Sunday, July 01, 2007

Review: Overlord

Overlord has been the subject of much anticipation and wonder since being shown off at E3, with many (myself included) hoping for a spiritual successor to the Dungeon Keeper franchise.

Well, it turns out that Overlord is very different from Dungeon Keeper. It's hard, but in order to fairly judge this game one has to separate one's self from the disappointment upon realizing "hey, this isn't dungeon keeper!" because it isn't, but you shouldn't really hold that against it, because what is?

Overlord is what I'd classify as a "tactical adventure game." It flirts with being an RPG but never quite really crosses over. There are not really stats to juggle nor complex plots nor deep conversations or anything else we've come to associate with RPGs. I say "tactical" adventure game because the gameplay falls somewhere above "point and shoot" but somewhere below "strategic." In a game like dungeon keeper, your view is strategic in that you're concerned with controlling multiple activities in multiple places all at once across the entire theatre, like a general. But in Overlord you're more like a squad captain or some such equivalent, focused entirely on your own immediate surroundings and situations, giving commands to underlings in your immediate vicinity, and that is the extent of your immediate influence. But at least you get a cool lair.

The graphics here are top notch, though for people with not quite the most recent systems they can be scaled back quite a bit. Even at the lowest detail and rendering levels, the game looks pretty good and plays well on a 3 or so year old system (provided it was pretty kickass 3 years ago). With all the bells and whistles turned on, the game is a work of art indeed. The game sports a variety of locations each with their own stylized ambiance, indigenous peoples, etc. The modeling is all marvelously done. From dank dungeons to sunny farmland, from cobwebbed crypts to snowy mountains, from murky swamps to mystical forest, you can tell the art department of this game was really out to earn their pay.

The sound effects are well suited and free of bugs. Ambient sounds are well-placed for appropriate atmosphere. The voice acting is top shelf and the dialogue sounds natural. The denizens of the game like to talk about evil. The topic will come up a lot, as I'm sure you'll imagine, and it all gets a little comical. The goblin-y voices of your minions are particularly well executed, as it allows you to realize largely what is going on with your minions even if you don't happen to be watching them at the time. Audible squeals of "Treasure!", "That's mine!", "Ouch!", and others help your situational awareness while simultaneously being amusing. Especially when one of your minions who has just been squashed to death is resurrected, and his first words upon being pulled back to his feet are "Dat was FUN!! Heeheeheehee!"

I was playing on the PC version, and the game was obviously designed with the XBox controller in mind. Once or twice I found myself fuming and swearing (something to the effect of "The mouse is not an effing analog stick, stop trying to make me use it like one!"). The Camera controls are workable enough, and the movement controls are straightforward even if they aren't very conducive to precisions movement. But hey, you're an Overlord right? Who needs to tiptoe inches when you can stomp around noisily and without care? Targeting is a little rudimentary and hit or miss, but by and large the simplicity of the control and command paradigm used by the game makes up for it. To command your minions is largely just a matter of facing the general direction of stuff you want done/killed/captured/retrieved/whatever, and holding down the mouse button. Direct mass minion movement control is accomplished by what is called "sweeping," and while not 100% suited for mouse control, it gets the job done well enough I suppose. Most of the control issues, I am guessing, go away in the XBox version of the game, since they stem from trying to get a keyboard and mouse to behave like a console controller.

I have one beef with this game, and that is that the main character, for all the times he's called "Overlord" with all the hullabaloo entailed, convincing you you're some grand evil mastermind, you really are more of a "freelance underlord." The only reason you're not called "underlord" is technically there's nobody over you, so you get the promotion by attrition. In fact, that is exactly how the game starts... the impish "minions" yank you out of a coffin in the basement of a destroyed evil fortress, and the most senior among them informs you that you are the "new overlord" because a party of heroes just came through, trashed the place, and annihilated the previous overlord.

