Have you ever wanted to start a Zombie Apocalypse? How about watch the Spanish Flu work it’s magic in the modern world? Bubonic Plague (aka Black Death) starting another dark age? If the answer was a yes to any of those questions then this game is for you. First released by Ndemic Creations in 2012 on the iOS platform, Plague Inc: Evolved (PI:E) is the ported and updated version of that game, and a very solid one at that.
PI:E has a very interesting premise and Ndemic has created such a plausible model for global outbreaks that the CDC has used their game to increase awareness in the general public for infectious diseases and how they can spread. Personally, I like to inject a little bit of a RPG element into it. I play it as either a mad scientist, an alien zoologist or a vengeful Deity set on wiping out or enslaving the human race.
Gameplay begins with choosing either single-player, multi-player (coming soon), or a scenario creator mode. Within those, you have ten different diseases, twenty different scenarios, and countless user created custom scenarios available on Steam. Once the game loads, you are presented with a single geographically accurate map of the world. This world map is hyper-realistic, where trade, travel, and geopolitics reflect how the various countries interact with one another as they strive to battle the global outbreaks.
My favorite mode is the sandbox mode where the difficulty setting (controlling whether certain bonuses and penalties are added) and your outbreak of choice are the only certainties as to what you’ll face. Let me explain. In the game, you have several factors at work as to how virulent and pathogenic your microbes can be. As the game time progresses (at various speeds) your organisms can acquire mutations that change how quickly your disease infects and spreads to the general populace. You can also spread the disease further by increasing the vectors (how the disease is transported) and modes of transmission. Okay, was that too much or too fast? Don’t worry, I’ll explain it a bit further.
I’ll start my playthrough with a simple scenario about a barely known plague which for our purposes originates from a dormant strain. A little history lesson is in order though. The Plague of Justinian as it was later called, in its first documented outbreak around 542 AD in the Eastern Roman Empire, affected all of Eastern Europe and Central Asia where 25 – 50 million people were wiped out and the Dark Ages soon followed. In its second outbreak around the 14th century, Bubonic Plague, or for the layman, the Black Death, wiped out one third of the total population of Europe and Western Asia. The figures vary, but the numbers stand around 75 to 200 million people having died. Though this time around, it brought forth the Renaissance as the western world recovered. The third plague originated in China in the early 19th century and spread both east and west. The highest impact was in India with 12 million dead in a 40 year period. The organism at fault is the Yersinia pestis, a bacterium residing in fleas that live on rats. Always rats, I hate rats.
Anyways, back to the game.
You start by modifying the genetic code with up to five gene types. These genes are unlocked by beating the game, so you can be sure that there is plenty of replayability. The genes improve the pathogens DNA, Mutation rates/types, modality (how the pathogen travels), environmental effects, and finally it’s evolution. Consider these as soft bonuses or cheats that you are given for playing the game.
Next you select the difficulty from casual to mega-brutal. There are four in total (so far). The lower difficulties give you bonuses ranging from infrequent hand washing to how sick people are treated. The higher difficulties give the world bonuses from doctors that never sleep to random medical checkups. There are many others, but these should give you an idea of how the game mechanics work.
Finally, you get to name your particular strain and the game is launched. You get to see how pretty the world looks as you chose an origination point where patient Zero will start. There are 2 locations that are very difficult to infect and I like to start there. Greenland up North and Madagascar down South. Travel between countries is shown via shipping lanes and air travel. That is the main mode of intercontinental infection. I would have liked to also see car and train traffic, but that might be a bit too busy because right now, car and train traffic goes unseen.
The game is timed, and as time progresses (speeds can vary like the ever-popular Paradox Interactive titles) there are going to be little orange circles with DNA strands that appear from time to time and as your plague spreads red circles with biohazard signs will appear too. You need to click on them before they disappear or you will lose out on these points. These DNA/Biohazard points are used to modify and grow/improve your pathogen through transmission, symptom and ability traits. Each pathogen has its own set of unique traits.
The Black Death is transmitted through fleas on rats, but in this game, the rats can become directly infected through the use of DNA currency. Other pathogens can be transmitted through birds and bats as well as hand contact on light rail and infected water sources, just to name a few. The symptoms affect everything from behavior and appearance to how the people feel and interact with each other (simulated through calculations only) and finally ends with how lethal the pathogen is. The pathogenic qualities affect its ability from withstanding medical advances to environmental factors and more. All three of these are combined in an overview screen giving you the sum total of your pathogen’s strength.
There are three key traits to any pathogen; infectivity, severity and lethality. The Black Death had all three in spades, but in this game, you want to have maximum infectivity and minimal lethality into the late game so that you can infect the whole world without raising a global alarm. So far, I have only talked about the pathogens and the world at large. I did mention the medical establishment, but only in passing. So let’s look at it more closely.
The WHO, no, not the musical act, but the World Health Organization, is the main opponent of the plague. Once a country decides to take on a role of the Global Cure effort, the next stage of the game begins. You now have an active opponent. This opponent will try to enact world policies to mitigate the spreading of the plague as well as create a cure. LIttle blue beakers will appear on the map now. If you do not press on them, than the medical establishment gets a research bonus in trying to eradicate the plague.
Oh, how could I forget all the red dots, ships and planes? I didn’t, but this is a great time to mention them. The red dots represent infected people. The red ships and planes represented infected vehicles spreading your pathogen across the globe. You’ll also notice two more interesting bits of information in the picture above. At the bottom you have the total global population, the infected populace, and the dead. If your pathogen is too severe and lethal, people will die faster than they can be infected. Good for the world, but not for you.
Something else I neglected to mention, in the top left you will see a news feed and it will not only update you on world affairs and how different countries are faring with this global catastrophe, but it will also update you on random and sometimes funny worldwide quips which do tend to get boring with multiple play-throughs. I’ve played this game enough to realize that the developers could spend some more time and add more lines of text there.
With global travel stopped by the WHO and a 100% developed cure, my version of the plague was defeated with only one half of the world wiped out. 3.46 billion people killed and I was…. defeated.
The last part of the game is a total masterpiece of a bygone era. You get a summary of your game as well as a screen showing your pathogen and what it did. I don’t want to spoil it too much for you, but it’s neat.
What could I have done differently you ask? Plenty. The scenarios start with a crafted pathogen and often the combination of transmission, symptoms and abilities are already set. I would chose different starting ones (which is why I like the sandbox mode) and as the game progressed I would develop and diversify my pathogen to be highly contagious and less virulent. By beating the game over and over, something that isn’t too time consuming (30 minutes or so), you can also start with more genes (unlockable) so your game can take a very different direction.
By the way, one of my favorite scenarios is the sponsored Planet of the Apes movie tie-in that comes with the game for free. The simian flu work together with the super intelligent apes as they try to wipe out humanity. It is a little slice of Heaven for the disaster porn aficionado.
In closing, I think Ndemic did a fantastic job with Plague Inc, Evolved. It is a excellent port of an IOS title. Though still in early access and lacking a few key features (MP for one), it’s a great buy. If $15 is too much, wait for a sale, but I don’t think you’ll regret the purchase. A strategy game with a global message and actual scientific backbone that the CDC has used before in its educational material. A great game indeed.