April 23, 2007

How to receive nervous looks on the train.

I have found a new and effective method of garnering furtive looks of horror aboard public transportation. It involves, as did my previous efforts, my trusty Powerbook. My favorite used to be the watching of abysmally bad movies, complete with occasional happy chuckle despite headphones; luring seatmates into covertly looking over and seeing their faces freeze as they recognized Freejack or John Carpenter's Vampires is worth the temporary loss of brain function that watching said movies will cause. Besides, when trapped on an Acela or 737, sometimes that loss of function is desirable anaesthesia.

But no, I have a new passion.

Its name is DEFCON.

Introversion Software, who brought us the game of hacking called Uplink several years ago and more recently the critically acclaimed vector Real-Time Strategy title Darwinia, have come up with this gem. Reusing a great deal of their simple but effective artwork from Uplink, they have created an icon of my 1980s nightmares and dreams.

Everybody Dies.

This is an exquisitely succinct summation of the game itself. The game, as can be deduced from its title, is no less than a playable simulation of your favorite and mine, Global Thermonuclear War. What makes it brilliant is the visual design and the playability. Let me take you through a quick notional game by way of explanation.

The Setup

You choose a Bloc to play. You can play North America, South/Middle America, Europe, The Soviet Bloc, Africa, or Southeast Asia. Up to six players at once can thus face off. Choose a color. As the game begins, the world is at DEFCON 5; a timer indicates the time until DEFCON 4 is reached. The assumption, I presume, is that those damn diplomats have screwed everything up and it's up to you (the warfighter) to make good on their threats. Operational diplomacy is possible; Diplomacy (the game) style maneuverings are encouraged, as alliance blocs can be joined and broken during play! Ah, backstabbing.

Enemy Launch Detected!

The Pieces

In the interest of avoiding information overload, there are really only a few play pieces, which you must place] somewhere in your territory at the start of play (during the DEFCON 5 period). On land, you can situate radar stations, airbases and silos; at sea, fleets consisting of battleships, carriers and/or submarines. Airbases can launch either fighters or bombers. Carriers can do the same, as well as go into antisubmarine mode. Silos can operate in either air defense or ICBM launch mode. It takes time to switch between modes, and units have a limited number of expendables - fighters, bombers, or ICBMS. SAMs are infinite and simply have an interval timer, and fighters will slowly regenerate. Submarines can operate in passive sonar mode, where they merely move from place to place and try to avoid being seen; active sonar mode, where they can (poorly) attack surface vessels, and SLBM launch mode where they can loft their limited number of nukes.

Launching anything, naturally, makes your unit visible to early warning systems, even if it's not currently within radar range of an enemy unit.

ICBM launch mode: 128 seconds

Gameplay Gameplay moves in phases, each phase being a different DEFCON level. At DEFCON 5 ("peace") all you can do is place your units and give mobile units movement orders. At DEFCON 4, you can invade enemy territory/airspace, and units will automatically engage each other; at 3, you can launch bomber strikes, etcetera. A large and foreboding timer scrolls down at the center bottom of the screen: DEFCON 4 in 13:45. This is a RTS, so units move continuously; you can change their orders at any time by simply clicking and dragging. If you are playing solo, you can change the time compression using a standard set of arrow controls (one, two, three or four arrows). If you are playing in a network game, you can requesta time compression change, and the other players will be given a chance to aquiesce or refuse.

I haven't yet had the opportunity to coerce...er, entice any of my friends into purchasing the game and having a go 'round, so I can't tell you how well the alliance/diplomacy bits work. If they work as well as the rest of it, I'd say I'll be quite happy with the mechanics. The interface is smooth; there are a few UI design issues which are eminently fixable. For example, the game field (a Mercator projection world map) scrolls smoothly about as you move your cursor near to the edges. However, the time compression controls are at the top of the screen, so moving to them causes the field to scroll as you approach. You can zoom out to fullscreen to prevent this, but it's annoying. It's also possible to have the unit info window (fixed at the bottom right) actually overlay units on the map. Still, these are minor quirks; the interface is generally only noticeable in those few moments when its deficiencies become jarring. The rest of the time, it just is, which is what you want.

There are various modes of play. There is a standard game; there is a 'quick' game, compressed even further. There's one I'm dying to try, called 'office,' which is played over a network with friends in realtime over the course of a day - missiles take ~20 minutes to traverse their paths, and you have time to sweat and watch everything go to pieces in realtime slow motion. The network game is played by a player creating a master server and others joining. Thanks to Ambrosia Software, there is now a Macintosh OS X version of the game (which I'm using) in addition to the original Windows version; Ambrosia also promises a patch to allow Linux users to get in on the megadeaths. It's OpenGL and plays smooth as butter on my 1 GHz Powerbook G4, and is distributed as a Universal binary for Macs.

Beograd hit: 1.4M dead


SImple. As the game says: Nobody wins - but maybe you can lose the least. You can try to play a full counterforce game, but the game is scored in terms of how many kills you get, how many civilians you lose, and how many nukes you have left at the end. Once DEFCON 1 is reached (and the nukes really start flying) it's not about saving 'em for later, trust me.

The design is really excellent. It's simple strategy at the outset during placement - pick your enemies and place your units to face them; choose a defense-in-depth versus a frontal wall, etc. During the game, it's simple maneuver - if you're careful, you can maximize your units' placement - but it's not a true maneuver wargme, because the timers ensure you don't have the game length to really move units around the board. You have the time to adjust your units' initial placement, and that's all. Finally, during the Global Thermonuclear War phase, you get to push the button and see how well you set up your armageddon.

Incoming Nuclear Weapons: Impact in 348 Seconds

Look and Feel

This is the genius bit. The entire game is built using vector graphics, brightly lit on a black field. The look of it closely hews to the displays prominently featured in the iconic '80s movie Wargames - if you can remember at all the scenarios that Joshua was spinning out on the displays in Cheyenne Mountain, then you know pretty much exactly what DEFCON looks like on your computer. The same hazy glows to indicate unknown territory; the same angular bright line icons to indicate units; the same sprouting flowers of arcs to show the moment of truth when the missiles climb out. That's what always arrests the attention of the passenger next to me - that impossible to miss image of a world map drawn in glowing blue-white lines, with green and red bullet shapes climbing slowly out from the continental US and Russia, leaving arcing lines behind them as I frantically click around the Atlantic ocean, moving submarines and carriers into position for the followup strike.

The only thing missing is the haunting music.

Oh wait; no it's not. The game has that too. Turn your speakers up.

Introversion Software (http://introversion.co.uk) - Windows Version
Ambrosia Software (http://ambrosiasw.com) - Mac OS X / Linux(?) Versions
Shareware - Playable Demo (limited to 1 AI player and 1 game mode, only 1 demo player per network game) downloadable; $25.00 for full license code.

Posted by jbz at April 23, 2007 8:17 PM | TrackBack

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