When it first appeared online back in 2006, Pandemic, a game where you played as a deadly virus, quickly became a huge online hit, fostering three sequels and a big cult following. With its horrifying blend of real-time strategy and sharp, zeitgeisty satire, Pandemic was like The Sims for GTA fans: Sure it involved a lot of micro management, but it also let you kill, well, everybody. Earlier this year, in June, Pandemic hit iOS under the new name Plague Inc. Now it's spread to Android.
The isn't a port of Pandemic per se; Plague Inc. helmer Ndemic Creations has taken the original flash game and built on it. Talking to Dread Central, Ndemic CEO James Vaughan explained he wanted something deeper:
"I got inspiration for Plague Inc. from a 5 year old, web game, Pandemic 2 which was about trying to infect the world. I am a big fan of Pandemic 2 but I wanted a deeper, more strategic game with a strong narrative and lots more features.
"There was nothing like it on mobiles at the time and so I decided to design a deep, challenging and thought provoking strategy game from scratch for the touchscreen. The more I thought about it, the more cool things I thought of. I wanted to play this imaginary game so much that I knew I had to make it."
Plague Inc. is deceptively complex. Faced with a map of the world, it's your job to design a disease (you can choose from a virus, bacteria, parasite etc.) and spread it to every person on the planet. But because humans have this pesky, nagging 'will to live' thing going on, you need to adapt and grow your bug as medicines are developed to stop it.
If Europe closes its airports to keep you out, for example, you can pour mutation points (which are earned by upping the death toll) into making your virus transmittable by insects; if the UN starts research on a cure, you can reduce the visibility of the symptoms and wait for everyone to calm down before striking again. It's a matter of biding your time, attacking and retreating; smart players will make their virus highly infectious but invisible, and wait until almost everybody is infected before mutating it to become lethal. Plague Inc. demands a great deal of planning and some complex strategic decisions. It's far more involved than its simplistic interface would suggest.
It's frightening, too: Most of the info on how your virus is doing comes from scrolling news bulletins, proclaiming "Martial Law in effect in Argentina", "British government starts using mass graves" and other headlines directly from the apocalypse. As a parable, it's scary; as a spin on computer game violence, Plague Inc. is hilarious.
There's a darkly comic buzz throughout the whole game. Where other strategy sims are about building, about accumulating coins or crops until you can expand, Plague Inc. is about bringing it all down. It's a similar thrill to when playing The Sims, and finally having enough dollars to buy that lime green sofa, except now you're getting excited about giving people migraines, or internal bleeding, or TB. It's sick, twisted and very clever. The tone of Plague Inc. is just right.
In all, Plague Inc. is one of the best games on mobile, a smart as heck RTS with a dark, political slant. You might not believe it to look at the colourful and intuitive layout, but Plague Inc. is a thoroughly guilty pleasure, brimming with grim ideas and perverse fun. The best laughs come from naming your virus; reading on the World News that "500 000 people have now died from Hiccups" is always a belly laugh.
But there's an edge to Plague Inc., too. Watching your virus spread from deepest Africa, to the UAE, the Americas and eventually the world, it's hard not to grow a conscience; reactive types might even get concerned. On the contrary, you can call your virus 'poverty' or 'global warming' or 'cancer' and turn Plague Inc. into a much, much bleaker game. Few titles take on breadth of meaning so simplistically.
Nevertheless, Plague Inc. is a great play. Its easy-to-learn, fun to master gameplay mechanics never get in the way of what you want to do, but there's still a learning curve to adjust to, and a strategy to perfect. Played one way, Plague Inc. is a strategy game with all the depth and wiggle room of Command and Conquer; played purely for fun, it's a giggle. Points off for nicking the concept from Pandemic, but Plague Inc. is nevertheless a much deeper game. It's in the App Store charts this week. Get infected.
Overall Score: 8/10
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