Thursday, April 22, 2010

Evil Genius; or; they finally made a video game out of my life.

Today I'm going to go into (at length!) everything that's wrong with the game Evil Genius.

If you've never played it, Evil Genius sets you up as a James Bond supervillian trying to take over the world. Ten out of ten gold stars for concept. They also do a number of other things really well; the music is excellent, and the animation looks good. Real good. They're problems come mostly from gameplay. And the interface.

So, as a mastermind with less than unimpeachable morals, you get two kinds of underlings, hereafter referred to as Henchmen and Minions. Henchmen are the named bad guys with a shtick of some sort. Think Oddjob from Goldfinger; Short, Korean, almost entirely mute and kills his enemies by throwing a fedora with a metal brim. Or Jaws with his sharp metal teeth. Basically this covers any subvillain who actually has a name.

Minions, on the other hand, are nameless, faceless drones in suits. Think the members of the axe gang. Or the jumpsuited figures defending Blofeld's crater base in You Only Live Twice. Or the blue suited Koreans taking out Ft. Knox in Goldfinger. The game rightfully sees and exploits this relationship, giving you few henchmen with powerful and useful abilities and many less important minions it does give the minions names, but in hours and hours of playing the game the names have never been relevant in the slightest, so I ignore them. Therefore I'm crediting them with proper application of the trope, in a subtle manner.

The trouble is though, you can't actually order your minions around. All you can do is suggest. So if you want someone to build you a detention cell, you don't find a construction worker and ask. You specify an order that the detention cell be built, and a minion will proceed to do that. If you want an enemy agent killed, all you have to do is say "Who will rid me of this troublesome fool?" and someone will rush to the job.

Which has it's problems. Your foes with kill tags, and anyone who sees it will go running to do the deed. Now, your union thug with a spanner might think he's pretty tough, but when he's facing down half a dozen warriors with their rifles, well, he don't look so good. And thanks to the fact that you can't order the minions around singly or in groups, each individual person sees that tag in order, and goes rushing in like he's Bruce Lee and gets drilled full of holes.

It's true that they get guns. You have to convince them to use them, though. Y'see, even your big bad mercenaries don't wander the base carrying. You have to set up a yellow alert and then they'll go and pick up guns from your gun racks. If they're not otherwise too busy. And even if they have the guns, unless they see the enemy at a distance they'll still run in and try to tap dance on faces with their fists. And even if you get them shooting at a distance then they're still going their lonesome against a squad of computerized opponents who are working together. Which is more than you can manage by merely offering your minions suggestions.

My favorite in this regard are the marksman type minions. After you spend oh so much time training them up, they wander your base carrying their huge rifles. And then they find someone that needs killing, and they run up and poke 'em in the jaw because they haven't figured out what it means to be a sniper. Idiots.

Which brings me to another point. Training. You want a marksman? You gotta train a mercenary, which you gotta train from a guard, which you gotta train from a construction worker. You get one construction worker every sixty seconds (more if you pay), and they upgrade on the same "whenever they get it in their minds to do so" way. So you wait and wait and wait until that marksman get to the third tier and then he gets it in his head that he's reincarnated Cassius Clay and, well, frustrating would be a light way to describe it.

Come to think of it, waiting is pretty much the order of the day in this game. You send people onto the world map and you wait for them to steal. They get a certain amount every sixty seconds, but you don't get it immediately, you have to wait for a minion to run to the helicopter pad on the far side of the islands and pick it up for you. Which lets them get killed along the way and surrender their precious precious gold to the forces of justice who are just going to spend it on carbon credits anyway.

But the waiting, yeah I'm getting to that. So, you recruit minions on a time basis. you train up better minions on a time basis. You earn your cash from the world on a time basis. When the world gets angry at you (and they do, often), then if you just wait a little while the heat will die down and they'll stop sending their better agents to your island. If you just wait a little longer maybe your scientists will research some better stuff for you. I'm not saying that limiting actions by time is a terrible thing in general, but if you trend all of your incentives that way then you end up with the player sitting at his computer and waiting. And not having fun, because doing any of the interesting stuff requires him to wait oh so much longer.