After a brief tutorial, you're sent on your way into the countryside to start reclaiming things you'll need to rebuild your shattered "Lair-O-Evil," and generally causing mayhem. To an extent. Early in the game, your power and influence is still fledgling and your position one that is rather vulnerable, so you can't just start traipsing about destroying all life and putting the entire civilized world to the torch right out of the gate... first you have to insinuate yourself surreptitiously to the local village by... ughh... helping them with a little halfling problem they're having. So the first few mission type quest things you get will have you grumbling "I got pulled out of a crypt and decked out in terror-inducing armor for THIS?" as you rescue and defend like a hero. To put it in words I think I read somewhere else, "I bet Sauron never had to retrieve a lady's lost baggage."

But you're not Sauron, at least not yet, so for the first level or two you're stuck running errands and fighting the good fight while you grow your power and secretly imagine all the terrible things you're going to do once you are strong enough to not have to put up with this crap anymore. Before too long you're strong enough to attack and subjugate that first village, and hold its terrorized populace under your sway, and for good measure even snag 10 of their maidens and carry them off to your evil tower to be forced into servitude... which pretty much amounts to standing around in the throne room in midriff-bearing tunics and shorts.

Which brings us to exactly what constitutes "evil" in this game. Assumedly to retain a nice, family friendly "Teen" rating from the ESRB, the violence in the game is mild, often slapstick, and the extent of "evil" permitted is basically hooliganism. You can beat the snot out of people (who stand back up when you're not around), kick in doors, pillage, burn, (bloodlessly) slaughter livestock and rob graves, but you won't be doing anything you read about in a Stephen King novel or watched in a late night gorefest horror movie. We're talking strictly "Saturday-morning-cartoon" level evil here, IE, what most of us discerning adults would merely label "being a real jerk."

Your relative impotence in the world of evil is further underlined by your discovery that the 7 "heroes" who brought about your predecessor's demise have somehow become corrupted and each has brought his own homeland to some degree of ruin or strife by each becoming an embodiment of one of the seven deadly sins. Melvin Underbelly, halfling hero suddenly grows to be a 15-foot sphere of flesh and blubber, eating everything in sight (gluttony). Oberon the elf hero, is suddenly too lazy (sloth) to repulse an invading dwarf army led by an extremely gold-crazy dwarf hero (avarice), so instead he goes to sleep and his dreams and nightmares magically take form to defend, and then ruin the forest, largely demolishing the elven population. And so on.

The sight of an elven forest strangled and decimated by nightmare creatures, with ghosts and bones and ruins everywhere, kind of makes you feel a little bit impotent with just your merry band of hobgoblin minions and propensity for setting things on fire. "Now, there is a guy who knows about evil," your helmeted misanthrope is probably thinking. As time goes on, you also discover there's another, more "mastermind" like evil out there that is putting your little free-agent enterprise of evil to shame. But all the while you're getting better and stronger, and commanding more of those little minion critters, so who knows... some day... some day... you might be a contender, or even an actual Overlord.

The Final Word
The Good - Graphics, sound, voice acting, immersion, simplicity.
The Bad - PC controls, limited scope of "evil"
The verdict - B- to B+, depending on how much your knickers get in a knot over this "not actually all that evil" evil business. I'm sure they could have made an M-rated version that could have gotten an A even with the PC controls emulating a console pad. And that's the word from Bandit Camp...


Gas Bandit said...

I see from my stat tracker that a lot of people are arriving at this review looking for how to defeat Melvin Underbelly via Google.

Well, I'll tell you how I did it at least. It wasn't pretty, but hey, it worked.


Start off by sending all your minions after him. This should do enough damage to get him rolling around like crazy, which will quickly squish all your little sycophants. The trick now is to stay to his side while he's rolling around, until he runs into something and stops rolling. Then just hack at him with your axe while he slowly turns to face you. When he is facing you at last, he'll start rolling again so get out of the way. Just repeat as necessary, and you'll wear him down eventually.

UncleDrax said...

Actually you can save your minions from a squishy death if, when Melvin goes to start rolling (he has an animation that indicates it), you start moving and make sure you recall your minions at the same time (RMB-hold).
Wacking Melvin goes alot faster if you got some browns to help ya :]