Played on Windows.
Also available on Mac OS, Linux, Xbox One, Playstation 4.
Plague Inc. Evolved is a game where you take over a potentially deadly disease to extinguish humanity. The game is based on a series of games called Pandemic which became popular in a flash game from 2008. However Plague Inc. Evolved took the novel idea from there and developed a rather interesting and deeper game.
When you start a game of Plague Inc. Evolved you first have to choose a disease type, these range from bacteria, viruses, all the way up to nano-viruses and bio-weapons. Each one has slightly different rules and abilities. Each type of disease is given a unique special ability, and some (four out of the eleven, which I’ll call the special types) act radically different.
You then name your virus. I found a few clever choices, my personal favorite was “Twilight Fan Fictions.” but anything can be used, it’s just a name for the game to use to refer to it. From there the game actually starts bringing you to the main map.
Unsurprisingly, the main map is the standard shape of the world. You have six out of the seven continents (no Antarctica) and various countries. Some countries are obvious, such as North America which is Canada, United States, and Mexico. However, other countries are jumbled together or forgotten about altogether. Central Europe is a single place, Portugal is part of Spain and Africa which is 54 countries in the real world is about 10 in the game. These are clearly decisions to add to the gameplay (imagine Risk with all 195 countries), but it’s a shame that so many countries are forgotten here.
However, each country’s borders are so sharp that there’s a clear border where the countries are. It’s odd to see the United States completely overrun by a disease next to Canada that has a few spots on it. The reason is the countries are represented on the map but the location of “sick people” is not on a grid so spreading of the disease is more based on hidden mathematics rather than a logical progression. The sharpness of the borders feels rather awkward at times, especially when a country’s borders are open and no infected people seem to be going into completely healthy countries.
Here’s a mid-game map, a number of countries just got infected, some countries fully infected.
Once the player reaches the main map, they are allowed to select a starting country, and the disease starts to spread there. The gameplay always starts slowly, usually taking a few days to get going, though the game allows three speeds for progression, I found myself choosing the fastest speed and pausing when I wanted to do something, as there’s a lot of downtime in between events that require action.
One piece the game does change from the original concept is while waiting for the infection to spread, bubbles will appear that can be popped for DNA points. These occur when a new country is taken over or when enough time has passed, the player is given something to do while they wait and honestly, it kept me engaged in the game instead of thinking about other games I could be playing.
These DNA points also come in overtime as the world gets infected (or killed) and they are part of the core of the game. There’s not an infinite number of them, and there are little pieces that can increase the number that come in, but the game isn’t very clear how to boost them. It seems the more severe a disease is the more points you might gain.
DNA points can be used for one of three things. You can spend them on transmission improvements, which makes the disease spread better, faster, or in different ways. You can use them to get new symptoms for your disease, which can help spread but does increase the severity of the disease, which causes it to get noticed. Finally, you can also buy resistances, which is critical because the cold or drugs in rich countries will stop the disease.
The upgrades are the key to the game, but sadly the upgrades are also one of the limitations of the game. A bacteria and a virus are different types of disease. Instead of being unique dieseases, they have the same upgrades. The same ways of spreading, and the same resistance. They do have one unique ability, the bacteria can gain a better resistance and the virus can mutate faster, however, this doesn’t radically change the game. Almost every virus has the same types of transmissions, same symptoms and same resistances with a single special ability. I mentioned four special types of disease above, and two of the four operate in similar ways with a special list of symptoms, and two of the four are unique experiences which I’ll touch on later.
Get used to this grid, you’ll see it over and over.
There are also genes you can choose when you set up your disease. These genes are unlocked by beating the main game multiple times. They allow you to gain bonuses, such as more DNA when popping specific bubbles, or ability to spread better in humid countries, or more ship based transmissions. You can grind these genes out or you can collect them as you play the game.
There’s a lot of these genes, and I was only able to collect 30 percent of them in 15 hours of gameplay, but overall they seem to change the game a bit.
