Development maestro Peter Molyneux offered gamers one of the first chances to play the bad guy with the hilarious and thoroughly playable Dungeon Keeper, released on the PC in 1997. Since then the rise and rise of the crime game has let players experience the thrills of being bad in a different way, but Overlord's take on playing it mean is certainly a novel one in the current gaming climate.
Overlord's plot begins at the end of what could have made another soulless video game. After the defeat of the powerful evil-doer by seven do-gooding heroes, the curator of all things nasty and dark lays on the verge of death amongst the rubble of his once glorious tower.
Rising from the ashes like a phoenix, the game's antihero must return unhappiness to his kingdom, rebuilding his tower and defeating the seven saintly representatives of the surrounding realms.
With pillage, murder and destruction making up the main objectives of the game, it could have been a fairly unpleasant release that would bring the claws out of the same conservative fingers that point at Grand Theft Auto every time a gunshot rings out in the real world. However, along with some comic aesthetics, a huge dose of comedy makes every act you commit seem more silly than sinister.
Scripted by Rhianna Pratchett, the daughter of the hugely popular comedy-fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett, Overlord seems infused with a daft irreverence from the outset. You of course assume the role of the Overlord himself but, though he is armed with a range of attacks and magical abilities, your main weapon is your willing army of minions, who follow you around the cartoon universe causing havoc with every footfall.
Your minions are essentially comedy goblins that will give their life to your commands in an instance. For every living thing you kill, from an innocent sheep to a terrified human, you are rewarded with a bonus that in turn can be drawn from sporadic collection points as a minion. In this regard, minions are essentially the game's currency, brought to life as gibbering idiots.
They come in four varieties. The first are those that possess sheer brute strength and are essentially your cannon fodder. The second are the weaker fire minions that can hurl powerful fireballs from a distance. Next come the water minions that can heal injured friends, and finally the assassins, who are blessed with brains over brawn.
As you advance, you can summon larger and larger crowds of minions who jostle around you in packs as big as 50; they overflow with personality and are certainly some distant relative of the delightful Gremlins. They are so overpowered by a hyperactive sense of purpose that they scatter in all directions at your whim, mounting and killing sheep, marauding innocent civilians and trashing buildings, furniture and food, and somehow, they get away with making it seem like good old fashioned fun.
Of course, for everything they kill you are rewarded another minion, and all of them can also be used as ingredients for health potions, spells and weapons for the mighty Overlord. Every minion will gladly sacrifice himself with such a carefree sense of abandon you can only feel for the little imps and, though they are readily dispensable, it's easy to imagine getting rather attached to them.
The other main part of the game is rebuilding your castle. Throughout the various levels your minions will discover and transport various pieces of machinery back to the hub of your operations. Though from the brief demonstration of this element of the game it was hard to tell the size and scale to which you can build your castle, it certainly appears that you can customise the structure fairly heavily, including useful tools like your weapon smelting device. Like any worthy bad guy, you also get to choose your wife from a pair at the start, with your selected wench handling interior design for you. These construction elements certainly sound great, but how much they will bring to the game will only become clear after a full play through.
Released in June 2007, the game is already looking very near complete and it has a similar visual style to Codemasters' other big fantasy release, Lord of The Rings Online. Overlord certainly has a more light-hearted feel to its design, but the comparisons between the two go some way further than simple graphical similarities.
It is fair to say that Overlord takes the worlds created by J.R. Tolkien and his peers and tips them on their head. The first level of Overlord is set in a quaint rolling landscape full of halflings who live in dainty little villages made up of low houses with round doors built into hillsides. The pastiche of The Shire and the Hobbits isn't even subtle, but in Overlord the little people are ruled by a greedy leader who has become bloated and huge thanks to his gluttony. It is apparent that taking a twisted view of the norms of the realms of fantasy is a constant throughout the game, so we can only hope that the game's humour has the strength to carry this brilliant concept with confidence.
On Xbox LIVE three multiplayer modes have been confirmed, though details are still sparse. The expected deathmatch features, along with a special co-op version of the game and the pillage mode, which will see competitors racing to cause as much havoc as they can.
How workable Overlord will be as a long term gaming experience is questionable, but the team at Triumph Studios has certainly come up with a killer concept full of humour that, based on the parts revealed so far, will bring some much needed laughs to the fantasy genre.