Version tested: Xbox 360
Mayhem-mongering has rarely been as fun as it was in Triumph's gleeful action-strategy title Overlord. Released a couple of years back, it was but a few tweaks away from classic status, combining elements of Pikmin, Dungeon Keeper and Fable to satisfying and comic effect. Dispensing cackling evil at every turn, it made us want to play the bad guy more often - and obviously you lot felt the same way. Sales of more than a million worldwide across PC, Xbox 360 and latterly PS3 turned Overlord into Codemasters' biggest new IP in years.
So, apart from perhaps requiring Brian Blessed's inimitable input, what else should go in the follow-up? More evil, obviously. More comedy headgear. Less suicidally dumb minions. A better-behaved camera system. At least some of these kinks (such as the absent mini-map) were ironed out in the belated PS3 release, Overlord: Raising Hell, but it still felt a little shy of the finished article. With numerous preview showings of the sequel demonstrating a ton of interesting new features, confidence was riding high that Dutch studio Triumph could go all-out and deliver not only a worthy follow-up, but, dare we say it, one of the highlights of the entire year.
To begin with, the basic plunder-and-conquer premise remains, with roughly the same amount of puzzling interspersed with action. The main difference is that you're playing the offspring of the armour-suited mischief-maker, and we pick up the thread with the new Overlord firstly proving his evil credentials, and then being initiated by the ever-humble minion master, Gnarl. Acting as your tutor and fawning servant, the sequel follows a familiar pattern with a seamless introduction of your basic powers and the abilities of your ever-willing band of evil helpers.
You kick-off with five brown 'minions' - sharp-toothed, giggling little wretches who take great pleasure in smashing up anyone or anything that gets in their way. As the melee specialists of your gang, these are the guys you want spearheading attacks, although they prove vulnerable to water, fire and toxic gas - something the blue, red and green minions are resistant to, respectively, once they're added to your growing army of miscreants.
The standard two-stick third-person controls are once again the order of the day, with movement assigned to the left stick and the right stick sharing the camera controls for the Overlord with the 'sweep' controls for the minions. Selecting, switching between and manipulating minions remains a simple yet flexible process which is introduced steadily during the early portion of the game. Whether you're sweeping, sending minions to specific targets, setting up 'guard markers' or calling them back, it becomes second nature in a short while. Those who played the original will be at an initial advantage, but the steady way the game is structured ensures that even newcomers will be pleasantly surprised at how straightforward it is to pull off seemingly complex commands using button and trigger combinations.
From the top down, it's clear that the Dutch studio listened to the community. The first thing that old hands might notice is that the minion AI is a little sharper, and less inclined to just follow the Overlord to their doom if the way ahead is dangerous. Path finding, too, is more reliable, and as a consequence you don't lose too many minions in inexplicable circumstances. If they do become trapped, after a time they'll invisibly return to their respective minion gates rather than dying in droves as was often the case before. The new mini-map is another crucial addition - it ensures that you know when you're on the right track, and removes all the time-consuming wandering of the original.
Another new feature is the ability for your minions (blues excepted) to become extra powerful by mounting other creatures, such as wolves, salamanders and giant spiders. Otherwise insurmountable problems - such as a tightly meshed unit of shielded soldiers - can be barrelled apart by sweeping a pack of mounted wolves into them, while making friends with spiders allows your greens to sidle up walls, activate pressure plates and reach otherwise off-limits areas.
There's also the ability to disguise your happy band of evildoers in enemy garb on a few occasions, with nearby changing tents allowing you to dupe guards into letting you pass. On both counts, Triumph gets around the need to add further control commands by making certain new features context-sensitive, with the player only required to, for example, sweep minions into the tent or onto the mount to activate them.
Elsewhere, firing magic into Possession Stones allows the Overlord to possess a single minion and wander off with a limited number of his chums to investigate part of the level too locked-down, or simply too small, to barge into in standard form. These stealth-lite interludes are an enjoyable change of pace, and because of the small size of the minions, the game zooms down to their level and you end up with a real sense of scale and vulnerability as you sneak past lumbering sentries. As a concession to the omnipresent danger, Triumph doesn't overly punish failure during these sections, and if you happen to screw up and lose all of your minions, you get to start over at the Possession Stone once more, with all the minions replaced. Better still, any sentries you've dispatched, or doors you've unlocked remain that way on your next attempt, so you're not simply expected to repeat all your meticulous good work over and over again.
Other new 'War Machine' gameplay elements enter the mix too, such as catapult and ballista emplacements that give you the chance to launch boulders or fire wooden stakes to rip apart massed shield-wielding soldiers. In addition, you can also occasionally board ships and rafts in watery sections and chase after opponents while trying to ram their craft and set alight to their sails.
And if that wasn't enough, the Overlord's magical abilities have also been expanded and made more useful in a variety of situations. As well as being able to zap or slow targeted enemies from a distance, you can power up individual minions and turn them into a missile, or destroy them and devour their energy to give you a health boost. Later, you can even use a Halo spell to temporarily boost all of your minions' powers, or as a powerful shockwave. And as part of the game's central 'domination or destruction' premise, you can also now choose whether to enslave innocents and get them to fight alongside your minions, or just destroy them for the hell of it. Mwahaha.
