PS3 Review

Overlord: Raising Hell

Codies raise it again

With the original Overlord on the Xbox 360 and PC, publisher Codemasters and developer Triumph Studios combined to create a fantasy videogame that could best be described as a violently humorous hack-and-slash, puzzle, real-time strategy hotchpotch that liberally borrowed its aesthetic and gameplay inspiration from The Lord of the Rings and Pikmin.

Beyond its rather throwaway "Raising Hell" subtitle, the PlayStation 3 port and its evil-loving narrative plays out much like the original 2007 release. Indeed, apart from the gameplay longevity injection provided by the inclusion of all the single and multiplayer downloadable content made progressively available to Xbox 360 players via Xbox Live, the port is certainly light in Sony-specific frills. However, what the PS3 version does do is address certain integral shortfalls and annoyances that sadly tarnished the game first time around.

In terms of storyline and player association, Lord of the Rings fans who've always harboured a longing to assume the role of Sauron are duly handed a pseudo-opportunity from the outset in Overlord as the player's on-screen avatar even looks like the briefly-glimpsed movie iteration of Tolkien's evil and all-seeing Lord. Overlord: Raising Hell

Resurrected from your crypt within a decrepit dark tower that's been ransacked across the years by fattened and unchallenged heroes, you strike out as the game's newly-appointed Overlord, bringing a modest horde of ever-willing minions to the village of Spree (Bree?), which just so happens to be under siege by filthy Halflings (Hobbits?). Ridding the villagers of the Halfling threat by assaulting them head-on with bloodthirsty minions soon sees the player facing off in a jowl-heavy confrontation with a disgustingly obese hero, whose defeat ends a degree of Spree's imposed tyranny and leads to adoration and worship liberally lumped before the Overlord's blood-encrusted boots.

Of course, evil is the game's main selling point, so basking in heroic glory can be quickly swapped for healthy fear and respect by arbitrarily murdering a few villagers or kidnapping a group of helpless maidens for cleaning duties back at the gradually reforming dark tower. Granted, Overlord's narrative is a somewhat macabre and loose interpretation of the famous sprawling literary classic (without the banal trekking, eating and singing), but it's obvious that the game's creators are huge fantasy fans intent on delivering a more nefarious story slant in which evil stands an extremely good chance of winning through.

Regardless of the player's central position as the governing Overlord, the game's true stars are its unfailingly faithful minions. Available in four different colour and attribute varieties, the player builds their progressive minion forces by harvesting life force from any on-screen creature unlucky enough to incur the Overlord's deadly wrath. Although the player can attempt to hack-and-slash through crowds of Halflings, zombies, firebugs, innocents... and sheep... it's often far more effective to merely issue intuitive and instant directions to the comically violent minions instead. This generally entails using the right analogue stick to sweep the trailing minions effectively around the screen wherever unwitting life force carriers still dare to draw breath - though individual minions and separate breeds can be selected if so required. The minions also provide a quick-moving mass of weapon-wielding protection for the Overlord, who starts the game as a rather physically weak evil ruler prior to the gathering of tiered magical abilities, better armour and more deadly weaponry.

Resembling pesky goblins that scamper around the screen looking for murderous mischief, the minion breeds are: "Browns" which are expert fighters; "Reds" which can hurl and extinguish fire; "Greens" which are immune to poison and enjoy surprise attacks; and "Blues" which can safely traverse water obstacles and have healing qualities. Once all four breeds have been secured (by locating their respective hives and returning them to the dark tower) Overlord's sizeable Pikmin influence becomes much more evident. Overlord: Raising Hell

Specifically, various puzzles connected to each in-game mission require the clever use of the minions and their particular skills, and it's down to accurate selection by the Overlord to ensure that the right minions are trailing, ready for action. Of course, gathered life force dictates how many minions can be summoned at any one time - as does the player's advancement - and the proliferation of each breed also requires life force matching its specific colour class. This means that the discerning Overlord would be wise to occasionally revisit well-travelled areas in order to cull some weak enemies and build an expansive backlog across the breeds for the game's progressively challenging missions.

