Thursday 2 April 2009

Computer Game: DEFCON

The last computer game I bought, 'Vanguard', was a dud. It cost around $80, took many hours to download the update patches the first time I tried playing the game (even with a broadband connection), and was incredibly boring to play when first starting out - just wandering around the countryside aimlessly slashing monsters to death to progress to the next skill level, with the occasional insoluble puzzle thrown in (no doubt the solutions are something like "jump onto the rock in the SE corner of the temple while holding the orc mace, and the magic thingamy will be revealed"). It probably is a good game for those who want to spend huge amounts of time online in a MUD environment joining guilds, playing co-operatively and memorising reams of arcane "lore", but I found the whole experience a bore. Having to pay a monthly subscription to use the game servers meant I abandoned the game after a couple of months, and I haven't touched it since as there is no offline, single-user play mode available.

In complete contrast, the game I bought last Sunday was much better value. 'DEFCON' cost a little under $20, loaded in a few minutes from the CD-ROM and authenticated the CD-Key without any issues. The interface is visually appealing, making excellent use of simple wireframe graphics to represent the global thermonuclear war arena in a style inspired by the classic WWIII/nuclear missile attack movies such as Wargames, Dr Strangelove and the various James Bond movies. The game tutorial provided a basic introduction to the game controls in a series of easy steps, and there is an automated demo play mode available for you to watch AI players slug it out. Once I'd worked through the tutorials in half an hour or so, I played a couple of games offline against one or two AI opponents. Those games were enjoyable enough, and help work out the strategies required to do well in the game. Wikipedia has a good description of the game, and the the game maker's website has links to an interesting university student's Masters Project Report that provides more details about the game environment and a description of an improved AI 'bot' developed using an API that is available for anyone to have a go writing their own AI bots. The game also supports Mods, so if you get bored playing Global Thermonuclear War based on real countries and cities, you can create you own maps - anyone fancy nuking Narnia or Middle Earth?

I haven't played against human opponents online yet, as I'd accidentally used up my monthly Optus 2GB broadband allowance before the end of the month (I was watching an ABC iView episode of Time Team and left it on pause during dinner - apparently iView continues to stream the same video frame while on pause, continuing to consume my Optus monthly download quota!). I tried joining one two-player game online, but the download was taking forever at the speed-limited "dial-up" rate Optus allows once the broadband quota has been exceeded for the month. I'll try playing a game online on Wednesday when I have high-speed internet access again. Meanwhile I've been playing against the AI bots to practice controlling my submarine fleets, switching my missile silos from air defence to ICBM launch mode, and so forth. The game is played in 'real time' with various fast forward buttons available to speed up progression from Defcon 5 to Defcon 1 if you have all your pieces in position and are just waiting for the next events to occur. A game played entirely in real time would take around 6 hours to complete, while using maximum fast forward for the entire game it would only take 15 minutes to get a result.

The aim of the game in 'normal' mode is to minimise your own civilian casualties (measured in the millions, or 'Megadeaths') while inflicting maximum casualties on your opponent's cities. Two other modes are available - 'survivor' when only you own casualties are tallied up, and 'Genocide' where only enemy casualties are used to calculate the winner.

One feature I missed in the game play was any effect of fallout. Each missile strike simply vapourises part of an enemy city, installation or fleet. It would have been nice to have data of wind streams and to use fallout from earlier strikes as an ongoing weapon against the enemy population. However, that would probably have detracted from the elegant simplicity of the interface and game-play. Although the theme of the game is death on a massive scale, it's focus is mainly on strategy and seems more akin to Chess than a blood-thirsty shoot-em-up like 'Doom'.

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