Elixir seems to be edging closer to its masterpiece. The idea behind Evil Genius is simple enough - taking the reigns of a burgeoning evil empire, carving an elaborate secret island base out of the side of a mountain and populating it with all manner of minions and specialists, and then researching and carrying out various crimes around the globe, building up your notoriety rating whilst evading the attentions of the forces of justice. But while Elixir does a much better job of translating its good ideas into a good game than it did with Republic, and manages to instil the game with a consistent sense of humour, it's still guilty of undercooking a number of key elements, and the result is a game that, whilst enjoyable, once again fails to capitalise completely on its promise.
Welcome To My Island Lair...
Evil Genius is split into two distinct elements: the main, Dungeon Keeper-esque base-building screen, where you'll build up your lair, stock it with all the right amenities and control centres, manage your workforce, and deal with the forces of justice; and the World Domination screen, where you'll dispatch minions to terrorise the globe, stealing to fund your exploits, and plotting to uncover possible Acts of Infamy - one-off crimes, like nicking a research machine for your laboratory or sinking a ship bound for the United Kingdom loaded with tea, that increase your notoriety and contribute towards certain objectives.
To begin with you'll be more interested in the base-building element. You need to carve out corridors, build a strongroom to store your funds, a barracks for your men, a control room to research crimes around the world, a freezer to store dead bodies, an armoury for weapons storage and interrogation, and a power station to try and keep up with the demands of your evildoing. You also need to build up a decent workforce - knowing where you can go to commit basic crimes is one thing, but unless your control panels are manned then you won't know how long it's going to take, and you won't uncover as many Acts of Infamy as there are available. The more bunks and lockers you have in your barracks, the more men your island base can support, and if you're impatient you can increase the rate at which minions are recruited at a certain cost outlined on the 'minion management' screen.
Building rooms is a simple case of dragging out a blueprint, then adding any machinery and other items that you want in there, and issuing a build command. Your minions will then snap to it, grabbing explosives and items from the nearby depot, blasting a room-shaped chunk out of the mountain and furnishing it quickly. Interestingly, you don't control minions directly like an RTS; instead you order a room to be built, or an item moved, or a prisoner interrogated, or what-have-you, and the appropriate minion will then rush off and complete the task.
Once you've established your base, you then turn to the World Domination screen. Here you can track down specialists - maids, technicians and guards to begin with - who, once captured, can be roughed up until they tell you their secrets and convert the minion interrogating them into a new unit. Armed with this knowledge, you can then build a training room and start teaching other worker minions new tradecraft, helping you to keep your base in working order, and getting things done more efficiently. With a decent group of minions in place, you can expand your base, take on more exotic Acts of Infamy, and work towards your various objectives - gathering crime lords together for a meeting, researching a doomsday device, and so on.
Of course, there's a great deal more to it than that. Minions are largely autonomous worker bees, but they do require certain creature comforts or they may desert your organisation and leave you a man short. A mess hall, a staff room, and a few hostages to interrogate every once in a while will help keep them loyal, timeclocks in work rooms help them organise their commitments more efficiently, and a well organised base layout means they won't waste too much time running backwards and forwards between strongroom, control room, barracks, mess hall, etc.
There's also the issue of the forces of justice, both on the World Domination screen and right at home on your island. As you complete Acts of Infamy and boldly steal from under the noses of the various justice organisations, your 'Heat' rating increases, and they take a keener interest in your exploits. Hang around in one place too long on the World Domination screen and your minions may be downed by an agent; similarly, your island will see a lot more traffic as investigators and thieves attempt to disrupt your organisation.
Kill Them Immediately
Fortunately you can deal with both of these scenarios quite simply. Sending your minions into hiding on the World Domination screen puts them under the agents' radar, and the heat will gradually dissipate, although of course your income will dry up whenever they're not stealing. On the island, you can scan the surrounding land for enemies and then tag them individually to be either killed or captured. You can then hit the yellow or red alert buttons to have your minions arm themselves and fire on sight, and you can build traps inside your base to snare any unsuspecting agents who happen onto your property.
Henchmen are another option. You start off with one, but as you become more villainous and complete more Acts of Infamy, you'll start to see more of them pop up on the World Domination screen eager to join your cause. On the island, they are the only units - besides your titular evil genius character - that you can control directly, and they have certain special abilities that can be useful in tackling enemy incursions, like calling all available minions in the vicinity to their side. As they level up, more abilities become available. They're also more or less indestructible - if they run out of health, either at home or on a mission somewhere else in the globe, a quick trip to the barracks slumped over somebody else's shoulder perks them back up to normal.
There are, in short, a lot of things to do. Building traps can become a game of its own - positioning gas chambers and blowers that propel agents into walls, and hooking them all up to sensor pads - and your objectives generally require a mixture of expansion and infamy in order to succeed. There's also the question of notoriety - this rating indicates how much attention your feats of evil have attracted around the globe, and it's directly tied in to whether henchmen take interest in you, and even whether you can uncover certain mission-critical characters and Acts of Infamy.
