“Do you expect me to talk?”
“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”
And dammit, this time I expect it to actually happen! No escapes by the skin of your teeth, no last second rescues by special forces or ladies you’ve turned to your side, no gadgets to save you this time. Gamers have gotten accustomed to the good side of gaming, where you’re forced to be benevolent all the time, yet most of them understand a basic facet of game nature: it’s always good to be bad. Well, Sierra’s giving players a chance to try out their megalomania on a global scale, taking on the world’s largest intelligence organizations and making them bend to your whims. That’s right, fellow evildoers, it’s time to demonstrate your extraordinary talents, and become an Evil Genius!
Evil Genius is a great mix of both pop culture and historical 60’s spy kitsch that also draws on previous simulation games. Drawing sadistic inspiration from Bullfrog’s popular Dungeon Keeper series, Evil Genius casts players in one of three criminal masterminds who have recently come out of hiding. You’ll have the option to choose between Maximillian, the Dr. Evil/Blofeld knockoff, Alexis, the fur draped Cruella Deville type and Shen Yu, the mystical villain from the Orient. Unfortunately, since you’ve been away for so long, the entire world has completely forgotten that you exist. How important to correct the error of their ignorant ways. Aside from raising your profile in the world, you’ll also attempt to raise incredible amounts of money for your organization and disrupt the stability of countries all around the world.
Before you can start your machinations, you have to start building your “Evil Lair” on your deserted island hideaway. (Props to the Austin Powers movies for the quotation marks.) This means laying out blueprints inside your base for the dimensions of rooms such as barracks, control rooms and armories, and providing your henchmen with the time and resources necessary to excavate the necessary room with dynamite. Once the initial room has been built, your workers will populate the space with equipment and furniture. Geniuses will have to plan the expansion of your base carefully, however, because the needs of your workers will have to be balanced with your plans for world domination. For instance, you’ll need to create Barracks to increase your total number of workers, but you’ll need Training Facilities to upgrade these employees to soldiers, diplomats, scientists or other personnel positions.
While you’ll use your staff to take care of tasks around the island, you’ll also need to send them around the world to expand your empire. Players will slowly gain access to the global map, which presents them with specific regions around the world that they can “influence.” These regions are divided into 5 worldwide peacekeeping organizations: Patriot, Sabre, Hammer, Anvil, and Smash. These are obviously influenced by Cold War alliances – For instance, Hammer protects all of Russia, Eastern Europe and Cuba, while Patriot covers the US, Japan and Canada. Dispatching your workers to steal money provides a stable source of capital that will constantly fill your pockets every minute, but to really become a force to be reckoned with, you have to plot “acts of infamy.” These can be as minor as kidnapping a maid or messing with sonar nets to massive projects like the theft of a national treasure. However, players have to be careful, because constantly planning activities or stealing from the same region generates “heat.” Acquire a certain level of heat, and the leaders of that organization may declare you to be a threat to its people.
Aside from attempting to eliminate your workers that’ve infiltrated a region by hunting them down and killing them, your own island will be invaded by a number of “do-gooders” seeking to foil your plans. This can range from lowly investigators, who report back to their organizations if they see anything shady on your island, to commando strike forces and secret agents. Obviously, you’ll want to handle these interlopers, and there are a diverse number of ways to do this. Players can try to actively capture these opponents, locking them away in cages and interrogating them later to get information or secrets from their prisoners. By issuing a red alert, you can get workers, guards and other employees to engage in hand to hand combat (or gunfights, if armed) with the intruders. It’s also possible to rely on a number of traps, like gas, saw blades or flame jets, as well as proximity weaponry, such as gun turrets, to eliminate waves of incoming enemies. Finally, you can direct your henchmen to actively kill or capture these trespassers.
Of course, every mastermind needs a second in command to take care of serious “problems” to their empire. You know, an Oddjob, a Jaws, a Xenia Onatopp…Well, Evil Genius provides players with their own private psychopaths who are ready, willing and able to follow your every command. Your ultimate employee, these men and women will accelerate the level of money flying into your treasury if sent into the world or accomplish a plot when all other workers have been killed. In combat, they can also demonstrate a number of abilities, such as confusing opponents or instantly incapacitating their targets. Now, it’s possible that your henchmen could potentially get overwhelmed, either on a difficult mission or against a large invasion force. Fortunately, henchmen will recover and return after an apparent “death” a short while later. What’s more, if you increase your notoriety level enough, you’ll have the option to recruit more henchmen to bolster your forces.
