The Fun-ality of Evil
One of my favorite pastimes as a kid was pretending to be an evil mastermind out of a James Bond movie, like Ernst Stavros Blofeld or Auric Goldfinger—an imperious megalomaniac commanding hundreds of minions dressed in identical brightly-colored jumpsuits. The best part of that game, as far as I was concerned, was designing my secret lair, with subterranean tunnels and ingenious traps and rooms full of high-tech gadgets.
That game of pretend is the heart and soul of Evil Genius, which reverses the familiar spy thriller formula embodied by No One Lives Forever—emulating that game’s lighthearted, self-parodying approach—by placing the player in the role of the villain. After choosing between three evil geniuses to play (you can be a Dr. Evil style bald, monocled madman; a sultry spider lady; or a Fu Manchu type), you construct your hidden island fortress, man it with a variety of minions and henchmen, and defend it against the good guys, secret agents from do-gooder organizations with acronyms like A.N.V.I.L. and S.M.A.S.H. Meanwhile, your plans for world domination unfold on a global map that’s laid out like the Risk board.
Evil Genius combines a couple of different genres: it’s a strategy game at heart, but also a Sims-like simulation that’s as much about keeping your minions healthy and happy as it is about taking over the world. Of course, this being an evil game, the kind of things that delight your vassals include torturing prisoners and executing wayward minions. While in the real world there isn’t so much “fun” as “U.N. sanctions” involved in dissolving hapless spies in vats of toxic chemicals, in Evil Genius the mayhem is presented with enough tongue-in-cheek humor as to stay mostly in the realm of tasteless but harmless amusement.
The blending of genres works in the game’s favor by mitigating one of its primary flaws: slow pacing. There’s a lot of waiting in this game; you wait for minions to be trained, you wait for missions to complete, you wait for rooms and equipment to be built or dismantled. If not for the fact that there are a variety of objectives and strategies playing out at any given moment (you’re not only defending your lair, but pursuing a number of evil objectives all over the world, and there’s also the option of building and maintaining a hotel as a cover operation), the game might—and occasionally still does—become tedious. Things can also get a little confusing at times, despite the excellent (if occasionally intrusive) help system, since a few of the critical game objectives aren’t very well explained, especially late in the action.
Evil Genius is a perfect illustration of what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil; easily the majority of the gameplay is taken up with building and maintaining your organization, and in this sense Evil Genius isn’t that different from most strategy games. As enticing as the fantasy of being a wicked mastermind may be, what Evil Genius brings home is the reality of running an evil enterprise. It’s not all gloating and crime; for the most part, it’s about maximizing revenue and managing personnel.
Another pitfall of the game is that, while forcing the player to micromanage the process of world domination, it stops short of allowing you to exert direct control most of your minions. You can direct your minions as a whole to perform certain operations, like building rooms or killing enemy agents—and the game is fairly smart about assigning the proper minion to the task at hand—but you can’t, say, order a specific minion to go to a particular location. (You can do this with unique characters like henchmen, however.) This is a little frustrating, especially if you’re the kind of control freak who would be drawn to Evil Genius in the first place.
Gameplay quibbles aside, Evil Genius is a fun, addictive game that may have you spending long sleepless nights trying out different lair designs and creating intricate systems of traps (one of my favorites involved a laser trip beam in front of a door that activated a wind machine to blow hapless victims into a nearby vat of pirahnas). The list of objects and traps you can place in your lair is extensive and quite imaginative, as are the (sometimes undocumented) things you can do with those objects. (Hint: Once the game enables “freak production”, drop a bodybag into the chemical vat for an interesting result.) One prerequisite of being a villain is having a great sense of style, and Evil Genius delivers that in every area, from its colorful, detailed graphics to its catchy, Lalo Schifrin-inspired score.
One of the more interesting aspects of playing Evil Genius is the peculiar moral inversion that takes place once you’ve immersed yourself in the role of villain. At first, you delight in the forbidden thrill of wickedness and the total freedom from ethical restrictions—much like the earlier Dungeon Keeper, you’re rewarded, not punished, for doing things like killing your own minions. But after a while, it becomes easy to forget that you are, in fact, the villain, and you begin to see those hordes of invading agents and saboteurs as the bad guys, just like in any spy game. You’re not only playing the role of a Bond villain—you take on the villain’s perspective. If you’ve ever wondered what’s actually going on in Blofeld’s twisted mind—if the bad guys realize that they’re the bad guys, or consider themselves the heroes of their own stories—Evil Genius answers that question in an absorbing, amusing fashion.