Overlord Hands-On

We finally got a chance to wreak havoc in Codemasters' new action adventure game.

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Games featuring moral choices may be nothing new, but Overlord isn't concerned with the stark differences between good and evil. No, its ethics are rooted firmly in the evil category, allowing you a choice of being slightly naughty, pretty mean, or a downright nasty piece of work. As the dark ruler of an idyllic land, you have an army of minions just itching to steal and pillage for you, and the hard work is keeping these manifestations of evil under control. While we saw enough early promise in Overlord to award it our Best Surprise game of the 2006 Electronic Entertainment Expo, we hadn't been able to play any of the game so far. Now that we're tantalisingly close to the June release date, the publisher gave us a chance to show off our evil skills by giving us a hands-on with the game.

Sitting down with a prebeta copy of the Xbox 360 version, we're more than happy to report that it looks set to live up to our expectations. The game is infused with a tongue-in-cheek humour and distinctive visual style all of its own, and we certainly wanted to stay in its world longer than our brief introduction allowed. The opening act helps you learn Overlord's rather novel control system, which uses the left analog stick to control the main character and the right stick to "sweep" your minions across the land. The idea is that your minions will automatically attack and pillage anything that they can find, so the skill is to keep them on a tight rein if you want to keep the land intact. Luckily, it's fairly easy to keep tabs on them--one shoulder button tells your minions to go to a specific location, while another one calls them back to your side.

The backstory to the game is that you are resurrected by the minions as the Overlord to restore balance to their world. You see, the previous Overlord was destroyed by seven beings who subsequently returned to their villages as heroes. Inevitably, this all went to their head, and they ended up each objectifying the seven deadly sins. For example, the halfling became so gluttonous that he turned into a huge monster, while the holy paladin became consumed by lust. You are awakened in the ruined tower by an old minion called Narl, who acts as your guide through the rest of the game. First, he instructs you on how to use the minions to attack a court jester; you can then set up your tower and go about your business as the new Overlord of the land.

Your tower acts as a base of operations from which you can upgrade your character, buy new weapons and powers, or just spend time pleasing your mistress. You'll find the tower heart within the first half hour of play, and you can then teleport to and from your castle and the land. You'll need to acquire gold from the land to buy anything in the house, and your mistress will help you choose the items and decorations that will adorn your home. You also need to keep your minions trained in attack by practising in the dungeon, and all of the enemies that you've slain will be held captive in here so that you can figure out new ways to destroy them. The tower will also display the various powers that you acquire during the game, displaying them as emblems on the wall of the main hall. We saw two examples of such spells during our playtest, one that set objects on fire and one that made enemies turn on each other or simply kill themselves.

At the beginning of the game, you're only given 10 minions to play around with, but later on you'll be able to control up to 50 of the little blighters, which have a variety of different skills. Thankfully, they've all been given sensible colour schemes and were controlled as groups by using the face buttons on the Xbox 360 gamepad. The basic brown minions are warriors, built to attack enemies above all else, while the blue minions are weak but can heal others and cross passages of water. The red minions are fire demons that can set vast patches of land alight, while the green assassins can slip round enemies and stab them in the back.

After you've set your minions on the jester a few times and got tired of using him as your whipping-boy, you'll find that they can do more than just hurt, kill, and maim. The comparisons between Overlord and Pikmin have already been made, but the puzzle-solving elements certainly are very similar. Many of the puzzles involve moving heavy items, and you'll need to have a minimum number of minions before you can attempt certain sections. The fact that you raise your minions from out of the ground is also very similar to the pikmin in Nintendo's classic strategy game.

Minions will grow stronger depending on the resources they find around them. At the beginning of the game, you are given a task to uproot a pumpkin patch for a paranoid farmer, and some of your minions will start wearing the pumpkins on their heads. Later on, they'll wear skulls, animal heads, and crowns, each one making them slightly more powerful. This characterisation also makes you more attached to the minions, and it's particularly upsetting to lose a cool little pumpkin-headed fellow, we can tell you.

The easiest way to acquire gold is to kill, steal, and pillage everything you can, including innocent people. Follow this path, and you'll soon end up a rich Overlord, but your people will become fearful and your appearance will gradually grow darker. The Xbox 360 version's achievement points will be linked into your playing style, and the only way you can get all the points is to play through the game as both a horrible and a not-so-horrible Overlord.

The single-player game is fairly linear, but you will be afforded the chance to skip certain missions if you desire. If you want to build up your tower to 100 percent strength, you'll have to make certain decisions about protecting your villagers as well as complete all the missions, but you don't need to do this to complete the game. The single-player element is supposedly going to last most players 30 to 40 hours--it takes the testing team, who know the game inside out, around 20 hours.

As well as the single-player game, Overlord includes a multiplayer element that will be playable over Xbox Live. Slaughter, pillage, and co-op multiplayer modes will allow two players to meet together online and play each other in both competitive and cooperative styles. The slaughter mode places two Overlords far apart on a map, so that they can gather resources and meet in the middle for battle. The pillage mode involves taking as much gold and valuables from the land as possible, while the other player focuses on doing the same or stealing items midtransit. The final cooperative mode lets two players team up to take on vast waves of enemies. We tried the slaughter and pillage modes out at Codemasters' test facilities, and needless to say, we were pretty much annihilated by the QA team.

While two players may seem quite limited for multiplayer, the logistics of having four players and up to 200 individual minions was unfortunately too much of a strain for the technology available. There will be differences between the Xbox 360 and PC versions of Overlord in terms of the control scheme, but the two versions will have all the same single-player and multiplayer features. In addition, PC owners can plug in an Xbox 360 gamepad and play with exactly the same control scheme.

Overlord is a novel approach to the action adventure genre, perhaps best described as a cross between Pikmin and Neverwinter Nights. The most memorable aspects of the game are its humour and charming visual design. While the control system takes some getting used to, it's intuitive and lets you control large numbers of minions with relative ease. Overlord is being developed for the Xbox 360 and PC and will be available in June.

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