With so much going on, the interface is necessarily a little on the crowded side, but fortunately Elixir takes its time and introduces things gradually. The tutorial section teaches you most of the basics, and ends in amusing fashion, and then as you make progress the game teaches you more and more, through little instruction movies that pop up and pause the game, and through a glossary system that's instantly accessible and fairly detailed.
That said, there are a number of areas where Elixir could have done a better job of explaining itself; you do sometimes get the feeling that the developer is so keen to show you new tricks that it races through the introduction without quite conveying the point, and sometimes you'll miss it entirely. On one particular mission, we got stuck and had to ask somebody who reviewed the game for another publication what we were meant to do, because the game didn't tell us that a certain item could be used to interrogate people, and its 'clue' for this on the objectives screen was somewhat oblique.
We did get the hang of traps without outside influence, mind, but they certainly took a little getting used to, because we didn't quite get the system of linking sensors to the traps to begin with. Likewise, while base-building is pretty intuitive, you don't immediately realise that bridging the two-block gap between room and corridor is going to tie up another minion needlessly, and that you ought to consider where room entrances are going to be when you first lay out your corridors.
You also might not immediately realise how big certain rooms need to be, and how much they'll be utilised. We actually started over several times as we attempted to get the balance right and leave ourselves enough room for expansion, since the base is a constant that endures throughout your various missions. To be fair to the developer though, it's made sure that the process of building your base is never less than enjoyable. Developing an efficient, well thought out island lair is very satisfying, and thanks to the way the game's presented, you won't tire of watching things spring to life and admiring new pieces of equipment.
A Handsome Rogue
Graphically the game goes for a quirky Austin Powers style motif, with a Bullfrog-ish look to the base-building (reminiscent, perhaps, of Theme Hospital and certainly Dungeon Keeper), and the wealth of humour in the silly, intricate little animations really sets the game apart from other similar titles. Elixir has put a lot of effort into constructing a lively world and the sense of humour flows from every pore - whether it's watching a guard interrogate a prisoner by bashing cymbals round his head, or admiring your evil genius outlining his or her masterplan to a group of assembled crime lords by frying one of them, Blofeld-style. Even the menus are a pleasure - decked out with animated, Bond film credits-style silhouettes of women and guns, and accompanied by a riotous horn section.
But while it's rich with clever ideas and stylistically endearing, the charm of the game is sadly undermined by a number of odd design decisions, and a few areas that feel distinctly underdeveloped. Most significantly, the World Domination aspect of the game pales in comparison to the base-building. The 2D, Risk-style world map is devoid of the humour and detail elsewhere, and the way it handles things like Acts of Infamy is at best non-descript and at worst very boring. You read the description, you commit the required units, you hit Go, and then you wait for the progress bar to complete.
Fortunately you can snap back to the base, but there's no real interaction between this and the World Domination screen other than news of whether you've succeeded or failed a particular Act of Infamy. The little comedy radio broadcasts that tail your attempts are funny to begin with, but it'd be more interesting to get involved in the Act, and receive live feedback. Should your troops fall in battle, or should an agent pop up in a region where your minions are busy stealing and put them under threat - or even kill them - you won't find out about it until you hit the icon in the bottom right and head back to World Domination.
It's also a pain having to tag every single enemy individually, which quickly becomes a chore. Not because it's time-consuming, but because it's menial. Time, as it happens, is something you have rather a lot of. In fact, you'll regularly sit around waiting for funds to roll in, rooms to finish, Acts of Infamy to unravel, and new tasks to be unlocked, and this itself quickly becomes irritating. At one stage, our objective was to let the forces of justice steal a particular item from the base and escape with it (all part of a dastardly plan, we might add), and this involved waiting for the clueless goon to wander in, constantly pausing to pirouette and wandering through all sorts of unhelpful rooms on his way to the prize, before meandering through just about every other corner of the base on his way out.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Evil Genius, though, is that the obvious sense of humour that runs throughout the game isn't brought to the fore by the key characters or some semblance of a plot. At the start of the game, you get to choose one of three geniuses, and as you go on you build up quite an army of henchmen, but despite some amusing acknowledgements there's no real development of any of them, and in the end they're really no more lively or interesting than watching someone interrogate a prisoner using a blender. Given a bit of personality, they could have been the stars. As it is they're just units like any other.
Then again, while there are clearly problems here, some of which will prove fatal for some gamers, if you enjoy building empires then you will almost certainly get on with Elixir's latest. The sense of progression is well judged, objectives are varied, new toys are made available regularly, and apart from a few niggles you're rarely less than entertained. It's not quite there, but it's going to be enough for most people.
Indeed, even as we sit here picking over the carcass, we're not actually all that angry about the things that are wrong with the game. They're bad on paper, but they didn't interfere hugely with our having fun - a sure sign that that Evil Genius overcomes its flaws and ultimately satisfies. Building an evil empire is a good idea, and the way Elixir's constructed the game is thoughtful, enterprising and occasionally inspired. It may be a few orbital lasers short of true genius, but, unlike Republic, Evil Genius it's a sure sign that Elixir's capable of turning creative spark into a satisfying end product. Which is why we're suddenly very interested in what the team does next.