The brutal Pandemic 2.5 is your pocket apocalypse now

, | Game reviews

As the old saying goes, one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic, and a billion is a serviceable opening move in Pandemic 2.5.

In this iPhone port of a webgame, you create a disease to infect people, which earns evolution points. You spend these points to add new features to your disease. Your goal is the infection and eventual annihilation of humanity, starting with patient zero. One down, about seven billion to go. This is a horror game as brutally dispassionate and coolly catastrophic as Defcon.

After the jump, the Chick Tickle

Remember when the Chick Tickle wiped out all of humanity? I mean all of it. Every last man, woman, and child died. Every single country in the world was devoid of population and listed as “forsaken”. Even Madagascar. Remember that? It all started on April 4, 2012, with one guy in Eastern Europe. He had pink eye, painful urination, and a runny nose. Chick Tickle’s remaining starting points were spent boosting its drug resistance, so it was tough to shake. This was a lingering condition, which gave patient zero plenty of opportunity to pass it along to other people who then had plenty of opportunity to pass it along to other people. Like The Thank You Game recently launched by Oprah Winfrey and game designer Jane McGonigal, the Chick Tickle was all about making it easy to share with other people.

But also like The Thank You Game, the Chick Tickle was little more than a minor inconvenience. It wasn’t a big deal. No one was going to die from the Chick Tickle. Not yet.

Pandemic 2.5 begins as a stealth game. Your disease needs to be patient and travel quietly. I usually open with conjunctivitis, or pink eye. This is a little more visibility than I like early on, but you can’t really skip that early infectivity. Eventually, coughing and sneezing are no brainers, but there’s no hurry. If you move too quickly to visible symptoms, the authorities might wise up and shut down the border. In fact, as my disease progresses, I like to reverse engineer some of the visible features out. Conjunctivitis is the first to go.

Once the Chick Tickle had hit about 100,000 Eastern Europeans, with only three deaths, I spent my points to pull conjunctivitis, coughing, and swollen lymph nodes. I figured it was more prudent to stay low profile until I could jump the border, or maybe catch a plane to China. But I had misjudged. The Chick Tickle stopped spreading.

In fact, people started getting better! The number of infected started to fall. I had only a few evolution points left, but I had hoped to save those up to invest in airborne transmission. I watched helplessly as my 100,000 infected people got better. The numbers plummeted to 1,000 infected, and still falling. With only 200 infected, I figured the game was all but over, so I spent my points on sneezing.

And that’s how I bounced back. It’s hard to imagine now that everyone in the world is dead, but humanity came within 200 people of being saved. Fortunately, the number of infected stabilized, and then started climbing. And climbing. It eventually went back to its earlier numbers. It soared into the millions. The Chick Tickle appeared in Sweden, then India, then neighboring Russia, and West Europe, and down into Kazakhstan. I was able to afford adaptation to heat, cold, and moisture.

This is the delicate part of a pandemic where you want to avoid killing people. Nothing raises your notoriety like a few thousand casualties. The idea is to stealth your way into every country, using insects or maybe birds. If you jump too early to the easy infection that comes with sores, vomiting, or diarrhea, all of which add to your lethality, you’ll raise the alarm. Better to save your points up until you can get into the water supply or maybe hold off long enough to go airborne. Once you’ve infected about half of the world’s population, and especially once you’ve made your way onto those pesky island nations, you’re ready to start the killing game. Then and only then is it safe to add the boils, the peptic ulcers, the encephalitis, and the kidney failure.

And then it’s a race against time. Once humanity is on to you, the world’s hospitals start making progress towards a vaccine. The Chick Tickle was a bacteria, which meant vaccines are slower going. Here’s where the real drama happens. The numbers of healthy millions spill into the numbers of infected millions, which steadily feed the numbers of dead. Millions die. Then billions. You watch the progress toward a vaccine based on the number of hospitals open around the world. If you haven’t infected everyone in the world by the time a vaccine is researched, you will fail. You’ll still kill plenty of people and get a respectable score. But you will fail. Pandemic 2.5 is all about extinction. There can only be one winner. Just ask polio.

After the Chick Tickle had wiped out humanity, it secured me the number one spot on the leaderboards for one night. Since then, my score has been easily passed by about fifty people. But the next step is to try the harder difficulty level, and to unlock the special traits by earning achievements. Pandemic 2.5 is no throwaway gimmick. It knows how to infect a gamer for the long run.

It still needs a bit of work. It’s suffering from some amateurish interface issues, which is particularly disappointing considering the game itself is so polished. It’s also in dire need of better documentation. But the biggest oversight is that you can’t save or suspend a game in progress. In its current state, Pandemic 2.5 is played in one sitting or not at all. I heartily recommend the former.

4 stars