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September 2006




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defcon          defcon


It’s interesting how apocalyptic dread, like everything else, moves in cycles.  The film Wargames disturbed the bejesus out of me as a kid in 1983, but just a few years later, after the fall of the iron curtain, it seemed like a quaint artifact of 80’s cold war anxiety.  However, in light of recent world events, I’m not quite sure I could watch it today without a little bit of the old fear creeping in.  As I examine the preview materials for Introversion Software’s new online competitive multiplayer game Defcon, with its Wargames-inspired NORAD map and old school graphics, I feel something similar.  This is a game I would have played with pleasurable dread in 1983, (there was an actual Wargames game – albeit a bad one) and would have enjoyed playing for more nostalgic, ironic purposes in 1993.  Today, though I expect to play and probably enjoy Defcon, I’m afraid it will be with some uneasiness again.


Introversion, the small British development group behind the excellent Uplink:  Hacker Elite and recent phenomenon Darwinia, seem to have a strong grasp on the essentials of old-fashioned game play, letting the gamer’s imagination do the work rather than relying on state-of-the-art graphics, valuing innovation and fun over production values and flash.  Defcon seems consistent with this philosophy, and it again seems to work – I’ll admit I felt a powerful hankering to play just from the gameplay clips I watched. 


The developers make clear in their literature that Defcon is more a game of survivors than a winners – it’s mutually assured destruction after all.  Any victories will be Pyrrhic ones.  So the pleasures of the game will have to come from



something else – maybe from the grim satisfaction of surviving, maybe from the same dark humor displayed in the preview materials.  The preview came packaged with a “nuclear survival guide” booklet filled with game instructions, tongue-in-cheek 1950’s propaganda and campy photos of the designers in military regalia.  While the “duck and cover” shtick didn’t 


feel as funny as the same joke used in Fallout ten years ago, it did give me a few laughs and I hope the game itself has a touch of this gallows humor. (ie. I hope there’s a little Dr. Strangelove mixed in with the Failsafe.)


The preview guide outlined what seems like a fun combination of diplomacy, strategic deployment, and of course, conflict.  In the short gameplay clips I watched, I saw what appeared to be fierce and massive naval and air battles as continents struggled for strategic advantage while a timer ticked down Defcon levels.  The inevitable missile launch, accompanied by eerie music, was easily the most disturbing part of the spectacle.  Despite the minimalist graphics, I have to say those white light pinpoint explosions and stark casualty figures (8.5 million dead here, 1.3 dead there) were more than a little chilling.


defcon          defcon


Interestingly, unlike some other nuclear conflict games I remember from the 80’s, which drew sides along contemporary historical lines, the game doesn’t seem to be tied to current political and economic realities.  One of the clips I watched seemed to show North America battling South America and Africa, all armed to the teeth with nukes, so apparently players are free to choose, build and attack wherever and however they desire.  Maybe this is a good thing, keeping the scenarios as hypothetical and divorced from current political realities as possible. 


While the game is primarily online, it promises a single player mode against the AI for practice purposes.  Personally, I might have liked a more robust single player and maybe some scenarios or dynamic campaigns – and I think it wouldn’t be too hard for those smart cats at Introversion to come up with some – but we’ll see how it is. 


If what I’ve seen is an indication of the game that will be, Defcon should be another winner for Introversion, mixing old-school fun with old-school dread.  I just hope I can sleep at night.


- John Tait

(August 28, 2006)


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