That is one of the big issues I have with the game. Genes seem to change the game a bit but I don’t know how much for sure. The fact is that while the upgrades and genes tend to be the same, there are no stats. I’m unable to know exactly how much of a gain the cold resistance or the bacteria’s special resistance will give. The game only gives a small bar graph of Infectiousness, Severity, and Lethality Each of these are valuable stats, but there are so many other stats that are hinted at. “Difficulty to cure”, “Resistances”, even “Infectiousness level to the specific type of countries” are all important stats and the game doesn’t give a stat screen or any information on how much harder it will be to cure a disease, for instance.
Maybe this was done to avoid the idea of “Min-Maxing” the game, but this is a strategy game. Players should know exactly how each piece will affect the end result. If they wanted to avoid metagaming, they chose the wrong genre, in my opinion, to do that in.
The other possibility is the developers were afraid the numbers would mean nothing which is a valid concern. An 8 in cold resistance is only going to confuse people, however getting an 8 in cold resistance versus a 9 in cold resistance is an important distinction and it would help to differentiate pieces, as well as get a better understanding what each choice does.
I’m not sure why the stats aren’t clearly stated for the type of people who would use them, but it’s something that bothers me. It also can make the game harder to win as you don’t know what you’re buying or how to quantify two choices. The community seem to think making the disease “hard to cure” isn’t a good choice, but it’s a guess, not a quantitative analysis of that upgrade.
Ultimately there are really two styles of winning the game. There’s the stealth type of winning, where the disease stays hidden until it infects everyone and then at that point becomes super devastating usually killing the world before the cure can really be started. There is also a faster burn, where the disease will gain symptoms to increase its infectiousness but avoids major research and outpaces the cure.
There’s another issue here, and it’s that the tutorial teaches you the second path. However, the first disease you get really needs to use a stealth style. The game doesn’t seem to teach you stealth, and a new player who doesn’t look up anything will likely fail a number of times until he’s forced to look it up.
The stealth idea is really interesting for the diseases, but the fact that the game doesn’t give the player the tools to really understand what’s going on, and gives the player such a difficult type of disease first makes it a frustrating learning process.
Once the player has learned these tools the game is better, but it’s a painful process that the game should have tried to avoid, or at least hinted at how to properly play the game, rather than dropping the player in the deep end and making the assumption that he’ll swim.
However learning Stealth on the first disease, the player is forced to learn the wrong style. Stealth is easier to win for some diseases, but it’s slow and dangerous, especially if you overspend in transmission. Stealth loses effectiveness as you go up the difficulties, both in going to more advanced types and actual difficulty levels in the game. So the lessons that the player must learn ultimately also must be unlearned shortly after that.
The game itself is also annoyingly difficult. The goal is to eradicate all the humans. The issue is there are a few moves that the humans can use to win. The first is there’s a cure being built and if it’s completed, the game is over. This is an annoying loss and the only actual way to lose, the others only make it impossible to win until the cure is done. The minute the cure reaches 100 percent, it starts being distributed, and you have a few moments left in the game. The issue is that the distribution is fast and the first person to get cured has made you lose the game because if somehow the cure doesn’t get distributed beyond him, one living person makes you unable to kill all the humans on the planet.
Another issue is that you also might not be able to reach Greenland, or New Zealand, if they closed down the port. If this happens you’re out of luck. There’s a famous meme about the original game Pandemic and Madagascar closing down the ports. In Plague Inc. Evolved, it’s Greenland. The meme isn’t as warranted (as it’s easier to stealth around the globe) however you still are forced to use the boats to reach Greenland, and ensure you reach there before you get too dangerous, otherwise you have lost.
You also might burn out a population. If you don’t have enough infected people or you kill them too fast, or if the country discovered them, they might be killed before they infect enough other people, and again you’ve lost. The game doesn’t end right away but unless you are playing a scenario that can counter that (There might be only one or two and they’re special cases) the game is over at that point, you just have to play it out to realize it unless you’ve seen it before.
