It's often said that bad guys have all the fun. Being one of the nicest blokes you'll ever meet, I wouldn't know, though many games have given me the opportunity to step into some seriously criminal shoes. But most of those guys are petty thugs, content to get their hands dirty with some fisticuffs or gunplay. Everyone knows that the REAL bad guys get their minions to do all that nonsense. I mean, wouldn't it be nice to send some plebs off to pull in the money while you sit stroking your white cat? Well, Elixir has given you the keys to a shiny new secret lair.
Evil Genius is essentially a strategy/management game, where you take the role of the titular genius, in his or her bid to spread their infamy around the world. The game itself takes place almost exclusively on a tropical island that is home to your evil lair. It won't build itself though; the building and improvement of your lair is the main focus of the game. You'll need to start by carving a new base out of conveniently located rock in the centre of your island, creating an elaborate system of corridors and rooms. Like any Evil Genius, you'll need a freezer room to store bodies, a strong-room to hold all your loot, a barracks for your minions and the hub of your base, a control room; you just can't be effectively evil without it.
You'll quickly find that base construction is a fine art, which will take a little getting used to. That's not to say that creating bases is difficult, far from it; creating a room is easily achieved by marking the room with your cursor, which creates the blueprint by clicking 'build'. Your minions will then hop to it, clear the area with dynamite and build the room. Nice and easy, yet the real skill comes from room placement. You'll need to suitably protect certain vital areas, such as your strong room and control room, ideally placing them well away from any entrances. But what then do you place near the entrances? The Freezer room? That'll leave you open to investigators taking incriminating evidence. The Barracks? All well and good, but it means your minions will be further away from the central and critical areas of your base, which may cause issues in an emergency. As you can see, there is no right answer, but it becomes a fine balancing act, especially as space starts to become a premium.
The other main game element is the World Domination screen. The means, by which you actually make a name for yourself, collect resources and find new Henchmen. Presented as a map, you can choose to send your men to different corners of the world where they can be made to do one of three activities; Plot, Steal or Hide. Plotting allows you to find 'Acts of Infamy'; missions or objectives that raise your worldwide infamy and bring other rewards. Stealing is self-explanatory and provides the cash flow for your base. The more men attached to this task, the more money that goes into your pocket. Hiding is an effective way to dodge 'Heat' that is generated by these other activities and by Acts of Infamy. Simply put, 'Infamy' is good, but 'Heat' is bad. Finding the right balance between the two is a tricky business. 'Heat' itself, has two main effects. Firstly, minions in an area where 'Heat' is high will be attacked by enemy agents, often resulting in several casualties. Secondly, 'Heat' also attracts enemy agents to your island were they will try their utmost to cause havoc.
Acts of Infamy also become the key to improving your minion's abilities, with certain acts allowing you to capture skilled individuals such as guards and technicians. They can then be interrogated, enabling a minion to take on there skills. These specialists can then be used to train others in the Training room. It's a great twist on the upgrade concept and requires you to decide whether you can afford to spare a unit in order to train up another; another layer of strategy for you to consider. Tying up minions is especially an issue if your base needs to be defended, however, in base defence you have two other key elements.
Henchmen are your specialist minions. They don't get involved in all the daily operations in your base, but instead are directly controllable and can be used to dispatch the forces of justice or can be sent around the world to help with any stealing or plotting currently going on. They are a vital part of your evil team. The main element critical to your base defences are traps. Traps, and the construction of them, swiftly become the most fun part of the game. Building an elaborate system of traps is the key to keeping your base safe, and the number on offer will allow you to devise many cruel ways of dispatching your enemies. As a bonus, it's also hugely satisfying watching an enemy meet his doom at the hands of your fiendish devices.
Throughout the game, tutorial videos become available to you, relating to both the world domination map and base operations. These are useful and certainly point you in the right direction. Some tasks can be a bit trial and error resulting in frustration, which is unfortunate. If the tutorial held your hand at least once for every element, the game would be a lot easier to play and you wouldn't need the manual permanently close at hand.
The game itself looks fantastic - a cartoon style with a retro edge to it; Perfect, considering the settings and some of the outlandish devices. Evil Genius's influences seem to span every possible spy movie, game and comic book out there. It has the same tongue-in-cheek attitude of Austin Powers and No One Lives Forever and at the same time pays homage to spy genre classics and more obscure comic book villains. It's clear the team at Elixir have a real love for the subject and have really fused all these elements together to create a believable and fun universe. Henchmen and minions are also brilliantly characterised, especially when going through training or interrogation. In terms of setting the mood, the music is absolutely perfect. It conjures up images of James Bond's famous opening credits, and that's before the game has even started.
Despite all of this, Evil Genius does have its flaws. The World Domination section feels under-developed, and it's disappointing when you order your troops to carry out the kidnapping of a wealthy crime lord and all you have to monitor their progress is a completion bar. It's like playing an old version of Champ Manager. The tagging system, which is used to identify enemies and the status of buildings, seems good at first, but rapidly becomes frustrating when you have to tag every individual threat that arrives on the island. It is useful for certain things, and gives you an idea of what is happening with any critical elements, but it could be much more user friendly.
Base construction can be an annoying experience at times too. While building an efficient and structured base is extremely satisfying, mistakes can be unforgiving and making a few early errors in room size and placement can cripple your base's expansion. An option to change a room's function or to join rooms would have been useful, and could have alleviated this problem. Minion control is another issue; although they are quite intuitive and complete tasks efficiently, it would be nice if you could prioritize duties such as control room or security desk operation. It's also difficult to monitor the minion's feelings. They have a symbol appear above their heads to identify if they are confused or tired, but it's difficult to monitor when you have so much else on your plate. Finding out that a minion has decided to quit just as he is running out the door is irritating.
Evil Genius is a great idea for a game, and by and large, Elixir have been very successful in translating that experience into a successful product. There are issues however, but the good far outweighs the bad and it's difficult not to become engrossed in the game; the new fiendish traps and items that appear as you progress are worth the time to see. So, if you have ever felt like becoming a sadist madman, hell-bent on taking over the world, then this game is ideal solution, and comes without the risk of jail time. If not, give it a go anyway, and enjoy one of the freshest takes on a management game in ages.