Evil Genius 2: World Domination was one of the more unusual and interesting games at E3: a sequel to a 15 year-old evil lair-building simulator from a long-defunct developer, made by Rebellion, best known now for the Sniper Elite series. Even in this early state, though, I can see what they're going for: a simulator game that slots into the landscape of Cities Skylines and Two Point Hospital, with a nice cartoon-y art style that crucially swerves clear of looking like a mobile game. It's got a lot of personality and potential, hinted at by the animated trailer above.
Your aim is to build an evil lair, and eventually, a doomsday device to go with it. You build a base, train up henchman, defend your lair from spy types, and aim to conquer the world. Rebellion's goal is capture the first game's feeling—it retains many of the characters, and a similar tone—but to make it appealing to new players. You can choose your playable Evil Genius out of four, and each has their own campaign. Your minions balance vitality, morale, and smarts stats while building new areas in your base. Eventually, you'll send goons out into the wider world to commit 'heinous acts'.
You train capture specialists who can help you brainwash people. You also lay traps throughout your base, as hinted at by the trailer, to help investigators meet their demise: they include a venus spy trap and a giant boxing glove, as well as the fan trap and shark pool shown in the trailer above. All of this looks nastier on paper than it appears in the game, which lands somewhere between No One Lives Forever and Austin Powers in tone. Your base is an island, and you're obliged to have a cover operation—a casino is shown in the demo at E3. Tourists and low level agents will continually arrive by boat throughout the game.
"It was about revisiting every element of the game and deciding, does this still hold up?" says producer Ash Tregay, discussing how Evil Genius 2 builds on the 2004 original. "Are players' expectations different now? How can we improve this? So areas where we've made tweaks would be things like the AI, the most obvious one. In Evil Genius 1, you might be waiting a while for your orders to get obeyed. In Evil Genius 2, we've been very keen to make sure that even though it might take a while for say construction to complete, nonetheless as soon as I hit confirm, go and build this stuff, you can see the reactions of minions who will then start running and carrying out your orders. So that level of feedback has been important."
I ask if the fan base for Evil Genius has continued growing since the game launched 15 years ago. "I don't think it would be truthful to say it's constantly gaining, like this new snowballing effect of players. But we have seen a steady stream of people continue to play and enjoy it on Steam. The Steam forums and subreddit are still active places. I think that the key think about Evil Genius is its ability to retain a fanbase. You've had people who have been continually playing it for 15 years on and off."
While Rebellion itself didn't work on the original, the team is composed of people who want to replicate its unique flavour. "One of the prerequisites for getting on the team for a number of our key members was a knowledge and passion for the original game. So in fact it's the crux of how our lead designer, Rich [Edwards], got his job. I have yet to meet anyone who has the same level of working knowledge of the original game and a real, real passion for it. You should've seen his face when he saw the trailer for the first time. So that's been a key point. And it's also about getting a team together who are really keen to work in this art style. It's obviously quite different for a Rebellion title, and we're keen to get a group of people who really get the fun and the silliness and the satire of the Evil Genius universe."
Studio art lead Ian Pestridge discusses how the look of the original is being built upon in this sequel. "We're trying to capture that character of the visuals and the animation, but then making improvement to the visual language used, to make sure things are more coherent, that you can understand very quickly what you're looking at and what it's supposed to be. It's very much bringing it up to date at the same time."
While this build is early and hands-off, it makes a promising impression. The quality of the characters and animation remind me of something like Two Point Hospital, which the team paid careful attention to. "When Two Point Hospital came up, we took a couple of days and said, 'let's all play this as a team, then get together and discuss what we really like and what we can take forward from this, and what we would like to see the similarities in our own game'. There's a great passion for management games."
Rebellion has owned Evil Genius since 2006, but now, as so many other sim games have found their footing on PC, this has turned out to be the ideal time for a proper follow-up. "I think what we've been saying in general is it's the right time and the right team. The Paradox titles, Frontier, Two Point Hospital last year, there's absolutely a renaissance for this type of title in the marketplace. And yet there still isn't anything quite like Evil Genius out there, which are all good things for us."
Evil Genius 2 is due out in 2020.