Now, I’ve lost a few games where I killed over 50 percent of the population. I lost one where I killed 99 percent of the world. The remaining people wouldn’t be able to repair the damage I did, yet I got a “Loss”.
The more I played, the more I realized that there really should be a sliding scale of victory. Anything over 65-75 percent death should be a “win’ whereas the 99 and 100 percent wins could be a higher value (an A versus a D). You could even limit the unlocking of stuff to 100 percent if you must, but winning because you’ve done amazing against the humans would have been welcomed.
Instead, you have a first or worst scenario. If you kill everyone, you win, congratulations. If you leave even one person alive, you didn’t and you suck. It’s a shame because I like the concept of the kill everyone idea, I just hate being told I didn’t kill EVERYONE. That dislike isn’t because I hated losing, I’ve played enough Dark Souls and other games to know I’m lacking some skill.
The issue with Plague Inc. Evolved is that I would fail and it doesn’t always feel like my fault. I’m sure it is my fault but really it’s a bad feeling of failure without a feeling of what went wrong.
9 million out of 7 billion, still a complete failure.
The thing is when you play 20-45 minutes in a game, it’s awful to see a failure knowing you wasted that time. The game allows you to save and make different choices, but any choice might be the one that makes you lose the game, and unless you know where to roll back to (as it’s rarely clear which move made you lose) you’ll likely have to start over from the beginning.
The real issue though with my lack of love for losing is the game feels more like a puzzle game than a strategy game. I mentioned the game doesn’t feel like a strategy game due to lack of stats, and I still believe it, but there’s a lot of strategies online, and if you read them they definitely sound more like a puzzle game. Most of them tend to say “Buy X ability on turn 1, X ability once you get 50 DNA, and then… “
There is very little randomness in a single game, there’s usually a single event that goes on during the game like an Olympics or something similar but for most of them you can just ignore them. Most online strategies don’t require them and the fact is they aren’t important. Instead, you can just follow a walkthrough and win every time, because the game is rather predictable.
It doesn’t ruin the idea of the game, and the fact is it’s a puzzle with multiple solutions, but as a grand strategy game, I wanted more randomness. I wanted the potential missed shots of Xcom, I wanted a randomized enemy in Civilization. Here, you get the same game each time. Perhaps I wanted more focus on the stats behind the scenes so I can solve the puzzles without requiring outside help. Really I wanted a different game, so that maybe I have a different challenge rather than using one of a few types of strategies that are known to work.
There’s one last issue I have with the game and that’s the UI. Some of the UI is good, ignoring the issues mentioned early about the lack of crucial information provided. The upgrades screen is fantastic. While I want more information as it is, it’s great and really clear as to what’s going on. However, the view screen for countries and the map is annoying. The images for the type of countries (rich or poor, humid or arid) is hard to see and doesn’t say much. There’s half the screen taken up by photos, and then generic information over the screen.
Again this comes back to the information. It’s not presented well and what is presented has limited use. There’s information that is desirable in the upper left corner that takes up a small corner of one-sixth of the screen such as what type of country it is. The rest of the one-sixth of the view is an overview map of the country that isn’t as important. As I said, the information isn’t laid out properly for the user, at least not in a way the user needs to read it. Critical information is tiny, information the player can’t do much about is presented in a larger format.
It’s a bit messy, there’s clearly information, but also wasted space.
Many of my complaints revolve around the base game and they’re true, but I feel like the company took the time to address them. All four special types of diseases were added post-launch of the mobile version of Plague Inc. Plague Inc Evolved appeared to have all of these.
There are two minor additions. One that has unique symptoms, and the ability to convert the populace into loving you. The other allows you to develop zombies and once the cure is finished, the player is able to grow the zombies and avoid being fully cured. Both are fresh, but they are still are only a minor step above the base game.
The two bigger additions were the “Simian Flu” which is similar to the film, Planet of the Apes (and a paid promotion), and the “Shadow Plague” which completely changed the game.
