else does just that and strike while their silos are in launch mode. The result is a radioactive anarchy unlike any you've experienced before.
The key element to this game, which Introversion has expertly mastered, is maintaining the atmosphere. No dramatic music is queued when launching your nukes, no explosions challenge your subwoofer when a city is vaporized, and no screams are heard when a few million people die. DEFCON highlights just how easy it is to ignore the painful deaths of half the world's population when you're safely hidden in an underground bunker somewhere, plotting the demise of the enemy. A nuke touches down in the middle of New York City instantly killing eleven million people. A large white circle illuminates the area, and slowly begins to dissipate. In five minutes, it will simply be a lesser target for the enemy, clouded in a greenish radioactive haze. Of course, such attacks aren't completely ignored, since nobody likes losing, but once the warhead showers are seen coming over the horizon, sometimes there's nothing left to do but cower under your desk.
DEFCON has a fairly nice presentation. Both the game's manual and website are built on a very fitting template made to look like a 50 year-old booklet which hasn't been touched since the end of the cold war. The manual reads fairly easily, in part due to the simplicity of the game, and mixes a healthy amount of apocalyptic humour with the relevant game details. The game's interface could use a little work as the menu has a few glitches, but nothing that can't be overlooked. Its most appealing feature is the ability to change the colour scheme of the entire interface while keeping in tone with the classic battle display from the bunkers/submarines/ships in your favourite nuclear war movie. Completing the package is the perfect atmosphere created by this game. Close the lights and watch your room light up with the eery glow of death.
Introversion has somehow managed to capture classic nuclear war displays and enhance them in an aesthetically pleasing way without ruining their essence. They've put just the right amount of shading, highlighting, and special effects for this game's graphics to qualify as respectable. The menu adds a slight touch of complexity with a spining three-dimensional wireframe earth, but that's about it. One can truly appreciate the thematic consistency throughout the game, as all elements of the in-game interface are similarly crafted with the dramatic outlines. This game is a perfect example of quality without complexity, and as you can imagine, it will run smoothly on virtually any system.
The auditory elements of DEFCON are limited at best. The game's atmosphere thrives on solemn low-volume music which just barely breaks an otherwise dreary silence. Whilst the tracks themselves are fairly good and appropriate, most gamers won't really notice unless they really crank up the volume. Sound effects are few and far apart, and the only two you're likely to hear during the course of a game are the innocuous chirp of a new chat message and the blaring horn announcing the start of DEFCON 1 (which peculiarly ressembles the occasional sound played when a nuclear launch is detected). While some may find the variety of audio cues lacking, it reinforces the urgency implied when that horn finally sounds: the imminent pandemonium.
DEFCON is clearly intended to be played against human players. The variety of tactics and strategies that make this game challenging can only come from human minds. The AI is still respectably intelligent though, if you're not quite ready to challenge real players. However, the AI doesn't seem capable of betraying alliances and other such unexpected events that multiplayer matches are sure to throw your way. The standard game offers a few variations on scoring modes and initial conditions, but might have otherwise been a little limiting until the timely release of the mod patch changed everything. The new patch allows users to play a variety of custom maps which extend this game beyond its original bounds. While some maps take the combat to outer space, the most interesting "map" as of the writing of this review replaces the continents with brains and brings the intellectual battle to a whole new level of reality. Introversion saves the day once more.
An interesting concept, classic battle graphics and tremendous replayability, this game has it all. Don't even bother walking to the store, get this one right away online at the games official website. You won't regret it, but your civilian population might.