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.