Oh yeah, research. In most games you tell your minions what you want discovered, and they proceed to discover it. After giving you perfect estimates as to cost and time. not really realistic. In this game you have your scientist minions wandering your base and looking at stuff. Eventually, one of them gets some inspiration, and you can have him research that object. It's more realistic admittedly, but there are two problems; one is that you're never sure that the scientists have researched everything, they might have just overlooked something. The other is, if you're going for a specific object then you're completely at the mercy of the clock. You gotta wait. There are a number of objects that I'd really like to research before I build a second base, and so again I delay blowing up my first one as long as possible for that to happen.

I understand that you need something to stretch the game out. I mean, if I dropped $40 for the game even at the discounted price I'm expecting hours of entertainment out of that box. But if all you can manage is three hours, there's no need to put me through all that waiting to stretch it out to eight ten twelve hours. I can think of several novels that do this; For Whom the Bell Tolls comes to mind first.

There are a couple of interface problems, of varying seriousness. The first time I played through the game I never found out how to save the game manually; Saving games is under "Load Save" which I assumed was only for loading saved games. And the annoying announcer lady is almost entirely superfluous. I dunno about that though; maybe I'm a skilled enough gamer that I don't need her reminding me that a security door has been breached, or that I don't have minions available to start building that right away. It might be for the ten year olds who may or may not be playing the game.

There's also an annoying one on the minion screen. When you order minions you have to specify the number of minions you're ordering in that type. So I might have on the one tree fifteen guards, ten mercenaries and five marksmen. If I don't have any mercenaries or marksmen, then it won't let me order more marksmen, the box where I specify the number is blanked out. Let's say I had that tree filled, and then in an intense bit of combat I lost all of it. On my minion report I'd have listed 00/15 guards, and the other two would be blacked out. But the number of minions ordered in those slots wouldn't zero out, I'd still have fifteen minions ordered that I couldn't possibly get rid of until I found a way to get more guards. So I'm stuck with an annoyingly low cap on the number of construction workers. Yeah, it's happened to me before. A couple of times.

And speaking of which, let's get to the AI glitches that allow you to lose your entire minion force in just one assault. I mean beyond their reluctance to use guns and go it alone attitude. If you've got a squad of soldiers assaulting your base, only your soldiers and construction workers will attempt to attack them. The social and scientific minions will generally ignore them. Theoretically this helps you by not having those guys rush off to get themselves killed. In practice it tends to mean they wander by the soldiers and get killed anyway.

Suppose they set a part of your base on fire. Not an uncommon occurrence. Your valet minions see "the base is on fire!" and run for the fire extinguisher. They then run to the trouble spot and valiantly try to put out the fire, and get gunned down mercilessly. Maybe they even put the fire out first. Then your next valet sees "oh no, there's a fire extinguisher just laying there. How unclean!" and goes to tidy up. And gets gunned down like an Indian at Wounded Knee. Or maybe you managed to kill one of the soldiers. You've got a body bag that needs moving. And you've got the minions who want to move it for you. So your higher ranking scientific and social staff will calmly walk into a battle, attempt to pick up a body bag and walk on out. Naturally, they also get gunned down mercilessly. It wouldn't be so bad if you could JUST TELL THEM NOT TO GO THERE but you CAN'T because you're not allowed to give direct orders to your minions. No, I'm not frustrated, why do you ask?

As a lesser criticism, the game doesn't really have that many options for player actions. You can: capture and interrogate someone, commit an act of infamy on the world map, defend your island against intruders, and research something. None of them are really strong enough to make a game out of themselves, like 'Kill all the orcs" is for Warcraft. (err, the RTS Warcraft games; not WoW). They do ok with it, the storyline has you do each a couple times. It's good enough for one playthrough, but it doesn't exactly help the replayability. And it stretches my suspension of disbelief when people just randomly show up at your island. (A Russian Cosmonaut, a handful of diplomats, a crime boss, that sort of thing).

Bottom line I've got two main criticisms of the game. First; it doesn't allow you control over a major determinant as to whether you win or lose. By not allowing you to control minions directly the game forces you to watch in frustration as they do things that just aren't optimal. That's not fun. Secondly, it overly incentivises wasting time. Since the major limitation on your resources since you can shore up your defenses by adding time, you end up taking much longer to complete portions of the game than you would had you been playing at your own speed. Like drinking watered down wine, this makes the game less fun.

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