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Evil Genius review

Excellent

Tim shows plenty of promise. It takes a certain kind of man to lock a friend in a cupboard and starve him for the good of the collective. And while he's not quite in the 'Genius' bracket just yet, he's showing the sort of spirit that'll take him a long way in the world of evil. He'll have to work on a decent maniacal laugh, though - that chirpy chuckle of his will just have to go.

It also takes a certain kind of man to find the evil angle in a game as humane as The Sims 2, so God knows what he'd get up to in Elixir's sado-sim Evil Genius - a game which successfully combines 'anger' with 'management'. As the titular crackpot plotter, your goal is world domination, what else? This foul end is achieved by recruiting minions and henchmen; constructing lairs; researching a Doomsday device and battling do-gooder agents. Evil is good, and that moral reversal is as refreshing now as when Bullfrog gave us Dungeon Keeper to cackle over.

There are also echoes of Elixir's previous game in the political machinations and clear goals laid before you. But after a remarkably speedy development cycle in comparison to Republic's protracted birth, do we have the right to hope for a Dr No - or should we fear a Casino Royale?

The best news is that Evil Genius is a more coherent, tighter and more manageable offering than Republic. Its beautifully streamlined concept is easy to grasp: "Be Dr Evil", as Elixir would have it, and our imaginations do the rest. The most striking and pleasantly surprising aspect of the opening minutes is that everything in the game - menus, animations, descriptive text, tooltips, missions, enemies, minions, henchmen, traps, even the most mundane items you plonk in your base - adhere to a very strong and specific sense of style. And while the Austin Powers movies are the most obvious reference, Evil Genius goes further, with a consistently caricatured, exaggerated '60s atmosphere and a very British sense of humour which takes apart motifs from spy film and fiction for its own nefarious purposes. Within the gaming world, the extravagant stylings of No One Lives Forever are another obvious touchstone.

It's a simple and appealing premise, but one with meaty implications. Foremost, although you're represented by one of three criminal masterminds, your choice of avatar is largely cosmetic. The evil genius is a figurehead, relying on minions and henchmen to get the dirty work done. Around the base, underlings do the business of construction, carting stuff around and repelling enemies. The evil genius can only encourage them by their presence (and the occasional motiveless slaying of a hapless minion).

The first half of the game allows you to make a few mistakes as you construct your first secret underground lair and hatch plans for world domination. Then it's on to the second island where a larger base - and, ultimately, your doomsday device and customary rocket - can be constructed beneath a dormant volcano. More than a dozen room types, several specific placeables for each, training more powerful minions, researching new items, setting up security... there'a a lot to learn in the opening stages.

It won't take long, though, before your activities are noticed by patrolling agents and holidaymakers looking for a sunny vacation on your desert isle. Evil Genius fleshes out your connection with the outside world via a global map, divided up into 20 regions under the aegis of five spy agencies. You can send out individual minions and henchmen to specific regions for the purposes of stealing (your main source of cash); plotting (uncovering Acts of Infamy); and actually carrying out specific missions. Any action will attract attention, raising one of the game's key factors: heat. Wreaking havoc across S.M.A.S.H. territories will send that agency's heat rating rocketing. In retaliation, they'll send groups of prying agents, thieves, burglars, soldiers and even Super Agents to poke around your base. But generating heat is all in a day's work for an evil genius. Stealing money and carrying out Acts of Infamy across the world are the only ways to progress and meet your main objectives, such as gaining a high 'notoriety' reputation. After all, what's the point of being an evil genius if no-one else knows?

The distinction between minions and henchmen is crucial. Minions are expendable (a handy qualification to have in an Evil Genius employee). The lowest level minion is the worker, which are recruited automatically, depending on your population limit. Workers can then be trained up into more powerful and specialised baddies. First by capturing a higher-class minion, then torturing them to extract their secrets, and finally building and using class-specific training installations.

Henchmen are a different sharkpool of evil fish altogether. Each of the 12 must be specially recruited and they possess unique abilities that are only unlocked through experience. Think Jaws, Oddjob or - er - Fat Bastard. Each is deliciously individual, with characteristic spoken responses and animations. Henchmen are powerful and precious. You can only have a few at a time, and the total depends on your notoriety rating. They're toughness makes them an essential part of base defence and, if they're defeated by sheer weight of numbers, they are knocked out rather than killed. But a proper evil-mastermind-versus-spies setting requires an arch-nemesis and it's the Super Agents who'll prove the biggest thorn in your side. If a henchmen is knocked out by a Super Agent, he'll lose one of three lives. Lose the lot, and he's gone for good. Should the worst happen and a Super Agent is able to confront your defenceless genius, then it's game over.

The five would-be 007s (one from each agency) will show up on your island if your dastardly deeds have generated too much heat in their territory. While ordinary agents can be easily killed, captured or distracted, Super Agents are initially invulnerable and very hard to get rid of. Though you can limit their appearances by strategically placing social agents to reduce heat, the Supers are still too much of a pain, adding another problem to your already stacked 'evil to do' list. Indeed, the means to permanently liquidate them only becomes apparent near the very end of the game, and it's just an optional objective anyway.

But while there's no rest for the wicked, the designers have cleverly prevented the game from degenerating into an aimless sandbox in which you just expand your base and whack out a few agents when the mood takes you. Ten multi-part main objectives and the constant demands of money and nosy agents keep the pressure firmly on. But the balance isn't smoothly maintained and at times it feels like there's too much pressure. Unless you opt for the fairly facile 'easy' mode, there isn't enough time to really enjoy the wide variety of objects in your base; to watch the fantastic animations as your underlings carry out their orders and relax around your base, or tinker with the devious and often hilarious traps. Perhaps super villains aren't meant to relax but a Catch-22 situation can rear its head. You need minions to defend your base, but withdrawing them from the world map saps your income and reduces expansion to fist-clenching levels.

It's as though Elixir just couldn't stop coming up with great ideas - hardly surprising, given the exciting premise - and couldn't resist adding them. For example, every minion, henchman, agent and tourist has five statistics: health, loyalty, smarts, attention and endurance. Lowering each has a different effect: a minion with low loyalty will defect, an agent with reduced attention will wander around stupidly and fail to report what he's seen, and so on. You can replenish your minions' stats with various items in your base, and lower intruders' with specific traps or minions' abilities. At its most difficult, Evil Genius requires you to pay attention to such individual strengths and weaknesses, while simultaneously dealing with the rest of the game's complexities.

While a 'tag' function marks invaders to be dealt with by your minions, there's always something urgent to do - and hence you're never in a position to sit back in your sinister armchair, stroke the cat and admire your handiwork. And then there's those damn tourists. You have to build hotels for them (ostensibly as cover for your evildoing) but it's an underexplored and unnecessary addition to a workload that would have benefitted from more automation, and is one of the niggles that narrowly denies this otherwise entertaining game true 'genius' status.

But anyone who enjoys constant challenge (the gaming equivalent of juggling with chainsaws) will find much to love in Evil Genius. The majority of the game's features function extremely well and the theme is rock-solid throughout. Crucially, the game never drops the act. Not once does it crack a mocking grin that would break the cartoon magic, but it is filled with the sort of humour and pleasing details that other developers will wishing they'd thought of first.

So should you leave it on the shelf, as you did with Republic?

Why no, Mr Bond. I expect you to buy.

Evil Genius takes over the world on 1 October

Stylish, crammed with good ideas and very more-ish. Think Brosnan rather than Connery

More Info

Available Platforms: PC

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