Review by Steerpike
Mediocrity: A History
I want so badly to give this game a good review, but it commits
the one crime I cannot forgive: for lack of testing, for clumsiness
and laziness on the part of its designers, it is but a glimmer of
what it could be. Evil Genius is the well-intentioned but
desperately flawed sophomore offering from Elixir Studios, the British
developer responsible for 2003's well-intentioned but desperately
flawed Republic: The Revolution. In this its second game,
Elixir channels the spirit of Dungeon Keeper 2, inviting
us to play as a wicked mastermind in the campy world of sixties-ish
spy movies. You will build an underground lair, conduct criminal
activities across the globe, construct a doomsday device, and ultimately
bring all the world under your megalomaniacal control. But where
Dungeon Keeper 2 was graceful, elegant, superbly tunedpossibly
the perfect RTSEvil Genius is clumsy, boorish, frustrating,
and frankly not worth the price of admission.
Any game that has the audacity to compare itself to both X-Com
and Dungeon Keeper 2 on its box cover has some serious
shoes to fill. Holding it to that quote, I find it sorely lacking,
especially in the areas of interface design, play balance, and AI.
It is worth noting, however, that the major flaws in this game are
patchable (though it would take one hell of a patch to cover everything),
so it's possible that Elixir is just guilty of unleashing a flawed
release candidate on the public. The game itself, the concept, is
You play as one of three criminal masterminds just starting their
careers in world domination. The proud owner of a Volcanic Island
of Undisclosed Location, you must use your seed capital to get an
underground lair going, staff it with assorted functionaries, and
then get to the serious business of trying to take over the world.
This is the Dungeon Keeper 2 portion of the game: dig out
and build rooms, manage money, hire people, supervise evil activities,
and so forth.
The X-Com portionand that comparison is on the same
level as comparing onions and orangestakes place on the World
Domination Map, where you place minions for the purpose of stealing
cash, perform acts of infamy to increase your evil standing, steal
unique treasures, and generally do your best to upset the delicate
balance of world order. So far as I can tell, the only thing that
Evil Genius has in common with X-Com is that both
games have a world map.
I've been told that I compare games to other games too much, so
if this is a quirk that bugs you, it might be best if you stop here.
Evil Genius is all the Dungeon Keeper 2 crowd has
had to look forward to since that franchise came to an undeserved
end, and it's on that great game that this mediocre one is based.
Pretty much everything that Dungeon Keeper 2 did right, Evil
Genius does wrong. But there are also some things it did do
right, so we'll talk about them too.
You can't just be evil willy-nilly, of course; if you go too far,
the forces of good will come to teach you a lesson. The world is
divided into five regions, each with its own anti-evil organization:
S.M.A.S.H., P.A.T.R.I.O.T., S.A.B.R.E., and so forth. It's a prerequisite
of crime-fighting that your outfit be an acronym.
As you conduct your evil operations, you gain heat and notoriety.
The former is the amount of attention that your criminal activities
are garnering by region; get too much heat and some people will
be dispatched to your evil island to deal with you. Heat goes down
if you stay out of trouble. Notoriety, meanwhile, increases as you
commit nefarious deeds. You need notoriety to get the respect of
other evil people and to succeed at certain mission objectives.
The forces of good have two methods of dealing with your evil self.
They'll send out standard agents pretty regularly, to stalk the
sunny shores of your island, snooping for evil activity. Should
they locate the evil door to your base, they'll jimmy the lock and
poke around insideif they find nothing, they'll eventually
go away and you'll lose some heat. But if they see something untoward,
they'll race back to HQ and soon the island will be swarming with
do-gooders, so it's often best to just drop them in your evil prison.
Problem is, though the game insists that heat is the mechanism by
which opponents attack you, in truth it seems more random to me.
There was always a pretty significant presence on my evil island,
and after a certain point they attacked relentlessly and
with such overwhelming force that I couldn't use the World Domination
Map anymore, because I literally needed all of my human assets to
protect my little volcanic island.
The other method that the good guys use is the Super Agents. Super
Agents are the James Bond/Cate Archer/Maxwell Smart kinds of people
who can seriously disrupt your evil plans, both on the World Domination
Map and if (God forbid) they ever come to your island. This would
be a better mechanism for game challenge if they hadn't made the
Super Agents hypersentient and nearly impossible to kill. Even imprisoning
one is ridiculously dangerous. One time, Super Agent Mariana Mamba
(bikini and butcher knife; think Ursula Andress from Dr. No)
burst into my evil lair and proceeded to slaughter literally
every minion I had at my commandabout 75 peoplebefore
packing up one of the priceless treasures I'd stolen and leaving
me alone on my island (I had hidden my Genius in the safety of the
You have your own form of Super Agents, called henchmen. These
are supercriminals like yourself, but (presumably) they lack the
brainpower to be evil geniuses. So they hire themselves out to you.
