The outline of continents and countries glow blue in crisp contours. Orchestral music wafts from the blue and black screen showing Earth’s map. Below, hovering above the outline of a flattened south pole, glows one angry red word, "Defcon," followed by the number one. Next to the number, seconds slip away. Shortly after the countdown hits zero, white dots blossom across the blue and black of the map. The white spreads and then diminishes.
Mutually assured destruction has never been so ambient.
It’s not clear whether “Defcon: Everybody Dies” ($29.25, rated "T") is more successful as a stripped-down strategy game or a bit of anti Cold-War rhetoric, but whatever it was meant to be, it’s certainly an experience worth the price of admission.
“Defcon,” from Introversion Software, has been available for $19.50 on Valve’s Steam service since late last year, only recently becoming available on retail shelves.
"Defcon" is a strategy title boiled down to its essence, a game that makes you decide whether you want to defend or attack, but gives you few other options. Think “Risk” but with atomic bombs. Keeping with the Cold War tone, the object of the game isn’t to be the winner but the smallest loser, the side with the fewest deaths. You will almost inevitably lose millions of lives, but to win you need to cause more catastrophic death than your opponents.
While many strategy games dwell on the possibility of attack, in “Defcon” you know the missiles and bombs are coming to your largest cities. The only question is when.
The game starts by assigning you a territory, such as North America, Asia, or the UK, and then giving you your own collection of radar dishes, missile silos, airbases and warships to place around your cities. You don’t have much time, so choose wisely. These units will both thwart attacks and enable you to eventually launch your own.
The choice to attack or defend hampers most of the game’s units and is a big part of the game’s strategy. Spend all of your time trying to shoot down incoming attacks and you’ll never win, but spend too much effort launching off nuclear warheads and you’re bound to lose.
The game’s basic level of strategy might seem simplistic, but it makes for some interesting decisions and tactically taut battles.
To make things a bit more interesting, “Defcon” also supports alliances that can be forged or broken almost as quickly as in the real world. While the default mode of the game awards two points for every enemy killed and takes away one point for every person you lose, you can set the game to genocide mode, which just counts your enemies’ losses, or survivor, which awards points only for the number of survivors.
Like the game’s tactics, “Defcon’s” graphics are simple — but powerful. When the inevitable atomic blasts start to mushroom across the map, plain text provides a chilling reminder of the stakes of the game in the effluence of the bombs’ glow: Kiev Hit 4.5 M Dead. Rome Hit 1.5 M Dead. Salvador Hit 1.6 M Dead. Sao Palo Hit 4.8 M Dead
The same is true of the stripped-down sound. The music subtly changes as the death toll rises. The floating orchestral songs that marked the early stages of the game are interrupted by the occasional sound of whipping winds or someone coughing in the distance.
“Defcon” certainly doesn’t offer gamers the same level of strategic depth as "Civilization," "Age of Empires" or "Command & Conquer," but the simplicity of the game seems to do a better job of driving home its point.
And it’s got a point.
“Defcon” might be missing the loveable figure of wheelchair-bound, alien-hand-syndrome-inflicted Dr. Strangelove, but Stanley Kubrick’s satirical Cold War message still hits home.
In war, be it nuanced and devilishly detailed or painted in the broad strokes of the 80’s cult classic "Wargames," there is no winner, only the smallest loser.