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There aren’t many games in the Base Building subgenre. There’s Dungeon Keeper, of course, the king of the RTS/Tycoon genre-lovechild that prefers resource gathering and upgrades over tactical combat. While there are other Base Builder games, it would not be a stretch to say that Evil Genius is Dungeon Keeper’s loyal #2, but that glorious title comes with certain reservations.
As you’ve probably already grasped, Evil Genius casts you as the Evil Genius about to rise to the head of the criminal world, painted up with the best of 60’s spy movie clichés and a healthy dose of cartoon humour. You start with a few thousand dollars, a personality-rich henchman and a few faceless minions, who will help you start blasting out your secret underground lair and will soon be robbing the world blind.
The game is split into roughly two portions. The Base Builder portion is set on your tropical island, where you build up your underground lair by drawing out rooms in the earth, but be careful because, like Dungeon Keeper, you can’t replace solid rock once it’s been removed. Your room in the rock is limited, but you can build world-conquering equipment in shacks on the beach, but this is dangerously insecure. In reality, the purpose of the beach is to build up your cover as a hotel magnate by building up a thriving tourist trap.
The second half of the game is the World Conquering screen, available after you build your control room with its Big Screen. The simulation on the island doesn’t pause while you’re on the Big Screen, so be cautious and keep an eye on both areas. From there you can access the world map, divided roughly into countries but more importantly into the area protected by your enemies: the various spy agencies of the world that will certainly try to stomp down on your hideout once you start meddling in their business. From this screen you can send minions, and if you can spare them, henchmen, to the countries of the world to steal money, plot and poke around to find potential leads on future “Acts of Infamy” you can use to gain important advantages, or hide temporarily if the governments are getting too wise to your operations in that region. Once you have found an Act of Infamy, you can send minions after it, kidnapping people with useful skills, stealing technologies, and the like.
All these acts, except Hide, of course, generate “Heat”. The more Heat you have, the more likely that region’s spy organization will capture and kill your minions, and they will eventually send agents to see what you’re up to on the island proper. If they find enough suspicious things, they will return home and calls for backup, and you’ll soon have a full armed attack on your hands, so it’s important to keep your nice shiny deathtraps in good condition and your minions armed. Combat is more complicated than it needed to be thanks to the option to capture enemy spies and brainwash them, but you’ll easily get the hang of it, and it’s better than Dungeon Keeper’s more-or-less inability to select individual targets. Eventually, no matter what you do, you’ll soon attract the attention of the world’s greatest Super Spies, who cannot be killed at first and will plague you to the end of the game, at which point you’ll discover their secret weaknesses and pick them off one by one.
Once you have kidnapped a few specialists and stolen some technologies, your base can get more complex, and your minions can train to learn new skills. Unlike other RTS games, each upgraded minion has their own set of abilities, and it’s not always worth the trouble of upgrading them when you’ll lose the helpful skills of, say, the Level 2 type. Only your default Construction Workers can do grunt work. From there they can be upgraded up three different upgrade paths, learning from other minions with those skills in classrooms (evil classrooms!) rather than from anonymous “upgrade rooms”. Combat minions will be better able to defend your base, while on the World Conquering screen they will help you strong-arm missions and steal money more efficiently. Tech minions help you run your over-the-top gizmos, and on the Big Screen help you plot new Acts of Infamy. Social Minions keep the Heat down during your off-island operations, while they confuse and bewilder enemy agents, sending them home with clean bills of health for your “Hotel Complex”.
As you progress through the storyline missions (gaining reputation points to measure your success), you eventually move your whole operation to a new island, but unfortunately once that’s done you’ve sucked out the game’s content. There are only two maps (three if you count the tutorial), and the only advantage of playing again is being able to play as a new Mastermind or to hire different Henchmen when the opportunities arise. It’s unfortunate that there is no free play mode or alternate play maps, as it seems like it would have been an easy upgrade. The game loses a lot in that respect.
The real failing point in Evil Genius, however, is the brains of your opponents. The game works very well while you’re doing what seems to be the expected thing. The ideal flow of play was obviously thoroughly tested, which is important in a game as complex as this, but as soon as you deviate from the path, the good guys fall apart like an ice statue on an evil mastermind’s tropical island. Hotels, as any walkthrough will tell you, are useless. It’s much more efficient to channel your funds into killing the agents, and occasionally having a social minion whip a few up, than to distract them, and tourists are easy enough to distract. The best defence against an enemy agent, unfortunately, is not a super-complex, linked deathtrap of doom near your security station, but rather a series of high-locked doors leading to nowhere: it costs almost nothing (except the lost space in the rock) and works 95% of the time. Still want to keep them busy? Have some deathtraps move them in a square for a while. If all else fails, put more heavy locks on your least suspicious activities. It’s like their AI is entirely determined by how complex a padlock you put on the door. From their perspective, this is fine, but you have to realise that the game designers put in a feature that if you block off an area, the agents will be able to tunnel in to see what you’re hiding. Clearly they are aware of where the good stuff is, but you’d never believe it from what you see them trying to do. And once you start, it’s almost impossible to stop. Most of the walkthroughs online suggest using the exploit where you can rob the world completely broke without gathering a single enemy agent – as long as you do it before you kidnap the maid to get your first trained minion. It is possible to play without these exploits, but it becomes hard to tell: what is an exploit, and what’s just good gaming?
It might help to note that, like Fallout, Evil Genius is supported by an unofficial 1.1 patch that should work with the GOG version that fixes a few integral problems still left over in the game. It’s a must-install if you want to play as Maximillion. Also available is the official Bonus Features patch, which installs a few new items and a new henchman originally made available to people who pre-ordered the game. It’s likely that (like the similar patch for Stronghold) the second patch will be made available on GOG in time, but for now it can be find on Fileplanet and elsewhere.
All in all, Evil Genius is an example of perfect style and good substance, but the holes are hard to ignore. If the game had only been better supported, it would be a contender to Dungeon Keeper’s black-spiked throne, but as it stands, without a sequel, there is no way Maximillion and his wacky henchmen could ever overthrow Horny and the Mistress.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Evil Genius inspired the A-rated Flash Game “Mastermind: World Conquerer” (sometimes “Mastermind: WC”) by The_Swain. The Base-Building aspects have been mostly lost, but the upgrades and world domination screen remain in all their glory. It’s certainly worth a try for fans of this game, and if you’ve never had a chance to play Evil Genius, it and EG’s demo might help you decide if you want this one better than I could ever describe.
Hmmm is there a patch that fixes AI problems?
lowyhong: Hmmm is there a patch that fixes AI problems?

Not that I'm aware of. I just try my best to pretend the issues aren't there, no matter how tempting it becomes to stop spending money on the wretched Hotel and deathtrap systems. Like I said, the game does work as intended, and you can still play within the bounds of "as intended" in a surprising variety of ways. It reminds me of a certain Flash game, I can't remember which, where the best way to win is to ignore all strategy and threats and to simply send a line of the weakest troops down the same path. Sure, you could play that way, but you could also play the intended way and have more fun. It's more of a mark against the game than a mark against "the fun", which Evil Genius has tons of.