The Pandemic games have had a few years now to condition us into lean, mean, virus makin' machines, and frankly, we liked it. While the original struggled with its own concepts, the sequel was a twisted, clever little venture that appealed to our sadistic sides. Bacteria? Martial law? Rodent-borne parasites? Awwwwww yeah. Not only did it mean a lot of us spent time getting looked at funny when people realised what we were doing, it also made Madagascar the target of a lot of unwarranted gamer bitterness. So now that we're all appropriately diseased little deviants, it seems a lot to ask from Dark Realm Studios that we should trade in our virii for vaccines and fight the good fight in their newest strategy game, Pandemic: American Swine.
That's right. Instead of choosing boils or blackouts, you'll be managing the media, the borders, the government, and more in your attempt to both stop the spread of disease and stamp it out. While handing out breathing masks doesn't exactly inspire one to maniacal cackling the same way calling down a plague of psychosis on the long-suffering populace does, it's still surprisingly fun.
The game is played out on a large map of the United States, and each state requires your attention. While some are limited to handing out masks and increasing military presence, others have air ports, harbors, and more. You can click on each icon to bring up the city or state's current status, along with a list of actions to take, and the cost attached to each one. The upside to these is that they bring in more money, which is crucial to combatting the flu. The downside is that open ports of entry means a greater chance of more infected travelers to deal with. It's a lot to deal with if you've never played before, but fortunately the sickness spreads slowly enough for you to learn the ropes and establish yourself. A little. Sort of. Maybe.
One of the key elements to winning the game is your relationship with the media, which is doing its best to whip the American people into a frothy lather of panic. Each time they report on an event, it pops up as an icon on the left side of the screen for you to click on. You'll notice that as the flu spreads, so does the panic in the country, indicated by the letters slowly turning red in the word at the top-right of the play window. If you want to keep the public calm, you'll have to work hard on not only giving the media positive things to report on ("President Dora makes sock puppet for child! Nation rejoices!"), but working to keep the virus from spreading until you have a vaccine ready. And even then, you've still got your work cut out for you, as deploying the vaccine takes time and a lot of money.
So what does all this mean for the series and its fans? Well, that depends on you. For a lot of us, what made Pandemic fun was the darkly humorous spectacle of it all, and the transition to a more outright strategic game may be a tough one to take if that isn't your bag.
Analysis: My first impression of the game was that it was going to be obscenely easy. After all, I had studied the habits of my old nemesis Madagascar. I'd simply shut down everything, hand out some masks, then kick back and make prank phone calls to Alaska until it burned itself out. So you can imagine my surprise when this brilliant strategy shortly saw terrible things happening in Seattle, my budget in the toilet, and the media shrieking for my head on a platter while the good people did their best impersonation of chickens in an earthquake. Huh, I thought, as the mortality rate begun to rise into the millions, that's probably not a good thing.
But while a good amount of effort has gone into making the game a balancing act, it ultimately comes down to how much money you have to throw around. Even when your vaccine has finally been researched, you're going to need a ridiculous amount of cash to be able to spread it around, which often comes down to keeping borders open whether you want to or not. I can't imagine how that tourist campaign even works. We've got history, sno-cones, and death by the millions! Bring the kiddies! And since cash only flows into your budget at the end of each day, you're going to spend a lot of time twiddling your thumbs, waiting for the clock to roll around.
Ultimately, however, American Swine wins out against the originals by feeling much more like something that requires effort and strategy than it does like a personal misery-making device. The better you get at managing all your states, the more it feels like you're actually accomplishing something. Feel the game is too easy? Try the difficulty on hard. And have a few nuclear strikes ready.
Pandemic 2 allowed you to speed up or slow down time, which was perfect for those of us with ants in our pants for the next stage of gameplay. After all, those pustules weren't going to grow themselves. By contrast, American Swine moves at its own pace, advancing a day at a time. In the beginning, you might be a little overwhelmed by the sheer amount of territory you're responsible for and long for a slower speed. Later on, when you're more comfortable with the controls and are sitting on a nice, relatively stable government, the ability to click forward a day or two to advance things would have been nice.
So one wonders. Why swine flu? Attempt at tongue-in-cheek satire, or an effort to make the game topical? As it stands, the game could have been named anything else and still been functional. I guess Pandemic: Vaccination Hero didn't have the same ring to it. All in all, American Swine is a good game, if a departure from what made its predecessors so fun. Fans of the series may be disappointed at the lack of boils and sores, but give it a chance and you'll find a surprisingly tricky game of germ warfare at your fingertips.