The Early Access Report: Dead State and Plague Inc: Evolved
Welcome to the early access report, a regular round-up looking at the most interesting early access games of the moment. Here we try new alphas and revisit old ones to separate the promising gems from the bug-addled time wasters.
It's official: there are too many games on Early Access. A plague of them has appeared since the start of 2014. I'd be tempted to do a complete round-up, but that would require a time machine and an extra set of hands. To keep myself sane, I'm going to continue finding themes, which is how I ended up losing hours to both Dead State and Plague Inc: Evolved. Both are compelling end-of-the-world games of markedly different styles and similar problems.
Dead State is a zombie survival RPG. You are the survivor of a plane crash, and you wake up in a school surrounded by strangers. In the Early Access Demo (their sadly apt description), you'll live a week in the life of this man (Brian), limiting the game to a few days at the start of the campaign. He and the other survivors need to start making the school something of a home, repairing the surrounding fence and gathering supplies from the nearby town.
Dead State's school is the hub where you start to learn about how the world ticks. The people here (mother and daughter Anita and Renee, Joel a cop, Davis a wheelchair user, and Elaine a crash survivor) aren't just looking to survive, but to make a home of a municipal building. Tasks include gathering supplies to shore up defences and provide water, but talking to the people around the building also adds a sheen of humanity to it. They don't just want planks and nails, but condiments, deodorant, and the everyday things everyone takes for granted that adds to the groups morale. You'll need the people to be happy to co-operate with you on missions.
I don't know what that will add up to in the grand scheme of things, as this is a sadly limited demo, but moment-to-moment there are some fraught fights. In town, you can have a little party made of the people back at the school, and even that little team is put together with the traditional friction of a good zombie tale (a wiry mother arguing that her medic daughter shouldn't be put in danger - who do you choose?). Each area is a small square with a few buildings to loot, and you need to worry about potential looters and the undead: breaking down a door could reveal a parcel of people to fight, or a house full of zombies.
Things then shift from wandering to turn-based: each of the three characters (you can choose the mother or the daughter, and there's a policeman who tags along) has a portion of nine action points, and each movement and weapon takes a differently sized chunk off of that. My initial fights ended up a little like the ending of Shaun Of The Dead, with everyone surrounding a zombie and beating it in a round-robin battle. Thinking things through created more interesting fights: splitting the team up so I could lure a looter into a pincer of shotguns worked well, until the commotion of the gun fire attracted zombies. Then I was swiping at zombies with a cleaver, and trying to manoeuvre my little team to safer ground. It all goes to hell very easily, and really does have that uncertainty of life that good zombie fiction has.
But you can see the bones poking through Dead State's flesh: escaping to the menu leaves you vulnerable to attack, there are buttons that don't work, it crashes, and turns can take a long time for the game to calculate even with relatively few people on screen. There are some UI elements that go without being explained, so it took me 30 minutes to figure out how to leave the school and go on a raid (there is a map button on the UI that only works if you're standing in the exit zone). But the biggest problem is brevity: this is an open-ended game and the demo has an end-point. I'm already convinced it'll be a good game when it's all completed, it needs more for me to recommend it to you if you want something to play now.
Plague Inc: Evolved is a more infectious prospect. The mobile game has spread to Early Access, and casts the player as a virus god in control of a Google map of wrongness: you start with a lowly bacteria, and clamber through the socio-economic barriers, trying to infect and kill as many people as possible.
It's grim stuff. The beats we've come to expect from hyper-active Hollywood movies ("It's passed from goats into humans!") are represented in the ways you can tailor your virus/bacteria. Maybe you want it to cause coughing? Or would it be more prudent to have it carried by insects? You select your starting powers and position, and start fiddling with the DNA, looking at the patterns from the ports to help sustain your virus all over the world. You watch planes fly from country to country but realise your disease isn't spreading with them. You can check your strain's capabilities, then alter how it reacts in various climates, spending DNA points according to each country's data. There's lots of charts and information to help you figure out how to build the best outbreak.
Part of the joy is watching the infection creep over the world map, leaving behind a grim trail of red pustules that shows off your work. There's also the way the virus takes on a life of its own: you're only ever controlling its potential, fiddling with powers that it uses and you never directly apply, so it's a satisfying intellectual pursuit. Especially when it starts to gain a pace that allows it to evolve on its own. You're a proud viral parent, watching little Timmy decimate Eastern Europe.
However, it does lean a bit too heavily on the mobile base for a PC game: it relies a little too much on iconography when it would be better to just tell you what vulnerabilities and strengths are using text, and it still feels like a game you'd pick up for the length of a commute than sit at your PC pondering for hours. There are also a few buttons that are sat inert on the UI.
It's a slight experience as well. The Early Access feels like a solid base, but there's not a lot of replay value here right now — none of the additional scenarios have been implemented, so there's no challenge other than to infect the modern world (rather than attempting to spread a disease during the Ice Age). Everything feels a little too samey to sustain interest, and though there are a lot of promises being made on the game's Steam page, it's yet to deliver. It needs a few more updates to be worth the £12.
Should you buy now?
Dead State: No
Plague Inc: Evolved: No