Better Than Cheap: Pandemic 2

(A feature in which I highlight free PC games.  There are many high-quality and innovative games out there that cost nothing, but are sadly restricted to their niche.  I think they’re worth your time.)

The role of online Flash games has been mostly supplanted by mobile gaming. The addictive charms of a simple, but well-made and well-presented game are readily apparent if you’re looking to while away a couple of minutes at the bus stop, but not so much if you’re sitting at a computer in your flat with housework to do. For example, Crush the Castle was a fun momentum-based puzzle game that was somewhat popular online in the summer of 2009 – I remember Craig and I spending most of a night in Edinburgh trying to complete it. At the end of that year, Rovio Entertainment released an almost-identical game called ‘Angry Birds’ for the iPhone. Which one did all your friends play?

What I’m getting at is that despite the immense number and variety of online flash games, they never really took off in the same way phone ones did, and now that mobile gaming dominates a huge section of the industry, they’re unlikely to.

You won’t find me complaining, though. While they’re good for short bursts, flash games tend to be quickly forgotten and just as easily dismissed. There must be tens of thousands of them out there, but there’s not a lot of upward mobility in the medium – a game’s popularity is very much fleeting.

A notable exception, however, is Pandemic 2. I’m not exactly sure how this game became as popular as it is, but at any one time it’s likely that someone on a gaming forum is complaining about it. Good-naturedly.

 

 

A basic management-type game, Pandemic 2 gives you limited control over the spread of a virus. As more people become infected, you are awarded evolution points, which you can spend in order to evolve viral traits that affect how your virus spreads further. For example, you can allow airborne transmission for 7 points, or heat resistance for 4. When governments start to notice the severity of the situation, they’ll start closing borders, airports and harbours, effectively shutting down infection paths. Your goal is to balance the visibility of your disease with how contagious you want it to be – too many symptoms and the governments will catch on and take measures, too few and your disease will never make it out of Australia.

 

 

Technically speaking, the goal of the game is to infect and kill everyone on the planet. However, since this is highly unlikely, the game becomes more about discovery: what works, what doesn’t. Pandemic 2’s major strength is its atmosphere, which is something that flash games are godawful at creating, because it’s hard to get people involved in your world when there’s a huge ad at the top of the page for FREE ONLINE GAMES. However, with regular news updates and little airplanes going back and forth, you get a real sense that there’s a world waiting to be infected. The music’s ace, too – I have no idea why it makes me think of an apocalyptic disease outbreak, but it totally does.

 

 

Pandemic 2 is available online at crazymonkeygames.com. There’s probably a good clone in the app store, but you’d probably have to pay for it.

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Better Than Cheap: Super Crate Box

(A feature in which I highlight free PC games.  There are many high-quality and innovative games out there that cost nothing, but are sadly restricted to their niche.  I think they’re worth your time.)

There’s a division in the gaming community right now over what can be considered a ‘game’. The increasing focus on cinematic sequences, combined with games asking less and less of player interaction has led to a backlash against what we once viewed as that ideal of video games: the interactive movie.

Oh, how we used to dream of them. Razor-sharp 3D graphics, massive in scale, fluid animation, and preferably lots of action involving planes and car chases and explosions and kung-fu. You know, the stuff that little boys like. Except, now that it’s here (and we’re no longer little boys), we’ve found that it’s kind of dull to press three or four buttons and watch a choreographed sequence play out, the artifice almost dripping out of the screen. You used to memorise the Fatality combos in Mortal Kombat, and usually fail. Now, you press X then O and the character will act out a long chain of moves. You’re not involved. It’s been said that it feels like the game doesn’t really want you there.

The opposite of this “interactive movie” direction is a simple game with one defined goal. Space Invaders is hardly a complex game, but the central mechanic (shoot the little shapes that fall from above) is easy enough to grasp and, therefore, able to be mastered once you start experimenting with strategy. Same goes for Tetris, a masterpiece of game design. It can be learned in less than a minute, but millions of people play Tetris to this day, still trying to improve on their performance. Sure, you could spend days trying to master one facet of modern games, but what’s the point? It’s not like we have high scores any more.

In recent times, some have reacted by creating games that concentrate solely on mechanics, and the mastery thereof. Enter Super Crate Box.

Super Crate Box is a tiny gem. The goal is simple: collect boxes while you avoid being hit. When you collect a box, your weapon changes, and so must your survival strategy. Learning how to maximize each weapon’s potential is key, because if you don’t know how to use the bazooka when it inevitably turns up in the rotation, you’re going to have a real hard time getting to the next box.

Enemies fall from the top of the screen at a brisk pace, and make their way to the bottom. If they reach the pit at the bottom, they reappear at the top of the screen, but angrier. Faster. Technically speaking, you could play the entire game without killing a single enemy, but if you don’t manage the numbers effectively, you’ll find yourself quickly overwhelmed.

It’s unrelenting, unforgiving, and you’ll fail to break 10 points for a while, but you’ll improve. It’s a lean, mean game that revels in its medium and makes no concessions to needless fat like story, characters and themes.

Super Crate Box is available as a free download  for PC and Mac, and for handheld iOS devices for £1.49.

(My high score is 130.  The gauntlet has been thrown down.)