Op-Ed

Op-Ed
DEFCON, or how I Learned to Stop Worrying and ...

Joseph Blancato | 2 Oct 2006 17:45
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For the sake of the free world, pray I'm never given control of a nuclear-capable Africa. I've run some numbers through The Simulator, and I'm pretty sure I'd be able to hold the world hostage with a few carefully-placed missile silos and a small navy's worth materiel, brought to me from Russia, with love. The trick is to protect Cairo and Kinshasa; the rest of the continent, if you're an aspiring madman at least, falls well into the "acceptable loss" category. And hey, if you're lucky, your missile shield will knock down the nukes headed toward western Africa, anyway. Look upon me, Western Culture, and tremble at the monster you created.

But alas, the chances of me getting into African politics are about as good as the African Union forming a cohesive government with enough cash to put together the resources I would need to turn the continent into a true world power. Instead, I'm relegated to The Simulator, codenamed DEFCON. But to really understand DEFCON, we have to travel back in time to 1983, when the world met Matthew Broderick and Joshua.

The movie was WarGames. Broderick played a young hacker who blundered into a Defense Department mainframe. The machine, named Joshua, offered a list of games Broderick could play, ranging from tic-tac-toe to chess to "Global Thermonuclear War." Naturally, Broderick opted to play the latter, which isn't a game at all, but rather the program that initiates the launch sequences of all the ICBMs in the country and points them directly at Russia. Hijinks ensue, and I'm far enough beyond the statute of spoiler limitations to say Broderick manages to deactivate Joshua, saving the world from the ending in Dr. Strangelove.

But WarGames planted a terrible seed in my head. Namely, what if everything went up in a brilliant flash leaving nothing but radioactive glass in its wake? What if someone did push The Button?

What if I was the one to push it?

In DEFCON, I'm able to find out. Much like a few of my recurring dreams, I'm a chess player on the world stage, but a world map is the board, and my pieces, when they reach their destination uninterrupted, explode in giant mushroom clouds and kill millions of innocent people.

First reaction: cool! Second reaction: I think I need to see a psychologist.

Developed by Introversion, the guys behind Uplink and Darwinia, DEFCON throws you into a global conflict with an unavoidable outcome: global thermonuclear war. It takes its name from the acronym for Defense Condition, which describes the general level of armed forces readiness and ranges from 5 to 1, 5 being normal peacetime conditions, 1 being a land invasion on U.S. soil.

You begin your short-lived regime staring at a vector-drawn map of the world. From this vantage point, you're able to see faint squares dotting the map. As you zoom in, the squares come into focus and reveal they're cities; the larger the square, the larger the city population. A standard game is score-based, and bigger cities earn you more points if you nuke them as opposed to smaller ones.

Rather than worrying about resource management and defense budgets, you start off with a limited number of radar towers, airbases, nuclear missile silos (which double as anti-missile batteries when not launching ICBMs), and nuclear-capable submarines and bombers, which you place on the map before any shots are fired. Instead of build orders and resource gatherers, you're forced to focus more on quick operational strategy: DEFCON has a time limit.

Each level of the DEFCON lasts a certain amount of time; DEFCON 5 and 4 (peacetime) last just long enough for you to get your defenses up and your troops on the ground, and by the time you tick into DEFCON 3, your enemies are moving their navies around the map, which you're free to engage. DEFCON 2 gives you just enough time to figure out how much you lost in your naval battles, and then DEFCON 1 hits and the fireworks start.

You spend the majority of your time at DEFCON 1, where ICBMs zoom across the map, submarines try to avoid naval detection as they fire short-range nukes into ports, and bombers avoid enemy fighters and missile batteries to take out sparsely defended cities. The combat is slow-moving, but there's so much of it going on, it's still difficult to keep up. You feel like a cross between an air traffic controller and a professional StarCraft player, only you're trapped in the early '80s, and the Russkies finally decided to make it a shooting war.

The speed, actually, is what makes DEFCON stand out. Play Warcraft III, and if you screw up your first 30 seconds, you're pretty much toast. In DEFCON, however, much of the outcome of the game is dependent upon late-game timing and patience. I've been able to rally from horrendous starts (hint: forgetting to defend Tokyo was a pretty bad mistake) to still salvage a win.

Not to mention the abject terror in which you sit as you watch an enemy nuke glide toward your most populous city, praying your missile battery is able to knock it down. It's five seconds of pure terror, and it happens at least 15 times every game.

As far as actual strategy goes, DEFCON delivers big on operational, strategic and tactical levels. Since there's no upgrade system, you're forced to improvise with what you have, rather than memorize the quickest path to badass nukes. Industry Relations Guru Shannon Drake and I were playing a game, and after I managed to take out the majority of his missile silos, he kept things close by poking around with his subs to take out my undefended cities while I flailed around with fighter jets looking for him. You just don't see stuff like that in the really fast-paced stuff.

The game is also one hell of a spectator sport. The guys in the office who weren't graced with review copies looked on in glee as those of us at the helm exploded each other into frantic oblivion. They cheered when nukes reached their targets and groaned when bombers were shot down inches away from flattening a city. Especially when it's a Russian city.

There's something about what the game bottles that strikes a chord with those of us who are old enough to remember the Cold War. I was young when the Berlin Wall came down, but my earliest years were darkened by impending Doom from the East, the very real fact that we were all a communications breakdown away from Mutually Assured Destruction. To finally see it happen, to make it happen, is both terrifying and cathartic, like those moments when you're freefalling off a high dive: You've given yourself over to entropy, but you've overcome your fear of stepping into it. That chaos is where DEFCON lives, and it's a great place to visit.

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