If you're one of the few people who got to the end of Overlord 1, you might be wondering how there's a sequel at all, what with the actual overlord being dead and that. Fortunately for lovers of pure evil, this is a videogame, so it turns out he had a son, and just as said tyke was about to fall into the clutches of the ruling Empire, he was rescued by scaly, big-eared minions who recognised him as their new master. Problem solved! Several years later, he's got his own Dark Tower, and once again it acts as the game's base of operation, from which players launch a guerrilla campaign against the boringly nice Empire.
So far, so Overlord, but as much as we loved the first game (and its Raising Hell expansion), even its most bedeviled admirers agreed it wasn't evil enough. We didn't want to stop at laying waste to the land and slaying its populace; we wanted to leave citizens cringing at our all-conquering might, and begging for mercy. We wanted to laugh with a roar that would have Brian Blessed cowering in the corner. So it's good to discover, as we tool around Triumph Studios getting to grips with the sequel, that the developer got the message.
One of the key changes to the strategy-adventure gameplay is that the choices aren't simply about good or evil. After all, you're a cackling Overlord with a giant sword, fearsome armour and a horned helmet; the concept of good doesn't enter the equation. As Triumph's creative director Lennart Sas explains, the premise of the sequel is unfettered tyranny. Players now choose between shades of evil; do you choose the cold-hearted enslavement of domination, or down and dirty demonic destruction?
Whichever you choose ultimately has a bearing on how you play the game thanks to the spell system. "If you become a dominating tyrant, your spells will become better at subjecting the populations to your evil will," explains Sas. "Controlling a town of brainwashed slaves gives more benefits spread out over time, while destroying a town gives instant evil gratification: the souls of the slain population and looted treasure from their destroyed houses are for the taking."
The core gameplay remains rooted in the Pikmin-meets-Sacrifice action-strategy template of the original, however. Once again you control the Overlord in a typical third-person action-adventure fashion with the left stick, and sweep the evil minions around the screen with the right. For the majority of the time you don't have to get your hands dirty, but let the cackling Gremlins-escapees do your bidding - usually with amusingly demonic results.
Once again there are four types of colour-coded minions. You can still rely on the same base abilities, so Browns are your best melee fighters, Reds are your best ranged weapon with their fireball-lobbing abilities and resistance to fire, Greens bestride toxic areas and sneak around, while the Blues are great healers who can cross water. Where it gets interesting is the minions' ability to mount other creatures, adding an extra layer of abilities.
So, Browns can now ride wolves and form a fast and vicious cavalry charge. Not only can they travel faster than before, but they can jump gaps, knock over opponents and cause greater damage with their ferocious bite. Reds, meanwhile, get to ride fire salamanders. Described as "living flamethrowers" they will be capable of shooting out concentrated fire blasts, as well as be able to "dig into gnome holes to chase out the little buggers" and snaffle their goodies. The spider-riding Greens will now be able to ascend walls and web-up enemies like Spider-Man. Blues, however, miss out on the whole mount party. Sniff.
In addition to these new abilities, you'll also be able to command a Minion Champion, who can lead groups of more than ten minions into battle. Taking a leaf out of Cannon Fodder's book, your minions now have an identity of sorts, so hopefully you'll become more attached to them, and later in the game you'll even come across a minion graveyard and be able to resurrect your cherished commanders.
You can disguise them too. Whereas surviving minions would don the armour and wield the weapons of fallen foes in the original, it was a visual gag. This time, going into battle in disguise has strategic benefits, allowing you to sneak undetected past key points. When we play the game, we first herd minions into a tent to don their new garb before leading them over to a guarded bridge. With our new shiny uniforms on, the guards allow the bridge to lower before being mercilessly butchered for their incompetence.
Without giving too much away, Sas has revealed that bosses will not only be more "epic" than previously, but be "closer tied into story; so the player has a bit more of a grudge against them". Elsewhere, other boss creatures will be "closer designed around the minion gameplay and the minions' mounts". We don't get to see any specific examples, but do get to see certain enemies in a controlled demo, including a giant one-eyed Yeti who romps around the snowy environments of Nordberg. Billed as defender of the cute baby seals (which you can bludgeon remorselessly, obv), he boasts a rather effective snowball attack which, if on target, effectively bowls your minions off their feet and disrupts your formation.
In keeping with the game's humorous tone, we can also expect to encounter Florian, the 'emo' leader of the Elf Warriors who's an environmental activist annoyingly opposed to your destructive tendencies - but also rather irked by everyone else, it seems. But one group that fights firmly on the side of the Empire is the Eradicator agents, who basically suck the magic out of anything that strays into the path of their giant sucking machine. Gnomes, meanwhile, are fond of stealing and breaking things, and have no problem taking out their angst on the Overlord and his minions whenever they get the opportunity. Crush, kill, destroy, perish.
And all of this looks beautiful, thanks to an engine buff, and Triumph promises parity between Xbox 360 and PS3 versions thanks to performance analysers that help the tech team figure out choke points, with minor animation tweaks often the solution to frame-rate jitters. The PC version will of course scale up or down to fit your system. Also in amongst all the levers and pulleys behind the scenes is returning script-writer Rhianna Pratchett. "Rhianna was the only one that really 'got' what we wanted to do," Sas explains. "As a hardcore gamer and an ex-games journo, Rhianna is head and shoulders above some of the Hollywood writing talent that has been popping up in the games industry lately... Games writing works best when the writer works hand-in-hand with the game's designers; so the story is not written before or after the game is made, it's an integral part of the entire process."
Pratchett acknowledges this, and talks about how well it worked on the first game. "The gameplay, environments, missions, minion antics, voice acting and script all worked well together. I don't think humour works as well against really straight gameplay or bland environments - it has to permeate through multiple areas. It always felt that right from the off, everyone on the Overlord team was pulling in the right direction." Certainly, the net result in the refined PS3 version (which fixed the 360's problem of incidental dialogue repeating) was charming. The smartest decision was, and is, to make the minions the stars of the show.
This time, however, by ramping up abilities without over-complicating them, polishing the game engine and bringing the boss battles and narrative into closer alignment, Overlord II looks to build on that without bringing the Dark Tower tumbling down completely in search of a new hook. Hopefully the result will be the game Overlord could have been, and came so close to being. Make daddy proud, Triumph.
Overlord II is due out for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC in the summer.