Strangely, this post is not about Portal 2, which Kainenchen bought just last night. No, this post is about Overlord and Overlord 2. If you follow those links, you'll discover that GameSpot gave the first game a middling grade, and gave the sequel a slightly worse grade. In brief, I have no idea where they're coming from here. I played the two games more-or-less back-to-back (with a break in the midst of playing Overlord 2 to play Dungeons).
The original game gave me the feeling that my minions could do a lot of neat things, some of which were under-used or under-explained. The story was excellent and ridiculous. The game comfortably earned a spot as one of my favorite games. It didn't bother me that my minions were a bit dumb or frustrating from time to time, and it didn't bother me that I kind of needed to go through early levels and grind sheepies for life-energy if I wanted to upgrade my armor. Just look at this one - this is a sheepie who has nothing to live for. I'm practically doing it a favor! I really liked the big plot reveal at the end of the game, and I thought the game had done an excellent job of laying the groundwork to make that reveal enjoyable.
Just to mention a couple of things I didn't like or didn't quite get, I'll say that the red minions' immunity to fire was sort of arbitrary, as there were some fires that killed them stone dead without a lot of warning; thank goodness they're completely expendable. Green minions' ability to leap onto many types of enemies was the solution to a number of problems, but I didn't Get It early on, and had several very frustrating fights before Kainenchen's suggestion clued me in. (If you don't figure out how to get your greens into the action, succubi are about the most miserable thing in the game, especially the Hot Two-Succubi-At-Once action of one of the midgame boss fights.) Blues are immune to magic (but not fire, even fire from spells), but as far as I could tell this really only comes up about twice in the whole game; it's certainly the most under-explored minion ability.
Playing through Overlord was also educational in helping me boil down the essence of a good puzzle game. Whether you're talking about the four flavors of minions, the many tools in Batman's arsenal in Arkham Asylum, or the portal(s), it's about giving players a complex-but-finite set of tools, and then spinning out more and more ways that those tools can influence the world. Overlord and Arkham Asylum particularly handle this with barriers that a player can't immediately overcome, but once you have the tools to get past that barrier, there's a piece of candy and a branching path of additional puzzles. This is pretty simple, all in all, but I hadn't phrased it quite that simply in my thoughts before.
The sequel game (I haven't played the DLC for the original game) expands on the first in many ways. I felt that it put even more of the focus on what being an evil overlord should be about: in this case, conquering territory and subjugating its people. Also, even more Tower Mistresses (you accept one and ditch the other in the first game; in the second, all three come to live in your Netherworld Tower, and you can switch between them at your leisure. (I picked Rose in the first game, since I was playing a non-corrupt Overlord, and Kelda in the second game, because she isn't a heinous bitch. Which is funny, because she's the one who supplies your minions with wolves.)
Just about every part of the game felt like it was bulked up. The first game's choice between Corruption or... notwas easy for me, as I will just about always play "as goodly as the game lets me." (Decades of roleplaying games have taught me that this will lead to the most-fun-for-me version of the game.) The second game's choice is instead between Destruction and Domination; since they're both horrendously evil, I felt like they were equally valid options. (I chose Domination because I didn't particularly care about using my spells in the middle of combat.)
Playing through the first game, I never felt like my tower was boring or otherwise lacking; it was just a place to come back to between adventures. The second game's tower is much bigger, more detailed, and more interesting, and I went out of my way to explore it as much as possible. There were a wider variety of ways to waste money on decorating the tower, and of course I bought as many of them as possible. The graphics of that tower were sharper and more lively, even though I had no complaints about the graphics of the first game.
In the first game, minions had specific personalities to the extent that future summonings of the same minion had the same gear that they had acquired previously. In the second game, minions have levels, names, and titles based on what that one specific minion has done, in addition to retaining gear between summonings. If a minion has reached a high level (though I'm not exactly sure how they do this), it might be worthwhile to go to the Graveyard in your Tower and have them resurrected after they die. This costs life-energy, so you're trading some number of potential future low-level minions to get one high-level minion back. I did this a good bit, partially influenced by the fact that the Grim Reaper minion's animations are some of the cutest in the whole game. There is also, separately, a way and a place to spend gold and limited-access items improving each flavor of minion, though the exact nature of these improvements is completely vague and does not represent an informed choice at all. I could not tell any particular difference in my minions' capabilities after paying for their training.
