Tycoon-style games have enjoyed a tiny comeback, sparked by the return of Two Point Hospital and Frontier's work on Planet Coaster and Planet Zoo. Now enters Evil Genius 2, a revived cult classic more in the spirit of 1997's Dungeon Keeper. You're a villain-mastermind, trying to keep meddling heroes out of your elaborately-constructed lair as you make progress on a master scheme.
It's a delightful concept, and a reminder that we still need more 'bad guy' games, especially farcical ones. It feels good to just click-drag a giant money vault into existence, then watch it passively accumulate piles of gold bars. It feels good to ask your scientists to research a special laser door you can use to protect that horde of bouillon. It feels good to waddle around a sprawling base as a psychopathic Dr. Evil-look-alike contest winner, boosting minion productivity within my radius.
Over the last week I had access to a limited pre-release build of Evil Genius 2, our first chance to play it since we first glimpsed it at 2019's PC Gaming Show. What I played was essentially the tutorial, which turns out to be several hours of checklist tasks that talk you through every main system and constructable room type. It's a necessary introduction to Evil Genius 2's UI and sandbox structure. Though I walked away with some modest concerns about its depth and event variety—mostly because much of the game's content was unavailable in this build—I'm sold on Evil Genius 2 as a crooked take on the genre.
Immediately appreciable are Evil Genius 2's tone and art direction. Like Two Point Hospital and Planet Coaster, there's a cartoonish roundedness to everything, a world built from slightly-exaggerated shapes and vibrant colors. The Incredibles is the closest touchpoint. Like Pixar's films, Evil Genius 2 is a fictional setting yet to invent microprocessors, but populated by plenty of imaginative gadgets nevertheless: ridiculous freeze rays, healing beds, and brainwashing stations for captees. In the seven hours I played, that playfulness cushioned moments of frustration.
The Bond villain theme extends outward into the front of my base, where a carpeted casino forms a forward wing of the facility, a literal front for my operations that I can drop baccarat tables and cocktail bars into from the bird's-eye view. To staff these stations, I have to train valets, a middle-tier minion type that specializes in deception. The casino basically operates as an initial buffer: investigators or hero characters that wander in can be interrupted by the casino games, giving my valets a chance to lower their skill before they make an attempt to enter my base. You can also set the gambling games to "Scam tourists," earning some side money from the neutral NPCs that mill around.
The main way of raking in gold, though, are schemes, which populate continuously on a global map that constitutes a separate gameplay layer. Almost like XCOM, you attend to different regions within continents by sending out minions to establish criminal operations there, then send even more minions to complete jobs (like stealing an incredibly good recipe and selling it on the black market) that earn gold over time. I found the world map a bit simple, and I'm hoping that the later-game stuff forces some tougher choices. Essentially all I did was alternate between stealing gold and reducing heat (a measured limit on how much law enforcement attention your criminal activities are drawing). Hopefully there's a little more to this quadrant of the game than the maintenance work of clicking on icons and waiting for cooldowns to expire.
Likewise, this early-campaign build didn't throw a ton of different threats and obstacles at my base. After I'd built every room type (including a cafeteria, a guard room, a jail and interrogation room, an inner sanctum plated with gold), I mostly had to fend off investigators, the lowly, initial scouts that good-guy groups throw at you. They arrived in telegraphed waves, walking through my casino and then through some security doors. To deal with them, all I had to do was click on them and ask my guards and common minions to either kill or capture the target. Occasionally one would slip out of a jail cell before I interrogated them, but these basic good guys didn't really bother my base.
Eventually Evil Genius 2 did throw me a fiery curveball. Toward the end of my session, I panned over to see my power generators and science lab engulfed in flames. Ski-masked saboteurs had infiltrated without being noticed, and had apparently set some bombs. Minions scrambled for fire extinguishers, scientists died in the flames beside their broken whiteboards, and I was left with thousands of dollars of stuff that needed to be rebuilt. Oof.
These are the kinds of setbacks I hope to see more of as I get later into Evil Genius 2's campaign. In this early stage I only had access to only about 20 percent of the playable map, which amounts to five separate floors that can be connected with placeable stairs. I'm excited about the potential scale of your base, which should make it pleasantly taxing to keep an eye on every entrance and edge.
I'm also curious how EG2's final win condition will unfold. The "World Domination" section of the research menu was completely hidden in the build I played, so I'm mostly in the dark about how this key component of the game works. Evil Genius 2's Steam page promises that you'll be able to "build a Doomsday Device and dominate the world! Sell the British Royal Family, Kidnap the Governor of Maine, and literally BAKE ALASKA." Unlike the first Evil Genius, we do know that you construct these doomsday devices in stages "and regularly test it out on the people of the planet," altering the world map as you do, according to Rebellion.
I can't shrug off these big questions, but my greater takeaway is how pleasant Evil Genius 2 is to play. Building stuff is seamless, and EG2 doesn't bury itself in resources and obscured systems: get gold, hire minions, do research, expand. The game is also taking a swing at accessibility settings, including three common colorblind modes, and support for "the most popular" gamepads on PC at launch, along with the Xbox Adaptive Controller. Not very nefarious of them, but appreciated.