This post is from the now defunct website “A GameDev Plays…”, copied here for posterity
When engaged in nuclear war, it is best to strike early and often. This lesson brought to you by the stylish and disturbingly entertaining DEFCON, the tactical war game where everybody dies in nuclear fire.
Many years ago, before the collapse of the USSR, people were deathly scared that the world would end in a nuclear war. I just remember that time. There were movies like WarGames to play into that fear (if you haven’t seen that movie, it is great, although dated now). DEFON reminds me so much of the tactical screens in WarGames, it must be intentional. The game is played on an abstract 2D wireframe map of the world. Units are displayed by icons, missiles trail little dotted tracks behind them. Impact zones are shown as white smudges. In a nice update from WarGames, there are various overlays that colour the screen to show player control, radar coverage or remaining population (that last one gets darker and darker as the game progresses). The music is ethereal. This game is beautiful in a spare and disturbing manner.
Disturbing, because the game is about killing by the million. At the start the player choses their geographic location (Australia is not an option, why?) and positions their units: radar installations; missile silos; airbases; and, naval fleets. Then the DEFCON counter slowly drops from 5 to 1 over a couple of hours of game time (which can be accelerated or slowed down). As this level drops more actions become available - at DEFCON 3 you can attack with conventional weapons, at DEFCON 1 nukes can be launched. In realtime the player chooses the military actions to perform with their units. Many of the possibilities are mutually exclusive, for instance silos can either launch ICBMs at designated targets, or can be in air-defence mode trying to shoot down inbound missiles/bombers. At a set point in time the game ends and is scored by how many people you killed and how many of your own people died.
There is no question in this game as to why this is happening. There is no building new units or researching technology. The units you have at the start are all you will ever have. It is just about dealing with the immediate (short) war, by destroying as much as possible. The gameplay is largely abstract, so players can ignore the underlying events until missiles strike with messages like “New York hit, 11.0 million dead”. Then it hits how dark this game is really. There never seems quite enough to achieve a complete victory. First-strike, or defend first then second-strike against depleted defences - neither seemed to work to well at saving lives. As the tagline states: everybody dies.
There is replayability in DEFCON through various game modes and scoring systems (such as all players starting on the same team and then betraying each other, or speed games or games where you only score points for killing and not saving people, and more). There is an adequate AI, but the real action is in online play. Unfortunately as a 10 year old game, the DEFCON community still exists, but is somewhat limited. There were 20-40 people playing at any time, but only a few open slots. It is probably best to bring your own friends.
This is a good game, well implemented. I’m not sure what nuclear war would look for those running it, but this feels like an excellent approximation, even including a sickly cough way down in the audio mix. Plus, it’s fun and challenging. Highly recommended.
DEFCON is US$9.99 on the Steam store for PC, Mac and Linux. It has been bundled.