GameSpot's early access reviews evaluate unfinished games that are nonetheless available for purchase by the public. While the games in question are not considered finished by their creators, you may still devote money, time, and bandwidth for the privilege of playing them before they are complete. The review below critiques a work in progress, and represents a snapshot of the game at the time of the review's publication.
More often than we probably think, the course of human history has been guided by the effects of disease. Oddly enough, that's not a factor considered in most strategy games. You almost never, for example, have a disaster involving some super lethal strain of the flu. Plague Inc: Evolved., on the other hand, explores the effects of sickness on the human population. It gives you one microorganism and asks you to exterminate every person on the planet. To do so effectively, however, requires a fair bit of forethought. The game nails many of the basics that make it fun to poison billions across the globe, but it doesn't quite live up to its potential--yet.
At the start of each game, you have your choice of disease, ranging from bacterium (cause of the Black Death) to prion (mad cow disease) to some more wacky, video game-y plagues like a viral bioweapon (as in Deus Ex) and worms that take control of people's brains (as in Resident Evils 4-6). From there, you pick a starting country and begin infecting everyone you can. As your disease spreads, you get DNA points through clickable bubbles that let you add new symptoms or traits to your fledgling microorganism. Each of these decisions carries with it certain costs and benefits. Some choices increase virulence or "infectivity," making it easier to spread your disease throughout the world in certain conditions, whereas others tack on symptoms to help weaken hosts and destabilize civilization a bit faster.
These upgrades also draw attention from humans, ultimately leading to your discovery. From that point on, the populace tends to respond appropriately to your choices. For example, picking up tissue necrosis and hemorrhagic fever as symptoms causes people to die en masse in some of the most horrible ways imaginable. The game incentivizes this by rewarding you with even more DNA points to spend on further upgrades. However, that pairing of symptoms is so horrific that the general population mobilizes every available scientist and doctor to work out a cure. People are remarkably fragile, but they are not without defenses, and unlike in the real world, once they've figured out how to eradicate your disease, you will be extinct in a matter of days. It's one of the stranger design choices, but it also serves as an appropriate hard boundary.
All of the decisions you can make in Plague amount to some kind of tactical trade-off. Picking a wealthy country as your first target, while making it difficult to spread disease quickly, allows you to farm some of the continuous and randomly spawning DNA points, helping you get some valuable upgrades before people begin to take notice. It's also a lot easier to spread sickness around the globe from a country like the United States, which has a lot of land and sea trade routes to other locations, versus a country like Algeria, which can only spread your disease to neighboring countries. Islands are also really tough to break into (Greenland and Iceland gave me the most trouble), but that can also be a boon. Infecting an island in the beginning can guarantee everyone has it before you spread outward, effectively guaranteeing that any ships or planes departing your newly conquered nation will help your cause.
Plague Inc. almost necessitates reflection during gameplay. Much of your time is spent waiting for people to move around the globe and working really hard to guarantee their destruction. Our modern era, with all of its comforts and affordances, does very little to prepare us for a globe-spanning, death-dealing disease of this sort. Where, when, and how people would really react to something like this is, even now, a topic of intense discussion.
As the people of Earth inch closer to extinction, the countries that remain begin acting increasingly irrational. More than once, I saw humanity make its last stand against me by bombing or executing any of the infected citizens. That kind of homicidal desperation isn't something we're generally faced with, and offers a much more complex and realistic moral quandary than the classic "There's a bomb somewhere in the city. Do you use torture--yes or no?" that games have been doing forever. And yet, I'm not the one making those choices; my targets are. It's a surreal experience, and one that's unique within gaming. Even so, there are a number of features I'd like to see in the final product. Everything on display so far is about infection, control, and then extermination. Surviving in this world would be remarkable, particularly if you could form a kind of seasonally recurring pathogen. Killing everyone is plenty of fun and certainly a challenge on the higher difficulty levels, but it also means there's nothing left to do. When all the people are dead, you have no place to go, no vessel or host to abuse.
I was able to breeze through most of the content that's available so far in just a few hours. Most of the unlocks come from completing the game on increasing difficulty with different kinds of diseases, but that doesn't last too long. There are plans to add quite a bit of content in the form of the obligatory zombification virus, some competitive and cooperative multiplayer modes, and a mode that promises to help you make your own scenarios and plagues to share with others.
Even in its beta state, Plague Inc: Evolved is a worthy expansion of its predecessor, but it's also one that makes me want more. I want to compete with other players for kills. I want to be capable of destabilizing society in more nuanced ways. While I was frustrated with the ease at which I was able to finish Plague, it's also the best kind of incomplete. It's a game that shows off just enough potential that I want to stick around and see how it all turns out.
A relatively short epidemic simulator that highlights both how fragile life is and how determined a species faced with extinction can be.
|What's to Come?|
Multiplayer, scenario editors, graphical upgrades, and new plague types are all expected to be in the final package.
|What Does it Cost?|
Plague Inc. Evolved currently runs $15, but it's not yet in a state that justifies the price difference between the smartphone version and this one.
|When Will it be Finished?|
It's not yet known when the game will be released in full, but there's a soft target for later this year.
|What's the Verdict?|
Plague Inc. flips everything we know about strategy games, and in so doing provides fertile soil for future expansion.