James Bond junkies and real-time strategy fans are encouraged to get evil in this tongue-and-cheek spy game. Evident in its outrageously wicked mission objectives, its management-based playing style, and its dry sense of humor, Evil Genius presents a real-time challenge of the same ilk found in the popular Dungeon Keeper games -- not surprisingly, perhaps, since developer Elixir Studios was founded by former Bullfrog designer Demis Hassabis. The game also incorporates a more abstract "World Domination" mode, with elements reminiscent of Elixir's innovative political sim, Republic: The Revolution. In Evil Genius, players take the title role and face a series of scenarios that challenge them to live up to it. As a criminal mastermind bent on ruling the planet, the player must succeed in multiple, interrelated endeavors.
First, a secret base of operations must be established, so that minions can be properly trained and new technologies can be safely researched. Players take control of the layout and furnishing of an underground lair, hidden on a remote island. The truly cosmopolitan villain also requires a certain degree of infamy, so the up-and-coming global scoundrel must complete dangerous missions to build notoriety. Once the whole world has learned of his dastardly existence, governments will send their heavily armed commandos and secret agent show-offs to bring the Evil Genius to justice; players must also be prepared with the tricks, traps, and bloodthirsty henchmen it will take to fend off these intruders in real-time play.
Every once in a while, an idea comes along that's so blindingly obvious everyone misses it. Elixir Studios, the same team that brought us the ambitious but fatally flawed Republic: The Revolution, had such an idea. Create a real-time management game in the tradition of the classic Dungeon Keeper set in the campy world of '60s spy movies. The twist, though, would be that rather than playing as the suave James Bond-ish agent, you'd play the twisted psychopathic villain. You'd hollow out a secret lair on an island volcano, manage your cabal of henchmen, build up an evil organization, and try to take over the world. The good news is, by and large, Elixir has succeeded. Evil Genius is a remarkably fun and addictive game that, while not without its flaws, is brimming with enough charm, good humor, and depth to keep gamers occupied for a long time. The bad news is the game has a problem with relaying information to the player that is, at best, annoying, and in one case, almost brings the entire product crashing down.
Much of the fun of Evil Genius comes from watching your evil empire go through its daily routine. You play a megalomaniac with delusions of grandeur and a penchant for the dramatic, and the 1960's Austin Powers-esque graphic and design sensibility is the game's strongest aspect. Everywhere you look in your base, every character you zoom in on, and every piece of text in the game's voluminous help system is note perfect, and often hilarious. Torturing enemy agents in the spinning office chair sends your lackeys into a "torture routine" consisting of cymbals clanged against heads and really bad Michael Jackson moon-walking. Staff lounges are wallpapered with Peter Max-style psychedelic swirls, and the "learning machines" you use to keep your staff sharp are egg-shaped cubicles straight out of the "World of Tomorrow" exhibit from the 1964 World's Fair.
Strategically, the game is no slouch either. Elixir's experience with Revolution shines here, as underneath the candy-coated presentation, there's a serious strategy sim to be found. Players will be presented with the opportunity to manage a far-reaching criminal empire. There are staff issues to deal with as workers' statistics (such as perception and loyalty) get depleted by their circumstances (body bags in the corridors tend to be a detriment to worker morale). There are resource management issues, as players need to balance out the need for a constant influx of money and notoriety against the inevitable "heat" they'll generate as they enact their dastardly schemes. Finally, there are security issues, as players need to decide what to do with the inevitable influx of agents the forces of justice will send to the island.
Fortunately, all of this detail is easily managed using the game's well-designed interface. The game's base controls consist of a half-dozen or so buttons at the bottom of the screen that are all clearly labeled with obvious functions. Building new rooms in your base requires you to right click on the area you want to build, select and place what you want to create, and just confirm the purchase. There's a bit of a learning curve until you realize that every room requires a two-unit "door separation" and that space inside the volcano is at a premium, but, by and large, creation of your evil lair should present few problems.
Dispatching your evil minions on the "World Domination Map" is just as easy. Left click on the henchmen you want to place, right click to retrieve them. The only minor annoyance is that there's no "Select All" function for your minions, nor can you slide workers from one region of the world to another without routing them through your island first. Moving a large team from the Eastern United States to Europe, for example, can require 14 or 15 clicks to accomplish.
Those minor problems, however, pale in comparison to Evil Genius' biggest issue -- the way that information is presented to the player. While everything you need to manage your evil empire is present in the game (including a global information screen you can use to track various measures of performance), the game desperately needs more feedback between the lair management and World Domination screens.
