If you’ve played Pandemic, you’re going to get a powerful sense of deja vu from Plague Inc. The basic design of these iPhone games is identical. You control an insidiously morphing disease in an effort jump it from country to country, infecting as many people as you can. Once it’s gone global, you make it deadly in a bid to wipe out humanity.

The difference is that Plague Inc, which borrows the raw power of Pandemic’s enormously effective formula, tries to apply more gameplay finesse. Because it’s mostly successful, it’s a better game than Pandemic, but it still makes its share of rookie mistakes.

After the jump, how to tell a Plague from a Pandemic

With Pandemic having done most of the inspiration work, Plague Inc gets down to the business of building a better mouse trap. Or humanity trap, in this case. It has a mostly solid handle on how to improve some of the less developed or under-the-hood ideas in Pandemic. For instance, by laying out the disease progression like a skill tree instead of dumping a list in your lap, the RPG elements have some structure. You get a sense of working your way down a series of baked-in progressions. You can’t get sneezing until you have coughing, and you don’t get necrosis without first developing skin lesions. Do you want insanity? Of course you do. But first the insomnia, paranoia, and seizures. Even pandemics can use some guidance.

While this aspect of the game is more controlled, Plague Inc also does a great job giving the disease a runaway feel by letting it spontaneously evolve new abilities, or even special undocumented combo abilities. There’s a sense that it’s a living organism, occasionally doing its own thing. This capacity to mutate is actually one of the attributes you can develop.

Plague Inc lays out a better world stage. It does a great job differentiating the countries by climate, prosperity, urban density, and connections to other countries. Each of these qualities has gameplay significance. The presentation is miles and away better than Pandemic by taking bits of Pandemic that were essentially cosmetic and making them functional. You see ports close. You see infected flights in travel. As your disease works its way around the world, you see its path like the trail of blood splatters behind a fleeing murderer. So what if no one crosses the Pacific because the map doesn’t wrap around? The important thing about Plague Inc is that it knows enough to make the map simultaneously useful and evocative.

Occasionally icons appear and you have to pop them, like sun drops in Plants vs. Zombies. At first, this seems like a lame concession to iPhone-itis. But it’s actually not. The red bubbles let you know every time a new country is infected, and it furthermore selects that new country. Stopping the response teams by popping blue bubbles gives you something to do during the late game phase, when you’re basically just watching the spreadsheet play out to its conclusion. It also gives you a better sense of the world trying frantically to do something as humanity dwindles. Just as the disease appears more alive, so too does the world.

Plague Inc even has a sense for the importance of meta-game progression. Pandemic has special traits you unlock for later games, but Plague Inc gives you entirely new “classes” to unlock and play, starting with a hearty bacteria and progressing all the way up to manufactured bioweapons.

The big problem with Plague Inc isn’t that it’s derivative. The big problem is that even though it addresses a lot of the rookie mistakes in Pandemic, it still makes many of its own rookie mistakes. For instance, your disease will occasionally develop combo powers. These aren’t listed anywhere once you’ve been alerted to them. Scientists around the world will occasionally research a particular symptom and make it ineffective, but these also aren’t listed anywhere once you’ve been alerted once. Sometimes ships or airplanes will implement travel restrictions that limit your disease’s spread. And, no, these aren’t listed anywhere. It’s almost as if elements of the game design outstripped the interface.

4 stars