The look of Evil Genius is extremely stylized and cartoonish. Not only is there a huge amount of 60s and 70s influenced flair found all over the game, from the menu screens to the character designs, many of the game elements seem ripped right from the classic Bond/Flint movies. We’re talking about everything from the stereotypically jumpsuit clad workers to the large room filling computers needed to send operatives around the world. Special attention should be paid to the animations given to just about every single character onscreen. Many of these are simply hilarious, and players will be amazed at the sheer amount of humor that comes from watching characters interact with their environments and each other. For instance, getting rid of an object results in a worker packing the item into a box, crumpling it into a ball of paper and throwing it over their shoulder. Some interrogations involve Michael Jackson imitations, complete with moonwalks and other dance steps. And just who the hell would’ve ever thought of a kitchen mixer as a torture device?
Similarly, sound presentation is well done. The amount of vocalization, from the henchman’s lines to radio broadcasts when you complete an act of infamy, are clear and well executed, with plenty of hilarious lines. The voice acting is extremely well done, which is something you’d hope to have for a tongue in cheek title like this. The music that’s included evokes that Austin Powers meets 60s/70s disco feeling, with tons of horns and lounge lizard presentation.
The technical aspects of Evil Genius, while extraordinarily solid, don’t make up for some of the title’s shortcomings that ultimately hurt the overall gameplay. First of all, players will have to get used to exercising a large amount of patience when it comes to running your characters through their paces. This isn’t simply with one or two phases of the game; it actually is represented across the entire game. For instance, depending on the size of a room, you’ll have to wait for your workers to acquire additional dynamite to clear out the rock in the way. Actively creating an act of infamy forces you to wait for a certain amount of time while your forces attempt to fulfill the task behind the scenes without your control or leadership. Things like this can try the patience of even the largest strategy fan, because you’ll often find your gameplay split between micromanaging every single aspect of your empire and sitting back until you have to provide another set of commands.
This actually leads me to my next issue, which is that there are certain game elements that are much more complicated than they need to be. For instance, so many sections of your empire require money to successfully operate. However, you’ll wind up laying out so much money to simply start your base that you’ll find yourself strapped for cash almost immediately. Unfortunately, there are only two specific ways you can start creating money. One is establishing a hotel on the island (a huge expenditure of capital for seemingly very little gain) and the other is stealing from around the world (which can bring down so much heat on your island that your game will end quickly). Striking this balance can be extremely tricky, one that can be daunting to everyone but the largest strategy fan.
Speaking of heat, if you manage to spike a heat level in a country to a high level, you’re going to have to wait an very long time before that alert status in that region goes down, which can curtail the amount of prestige or money you can acquire. What’s more, because of the extremely long nature of this animosity towards your organization, you can expect plenty of invasions that can whittle your forces away faster than you can replace them. Even worse, many of the operatives that they’ll send will be able to quickly infiltrate your lair, sidestepping traps and opponents to wreak havoc until they’re finally stopped.
Speaking of traps and “AI” that you create, the game is slightly lopsided since you’re only able to actively control Henchmen. This means that if you’ve sent these specialized characters off on a mission, you simply have to hope that your characters are smart enough to eliminate any invaders to your base. Unfortunately, more often than not your workers and guards will let enemies walk right into a base without interfering with them (unless you call for a red alert). This is just bad AI at it’s finest. What’s more, traps that you set up sometimes won’t get triggered the way you’ve planned. Some of this is because the soldiers infiltrating a base are smart enough to escape these tricks. However, even mindless thugs can step over trigger points without anything going off. Maybe part of this is due to trap planning actually being more complicated than it should be, and maybe part of it has to do with poor implementation of the trap game mechanic. Either way, it’s not as solid as it should be.
Timing and game issues aside, Evil Genius is one of those great strategy games that will appeal not only to strategy fans, but to players who like operating on the wrong side of the law in their games. Considering there aren’t a lot of games like this, it’s definitely a stand out title. Many of the plots, game twists and situations are hilarious, and if you’ve ever been a fan of Bond movies, you’ll find plenty of included in-jokes to laugh at. However, you’ll also have to bring an amount of patience and some level of tolerance with slightly flawed game mechanics to be completely successful at world domination.