Elder Review: Evil Genius
I’ve always been a fan of the Bond films, but it’s never been because of the crazy gadgets, snide one-liners or fast cars. For me, it’s all about the villains.
Some of you may remember that, ages back, there was a game series known as “Dungeon Keeper”. These games put you in the role of an… owner(?) of a generic fantasy dungeon. You’d assign your little helpers to dig out rooms from the rock, build treasure rooms, traps, libraries, and the like, and wait for the forces of Good to come and attempt to ruin your fun. And was it ever fun.
The series unfortunately petered out after the sequel, and while it’s possible to get it to run on current-gen OSes, it’s not easy. Thankfully, a third game of the genre was released in 2004, a well-rated, if rather unknown, spiritual successor to the Dungeon Keeper line. Instead of managing a dungeon, Evil Genius gave you the choice of one of three Evil Villains and shipped you off to an island where you could construct your fiendish empire. Instead of tunneling underground to build dungeons, you were hollowing out mountains or volcanoes to build secret bases. An upgrade, I’d argue.
The game really revolves around three major points; managing your small army of minions, carrying out nefarious schemes against the world at large, and thwarting the agents of justice (and foolish tourists) who land on your island and meddle. Your evil avatar him/herself doesn’t do much, which makes sense. Can you honestly imagine Dr. No installing his own death trap? I don’t think so. No, he (and you) have a score of minions to do such menial things for you.
Your minions excavate rooms, buy and set up the equipment you order, and fight your enemies. To make sure they can do that well, you’ve got to keep them healthy, loyal, and alert (as well as intelligent and well-rested). To this end, you’ll build barracks, beds, cafeterias, rec rooms, and other places for them to keep themselves in good shape; you never take direct control over any of the nameless minions, you just order something to be done and it gets done. Minions start out as yellow-jumpsuited workers, but can be trained to fulfill a specific role; by the mid-point of the game, your base will be patrolled by scientists, corrupt diplomats, and sharpshooters, among others.
As for nefarious schemes, Evil Genius doesn’t quite deliver in spades. Any actions taken against the world at large are managed through a Risk-board-esque display of the world, which shows several regions where your minions can be sent, and missions that they can attempt while there. Missions are discovered by having minions “plot” in a region, while money is earned by having them “steal” in a region. Both of these generate heat, which eventually causes agents, thieves, and soldiers of the various nations to pay you a visit. It’s an interesting balancing act, as some minions are better at stealing than others, some reduce the heat of others, some reduce the time it takes to achieve a mission, and so forth. It’s a simple system, but it requires constant attention. Occasionally an agent will show up on the board near your minions, and if they’re not told to “hide”, you’ll often lose more than a few. Each mission has a description, but few of them make any difference past the amount of heat/notoriety they gain you.
Finally, we come to the good guys. You will constantly be getting visitors from any of the major political powers, be they simple, thick-headed tourists, or government agents. Tourists come steadily, and will wander about, poking their noses in places where they may or may not belong, whereas agents come in greater numbers when your heat is getting too high. And they come armed. There are numerous ways of dealing with these pesky individuals. A well-hidden base helps, as does distractions; the primary one is the ability to build and outfit a hotel as a false front on the island. This will usually detain any tourists, and slow down agents. The other method is one of the game’s strongest points… traps.
Traps have two components, the sensor and the trap itself. The sensor is usually something simple, like a pressure plate or a motion detector, and is assigned a component to activate. The components get fairly inventive, going from giant wind turbines to a pit filled with piranha, and better yet, they can be combined. Not combined, as in a turbine that spews piranha, although that would be amazing, but more along the lines of “the victim trips the lasers, which turns on the turbine, which slams them into the wall, where they fall into the fire pit. Not only is this possible, but the game rewards you monetarily for crazy chains of gas traps, magnets, and treadmills. In all honesty, I get as much fun out of coming up with complex traps as I do just about any portion of the game.
Evil Genius has held up nicely over the last seven years, graphics-wise, as the game’s style (much like WoW’s) remains fresh despite the lack of antistropic filtering or light bloom. The whole game itself reeks of 1960s spy movie, from the navy seals synchronized swimming in the load menu to the atrocious earth-toned wallpaper of the rec room. There’s a fantastic amount of detail packed into Evil Genius as well; you might notice that a person’s footsteps sound and echo differently from room to room as they go from carpet to tile to wood floors. Bored minions with nothing to do will sneak off to low-traffic areas to catch a smoke. And so on. The controls are good, and have useful shortcuts that aren’t covered by the in-game material but can be found on any FAQ. There are some bugs, some of which can cause the game to crash, but none of which are game-breaking in that they require some extraordinary circumstances.
Evil Genius is, on the whole, a fantastic game. There’s something amazingly intimate about laying out a secret hideaway, figuring out the right location for the gun racks, and deciding that that the guy in the Hawaiian shirt has looked too closely at what’s stored in the freezer room for his own good. You’ll cackle at your traps, rejoice when your security system nips a troop of thieves in the bud, and groan as an elite agent breaks out of his cell to go on a rampage. it’s good solid fun with tons of replay value, and thanks to Steam, it’ll run on most any computer, and for $10, too. Definitely worth the money.
(+) - Captures the feel of the classic Bond films, broad scope, simple execution, highly replayable.
(-) - Some frustrating bugs, some controls not well explained.
Publisher: Sierra Entertainment (2004)
Note: Screenshots are from the Evil Genius page on Steam.