Remember WarGames? That '80s film where Matthew Broderick plays a school kid who inadvertently hacks into the US military's defense mainframe and plays a game of Global Thermonuclear War? DEFCON is that game in all but name: a world map in glowing outline, showers of vector-graphics warheads arcing between superpowers, and the silhouettes of subs creeping ominously across international waters.
The war plays out in silence but for a ghostly soundtrack of unsettlingly off-key tones, coughing and soft sobbing, and a low rumble each time a nuclear ICBM stains the map with a white disc of lethal radiation. Popup text announces the millions dead. It's slow, dark and sinister.
The point of WarGames was that nuclear war is unwinnable, that every aggressor incurs unacceptable losses. The point of DEFCON is to do it anyway, and inflict even less acceptable losses on your friends (online or LAN) or the AI (an acceptable punching bag for training, but no more).
A game with more than two players quickly becomes an extinction-level event for the human race. The winner is the player who causes the most civilian casualties and incurs least himself, with the emphasis placed firmly on the former: two points for every million killed, minus one for every million lost.
In DEFCON's artistically licensed rebalancing, the modern world is dominated by six equal superpowers: North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Russia and Asia. The conflict escalates through the five DEFCON stages.
At five (peacetime) and four (alert), each country gets to place their silos, airbases, radar dishes and fleets, but no hostilities are allowed. At three (war), fleets and aircraft can fight each other, but no nukes can be launched until DEFCON 1 ("World War Three," as WarGames put it).
At that point, yellow radiation icons blossom all over the map and the words "Launch Detected" materialize over international waters. The escalating hostilities unfold at the rate of player choice: you can switch between real-time for the key moments and up to 5x normal speed when you're waiting for an enemy move.
Nukes are the only way to inflict civilian casualties, and there are only three ways to deliver them to the enemy: silos launching inter-continental ballistic missiles from your own territory, stealth subs surfacing near enemy shores and sending medium-range nukes inland, and long-range bombers dropping short-range warheads while flying over hostile territory.
Whenever your nukes are even close to an enemy nation, they can be shot down by any silos that aren't currently busy launching nukes. Watching the tiny dashes that represent anti-ballistic missiles spiral round your vulnerable warheads is agonizingly tense, and when one plucky plutonium payload makes it through the defensive hail, the satisfaction is no less than divine.
DEFCON's visual simplicity and darkly radiant beauty detach you completely from the horror of what you're doing. It's replaced by the emotional rollercoaster of caring deeply for every little line-drawn icon on screen. After deploying your units in the early DEFCON stages, you never receive any replacements, so every loss is permanent.
That, coupled with the brutal suddenness and galling power of a well-executed enemy attack, make DEFCON instantly engaging and almost unbearably tense.
A concentrated attack from two countries at once, orchestrated or coincidental, is impossible to survive. That's still fun at LAN parties, but DEFCON's atmosphere is so oppressive that being picked on in a net game, alone in a darkened room, is just plain unpleasant.
At a more advanced level, larger games get interesting again thanks to Alliances. These can be formed or broken at any time, but the security they offer is soured by the fact that your fair-weather friend gets to see the position of all your units (except, cleverly, subs). You don't have to betray your alliance to win, but you can bet that any teammate with a lower score than you will.
The pruned unit selection, simple relationships and fixed playing field give DEFCON more in common with chess than most RTS games. It's not a game to get lost in for hours on end, but it is one you'll get the urge to play again and again for months to come. The fact that it's only 15 bucks seals the deal. Buy it immediately.