Evil Genius

Review by Steerpike
October 2004

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 tuned—possibly the perfect RTS—Evil 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 just fine.

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 portion—and that comparison is on the same level as comparing onions and oranges—takes 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.

Evil 101

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 inside—if 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 command—about 75 people—before 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 inner sanctum).

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 time—while 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 effect—due 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 killed—or even fooled—the 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 worked—which they don't—or 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 levels—one is too far out, the other is too far in. Movement of your minions, represented by little game piece–looking 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 money—but 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 henchmen—it'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 you.

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 location.

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 damned annoying.

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 ways—the 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. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Elixir Studios
Publisher: Vivendi Universal
Release Date: September 28, 2004

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

Windows 98SE/Me/2000/XP
PIII 800 MHz or higher (P4 1.5 GHz recommended)
DirectX 9.0b
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
Keyboard

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