More become available as your notoriety rises. Only Super Agents
can permanently kill a henchman, but Super Agents are so vastly
more powerful than henchmen that combat between the two is kind
of a joke.
Generally speaking, henchmen are among the most useless units in
the game. They wander randomly, usually to the most remote and irrelevant
evil locations on your island. You can control their movement, but
they pick up their meanderings again unless you maneuver them all
the timewhile Mariana Mamba was butchering my people, my two
henchmen were having a smoke in the freezer, totally ignoring the
howling alarms and the shrieks of the dying. Their pathing is abominable,
they get stuck on things, their "special abilities" generally
wind up killing more of your people than enemies, and their verbal
responses are flat-out racist. Their flaws bring into sharp relief
that this game is a great idea with very poor execution.
Witness the Power of this Fully Operational Battle Station
One of the most fun and challenging aspects of Dungeon Keeper
2 was the amount of precision required to dig out and build
a functional lair. The game's true masters turned their dungeons
into objets d'art, beautifully ticking crystalline lattices
of efficiency and design. It was deeply satisfying to watch a perfectly
conceived dungeon humming away as creatures went about their daily
lives. Lair-building in Evil Genius is also fun, but it includes
some bizarre flaws that really hurt the overall effectdue
in part to the fact that lair efficiency appears to be of no importance
whatsoever, and there's no need to display the level of care and
exactitude so necessary in the game's spiritual predecessor.
If you decide you don't like a room and delete it, for example,
the area fills up with evil dirt again. You can completely rearrange
your base whenever you like. It's an underground lair. The
whole point of it should be that you have to be careful, because
once the dirt is out you can't put it back in. Furthermore, there
are clumsy bugs in the system: connecting rooms with corridors should
be a snap, but the game simply refuses to build corridors sometimes,
saying they're too narrow when they're not.
Evil Genius offers a nice variety of rooms (though who ever
heard of an underground lair with no guard post?) and is
more forgiving than Dungeon Keeper 2 when it comes to the
efficiency of nonsquare areas. This is because the efficiency of
a room in this game is dependent not on position on the map or proximity
to other rooms, but on the furniture you place inside, so you can
build to whatever specification you like and stock the place with
the furniture you'll need. However, furniture is stupidly restrictive
when it comes to placement and access. Items block each other, people
get trapped behind stuff, and the limitations are absurd. For example,
you can't put an evil fire extinguisher on the same section of wall
as an evil security camera. Why? A genius might know; I do not.
You control access using evil security doors, which are also flawed.
Doors have four completely useless lock levels that ten minutes
of playtesting could have improved. Why can't you set doors
so that only certain minion types are allowed through? Why can't
you order doors to be guarded but still open for your people? Why
can't doors be set to only open when approached from one side? And
why on Earth can't you designate certain areas of your base off-limits,
so your personnel aren't constantly wandering there to sneak cigarettes
instead of doing work?
Another great thing about the doors is that they're useless as
security devices. Agents will try to pick the locks to gain access
to your base, an activity they could easily dispense with since
your minions are constantly walking through the doors, which open
for them automatically. Door opens, agent runs through. Security
bypassed. If only Bond had it so easy.
You have access to a wide variety of nefarious traps with which
to protect your island, but in the end they, too, have too many
problems to be valuable. A new and unnecessarily boorish linking
system allows you to set up extremely complicated trap scenarios
using pressure pads, but in my experience traps killed my people
far more often than they killedor even fooledthe enemy.
The Dungeon Keeper 2 strategy of putting traps at breach
points or entrances to offset minor invasions just doesn't work
in Evil Genius, because the traffic of your own minions through
those points means that they'll be the likely victims every time
a trap fires.
One section that should have been dispensed with entirely is the
hotel-building. Despite the fact that you lair is housed inside
an evil volcano on a remote and desolate island, gaggles of tourists
inexplicably show up and roam the beaches. If they wander into your
base and see something nasty in the proverbial woodshed, they'll
return home and tell the agents of justice, and your heat will increase.
