Reviewed

Plague Inc. Review

A darkly satisfying iOS release, Plague Inc. is a unique simulator of epidemic proportions.

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Introduction

I was biking home from work the other day when some jerk in a Ford F-250 cut me off, nearly killing me in the process. He then proceeded to viciously berate me for slowing him down. Oh, and did I mention it was pouring rain? He was a scumbag, and never have I so badly wanted to send a plague upon someone’s house. For these moments, when your contempt for humanity is nearing its limit, there’s

Probably the most disturbing iOS release in recent memory, Indemic Creations’ offers the unique opportunity to cultivate and evolve a global pandemic with the ultimate goal of wiping out humanity. It’s disturbing for a number of reasons. For one, it’s an extremely realistic simulation of how diseases can evolve and spread across the Earth. Two, you can’t help but think about how modern society—with all its planes, trains, and automobiles—would assist in the development of a global plague. And finally, it’s fun—it’s fun strategizing how to best eradicate mankind. It’s fun harnessing insidious bacterial mutations and horrendously violent symptoms to realistically spread your disease across the globe. It’s fun counting down the number of deaths and infections until the final remnants of humanity die alone in some wealthy yet doomed quarter of the planet where hope has long since been vanquished and the prospect of a future reduced to a mere choice of which hole to die in.

Congratulations! You win!

Really? I won? I feel like I just watched 12 Monkeys. I need a shower.

To truly enjoy Plague Inc. you need a tough stomach—and maybe a touch of sociopathy. All you pacifist gamers with a deeply embedded love for humanity, it may help to repeat to yourself, “it’s only a game, it’s only a game…”

Gameplay Overview

The whole point of is to leverage an arsenal of biological mutations to spread your disease across the planet with the ultimate goal of killing everyone—literally, everyone. You must use a gradually expanding cache of “DNA Points” to evolve your disease—be it bacterial, viral, fungal, parasitic, or some other nasty bugger. The strategy is in selecting which traits to evolve, as each is separated into one of three categories: Transmission, Symptoms, and Abilities.

Simulation

The key to ’s gameplay—and its disturbing nature—is in how realistic it is. You decide the most effective means of contagion—mosquitoes, blood contact, air, water, birds, etc.—and enhance the strength of these traits through further evolution of the disease. You must also evolve the pathogen’s symptoms and biological abilities, which include everything from insomnia and pulmonary fibrosis to drug resistance and viral mutation, all of which have their own impact on the disease’s lethality, severity, transmission, and detectability. For example, an airborne viral pathogen will help spread the disease via airplanes (you can literally track contaminated flights and sea vessels across the planet), but a vomiting symptom will increase detection and hasten cure research. Contrastingly, symptoms such as coma and insanity make detection and research more difficult. You must also deal with unwanted mutations, as they may conflict with events in your simulated world, such as an inflammation mutation in a scenario where scientists have discovered the root causes of inflammation. But you can also use these news items to your advantage, like by evolving avian transmission traits during a period of intensive bird migration.

The deadlier your plague becomes—and the larger the global death toll—the slower cure research becomes. So you may be thinking, why not give your disease highly lethal symptoms and just kill everyone off quickly? Well, if the pathogen is not adequately contagious, or if it doesn’t fare well in cold climes or urban areas, then it will simply kill all its hosts, thereby eliminating transmission and, hence, the disease itself.

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So, yeah, is disturbingly realistic, but it’s also addictive. If you’re into strategy-based simulations—and have a bit of a dark side—then I imagine you’ll enjoy And for $0.99, what do you have to lose?

Controls

is a fairly intuitive game—not much of a learning curve—and the controls are no different. The only physically intensive component is tapping the various “DNA” and “Research” bubbles that pop up from time to time around the globe. While there is the occasional response lag, it’s nothing serious. There is also a “pinch” zoom feature for the main map, which should be familiar to anyone who’s ever used an iPhone or iPad.

Replay Value

features three difficulty modes, plus six unlockable disease types: virus, fungus, parasite, prion, nano-virus, and bio-weapon (the game begins with a bacteria disease). Each of these modes entails its own level of strategy for spreading the disease. For example, viral strains are highly mutative, which can help create extremely lethal pathogens, but you’ll have to devolve some of these symptoms to limit detection.

