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When Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 was released in 2015, it received an enthusiastic response from gamers. As a campaign-based version of the original pandemic, fans have been put in the familiar roles of medical professionals struggling to eradicate deadly strains of the virus before they spread around the world and destroy humanity.
The game's largest draw was a storyline that developed over several game sessions. Diseases mutated and cities fell into chaos as a sinister conspiracy spread its tendrils around the world. Along the way, players put stickers on the board, destroyed cards, and opened sealed compartments to reveal hidden components. This permanently changed the game in response to their own actions. A sequel, Pandemic Legacy: Season 2, took the action decades into the future, exploring a world haunted by the events of the first game. Now there's a third and final episode that takes players back to the dangerous days of 1962 and reaches the height of simmering tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 revolves around CIA agents uncovering plans for a powerful new bio-weapon being developed by villains of Soviet intelligence. While players flew from town to town according to the established pandemic formula to get rid of plastic cubes representing disease, you and your companions want to rid the board of miniature plastic spies. Let them spread too freely and they will overthrow the capitalist system. More importantly, they bring you an embarrassing loss.
It's a superficial change for the most part, but it's far from the fact that Season 0 evokes the Cold War atmosphere. Different places on his board are oriented differently: Allied, Soviet and neutral. As an enemy agent, you cannot freely fly into Soviet territory. To get around these limitations, you'll need to assemble teams of local agents represented by plastic miniatures that look like VW vans. You can send them out to do your dirty work and murder Soviet ghosts with ruthless efficiency.
Your goals for each playthrough also feel CIA-esque. You have to find the locations of enemy assets and infiltrate secret Soviet facilities. Best of all, however, are the high-stakes manhunt missions, where a target like a defector or double agent starts out in a city and makes desperate for Soviet strongholds as you try to cut off all possible escape routes. It's an exhilarating chase with some really nerve-wracking moments where your quarry slips through your fingers just as you get closer to grab it.
What really makes the game shine, however, is what happens between missions. As with previous games in the series, you'll play through a card game with dramatic new story elements. They will add stickers to the chalkboard depicting the ever tighter Soviet surveillance and making certain cities more dangerous. Most interesting, however, is the ability to level up your characters over time. Each comes with a passport booklet with pages for three different identities, each with their own capabilities. Over time, you will add new powers so that you can optimize each agent for tasks like hunting down enemies, sharing information with teammates, or recruiting local staff.
Choose your secret identity.
The full board.
You can switch between identities during the game to adapt to the changing situation on the board. With an inspired touch, you can customize the appearance of your characters with the help of sticker layers. It doesn't affect gameplay, but the idea of slapping a wig and fake mustache to sneak behind the Iron Curtain is undoubtedly fun.
As you delve deeper into the campaign, the game becomes more difficult, and while it is impossible to go into detail without divulging some key surprises, you can expect to grapple with increasingly intense Soviet schemes and pen-pushing superiors that careful seem to get in the way. What starts out as a moderately more complicated version of the pandemic turns into something much meatier and more sophisticated.
The incremental change process means that you will never feel overwhelmed. However, there are some instances where it becomes clear in the middle of a session that you are not going to win and this is where Season 0 feels flat as players wander aimlessly around the board pursuing unachievable goals. It feels like going into the second half of a soccer game and losing your team 8-0, even though it only happened once in our campaign.
Even if you lose, you will go through the act. However, this can mean that important information is missing and receiving and interpreting information can be as important as what actually happens on the board. There are smuggled documents, secret plans, testimony, and other clues that you might want to piece together to get a full picture of what your opponents are up to.
Most impressive, however, is how the game fits into the inner conflict of its protagonists. Throughout the campaign there are several points where players' opinions on various topics have a direct mechanical impact on the game. And while the storyline mostly runs on rails, there are a handful of key choices that lead to a choice of different endings.
If there's a narrative flaw, it's that Season 0 never really addresses the deeper question of whether the ends of all this seedy espionage warrant the means. It's not that the game offers a simplistic good versus evil view of the Cold War. The CIA portrayal is far from heroic, and there are some terrible people on both sides. But the idea of vans roaming Latin America to repel leftists is downright uncomfortable given the real history of the CIA's engagement in the area, even assuming the people you cross off the map are actually the secret agents Payment from Moscow.
Espionage fiction of all forms exists on a spectrum. On the one hand, it's an escapist fantasy like James Bond, on the other, a deeper story that explores a world of suspicion and duplicity, and what happens when we allow people to step outside of legality and accepted norms. Season 0 falls into the former category for the most part, and I would have loved to see the mix of narrative and mechanical wizardry tackle some deeper, more reflective problems.
Is that enough to negate everything that Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 does well? No. The game is a fitting climax to a series that has left players with a series of difficult choices, hard-won wins, and painfully close defeats. For newbies, Season 1 is a better place to start in terms of complexity and storyline. But if you've been with it from the start, this is a hell of a good goodbye.