Thus, you must build and maintain a hotel to corral the tourists
and keep them away from your lair. This would be okay if the hotels
workedwhich they don'tor if you didn't need to staff
the place with crucial Valet minions, meaning they're not available
to do other work. I wound up using automated sentry guns, not hotels,
to deal with tourists. They tried to throw everything including
the kitchen sink into Evil Genius, and the result is an overly
complicated morass of frustration and poor interface design.
The World Domination screen is equally clunky. There are two preset
zoom levelsone is too far out, the other is too far in. Movement
of your minions, represented by little game piecelooking icons,
is unintuitive. You receive no warning when an enemy agent or Super
Agent appears in an area where your operatives are committing evil
acts, so oftentimes you visit the screen only to find that someone
has wiped out a gang of your followers. Finally, the World Domination
Map is the only place where you can review your heat levels, and
there's no simple way to view your heat for each of the five do-gooder
alliances at once.
Frankly, I could have done without the World Domination section.
It seems tacked on and runs poorly. Its chief purpose is to display
the hundreds of acts of infamy you'll want to commit, both as mission
objectives and to increase your notoriety. And, of course, it's
where you get your moneybut money is a fickle thing in Evil
Genius. You don't pay your minions or henchmen (!) and pay no
cash upkeep for your island or its facilities. You just pay for
rooms and furniture, so once your base is "done," there's
little reason to spend more money.
There Is Still Good in You, I Can Sense It
It's fairly obvious why Evil Genius is so clumsy a game.
Pretty much all of the creative calories that Elixir has seem to
have gone into some really top-notch graphics (for a strategy game)it
sports vivid colors, superb animations, and a level of detail that's
frankly beyond belief. Every evil action your minions perform has
a unique and often hilarious set of animations associated with it;
it's fun to just zoom in and watch your people going about their
evil daily business.
Reflections, shadows, and similar 3D candy are used to great effect
in shiny tile floors, beeping and whirring machinery, and various
outdoor effects. This game has really excellent graphics, and the
attention to detail is stunning, right down to the logos on the
security cameras. Elixir worked its evil tail off making this game
as pretty, and as funny, as possible.
And it is funny. It's so funny that even Dungeon Keeper 2 seems
a little dull, humorwise. Evil criminal masterminds are gut-busters
when you think about it. Giant lasers, doomsday devices, cunningly
disguised traps, goofball henchmenit's all there, ripe for
mockery. And they didn't stop at the obvious stuff: If you don't
feel like torturing imprisoned agents in your standard issue interrogation
chair, no problem! Pop them in the giant electric mixer in the kitchen
or squash them between the moving shelves in your archive room and
see how fast they talk. There are, however, no traps or rooms that
sport dangerous marine life like sharks or electric eels. You can't
really be an evil madman if you don't have a shark tank.
The opening score is beautifully evocative of every Bond film ever
made, and the in-game music exhibits the same flavor. Voice acting,
especially from the Evil Geniuses, is tuned for humor and delivered
with great accents and superb comic timing. Generally speaking,
if sound and humor were all that made a game good, we'd be bandying
phrases like "game of the year" around. But it's not.
Evil Genius is reasonably stable; I experienced a few crashes
but suspect they're more the result of my system than the game.
You Have Failed Me for the Last Time
You have two types of evil followers: the aforementioned henchmen,
who you can control directly but who ignore those orders and are
almost entirely useless due to rotten AI and bad pathing; and minions,
who you cannot control directly. Minions do the basic menial stuff
in the base: tidy up, handle construction, move body bags, guard
the place, and so forth. Theoretically, they're supposed to go about
their activities without any but the most macro-scale input from
But as usual, the system is flawed. To secure your base, you set
up evil security networks composed of cameras and loudspeakers.
When you hit the panic button, intruders (again, in theory) are
to be gunned down by all of your menials as they race to the enemy's
But most of them don't race to the enemy's location. Most just
stand there. You must keep your base on constant amber alert in
order to get your people to carry guns; otherwise, they'll fight
with their fists (and they generally fight with their fists anyway).
Worse, opponents are dealt with through a system called tagging,
which is both clumsy and incomplete. You can tag anyone: ignore,
kill, imprison, or weaken. If someone has a kill tag and a minion
wanders by, that minion will try to kill him.
Tagging is a big problem. You have to manually tag every enemy
who enters your base, or your people will ignore them utterly. Why
the vaunted security networks can't be set to automatically tag
anyone who, say, goes beyond a certain point inside the base is
anyone's guess. But since your people and automated defenses won't
attack someone that's not tagged, and only you can tag opponents,
the system requires constant supervision.
