I’ve Been Playing: Overlord

By Alec Meer on July 24th, 2008 at 11:13 pm.

It’s easy to fall into a routine dichotomy here. New games some days, retro games other days. Unfortunately, that rather ignores games from the last couple of years, which don’t fit neatly into either category. Let’s change that.

I find myself currently between games to really occupy me – an unfortunate hangover from the MMO mania of a couple of years back, which has left a part of my brain forever desiring a game I can utterly lose myself to for months at a time. With my third major bout of intense TF2 play, my most recent distraction, now behind me, I survey the landscape and there’s nothing huge I can imagine spending a few deep-seated weeks with, at least not until Left 4 Dead and Fallout 3. So, instead I turn to the very recent past. I’ve been snacking briefly on games I’ve wanted to replay or never got around to playing, and I suspect it’ll lead to a few posts like this. First, Overlord.

I’ve been meaning to play this action-strategy-comedy curio for some time. The reviews were, if not rapturous, at least overwhelmingly positive, plus anyone who knows about my unshakeable affection for Dungeon Keeper kept pointing me its way. I’d ignored them, partly because human beings cannot be trusted and partly because their argument hinged on the “you play as a comedy fantasy villain” similarity. DK’s Good To Be Bad shtick was never the source of its appeal to me. It was its fusing of management game tropes with outlandish violence, all floating on top of a restless sea of utter chaos, that brings me back to it again and again.

So, another imp-summoning Sauron analogue didn’t dramatically appeal, but Overlord’s central mechanic – that you’re in the commanding shoes of an RTS godhead, but actually corporeal, and thus vulnerable, in the game world – certainly did.

What I wasn’t expecting was how similar it really is to Dungeon Keeper. Not in its play-style, but in its aesthetics. I’m going to be very careful what I say here, but… there seems to be a certain deliberateness in choice of font, of health icons, of the Imp summoning animation, of all-knowing, slightly irritated evil narrator… If DK wasn’t at least in mind during Overlord’s development, it’d be quite the coincidence.

The font was the weirdest thing. Very close – inescapably close – to that used in Dungeon Keeper 2′s menus, I had a horribly trite moment of deja vu. I’ll try not to steep too far into Proustian stereotype here, but bear with me. For a few seconds I didn’t quite know where or when I was – the appearance of Overlord’s main menu was so overwhelmingly familiar. I don’t say that to denigrate the game, but to observe upon quite how effective something so simple as a game font or menu design can be. Done well, it drags you into the character of the game right from its very first seconds.

Overlord sets out its comic-fantasy stall from the off, and it was so absolutely evocative of a game I’d spent hours with in my late teens that I was totally thrown. DK2 is pretty much muscle-memory for me these days (I even carry a handily-hacked version of it around on a flash drive), so my hands were immediately trying to do things that Overlord didn’t actually have. Why isn’t the Hardware Rendering option in the settings menu? Where’s the My Pet Dungeon entry? What’s going on? It was like someone had changed the lock to my own front door. Fonts, eh? I know they’re a big, big deal to graphic designers, and this seemed a rare hint as to exactly why.

Rationality soon restored itself, though it was hard to avoid just how much Overlord owed to Bullfrog and Lionhead’s games. DK’s children’s TV-like evil-as-farce theme clearly runs throughout, but the character designs very much evoke Fable and Black & White’s bulbous clay-men. Which is no bad thing, and in fact Overlord is a gorgeous game. My GeForce 8800 just about keeps an even 30fps keel at maximum settings, but it’s totally worth the occasional dip below that. The lighting’s great, the characters are animated with toy-like charm (and a few really impressive grotesques), and most of all there’s the smashing.

The smashing is key to why Overlord works, even despite a cartload of flaws and limitations. The game’s central concept is that you’re a recently-reborn Magical Evil Guy, determined to chase goodliness from the land by means of your Imp army. This is a horde of chattering, sycophantic psychopaths who go where you tell ‘em, attack what you tell ‘em and gleefully heap any gold they uncover upon you. You’re there yourself, a Mini-Sauron with a decent punch and a few handy support spells, but not a whole lot of hardiness. Basically – if you get into a fight yourself, you’re doing it wrong.