The Simian flu has two stages. There’s the main disease, although it’s easier to be spotted so using stealth no longer works for it. Instead, the game intends for you to evolve into an ape/human hybrid plague. From there, you can build an ape society, building packs of apes, encampments, and attack various labs to hinder the cure. It’s unlike anything else in the game, and rather interesting. It might be the most complicated plague due to the dual nature (ape/human totals). It also is a prime example of the UI issue I mentioned before. Plague Inc Evolved wasn’t intended for the dual system. The developers made a new interesting plague but I guess time wasn’t spent on improving the UI for the new gameplay more than a couple of small tweaks.
The Shadow Plague, on the other hand, is perhaps the most interesting of the disease types. The game starts with you as a vampire. Your job is to infect/kill the entire population of the world. What’s interesting is this is one of the few that have “Abilities” and the only one that has a player token. You’re able to move between countries, kill and feed on the population for DNA, or infect the world. There is a cure for your plague, but there’s also an ancient sect out to kill you called the Templars that you must attack before they attack you. There’s also a life value for any vampire you control.
Again the UI is a little weak, for this mode. It’s hard to look at health in this game and to find out exactly where the Templars and hospitals appear but this mode is so unique that I can forgive it. There are triggerable abilities for both the Simian and Shadow plague and they are a true annoyance to deal with. It’s not that the game came from the phone, as I think they’d have similar problems, it’s just not well thought out or laid out. They’re tiny buttons on the left side of the screen instead of large buttons on the UI. However, I do respect the Shadow Plague and the work that went into it. I rather enjoy the ability to do something different in the game, and the Shadow Plague’s vampire is rather a fun little diversion. There’s also the fact that the game allows you to just kill randomly until you’re ready to evolve to a plague, so you can stay as a murderous vampire if that’s what you wish. You can also evolve more vampires. It’s ultimately up to the player which direction they want to go with the Shadow Plague, and there are a few choices that are legitimately different from the rest.
There are also additional official “Scenarios” which change up the game. This can be anything from a world with an extremely low starting population (meaning it’s harder to spread diseases) to portal technology, to special diseases. There’s a Mad Cow Disease, a Nipah, a holiday-themed one (Santa’s little helper) or even a Smallpox as well as far more.
Every Scenario is a bit different and most are interesting. There’s a significant number so even if you beat all the types of diseases, the scenarios will have more for you to do, if you want more content, and I admit I find them more interesting than the “Main game”. The problem though is those genes mentioned above don’t get unlocked during the official scenarios and as such, I felt less of a reason to play through them.
Scenarios aren’t bad and for hardcore fans of the game, they’re going to add a lot more playability. This is in addition to the time spent playing with fan-made scenarios, speed runs, and multiplayer, all features I didn’t delve into, but definitely can add to the game.
If you think I hate Plague Inc. Evolved from my review, I understand that. I’ve been pretty critical of the majority of the parts of the game. It’s more of a puzzle game than a strategy game, but at the same time if I wanted a strategy game, Civ, X-Com and Starcraft are there. However Plague Inc. Evolved lets me play a killer Virus, and I like that quite a bit.
The lengths of the game and the high failure rate do ruin my overall enjoyment of the game, and probably could have been eased a bit, however I love the ideas that go into the game, and the Scenarios are interesting enough to give it a large amount of replayability to avoid the absolute repetitiveness that could come along.
Ultimately I think Plague Inc. Evolved is a good game and a relatively novel concept. It does have great visuals and when you get to the end game (when you’re fighting the cure, and trying to improve the lethal levels) and feel like you have a chance of winning there’s an intense feeling.
In addition, I spent 15 hours in the game, and for 15 bucks that’s not bad. I also didn’t get as addicted as some players and I can fully believe someone could spend a hundred hours if they really enjoy the mechanics or the theme of the game.
Final Thoughts: While there could be more randomness or more strategy required, Plague Inc. Evolved produces an interesting and unique experience. There’s a lot of content in the game and a good challenge.
Stats: 15 hours 58/183 achievements earned.
I bought this game in a strategy simulator bundle on Humble Bundle.