The inability to tell minions where to go and not go is where combat
in the game breaks down. I can't count the number of times I sat
there watching as agents blew up parts of my base while minions
ignored evil alarms and went about their daily business. Your minions
are stupid, and they're stupid in ways they shouldn't be. The Valet
minion, for example, essentially fills the shoes of Dungeon Keeper
2's Imp during combat: he picks up body bags and moves them
to the freezer, puts out fires, stuff like that. Like Imps, Valets
are all but defenseless. Unlike Imps, who run away from dangerous
areas, returning only when they get an all-clear, Valets cheerfully
walk right into the middle of a firefight and get gunned down. Bad-AI
frustrations like this abound.
Each minion has stats that decrease over time and must be replenished
using assorted rooms and evil items in your base. But stats decrease
far too quickly, and minions aren't too good at recognizing when
they need to, say, head to the archives to brush up on their Smarts
stat or visit the pharmacy to boost their Life stat. The result
is minions who spend a lot of time staring blankly at the wall because
their Smarts have reached zero or, worse, just dropping dead.
Minions turn into other minions: the basic Worker is your primary
drone, recruited on a time schedule. Workers can do everything,
but not as well as their upgraded counterparts. If you want to train
Valets, you need to go out into the world, kidnap a hotel maid,
and torture her into giving up her wisdom. The torturer then turns
into a Valet and can train others in the Training Room. Valets,
in turn, can be upgraded to Spin Doctors and other, more skilled
social minions, whose primary duty is to keep the base tidy and
reduce heat. Same goes for guards, technicians, and so forth. It's
a good system, but limitations on the number of people you can have
working for you mean that you never have quite enough minions to
do what you want. Also, if all of an advanced minion type get killed,
you have to go out into the world, kidnap another representative
of that type, and go through the whole process again. When taken
in conjunction with the suicidal Valet example above, it can get
There's also no comprehensive system of tracking or cataloguing
your minions, finding out who they are, where they are, and what
they're up to. Sure, you can double-click one and get the evil gist,
along with an unhelpful rundown of activity like "Working for
you," or "Standing there." But this info should be
available as a mouse-over, not a double click, and there should
be some way to track all of your minions at once.
Evil Always Prevails, Because Good Is Dumb
It all comes down to control and pacing. Control in the sense that
you don't have enough; minion AI is insufficiently tuned to trust
that they'll do the right, or even the wise, thing. Control is also
bad in the areas of pathing, because minions and henchmen alike
try to make it to their destination in a straight line. If there
is no straight line, they get stuck.
Pacing is the final critical flaw in Evil Genius. You spend
a lot of time waiting, either for more minions to train up or for
your heat to go down, or for something else beyond your control
to happen or stop happening. A lot of time is spent staring at the
screen, waiting. And that gets boring.
Sculptors often say that the piece inside the marble block is already
there; they're just freeing it from the excess. Dungeon Keeper
2 was similar in many waysthe game is designed in such
a way that there are clear right and wrong ways to do things. And
yet you never felt that the game was heavy-handed or dull, and you
never sat around and waited. There was always something to
do or supervise. Evil Genius aims for the Dungeon Keeper
2 paradigm but misses the evil mark due to sheer awkwardness
of interface, design, and AI. That's a pity, because as great as
Dungeon Keeper 2 is, there are only so many times you can
make the perfect dungeon. I was hoping that Evil Genius would
be a followup we could enjoy for years. Ultimately, Evil Genius
wasn't tested enough, and it shows.
That said, you'll note that it escapes the evil Rotten Egg award,
and it makes that escape for just one reason: despite my myriad
and valid complaints about the game, I spent hours and hours playing
Evil Genius and had fun for most of that time. Rome: Total
War, a title that's certainly a contender for game of the year
and a triumph in every respect, sat idle while I cajoled Evil
Genius into being a good game. That I failed is not my fault
(it's never the mastermind's fault) ... personally, I blame the
ineptitude of my subordinates.
Release Date: September 28, 2004
Four Fat Chicks Links
PIII 800 MHz or higher (P4 1.5 GHz recommended)
128 MB RAM (98SE/Me), 256 MB RAM (2000/XP)
GeForce2 MX 16 MB or equivalent DirectX® 9 compatible video
card (64 MB Geforce 3 recommended)
300 MB free hard drive space
16x CD-ROM drive (24x recommended)
DirectX® 9.0b compatible sound card
MS compatible mouse
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