This is why Overlord is like Assassin’s Creed. You can’t realistically control a horde of 20 half-mad Imps unless you’ve mapped and memorised a hotkey for every button on your keyboard and possess a row of 18 prehensile nipples with which to push them. Instead, you have assisted control – you gesticulate in a rough direction and the game will calculate the rest. In Assassin’s Creed, you point Altair where you want him to go and keep tapping holding down a button – you’ll feel like you’re activating all his acrobatics, but really the game’s making a best-guess about what he should be doing. It works beautifully.

It works almost as well here. You’re not in direct control of your minions, but the game does a damn good job of making you feel as though you are. If there are enemies in your requested direction, the Imps will go for them in a frenzy of big-toothed carnage. If there’s a level to pull, they’ll pull it. Most of all, if there are things to smash, they will smash them. And boy, do things smash well. Crates shatter, fruits splatter, sunflowers topple, doors implode. It’s Gremlins, with you directing the mayhem, a conductor of carnage. There’s an awesome sense of omnipotence to it – you just have to wave your hand across the world, and it duly crumbles beneath it. I found myself regularly forgetting that my character existed in the world, so wrapped up was I in painting Impish patterns of destruction. The omnipotence-complex only increases when your minions scamper up to you with gifts of gold and health potions they’ve found – they live to serve.

I’m only a few hours in (it’s hugely liberating, writing up impressions of a game unbound from the rigid, completist structure of a review proper), but already I’m acutely concious I shall never finish it. The Nintendian boss fights are infuriating, the levels all seem to be claustrophobically enclosed, linear paths, too often presenting artificial obstacles that are only obstacles because my superhuman Overlord is unable to climb onto two-foot ledges, and dear God some of the voice acting is unbearable.

For all its enthusiasm, I’m not sure it’s managed to be a great game – it’s definitely a great idea, but the structures built over that don’t seem to have received the same thought and love. But with a wave of my hand, I can destroy from afar. That’s hell-raising enough to make it all worthwhile.

Curious? Try the demo.

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44 Comments »

  1. The Poisoned Sponge says:

    Ummm Alec did you forget to make a jump? Because you just posted a big ol’ buttload of text on the main page….

  2. RiptoR says:

    Was just thinking the same. Alec’s losing his mojo :s

  3. Alec Meer says:

    YOUR MUM.

  4. The Poisoned Sponge says:

    YOUR FACE.

  5. Dreamhacker says:

    Aww, you…you…you guys!

    Overlord = Top Underdog

  6. MasterBoo says:

    Overlord was fun until the desert level. :\

  7. martin says:

    simple formula:
    radeon hd4870
    radeon hd4870
    tes:oblivion
    tes:kotn
    shivering islands
    9 GB of mods (yes that is 9 gigabytes)
    = fun for weeks

  8. BobJustBob says:

    You tapped buttons in Assassin’s Creed? Except for combat, you could do everything by holding buttons down.

  9. Valentin Galea says:

    I played it on a 6600 at around 20FPS and finished it – that’s how fun it is!

  10. jackflash says:

    I tried it for a while but it just made me want to play DK again. God, I wish DK2 hadn’t been such a piece of crap. Also, given that the visuals aren’t THAT good, I feel that Overlord’s engine is terribly optimized for the PC. The game just felt like a poor console port to me.

  11. Chris R says:

    Yeah, Overlord suffers from “Consolitis”

    “Nintendian boss fights are infuriating, the levels all seem to be claustrophobically enclosed, linear paths, too often presenting artificial obstacles that are only obstacles because my superhuman Overlord is unable to climb onto two-foot ledges”

    I absolutely hate it when games do this, and it seems like mostly console games do this… which is why I loathe them. That and I hate not having a mouse. :)

  12. Mister Yuck says:

    The game is great to begin with, but once you get to the ‘Kahn’ boss you’ll see why many reviewers called it incomplete. I wish the poor devs had a few months to finish the game. It showed such promise.

