Plague Inc made a splash on mobile when it launched back in 2012 and millions of copies have been sold in the three years since release. With the strategy genre still under-represented on consoles, this pandemic simulator is a welcome addition to the Xbox One store, but the question is whether or not there have been enough improvements to warrant the price differential from the mobile versions.
You play as a pathogen trying to infect and kill the entire world before the human race has a chance to create a cure. To start, you pick a country and infect patient zero; from now on you will control the evolution of the plague in order to steer it in its infections, keep it hidden and eventually destroy the human race! At first, the plague will spread slowly, as your infected wander around their neighbourhoods, interacting with their friends and neighbours and exposing them to the disease. You won't see this of course, but it's just nice to imagine, as the entire game is viewed as a map of the world, with infected humans showing up as red dots which throb angrily as more and more people come into contact with your disease. As the plague takes hold, biohazard and DNA bubbles appear on the map and must be popped with the right trigger to collect DNA points which can be used to further the infection.
Evolution is centered in three key areas – transmission, symptoms and abilities, with changing scenarios and situations requiring points to be concentrated in different areas. You may choose to start your game by keeping symptoms to a minimum, laying low and working to spread across the planet without making yourself known. Rats are effective carriers in urban areas, while livestock can move the plague in rural regions, and increasing disease effectiveness in air or water will allow the pathogen to spread via air and sea travel respectively. Within the ability tree, you can improve resistances to cold or heat which will allow the illness to thrive in the extreme temperatures of Greenland or Australia. Some abilities are linked directly to the type of pathogen you are using, adding extra variety to future games and occasionally giving you reason to question your humanity as you chuckle wickedly at the terrible, terrible thing you just did. The symptom area is where things get really nasty however, as you build up your illness from a simple cough or a slight bout of insomnia, to spontaneous total organ failure. Each illness can be evolved from a single starting branch, or merged to create horrendous combinations such as the 'Walking Dead' (anaemia plus insomnia) or 'Oops' (sneezing plus diarrhoea) combos. Symptoms can also aid in the spread of the disease or slow attempts at finding a cure; since people who aren't sleeping well are unlikely to be working as hard in the lab the next day.
Pathogens come in many forms which are unlocked as you play. Bacteria are well balanced for beginners as they allow careful control of evolution, while viruses are prone to mutation and cost DNA points to devolve if you are trying to keep control of symptoms to stay under the radar and avoid giving the human race a heads up to your existence. Fungal infections need a bit of a helping hand to spread their spores, so you'll need to balance releasing spore clouds with saving DNA to evolve your deadlier symptoms later. The Neurax Worm was a particular joy though, with its ability to burrow into the host's mind and exert mind control to dissuade them from basic hygiene and the respect of personal space, which drew a particularly evil cackle from the review office in pX Towers.
At its core, Plague Inc: Evolved is a simple game of resource management, with DNA being collected by popping bubbles on screen and then spent on evolving the pathogen to allow it to thrive in different climates and types of population centres. DNA is not infinite, so it's a balance of building up resistances to spread the infection while keeping enough points back to spend on turning up the lethality of your disease in the later stages. Ramp it up too soon and the World Health Organisation will take notice and start work on a cure before you are in a position to shut them down. Leave it too late and you may not be generating enough DNA to crank up the deadliness to a level that will wipe out all of humanity. There's also the possibility that your disease will be too deadly – killing people faster than they can be infected and thus stopping the pandemic in its tracks. As you progress, new pathogens become available - as do tweaks to their genetic code - ensuring that your game is constantly changing and each plague is unique. If that doesn't keep you interested, there's a whole heap of scenarios to test your skills on, which range from recreating the Black Death to bringing back joy and Christmas cheer to a depressed Earth. There's a plethora of statistics and graphs for those who like to analyse their performance in detail and (if you're feeling particularly maniacal) you can watch a replay of your pandemic to witness its path from the first light of infection to the last red dot of humanity flickering and winking out.
It's a real testament to the excellent game design in play that during our time with Plague Inc, we frequently caught ourselves cackling wickedly and saying things like "Haha Russia, you're mine now!" in a deep, serious tone. Certain countries became our nemesis and we would vow to destroy them at all costs, vendettas were forged and countries became our patient zero starting areas as an act of vengeance for the loss of an earlier round - all this from a top down view of a world map and regular text pop ups.
Plague Inc: Evolved walks a perfect line between being a dark, thought provoking journey through the extinction of mankind and a light-hearted pick up title to pass half an hour of your evening. The gameplay is complex and interesting, with a range of difficulties which range from easily accessible to completely unreasonable and it's startling how effectively the simple presentation can evoke a whole range of emotions. Great fun.