Experience also plays a greater role in expanding the overall depth of Overlord II. Minions level up as they fight alongside you, and if they die you have the ability to go back to the Netherworld and resurrect them so that your trusted allies remain part of your army. Powering up your equipment and armour remains key to progress, although you'll soon discover that you can't simply upgrade everything unless you're prepared to spend a long time gathering souls and ransacking every last barrel and chest in the game world.
As well as generally ramping up every element of the gameplay, adding variety where needed and fixing some of the niggles of old, Triumph has proven itself no slouch in the technical department either. Visually, the game has come on leaps and bounds with an array of subtle new effects adding greatly to the already beautiful fantasy game world. And to complement the sumptuous, gigantic world that you explore, the characters that inhabit it are delightfully rendered, extremely well animated and full of comic touches. Watching the minions go about their business is never less than amusing, as they don improbable objects as headgear and tool themselves up for battle with whatever they find among the chaos.
And it's no surprise that the audio is similarly top-notch, with the excellent voice cast returning to give Gnarl and the minions an infectious character that somehow works even better the second time around. Hearing a minion ensemble singing 'Ring-A-Ring-A-Roses' out of the blue right after they've stolen a bunch of kid's clothes is priceless, and one of innumerable moments where you'll be grinning helplessly.
But while the game works brilliantly on the whole, there are a few occasions where some elements could have been tightened up. Arguably top of the list is the slightly wayward camera system. Whereas before the game took full automatic control, it now attempts to offer the player a halfway house system, where it will generally do its thing, but also give you the chance to tweak it whenever you fancy. While this is an admirable goal, the truth is that it's sometimes easy to trip the game up and make it think you want to sweep minions instead of moving the camera. When it does this, the view automatically snaps to the minions, meaning you end up running into the screen and have no idea where you're going. This takes some getting used to.
Another small complaint is the mini-map, which for some reason is nowhere near as effective as Overlord: Dark Legend's on Wii. While it's useful to have a broad overview of where to head next, it's strangely ineffective when you need a little more detail, with neither the ability to zoom in and out of the sub-menu map, or flick between explored areas. Oftentimes, the game throws up an exclamation mark on the map, but when you get there the nature of the goal is not always particularly explicit.
And if we're going to be really picky, it's pertinent to mention that the game is - on a few rare occasions - inconsistent with its checkpointing. For the vast majority of the time, when you die you simply go back to the start of the segment with your resources intact, but on others it may decide to checkpoint along the way, possibly after you've lost a ton of minions. And, of course, the more you fail, the harder it actually gets, to the point where you may end up with no choice but to go off on a frustrating trudge around to kingdom to re-harvest more souls to stock up your minion pool. Fortunately you can prevent such issues by changing the save-game slot now and then, but if you forget, you could find yourself grinding away just to make progress.
Another possible source of frustration is the soul-harvesting system. Unlike with Dark Legend, again, every soul you harvest is colour-coded, and corresponds to a type of minion. While this makes the game more strategic and tactical, it does mean you tend to run out of particular minion types just when you need them. Personally, I prefer this system for the challenge, but it's important to be vigilant about your save games if you don't fancy repeat soul-harvesting runs.
In terms of the challenge and game length, mind you, I'd say Triumph has got it spot-on, with a satisfying blend of styles that can be achieved in a number of different ways. And once you're all done with the campaign mode, there's also a pleasingly diverse multiplayer mode to dive into. Although restricted to just two players, each of the four maps are effectively modes in their own right. My favourite of the bunch is Invasion, where you play alongside a friend to take down a Centurion in the quickest possible time. Broadly the same as the single-player mode, you have to work together, guiding a limited number of minions around taking down progressively more difficult foes. As a glimpse into what Overlord in co-op mode would be like, this is a promising start, and it's a shame there's only one map shipping in the game.
Elsewhere, co-op Survival simply pits you within an arena and tasks you with surviving an onslaught for the longest possible time. This is fun, but slightly overwhelming and quite limited in the long run. Of much more interest is Dominate, a versus mode where the two of you essentially try to capture each of the five points around a large map and increase your score the longer you hang onto them. With limited resources, you end up trying to tread a fine line between defending each area with carefully placed minions and going for your opponent's jugular. A great game of cat-and-mouse, I can see this one being played most out of all of them. Finally, Pillage mode grants each player an island vault to defend, and gold to collect in the water surrounding it. Again, the balance between plundering your opponent's vault and worrying about yours is a tough one to manage, and rounds quickly descend into a nervous balancing act.
Overall, in what has been a pretty underwhelming year for games so far, Overlord II feels like a shining beacon of quality. Not only is it a distinct improvement on the original, but the new features add greatly to what was already a superbly entertaining game. It manages to strike an excellent balance between being challenging and rewarding, and does so throughout with a wicked smile on its face. If the original was something of a sleeper hit, then the sequel ought to wake people up to its deliciously evil charms.
8 / 10