The quest to unlock these options may be enough to ensure your return, but I found myself wanting greater variety between gameplay modes. Despite this uniformity, though, is highly addictive, and the “Brutal” difficulty—with all its unlocking potential—helps strengthen the lasting appeal.

Additional Content

In addition to the unlockable disease types, there are a bunch of special plague types and “cheat” modes that add a bit more flare. You can work toward any of these modes, or you can just cut to the chase and pay for them.

Pacing & Flow

In keeping with the realism, is pretty slow-paced (time passes by at about one day per second), but you can quicken the speed—a convenient feature during the early stages of a plague. The overall duration of your plague is also affected by type, difficulty level, and infection rates.

AI

Humans are your enemies, and their pursuit of a cure is the primary vessel of artificial intelligence. Their capacity is influenced by a number of factors, but most of it comes down to difficulty settings. In “Casual," humans don’t wash their hands, research doctors don’t work, and sick people are given “hugs.” In Normal, 67.3% of people wash their hands, doctors work three days a week, and sick people are ignored. Finally, in “Brutal,” doctors never go home, sick people are locked in prison, and there is compulsive hand washing. Human AI is also directed by world events, such as economic strife, environmental trends, execution of infected citizens, and even global warming. Once again, these events should be considered when planning the spread of your disease.

It’s difficult to find a storyline in , but there is a sort of narrative arc expressed in the various news headlines that follow the growth of your disease. There’s even a relieving dose of humor in some of the headlines, albeit dark humor. Here are a few of the catchier headlines that I noticed:

**** Sarah Palin elected president of the United States

**** Texas votes to ban all guns

**** Expert: “Paper cuts can kill”

**** Justin Bibble trampled by fans

**** Dictator demands solar eclipse on birthday

It should be noted, though, that whatever sort of storytelling element you can detect is utterly insignificant. ’s attraction is in its realistic simulation-based gameplay.

Graphics & Atmosphere Overview

There’s a brooding, almost sinister atmosphere, which is really what you should expect from a game that revolves around your ability to infect and kill all 7 billion people on the planet. For that reason it scores well in stylistic “appropriateness.”

Art Design

There’s an interesting color contrast that runs throughout the game. Blacks and reds, representing death and disease, seem to battle the blues and greens, symbolizing life, Earth, and humanity. But as the architect of this global plague, you’re a champion of death. As your disease begins to spread, its intensity is depicted by dense red colors filling up various countries, the appearance of which resembles a spreading rash or infection. The reds then darken when populations begin to die off. The menus are similarly designed, although they’re slightly more minimalistic due to the volume of data they include.

Graphics

The overall layout of the game is pretty minimalistic, as there are only a few different gameplay screens. For that reason, the graphics—which really only consist of a giant world map and a few menus—take backstage to the presentation of data.

Music

Repetitive but appropriate, the music is essentially the same track set on repeat. It’s a brooding little electro-ditty that sounds as ominous as it is fitting. While we would have been impressed by its adaptability to various gameplay stages—or really any sort of change—it’s all pretty unnecessary.

Sound Effects

There really aren’t any sound effects, other than the familiar “tap” of a button selection of the shattering glass of a burst “Research” bubble. It would have been cool if Indemic included the sounds of mass hysteria, coughing, or rioting as your disease progresses. But maybe that’s getting a little too gritty. Maybe I’ve been infected with the same sinister impetus that inspired the game. Or maybe I’m just human.

Conclusion

Some games are great vessels for releasing aggression (GTA comes to mind). While engineering a global pandemic may be a bit extreme toward that end, is nonetheless a darkly satisfying game. It’s also really addictive, as any iOS title should be. To enjoy it, you probably have to be of a certain—shall we say—“disturbed” mindset. The first time I won, a wave of satisfaction flowed over me (it’s not an easy game), and then I realized that what I was celebrating was the violent extinction of mankind—and not in some massive planetary explosion or implausible zombie apocalypse. The details of these plagues, although not directly depicted, were realistic and unsettling to imagine—as was the planet’s gradual descent into anarchy, its loss of government, and the occasional nuclear explosion that occurs as humanity loses complete control over populations and infrastructure. So, yeah... sleep tight, and try to have fun destroying mankind.

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