In addition to all of their pre-existing abilities from the first game, brown, red, and green minions have gained the ability to ride mounts. This gives each of those minion types a new sometimes-active ability that is more-or-less in keeping with the purposes you'd already use that minion for: wolfies leap chasms and terrify legionnaires, "thingies" (salamanders) roll up curved walls and hurl fireballs while moving, and spideys climb webs. (And seriously, fuck the web-climbing puzzle in the elf temple - I hate it so, so much. In that "almost too frustrating to be fun" way, but once I was past it, I didn't have to keep doing it over and over again.) What I'm trying to say here is that the designers found a way to give the same tools a new minor feature, and designed puzzles to explore that feature. Blues didn't get a new mount, but they did get the ability to turn invisible while moving and blink past enemies. Given how utterly incapable they are in combat, this is very useful; admittedly, it sometimes makes it harder to sweep them onto your dead minions so that they will heal them.
The arsenal of weapons and armor available to the main character in the second game is more interesting than in the first, though it does not have the fine-detail customization of the first. Instead of controlling the exact balance of defense, elemental resistance, regeneration, fire damage, or whatever that the piece of gear offers, you choose between major properties that in many cases fundamentally change the way you play the game. The helm that gives you two life-energy each time you collect one orb of life-energy is one such change; playing with that helm for even a limited portion of the game means that you will never have to worry about your supply of life-energy again, and can squander it with abandon rather than potentially having to grind it.
The conquest of towns also factors into this game's elimination of grind. It can be tough to track down all 100 citizens of each town and enslave or kill them, but once you do, the towns provide equipment for your minions, gold for your treasury, and huge amounts of life-energy. (At least, I assume this is as true with Destruction as it is with Domination.)
Minions can also power ships, catapults, and ballistae in the second game. This introduces even more variety into gameplay, though I have to say that the controls of ships leave something to be desired. Though they can be difficult, I do really enjoy the sections of the game in which I get to shoot things with a ballista or smash them with a giant rock.
All of this is really cool, and would have been sufficient for me to feel like Overlord 2 had expanded upon its predecessor in exciting, interesting, and immersive ways. The crowning piece, though, is when the designers introduce a stealth level. The game introduces a way that you can sometimes possess one of your minions, as your minions can get into spaces that are too small or poisonous for the overlord himself. In this particular level, you're playing a green minion and controlling a force made entirely of green minions as you sneak around the temple, ambush guards, and avoid the gnome-zappers with the lightning guns that can completely ruin your day. This is, without doubt, my favorite portion of the whole game.
The story of the second game builds on the continuity of the first in ways that are initially off-putting, but pay off satisfyingly as the game progresses. As a fan of Terry Pratchett, I found certain of his daughter's turns of phrase in dialogue recognizable, and very much enjoyed her writing as a whole. There's not a lot more I can say about this without getting deep into spoiler territory. The tone of the second game was perfectly in keeping with the tone of the first.
Difficulty in handling bombs or other explosive devices was a problem in the first game, and the second game was neither better nor worse there. Some parts of both games want the player to direct a minion to pick up a bomb, either one that is already counting down or one that begins doing so as soon as the minion picks it up. The controls here are a bit imprecise, which is unfortunate given the tiny window of time the player has to carry that bomb where it needs to be and the very high destructive potential of that bomb if it were to go off in the midst of your forces. All games have their flaws, though, and this is one that I learned to deal with by stationing my entire force except for one brown minion way over there, because no color of minion is quite as expendable as a brown.
I'm glad that the second game gave me a different variety of spells to use, but this is one of the few areas where I think the second game is a step backward. The spells are much harder to use in actual play, and their applications are for the most part less interesting. I found that spells other than the basic lightning spell are difficult to even remember how to use, much less recall what I would want to use them for; admittedly, this is because my copy of the game was purchased from a Blockbuster that was going out of business, and therefore came without a manual. The big blasty fireballs of the first game were good fun. In this game, my Evil Presence (the basic lightning spell) was about all I used, because it was the easiest to cast and because adding a bunch of enslaved townsfolk to my forces pretty much always seemed like a good idea.
In brief, I loved these games, and if Codemasters created a third entry in the series, I would pick it up in a heartbeat. The second game introduced a wide variety of things that didn't feel like they were missing in the first game, but executed those additions well enough that it felt like they should have been there all along.