A rip-off? Depends how much you want a new Dungeon Keeper.
Trust me, I'm not being mean: Dungeons couldn't possibly try harder to be Dungeon Keeper 3. An underground empire that you carve out using imps and goblins. A map screen full of idyllic countryside. A Dungeon Heart in the middle of your empire that has to be kept safe at all costs.
Chatting with your goblin sidekick, it seems the main difference between being a Dungeon Lord and a Dungeon Keeper is that Lords have to put up with annoying middle-managers, while Keepers don't have scantily clad demon girlfriends waiting to betray them and hijack their empires. Swings and roundabouts.
Still, despite all the shameless – shameless – cloning of theme and basic ideas, Dungeons does feel at least a bit different to Dungeon Keeper. For starters, you directly control the Dungeon Lord instead of just directing minions around from a distance, and can get properly stuck in with an RPGstyle levelling system and direct combat spells. If you die, you simply respawn back at the Dungeon Heart. Your goblin goons rush around carving out more space, but the rest of your monsters are controlled more by initial placements. If those aren't the right spots, there's no simply gathering up everyone in your dominion and hurling them en masse at any invading heroes. You need a bit more planning than that.
The most important tweak to the formula is that simply killing heroes does you no good. You're not trying to repel them; you're farming them. When a hero first descends to face his or her doom, their naive corpse is worthless to you. You have to build them up before you knock them down, driving them towards piles of gold (your gold!), tomes of arcane lore (evil lore!) and other adventurer-friendly loot. This makes their soul energy bars nice and juicy, ready for you to finally harvest with a cry of, “Surprise! +1 Sword up the arse!”
As with the DK games, death is the merciful option. You have prisons. You have a torture chamber. You have no scruples. If you need the implications of this explained, you may not be cut out for such levels of evil. Perhaps try macramé instead? You can, in theory, catch and release, too, to stop the best heroes paying a visit, but that's just being a wuss. Soul energy can be spent on improving the dungeon and building up your evil prestige. You need lots of it.
Your own character persists between levels, complete with the choices you've made – individual attributes such as Strength, and Talents that let you specialise in killing enemies personally, or focus on particular skills. The combat isn't particularly weighty, but you do get to enjoy being, unquestionably, the toughest guy around. There's a definite satisfaction in seeing some grass-green newbie hero slink into your dungeon, not knowing that for once the boss is simply hiding around the corner, instead of lurking in a lair three levels down.
It remains to be seen how satisfying this more managerial approach will be, next to Dungeon Keeper's more ramshackle villainy. Even in the first level, which is based entirely on wandering around your about-to-be-stolen empire, there isn't the same sense of organised chaos to revel in. You can take direct control of your Lord, but that just moves the camera in a bit and gives you direct control – it's not the same as switching to Dungeon Keeper's firstperson mode and taking the reins of an imp, a Dark Mistress, or one of your other inevitably doomed grunts. Evil is, after all, a thing best savoured.
In terms of length, Dungeons offers 20 campaign missions to finish – which start out very restrictive, but hopefully open up as you get a bit further in – and a custom map mode that only offered a sandbox in our preview code. Oddly, there's no multiplayer mode at all. Admittedly, the hero-harvesting focus and limited control over your army make it hard to see how it would work, but the custom maps will need a hell of a lot of variety to keep you coming back. Simply offering the chance to be evil will only take Dungeons so far, because when evil's the whole point of a game, it's tough for your own specific brand of spite and sadism to push its way out of the karmic fart-cloud. Let's face it: a rollercoaster that's meant to kill people is nowhere near as much fun as one you've specially engineered to hurl terrified tourists into the nearest lake for no greater purpose than your own amusement.
Dungeons has a tough challenge ahead of it, not simply living up to the Dungeon Keeper games, but also our memories of them. It's a cheerful enough game behind all the monsters and gore, constantly poking and prodding at the fourth wall, with everything from the opening tutorial featuring a goblin trying to work out what WASD means, to spells directly calling out how useless they'd be in the real world. Will it be Dungeon Keeper 3? We'll find out soon.