'Plague, Inc.': Crashes, Crashes, We All Fall Down
"Plague, Inc." casts the player in the role of a deadly epidemic, letting you decide how and when to spread and mutate. Its design and interface make for some engrossing gameplay, despite the morbid scenario. However, some users may find the game crashes at the worst time, and the system the game uses for saving doesn't make it easy to counter crashes by manually updating your progress as you go.
At the time I'm writing this, "Plague, Inc." is the hottest-selling app in the App Store. It caught my eye as it perched there on the "Top Paid" list, so I looked into it expecting to see some kind of attempt to ride on the coattails of last year's "Contagion," a movie in which Gwyneth Paltrow plays a particularly unglamorous role. I figured the gameplay would probably cast the player as a globetrotting scientist out to fight a fast-spreading worldwide epidemic.
Turns out, that's not quite the scenario players step into with "Plague, Inc."
Instead, you act as the plague itself. You decide how you will evolve over the course of many months, how resistant you are to drugs, what symptoms you cause in humans, and how you will spread.
The goal of the game is the destruction of humanity. That's an unusual twist. There are a million books and movies about world-ending plagues, but how often is the story told from the point of view of the disease?
I Am Become Death
"Plague, Inc." features three difficulty modes. After you choose one, it's time to name you disease. You're limited to 10 characters, so you'll have to be brief. I settled on "The Ennui" for my first malady's moniker. Next are options for different types of disease. Bacteria is the only variety that comes unlocked, but others include Virus, Parasite, Nano-Virus and Bioweapon, among others.
From there, you're taken to a world map, which will be your main interface. Boats and planes travel all over the world with varying intensity depending on the time of year (and later, level of panic). A news feed clues you in on headlines of the day, which can be used to shape your strategy. A calendar ticks off the date; under that is a speed adjuster that can be set to pause, medium or fast.
Pick a country of origin, and Patient Zero starts coming down with something. Where you begin is an important factor -- each country or zone on "Plague, Inc."'s map possesses certain factors like wealth and rural vs. urban population. These factors will affect how and how fast the disease is spread, as well as how sophisticated the medical community's response will be.
Once the illness is kicked off, it slowly begins to spread and change. Where it goes and what it does are up to you. You'll need to "buy" new characteristics for you plague by spending DNA points, which are accumulated as the sickness makes further process. Use them to gain new transmission vectors, new symptoms and new strengths and abilities.
Eventually, however, humanity will fight back by working on a cure. Your object is to wipe out the species before that cure is reached. Start killing too early and humanity will shut you down in a hurry. Spend too much DNA building abilities and you'll never spread anywhere. Wait too long to spread and new technological developments like advanced airplane air filters will cut you off.
Get Down With the Sickness
Designing a strategy game for iPad is different than making one for a PC. Too many interfaces and options could get really ungainly for a touchscreen-only device. I couldn't imagine playing "Civilization V" on an iPad, for instance. "Plague, Inc." understands this. It keeps things relatively simple. You have your map screen, your interface for building your disease, and a World interface to keep tabs on a few main statistics. I suppose I could have tolerated a little more complexity, but as it is, "Plague, Inc." is a perfectly engrossing casual strategy game, especially for the one-dollar price.
The music is also well-done. It's the kind of tune I'd imagine playing in a typical "disease spreads like wildfire all over the world" movie during a montage of people coughing, sneezing, not washing their hands, and being overall icky and unsanitary. It's very eerie. Oh, and are those kids singing "Ring Around the Rosy" in the background? Nice touch.
Send In the Crash Cart
For me, however, "Plague, Inc." had a big, nasty flaw that I couldn't avoid: It consistently dropped dead while running on my iPad. It's an older model (first-generation), but it's running iOS 5, which is over and above what the game lists as a requirement in the App Store.
Out of five games played, the app crashed four times. Each time, it happened late in a game that I was pretty sure I was about to win. After a crash, you can restart "Plague" and opt to reload the most recent game you played. Each time I selected that, though, it took me to a point at or near the very beginning of that particular game, back when everything was sunshine and roses, not the apocalyptic horror of disease I'd visited upon the world at the point of the crash.
Perhaps I'll need to save more frequently. I can deal with that. If "SimCity" taught me anything, it's to save early and save often. However, in the game's Options menu, the only option for saving is "Save and Quit." So the only way to preserve the game as a safeguard against crashes is to quit and reload it, each and every time you want to save.
"Plague, Inc." is a highly morbid yet engrossing and challenging light strategy game. It has just enough depth to draw you in but not so much that you're bogged down by overly complex interfaces that are difficult to use on a touchscreen.
But some users may be cursed with a perpetual crash that seems to like to visit right when you're on the edge of victory. It's a common complaint among the "Most Critical" reviews for this game at the App Store, and the syndrome has apparently infected me as well. At this rate, I'll never know what it's like to be a nano-virus.