In just one example, there's no audible signal to tell you that an Agent of Justice has been spotted on the world screen -- just a flashing light on the lair management control panel. Fail to notice that an event is occurring on the world screen, and it's quite easy to lose entire teams to super agents. Considering how important "heat" is to an Evil Genius who'd like to die in bed, it would also have been nice for the World Domination screen to have more detailed screens or meters that broke down "heat" in various ways. I'd like to know how much heat I've generated in various areas of the world, and how much I have with specific secret agencies, as well as what the thresholds are for the types of agents they dispatch to my island. None of that is available in the game.
Evil Genius is also deficient when it comes to teaching players the rudiments of the game and giving a good sense of why things happen. Having been stung by criticism of Republic's lack of a tutorial or a decent feedback mechanism, the Elixir team seemed to go overboard this time, presenting a tutorial level, a number of video lessons during the actual game, and an impressively hyperlinked game encyclopedia. For all the effort, though, the organization of the tutorials and information still leaves something to be desired. The game has a tendency to drop a lot of stuff on you very quickly and leave you to figure out how to use it. In just one example, it took me quite some time to figure out that investigative agents leaving your island carrying no heat actually reduce the amount of global heat you carry. Before that, I was just killing everybody and letting body bags pile up, causing me no end of difficulty.
In fact, the biggest example of the game's "information problem" is found in one mission that takes place very early in the game. This particular mission has the player recruiting super villains from around the globe. Once you gather four out of the six you need, villain number 5, a Russian named Nikita Leonev, shows up on the island and starts wandering around your lair. Unfortunately, nothing you do seems to make much difference. Capture him, beat him up, have your minions mentally confuse him, even torture him in a spinning chair -- nothing makes him want to join you.
The culprit here is poorly written mission text that tells you to "mix up his priorities" which is a really obscure clue about how to solve the mission. It turns out that players will have to capture Leonev and torture him using the big mixer in the lair's kitchen! The thing is, the game never indicates that you can use anything other than the "official" torture implements on captives unless you're willing to dig into the instruction manual.
Since the basic design of the game's mission structure has you working on several missions at the same time, this means it's very possible to continue to play the game for hours and hours, completing other tasks, but making no real progress, until you finally realize that you've hit a roadblock. This process caused me some frustration -- so much so that I actually came close to quitting. Apparently, I'm not alone in my frustrations, either, as both Vivendi Universal and Elixir found the problem serious enough to release a patch day and date with the game. The patch changes the game's mission text to make it clearer what needs to be done. A solution will also be posted on the game's official website.
Evil Genius also requires a bit too much micromanagement. As your organization gets bigger and attracts more attention, you're going to start drawing dozens and dozens of agents to your island. It's simply annoying to have to put a tag on every single agent telling your minions what to do with them. Without those tags, though, agents will stroll around your base like they own it. Is it too much to ask that I be able to issue some global directives regarding agents and agencies? If, for example, I need to reduce my heat with P.A.T.R.I.O.T., I'd like to be able to tell my minions to just target every P.A.T.R.I.O.T. investigator for a misinformation campaign and let them go. If a burglar's stealth rating fails, shouldn't my workers know enough to kill someone stealing back the stuff I worked so hard to steal in the first place? This gets particularly annoying with saboteurs or teams of soldiers. Miss one with a "termination" tag and he'll be marching around your base, blowing up stuff with impunity.
Traps, on the other hand, are almost worth the price of admission by themselves. I freely admit to being a big fan of the classic Incredible Machine titles, and Evil Genius gave me a great chance to tap into that twisted Rube Goldberg side of myself. While the game starts with only a few traps, you'll eventually have over a dozen to choose from, ranging from poison gas rooms to exploding palm trees and swarms of killer bees. The real joy of the game, though, comes from setting up the most elaborately fiendish trap you can imagine. In one case, I got a jet engine to blow agents into a room containing a valuable piece of loot. When they went to approach it, though, pressure plates in the floor popped up a series of cardboard cutouts that confused the agent and caused them to drop into bottomless pits. I laughed myself sick every time I saw it. While you can finish the game using simpler trap setups, the challenge of coming up with ever more demented ways for agents to die is one of those things that keep you coming back for more.
In the end, while Evil Genius' mission structure has its problems -- the way the game throws progressively more difficult challenges at you, even as it introduces new game concepts, rooms, and equipment -- is all quite compelling. While I was worried the game might suffer a bit too much from "dead time" while waiting for events to occur, time spent with this game turned out to be anything but dead. Evil Genius always offers something to do, whether it's a new goal to achieve, a new "Act of Infamy" to plan, a new trap to set, or a new element of your dastardly plan for world domination to research.
The bottom line is this: Evil Genius brilliantly manages to capture that elusive "let me do one more thing" feeling that make six hours slip by without your even noticing. While not perfect, Evil Genius is a whimsically fun strategy title, and makes me even more eager to see what Elixir comes up with next.
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