  13. Tikey says:

    I finished it. It’s fun, but I actually was disappointed. Mostly because of its lack of compromise.
    I’m tired of games where you are supposed to be the bad guy but end up fighting other bad guys and your evil deeds are insignificant things. Overlords falls in this category. And it’s a sin other games have committed (like most of the Hitman games).

  14. Pidesco says:

    Overlord some suffers from making everyone evil. The point of killing hobbits and paladins is that they are so infuriatingly nice and pure.

  15. spd from Russia says:

    nice game indeed! I played it about a year ago and liked both the concept and the art style (very fable-ish indeed)

  16. Ginger Yellow says:

    Dungeon Keeper is the obvious reference for the aesthetics and the setting, but the gameplay is pure Pikmin.

  17. RichPowers says:

    Great idea, mediocre game. Goes for $9.99 on Amazon at the moment.

  18. Hermes says:

    On the subject of Dungeon Keeper, I’d like to know what people’s views are on the game Evil Genius. Very much the same good to be bad, base building, no direct control of minions dynamic of DK (other than the back of your hand/disciplinary executions). I reinstalled it recently and have been having a blast–it prompted me to replay the similarly 60s spy parodic no one lives forever games. Evil Genius didn’t do too well critically as I recall, I’m wondering how everyone else has found it.

  19. marxeil says:

    “RichPowers says:
    Great idea, mediocre game. Goes for $9.99 on Amazon at the moment.”
    Or you can get it for $39.99 on steam :)

  20. Skalpadda says:

    Ah, I never finished Overlord, there were too many things that annoyed me after a while. I’m still glad that I bought it and I keep meaning to play through it again, there’s so much charming little things that tickled my joy-glands enormously.

    The way the minions are so happy about everything is what really made the game for me though.

    “For you!”

    “For me!”

    “For the Overlord!”

  21. RichPowers says:

    @Hermes

    I just reinstalled/uninstalled Evil Genius last month. Again, great idea but mediocre game. I could never get past the utter stupidity of your minions. Spend a few hours training elite minions only to have them slaughtered by a group of SEALS. The game also lacks obvious feedback mechanisms: why are these do-gooders attacking? When will they go away? Does my hotel front actually throw them off? Why shoot innocent valets, Mr. Secret Agent? What’s actually happening during missions on the Big Board?

  22. Dorian Cornelius Jasper says:

    How does one pronounce “Proustian,” anyway? Does the “st” stop being silent once there’s vowels after it?

  23. davidAlpha says:

    Ive played this on the pc for a bit and i felt the controls were not accurate enough for me somehow. Like the minions were always slipping away.
    Later when I applied for an internship at the company that made this game (and also the wonderfull Age of Wonders 1 & 2 anyone here play that?), one of the company’s founders was playing it on the xbox360. Normally i dont prefer controllers over key&mouse but with this game it really made sense for me.

  24. Neoviper says:

    I played the xbox 360 version of this game, and it controls much more smoothly on it based on what you’re saying. you can move you minions around with one stick, your character with the other, and theres a button to make them charge forward and do anything that needs doing in front of you. I imagine it doesn’t have the moving them around where you want them on pc, or at least implemented badly.

    greatest thing about it though is the flavor, I love the way the minions so ecstatically destroy everything in their path, and some humorous cutscenes.

  25. Feet says:

    Glad to see some game impressions\analysis on RPS. It was E3′s fault, but I was getting sick and tired of seeing posts with imbedded videos\trailers.

    So yay for Alec.

  26. Jim Rossignol says:

    We’ll be returning to full power soon, Feet. Been a tricky few weeks for having time to do game impressions material.

  27. Ian says:

    I liked Overlord but not enough to keep playing it, if that makes any sense. I thought the behaviour of the imps was delightful and the sole reason to keep playing. Be they weaponising a pumpkin patch, terrorising sheep or swarming over larger enemies they’re invariably a joy to watch. But I lost interest in the actual game quite quickly because some of the levels went on far too long and the boss fight or two I came across weren’t much fun.

