It's rare that I see a game so good that I don't know where to start praising it. Evil Genius is just that good. A game this good can be a challenge to review, since it wears all of its best points right on its sleeve. How on earth do I find something unique to say about it? The best way to look at it is through the filter of my often too-strictly moral interpretation of videogame messages and implications. This is a game that grinningly celebrates mass murder, torture, and the cruel megalomaniacal governing of the entire world. And I didn't question any of it for a second.
The game is relatively uncomplicated and easy to jump right into--it should be familiar to anyone who remembers the Dungeon Keeper series. The player is asked to take on the role of an amoral James Bond supervillain, tasked with conquering the world and building the swankiest hollowed-out volcano hideaway ever.
The first, most noticeable, and undoubtedly most vital part of the game is its incredible sense of style and period. It's obvious from the opening seconds of the game that the creative team has spent an ungodly amount of time immersing themselves in the James Bond films of the 60s and 70s. Almost every little detail is pitch-perfect, from the jump-suited henchmen to the egg chairs to the now-ridiculous period idea of what 'futuristic hi-tech' would look like. Amazingly enough, the real standout is the music (amazing because this is coming from someone who generally turns off the music in games because he finds it artificial and manipulative). There's a piece of sweeping, orchestral music that plays on the saving/loading screen that's so fantastically gripping that I actually found myself looking forward to making some stupid mistake so that I could load my game and hear it again.
The actual gameplay is split neatly between base-construction and something called "world domination mode." Base construction is a little tricky, especially at the beginning of the game, when it can be difficult to weigh how much space should be allotted for immediately necessary rooms and how much must be set aside for new rooms that become accessible as the game progresses. A robust tutorial and easy-to use mouse-only interface keep things accessible, and make experimentation with base design relative simple. The only flaw I could find is that it didn't seem possible to re-task part of a room once it had been built. Let's say I built too big a power room and too small a training room; it's not possible to clear out part of one room and change it to another kind of room. The only thing to do is destroy (or move) all of the room's contents and wreck the room, and start over from scratch. This can be an expensive and time-consuming process, especially because room-specific objects can only be moved into their dedicated room type, so there's no shifting my research equipment into storage while I knock out a wall and expand the staff lounge.
Of course, running an evil criminal organization isn't exactly cheap, which is where the world domination mode comes in. Minions can be dispatched all over the world to steal money and participate in "acts of infamy," nefarious missions that will raise the evil genius's level notoriety, which is vital to unlocking more important missions and henchmen. These acts of infamy, which are accomplished by moving a certain number of minions to an area and turning them loose, represent, in their concept and descriptions, the high point of the game's lightly black-hearted sense of humor. It was hard not to giggle when I read some of the mission descriptions, which range from stealing a million dollar bill to clubbing baby seals to murdering the (thinly-disguised) Osmonds during a concert.
Another high point of the game are the minions that populate the island fortress. There are a dozen different types minions available, each of whom starts out as a generic worker, and can be trained along three different specialization pathways, into combat, research, or social minions. I've never been much of a fan of Sim-type games, as I found nothing particularly interesting about the day-to-day activities of a virtual family. This is the game that finally made me understand just how interesting watching people watching television could be. With a specific objective in mind (creating the most skilled team of peons possible), I actually found myself enjoying the process of setting up recreation facilities for my minions, making sure they had ample sleeping room and exercise equipment to keep them in top physical shape, as well as a whole room full of ping-pong tables just in case they got bored. Watching the little characters engage in all these activities, I finally understood the kind of Zen calming experience people describe when playing The Sims. There's just something endearing about the way the little guys wander around, train, and sneak out for a smoke when things are slow.
Base defense is also a big part of the game, and the game doesn't let down expectations here either. In addition to the combat that minions are capable of, a large part of the game's fun is found in crafting devious traps to ensnare the various governmental agents that try to infiltrate the lair. The traps all fit nicely with the theme, skewing neatly towards the wacky rather than the awful. No piranha pits on display here--just angry genetically engineered bees. While that's every bit as awful to be on the receiving end of, it's a whole lot less visually disturbing.
If the game has a problem, it's that it's a little too limited in variety at times. A perfect example of this is the three different main characters. Disappointingly, there are no real gameplay differences when playing as any of them. Special minions or room type availability to the different characters would have gone a long way to encouraging multiple trips through the game. Even something as small as changing room coloring or décor for the various characters would have helped a great deal. This is also a problem in the 'acts of infamy' section of the game. After each "act," a radio program plays describing the section of the world's response to the crime. The problem is that they didn't bother recording separate radio programs for each individual act of infamy, so they end up sounding extremely generic and repetitive.
There's a whole lot to love here. The animated background on the save/load screen alone is so hilarious that it makes the game worth purchasing. The excellent balancing of gameplay and humor make this game a worthy companion piece to VU Games' superlative No One Lives Forever franchise. I relished my time spent living the evil genius lifestyle. A truly great game can pull players into its world, and convince them not to question actions that would seem otherwise objectionable in the real world. Even though I never actually had the stomach to execute one of my own men to serve as an example for the rest, the fact that the game managed to convince me there was nothing inherently wrong about building a doomsday device is all the proof I needed that I was dealing with greatness.