If I told you that a game priced less than $20, built by a small team of indie developers, and appearing in the USA only by way of Valve Software's Steam service, was the most immersive PC game of the fall, would you believe me? If so, go buy DEFCON right now. Otherwise allow me to convince you of why you're going to love global nuclear war as much as everyone else I've introduced to DEFCON.
After much toil and research, I have concluded that the secret to DEFCON's cool-factor is a combination of amazing ambient sound effects and kitschy retro vector-style graphics (think War Games). Between the two I found myself drawn into what amounts to a very simple, yet infinitely replayable game of whack-a-nuclear-mole.
Gameplay is broken into rounds based on the four stages of defcon, the military term for escalating stages of alert; each round allows players more freedom. Early on you'll only be able to place radar stations, nuclear silos, air bases, and fleets down in one of six major geo-political territories. As the defcon counter ominously ticks towards total nuclear war the drawstrings holding back your forces are slowly unleashed.
At first you're only able to move fleets of ships and buzz airplanes over your enemy's heads. Then you can begin moving nuke-packing bombers and submarines into position. If you're playing with diplomacy turned on, these early stages are even more nail biting, as you begin to wonder if those "friendly" planes are actually just there to gather intel before your "pal" betrays you later.
No matter what, you will lose. The goal is simply to lose less than the other players.
You would expect that nuclear weapons weren't unleashed until the final "round," but you'd be wrong. Nukes begin flying ahead of defcon 1, but there's a subtle strategy at work here. By being the first player to let lose your nuclear weapons, you'll find that you've just given away the secret locations of your bases/submarines/bombers. Also, silos that have fired are unable to shoot down incoming nuclear missiles for a short period.
Thus you'll begin to try to wait out your opponent. Time it right, and your nukes will sail into his major cities while he's unable to defend himself. Personally, I found long range bombers underused by other players. If ordered at the right time they'll enter enemy territory while he's firing his silos, and your silos are shooting down incoming nukes. This is what I call the sweet spot.
Oddly, it's when the nukes started landing that DEFCON became eerily scary to me. The ambient background music doesn't change tempo even as you watch your cities explode in brilliant white balls of light. Then the matter-of-fact text appears: "1.3 MILLION DEAD" pulsing briefly where once stood the name of your city. As nukes hit major cities like New York the size and color of the icon that represents the city begins to shrink and dull. This has the unnerving effect of making your once glowing territory become a dark and dreary place near the last moments of the match.
Because no matter what, you will lose. The goal is simply to lose less than the other players, be they the average AI (which tends to wait until the last minute to unleash nukes) or the thousands of gamers playing DEFCON at any moment. The scoring system rewards points for enemy civilian casualties, and subtracts points for your own casualties. The specific how and why of the scoring is better left to hardcore players to explain on the game's forum.
However, not every nuclear blast hits its mark. The main menu while feeling right at home in the cold-war era is down right archaic by today's standards. You won't find any way to set your name in any menu option. Instead you'll have to enter a game lobby and use an old school chat-style command ("/name Ross"). While the interface is cryptic it does feature top-to-bottom customization of everything from window size to font colors.
Another potential problem is game balance. While there are hundreds of strategies waiting to be explored, the world is not a symmetrical place. No two territories in DEFCON are alike which means that some have inherent advantages over others. For example, the USA is vulnerable from two oceans, while the EU is so small that air defense is a piece of cake. This is a game to play for fun; just don't go trying to master it expecting to see it at tournaments.
When the last of my nuclear submarines goes down to that rogue sub hunter, I find that great native support for widescreen monitors, numerous match settings, multiple game speeds (real-time matches that take all day to hyper quick games over in minutes), gameplay you can't find anywhere else, and buckets of fun are a steal for just $15.