    I’d like to see a sequel where they expanded upon the ideas and made the basic missions and whatever a bit more fun, but the minions can stay as they are. :)

  28. arqueturus says:

    Alec: You need to play Eve – that’ll occupy you for years at a time ¬_¬

  29. Jonas says:

    What excellent timing, I just bought this a couple of weeks ago. Then it sat there for a week, I played it one evening, and then I promptly forgot about it. I should get back to it and give it another chance before Far Cry 2 arrives and annihilates my free time.

  30. Noc says:

    Speaking of EvE, are any of the RPS folks still involved? Should we expect words to be written about the shiny new expansion?

  31. davidAlpha says:

    About EVE:

    Anyone here in the gallentean faction? My corp is joining FW today and I was wondering where the “good fights” are at.

  32. Jim Rossignol says:

    I play Eve regularly, but have yet to properly engage in Faction Warfare.

  33. Acosta says:

    I really like Overlord for itself -but, of course, if I drops the Dungeon Keeper card, this game suffers a lot, it’s more gentle compare it with something like Pikmin-. The story is charming and have some neat moments (good work of Rhianna Patchett), some of the sarcastic takes on traditional high fantasy figures are genuinely funny and the games gains some deepness once you start having different minions, each one with different habilities, so there are some fancy tactics and some ok puzles.

    I think is a good idea in a competent game, I would recommend it to anyone.

  34. Jon says:

    I’m going to ask the inevitable question now we’ve mentioned DK, where’s DK3?

    With the follow up question of, who owns the rights to make DK3?

    With the further follow up question of, how much do they want for it?

  35. Cigol says:

    This reminds me, whatever happened to that RETRO GAMING ARCHIVE you were building?

    http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2008/03/24/the-rpschive-week-one/

  36. Shon says:

    @Hermes

    I still play Evil Genuis on occasion. There was a fansite who made a patch for it that really helps. I remember reading that Hotels were completely broken and it was pointless to make one. Other than that, I enjoy it. I found that setting aside 10 percent of your base to be corridors filled with locked doors and traps off to the side catches enemy troops like fly paper. As long as it connects back to your main base, the enemy AI will spend forever trying to get through it before giving up.

    I like Evil Genius but it can be slow with long gaps of you watching the base waiting for something to happen. Overlord sounds far more active.

  37. Masked Dave says:

    I very, very nearly gave up on Overlord and didn’t return.

    But the smashing was just too compelling.

    Also you need to get to the end to realise why they made the plot they did, rather than the one you wish they’d made. (Although it still would have been better if they’d done the one you want.)

  38. Kast says:

    I tried the demo a while back and, while the idea of rebuilding the entire tower appealed to me, I couldn’t bear the idea of being a goody-two-shoes sort of bad guy :S It’s like a boy scout went goth and doesn’t quite know how to do it. You can’t even kick your gremlins, come on! How is an evil mastermind supposed to keep the troops inline without being able to kick their staff into a bloody pulp?

  39. Heliocentric says:

    yes you bloody can kick the gits, face them+melee, it can even screw you up (when all your ranged units are lying down after a kick they are less deadly).

  40. Gnarl says:

    I’d recommend pushing on throught to end, to any having toruble, as it has one the better ones and it doesn’t take that long. And it owes more to Fury of the Furries in my opinion.

    Oooh, and which voice work was hated? One the people I knew at Uni did one of the main characters, so I wonder if it was them.

  41. GeorgeR says:

    Yeah I played through half the game and then stopped. It was good, but it just didn’t hook me.

    Anymore I find that unless a game grabs me with full force from the get go it gets abandond real fast.

    For shame, I used to be the very definition of a completionist too.

  42. Krupo says:

    Thanks for the review – the completionist (completist?) in me trembles at the idea of yet another game I am tempted to buy in a weekend-Steam sale when I hardly have enough time for everything else.

    I mean, there’s this Left4Dead demo crying out to me here…

  43. mejobloggs says:

    I got it for $10 off Steam. The first 30 minutes was a joy to play, but after that I gave up since there didn’t seem to be any challenge in the game

  44. Delboy says:

    Available this weekend (14th/15th November) on Steam for a massive £1.50 – for those that are interested :)