Available for the iPad and iPhone, Plague, Inc. is perhaps the best bang-to-buck value you’ll find in a mobile gaming app. If you’ve ever (or always) dreamed of being a mad scientist who kills the world with a doomsday pandemic, then this is your game.
Plague, Inc. is an app for iPhone and iPad. I bought it for 99 cents. I have now played it for around thirty hours. Considering that I normally buy games for 50 to 70 dollars, and typically play them for twenty or fewer hours, I would say that Plague, Inc. is the most efficient game I’ve ever played.
Much like Uplink, the game is based mostly around menu interfaces. There are no interactions with characters or navigations between game areas. No conversations, sneaking or swording. There are only menus. And also like Uplink, therein lies the genius.
You start out as the progenitor of an illness. Your goal? Exterminate all human life on Earth. You start out with a weak, barely infective disease and must infect, mutate, and kill your way to eliminating the most ruthless and brilliant species on the planet. Will you succeed and kill every last human? Or will you fail and watch helplessly as they research a cure and then hunt you down?
As I said, there is not much meat here, graphics-wise. If you like seeing the bullet cams, jiggling body parts, heads asploding (and who doesn’t?) then it might take you a few minutes to get used to this. I wasn’t kidding: literally, the only thing you see are menus. But I submit to you that these menus are fantastic. The graphics for the different symptoms, mutations, and abilities are great and in their own way, intuitive. The graphs and charts (which I’ll get to later) are colorful and interesting–and informative, most importantly. And although it’s not got a lot of bells and whistles, I still get shivers when I watch an entire country go from normal color to bright red in less than ten seconds as my disease suddenly gains a foothold and spreads like…well, like a virus. It gives me goose bumps. Plague, Inc. proves that your graphics don’t have to be top-dollar to be excellent.
A game like this, a tiny little app on a tiny little iPhone, the sound isn’t going to be Oscar-worthy. But despite the limited medium, I felt that the sound was not only relevant but appropriate. The music is sufficiently creepy without being overbearing. The sound effects when you switch between menus are satisfying. The effects which accompany major events, such as mutations or major milestones in infectivity, are fitting. In short, the sound in this game is nice for such a minimalistic game.
It is up to you whether and how you will manipulate your illness. Will you upgrade its infectivity? Its symptoms? Will you give it special abilities such as antibiotic resistance or sporing? All of these and many, many other options are available once you’ve earned the requisite DNA points. You earn these points by infecting more people in new countries, by meeting certain preset infection and death numbers, and at random. The more points you earn, the more you can develop your pathogen.
But be careful: if you sink too many DNA points into symptoms right away, then your disease gets noticed too early—meaning that research toward a cure is started that much earlier. On the other hand, if you sink too many points into infectivity, you’re left with no points to put into symptoms—what does it matter if one hundred percent of the world has your disease if the only symptom is a light cough?
You must manage your DNA points wisely, maintaining a precarious balance between symptoms, infectivity, and special abilities. On the lower difficulty levels, it is no challenge. But on the normal and higher levels, it is an enormous challenge. There are different types of disease you can try: Bacteria, Virus, Fungus, Prion, Parasites, even Nanobots. As you complete one level on Casual setting, the next level is unlocked. Each type of pathogen has its own strengths and weaknesses, requiring a different strategy for each level.
For the math/graph nerds out there, the game also features a wide and fascinating, yet accessible, array of graphs and charts so you can keep minute track of your disease’s infectivity, mortality rate, even how close the humans are to discovering a cure. You can even use these charts to plot your next mutation. Is your disease having trouble spreading in colder climates? Upgrade its cold resistance. Are the more developed, urban countries extremely slow to succumb? Upgrade your pathogen to be drug resistant and spread by rats. You can even watch the news feed to influence your planning. A huge occasion such as the London Olympics, for example, is what Maverick calls a “target rich environment.” (I may be misremembering that scene in Top Gun. It’s been awhile since I saw the movie, and honestly, there are other scenes that far outshine the “target rich” line. Like when those pilots all play volleyball with their shirts off. And then take turns giving each other deep tissue massages. That WAS in Top Gun, right?)
You can even use the charts to target countries researching a cure. Just tap the country which is leading the search for the cure. Up pops a nice little chart of that country’s vulnerabilities. Is this a hot country whose economy is based on ranching? A temperate climate in the path of large numbers of migrating birds? A country with busy shipping ports? You can adjust your mutations accordingly to hurt that country.
A small feature that I love is that you get to name your disease. My wife thought it was funny that she kept naming her diseases after herself. She was mildly upset when she found out that I, too, was naming my diseases after her. But I cheered her up by naming my next disease “Your Mom.” “Your Mom has infected thousands in Spain.” “Your Mom is a global concern.” “You have successfully mutated Your Mom.” Hilarious. I should be an internet writer.
As I stated earlier, I’ve played Plague, Inc. for roughly thirty hours at this point. That’s maybe twenty full iterations of the start-to-finish game, if you count all disease types and difficulty levels. Twenty full iterations? That’s about nineteen more than I play most games. So I would say that this game also has one of the highest replayability factors ever. And it’s not like an Angry Birds, where you just replay the same levels over and over–the random variability of vectors like planes, ships, birds, livestocks, etcetera, means that even on the same difficulty, utilizing the same disease type, starting from the same country of origin–no two games will play out the same. There is truly an endless amount of replay to this game.
Like most mobile app games, Plague, Inc. is never going to be considered a gaming classic. But like Blair Witch Project, sometimes it doesn’t have to be amazing to be worth it. For just under a dollar, with dozens of hours of diversion, this might be proportionally the most fun game you ever play. Check it out. And in gratitude, just once, you should name a plague after me.
Postscript: After writing this article, I completely by chance happened to catch most of the film “Contagion” on one of the movie channels. If you liked that movie, you will love Plague, Inc. After seeing the film, I am convinced that it was the inspiration for the game. For those skeptical of that suggestion, I ask you to compare the music of the two. They sound almost exactly alike. I’d also recommend the movie, while we’re on the subject. Pretty amazing pandemic movie.