The gameplay blend of almost effortless directorial destruction and patient puzzle-solving certainly complements Overlord's definite sense of humour and its appealingly pretty presentation. Indeed, "sweeping" minions into on-screen areas the Overlord himself cannot access, and then watching the little terrors wreak havoc on his behalf, is always satisfying, especially as the minions automatically retrieve and equip abandoned weaponry and armour from downed foes. They also scavenge around for treasure, life force, magic power (Mana) and health "For the Overlord!" which they duly gather up and bring straight back "For the master!"

While it rarely pushes the next-gen graphical envelope, Overlord is never anything other than pleasantly attractive, and its character and environmental designs are convincingly fantasy-faithful without ever crossing the line into downright cheesy. The screen can be viewed from two camera perspectives - one low trailing the Overlord, and one that's close to being isometric but stops short of flattening the game world. Either option is passable for control, although the higher option is preferable when battling many foes or working out obstacle puzzles - it's worth noting that both have been adjusted for the PS3 version but can still be troublesome when in tight confines.

Animation is perhaps a little weak, especially on the Overlord himself, who tends to stomp about as though his armour has been overly starched back at the dark tower's laundry room. Again, however, the minions are the real stars of the show and their responsive dispersal across the screen is wonderfully energetic as they pilfer houses, hack through pumpkin patches, and gleefully smash their way through crates, chests, and boxes searching for useful goodies.

Game sound and music is befitting of Overlord's 'borrowed' source of inspiration, particularly from a Lord of the Rings angle, and the soundtrack ebbs and flows at all the right moments to paint a Hollywood-esque accompaniment to the on-screen action. NPC performances are well executed and character voices all arrive as regional (overtly tongue-in-cheek) UK English that smack a little of Lionhead's Fable in their easy delivery - which is a good thing.

In terms of correcting slight deficiencies that popped up to sully the original game's execution, Codemasters has introduced a handy onscreen mini-map to help budding Overlords traverse through those environments that tend to look rather samey (dungeons, dark forests, etc.). And, further to that addition, the mini-map feature even includes a 'fog of war' element that only clears as the player moves to map areas not yet explored, which helps avoid wasting too much time on confused backtracking.

Also, minion A.I. appears to have been tweaked so that the evil little wretches focus more on returning to the Overlord after a brief time whenever the player stops sweeping them. The original minions would occasionally fall foul of continued marauding or searching out treasure amid dangerous attacks, which would see them all-too quickly isolated from their brethren and killed off by enemies. However, the entire pack seems a little more intent on providing dedicated protection for their master this time around.

Other slight improvement arrives courtesy of a more attuned lock-on targeting system (it could be frustratingly twitchy in the original) and - as mentioned - a game camera that follows the action more smoothly and doesn't cause quite as many overtly obvious obstructions to the player's trailing viewpoint. Overlord for the PlayStation 3 also offers up a cooperative split-screen mode that tasks two players to spread their corruption while, well, raising hell? Sadly, however, the co-op game mode is hard to recommend due to it being sorely hamstrung by lapsing frame rates that occasionally render the on-screen action almost unplayable.

That being said, swinging the sword of oppression as the evil Overlord and releasing a drooling pack of mayhem-hungry minions upon both the guilty and the innocent remains a fun quest, which, for the most part, demands player attention and ably holds it in single-player mode. However, once the four minion breeds have been safely gathered, the game does tend to somehow lose its bite, falling back on environmental puzzles and dull life force building rather than evolving the Overlord's more obvious power and might.

Other aspects do strive to keep the gameplay moving forward, such as locating stolen elements of the dark tower to help restore it to its former glory, adding smelting forges to the tower to widen the Overlord's weaponry and armour options, and even finding a good woman to watch over the tower in the Overlord's stead. Sadly though, the longevity of the game slips inexorably when its focus becomes more distinctly 'Pikmin' and less 'Lord of the Rings' - and no amount of secondary quests can prevent that from happening.

Ultimately, if it weren't for an oddly skewed sense of gameplay delivery that offers two separate genre types (action and puzzle) rather than a comfortable mixture of both, Overlord: Raising Hell would be the thoroughly refreshing genre experience that the Xbox 360 version couldn't quite become. As it is, despite the game's platform-specific tweaks and its plush design, genuine humour, and intuitive minion controls, the game still doesn't lend itself to being anything other than a smile-inducing distraction... that is already available for a far smaller asking price on the Xbox 360 and PC.

E3 Trailer