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Evil Genius 2 review

Same thing we do every night, reader...

The lair is on fire. A generator just exploded. A superspy has infiltrated the vault. This is Evil Genius 2 at its most hectic, a game of base-building and minion management, with a bit of tower defense thrown in. In true supervillain style, this game has two dramatically different faces. One reveals a handsomely animated base-building game of trap-setting and floor-planning, with a fun theme, appropriately silly voice-acting and plenty of panicked fire-fighting. The other shows a gurning numbers game, a stubborn goblin of timers and clicky icons, withholding resources and chuckling. I like one of these faces a lot more than the other.

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Good evening. You're building a lair from which you'll take over the world. Don't worry, it's hidden behind the "staff only" doors of a casino on a tropical island. You'll create bedrooms for your workers, labs for your scientists, security rooms for your guards, and a sinister conference room in which to do your evil cackling (actually you pitch ideas to visiting investors here). You're out to advance down a tech tree of gadgets and eventually complete a Doomsday Device, which changes depending on which character you've chosen. The money-obsessed Maximilian wants to make a device that turns everything it shoots to gold, for example. Scientific mastermind Zalika wants to create a device to reveal the thoughts of everyone on the planet, because it will make people "think better thoughts".

You go about this by piecing together a HQ, researching gadgets, and toggling back and forth between your base and a world map. On this map you dispatch minions to collect money in other countries, or reduce a stat called "heat". Think of heat as your wanted level. The international forces of Good are watching you. If your heat level is high enough, they'll send agents (and possibly super agents) into your lair to sabotage it and generally make a nuisance of themselves.

The crimson notification pimple is something I'm not thrilled about, but it's everywhere on this game's menus. It's a hard problem to solve, letting your player know there's something new to see.

You can train guards and hitmen to attack those agents, or valets and spin doctors to distract them while they're still navigating the casino. Or you can build a giant comedy boxing glove on a spring that will punch them down a corridor into a hive of killer bees.

These hidden dangers are the highlight. You can build them in such a way that one trap will send its victim soaring into the next trap, and so on. Bouncing around a network of pinball bumpers and magnets like a helpless 8-ball destined for the corner pocket (the corner pocket contains a flamethrower). Build a good enough trap gauntlet and enemy agents will die before they get even one photo of your control room. The traps are good fun, encouraging the sadistic mentality of a child who has just watched Home Alone and wants to build their own fatal obstacle course.

But you need money and workers to build a good base, and sadly the sinks and faucets here feel a bit busted. On the world map, dispatching workers on "cash schemes" results in a drip feed of money on a timer. The idea is to have bank robberies ticking over in South America while your dastardly activities in Indonesia are on cooldown. Once you understand the most efficient way to keep money steady, you start to resent having to pop back every 10-15 minutes to click on the "get money" and "cool off" icons. It gets repetitive very quickly, there's no real mechanical pleasantry from managing this flow of resources. It just feels like popping bubbles. I wanted to automate the entire thing after the first two hours.

There are less chore-ish ways to earn money. Your casino can scam tourists and there are gold deposits in the basement of your lair. But mostly, the world map is your mine.

Unfortunately, that map is your main source of income. You have to use it. Also if you don't control the heat levels, regions will lock down (a five minute timeout) and more dangerous agents will start visiting your base. Super agents.

These goody-two-shoes are the thorns in your fingertips. One of them is an expert thief who steals gold from your vault under a cloak of invisibility. Another is a Bond-style do-gooder capable of killing minions with a single shot. Then there's Wrecking Bola, a giant soldier who plants bombs on critical devices and starts raging fires through the base. I hate her.

A lack of agents, see?
Taking on any of these super agents is a big task. You basically have to decide whether it's worth the death count, or if you should let the agent do their thing. This is excruciating by design. The fires started by Wrecking Bola are capable of wiping out entire rooms of minions. And all super agents are immune to traps, disabling your deadly gauntlets for the lesser agents following in their wake. Having one super agent in your base is a bother. Having multiple is disastrous.

A lot of your workers will die if you want to kill or capture a super agent. And buddy, you really need those workers. You see, the rate at which your lair recruits new minions is very slow - in normal difficulty it's two new recruits per minute, which from a HR perspective is incredible but from a "this game" perspective is downright sluggardly.

When you're losing minions to both global map chores and fights in the lair, your workforce gets stretched thin. It slows things down a lot, and takes time to recover. There is a button that lets you immediately spend $10,000 on 2 recruits. But I often found the moment you need workers most is precisely when you're low on gold, making this a poor option. I kept looking for something in the research tree that increased the rate of recruitment. Maybe there is a way to do it, but if so, I couldn't find it.

These basic yellow jumpsuit workers are so important. All your scientists? They're basic workers who have been through the fun blackboard animations of the training room. Your beefy guards? Those were once skinny workers, before they went to the same room to work out. All the minions - valets, technicians, socialites, martial artists, biologists - they were all once jumpsuit fodder. I like this in principle, because you can set the game to keep your number of scientists or guards steady, so long as there are enough gullible jumpsuitists. But there are so many ways to lose and use worker minions that I constantly felt shorthanded.

The game has a more merciful mode, which I should mention before I accuse its economy of being almost as fundamentally borked as that of reality. It's sandbox mode. This neutralises most of the above complaints like a big laser blast. It gives you unlimited cash (which is a better kind of borked economy). It also lets you put off the world map until you've got a decent lair up and running, and does away with the quest objectives that push you along in normal mode. If, like me, you prefer being an interior decorator of death rather than a micromanagement mad scientist, then sandbox mode is for you. When I started my third lair in this mode, the game's ticker-tape side fell away, and I started to enjoy myself more, tinkering with shark tanks and killer bee hives, making an inescapable prison cell for my victims, behind numerous poison dart traps.

I like turtles
The comedy flavour text can be a bit hit and miss. But every minion has traits. And many are comically pointless. Some minions "like frogs", some of them are "pizza fans". I had one woman who "only buys unicorn-themed products". The developers know these traits have no purpose, because there is also one which describes the minion as "Disposable, utterly useless".

For those who want a bit of direction and some big evil goal to work towards, that's in normal mode, which for me feels finicky and unbalanced. I don't want to damn the game completely (developers Rebellion have done a big patch since my playthroughs, they say, so this may have improved things). It just stumbles on problems common to management games, namely resource flow and the old problem of "how much do we want to automate?" Let too many cogs turn with no player input and the game risks playing itself. Give the player too many tasks and some will become irritating.

For my tastes, Evil Genius 2 strays too far into the latter turf, especially when it comes to getting cash. When games like RimWorld can make your pawns fully programmable from the first minute, it feels awkward that a game about treating your minions as literal pawns requires you to do so much of the dirty work yourself. If I was in charge of this lair for real, I'd hire an accountant and a PR firm to do the world map screen on my behalf.

Evil Genius 2 is at its best when you're building freely, designing perilous Rube Goldberg machines. Speaking as a very large child, the cartoonish art style, theme, and even flavour text, speaks to me. I'm not so fond of the timers and the economic drain pipes that slurp up your minions like bath water. Too much of the game resides in the world map and not enough on the floor of the lair. Sandbox mode feels like a soothing ointment after going through the bee gauntlet of normal mode, and although it lacks challenge, questy threads and basic storytelling, it is far more playful, cheeky and enjoyable. If you're picking this up, that's where to go. It might feel like cheating to give yourself infinite cash, but isn't that what an Evil Genius would do?

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