And on the eighth day, they created this.
While philosophers and poets have spent ages trying to uncover the meaning of life, I've always found it infinitely more interesting to question the moral choices we make while we're here. Who cares if we're the apex of evolution or merely unripened worm food? To be or not to be good - that's the real question.
For the past few years, design guru Peter Molyneux and the folks over at Lionhead Studios have decided to turn this ethical quandary into a game. But with release dates constantly being pushed back, no one was sure what to expect when it finally shipped. Would it live up to the hype, or would it fall on its face?
It lives, people. It lives big time.
Black & White has been on our hit list for a solid two years, and now we know why we were so excited in the first place. Blending genres into a truly unique, addicting experience, this is a revolutionary game that deserves every ounce of the attention it has been getting.
At its core, Black & White is a strategy god sim with ties to the past Molyneux hit Populous. But from the interface to the graphics to the multi-tiered complexity of the gameplay, it's quite unlike any other strategy title you've played before.
The premise is simple: you're a god and it's your task to convert as many nonbelievers to your cause as possible, thereby gaining power. You can be a good god or a bad god, an evil master of destruction or a benevolent flower daddy - or any of the millions of shades in between. By managing your villages and fighting other gods, you vie for ultimate control.
From the outset, you know you're in for a treat because the game engine is simply unbelievable. You can see the lush landscape from absolutely any direction and at any height. Zoom all the way in to check out the textures on a wild horse, or pull out to the stratosphere and get a lay of the land. With an innovative scaleable graphics system, the important details in the terrain become evident as you get closer. The world is truly seamless, bereft of even the tiniest loading time. The result is breathtaking.
With this kind of freedom, however, comes some wily control. Though the game gives players several ways to navigate the land (mouse commands, keyboard commands, hotkeys, bookmarks, etc.), the learning curve is steep. Even accomplished gamers will fight with the camera for a bit before it becomes comfortable. But considering the revolutionary freedom of the game engine, this isn't really a flaw so much as a fact. When you ask for a new way to swim, you don't complain about the flippers.
The intricacy in the details is mind-boggling. You can actually zoom in to watch two 'breeder' villagers smooching. Ah, god as voyeur. This extends to the interaction with the environment. You can pick up any random tree or rock and fling it across the horizon, gaining belief points. Villager pissing you off? Pick him up and toss him into the ocean to teach your followers a lesson. You don't just cast a fireball - you hurl it. The kinetic joy of actually moving the mouse to throw things around heightens the immersion tenfold. The game even supports Immersion's new Ifeel mouse technology, so (if equipped) you can literallyfeel the fireball smoldering in your hand.
The leads to just one of the revolutionary aspects of Black & White- the gesturing system. To cast miracles, you move the mouse in preset geometric shapes, illuminating the land and powering up spells. It's simple and brilliant and beats the hell out of clicking on icons.
In fact, you'll be hard pressed to find an icon anywhere, as the whole game is built without the use of a HUD or little windows, resulting in one of the most immersive games I've ever played. Hours can pass and you'll hardly notice. This won't just piss off your girlfriend, it will totally demolish your relationship - which, I suppose, is the highest form of flattery.
The single player campaign takes you through an enormous, linear story, complete with optional side quests. It is here where you first learn about the thing that sets Black & White apart from all previous strategy games - the Creature.
You choose one of three initial Creatures to nourish, teach and instruct from infancy up into lumbering, awe-inspiring Godzilla-ness. The Creature acts as a physical manifestation of your presence. By petting it gently or backhanding it Ike Turner style, you can teach it to do just about anything.
The AI here is nothing short of groundbreaking. Unlike a Tamagotchi, it will act independently to feed itself, relieve itself, and do, well, just about anything. Help it develop a taste for enemy villagers and it might run into their village for a midnight snack. Teach it to cast spells and it'll act like a gigantic Copperfield. Heck, you can even instruct it to poop in the ocean. The range of behaviors and the seeming randomness of it all means your Creature might do anything at any moment. In short, it's a piece of code that truly acts like a living thing. Astonishing.
For example, I taught my pet tiger to cast a water miracle. He became so enamored with it that now he's a virtual gardener, almost obsessively watering villagers' crops and forests, gaining me belief points while giving them more food. He's also the world's best fireman. All he needs is the hat.
When two creatures collide, they can fight. And over time, your Creature will grow...and grow...and grow, eventually reaching epic proportions. The sight of a gigantic cow and an enormous monkey duking it out atop a mountain is nothing short of fine art. It's like your own private Monster Island.
In what is perhaps the game's only major flaw, Black & White is at times excessively heavy on the micromanagement. Your villagers aren't particularly self-sufficient, often unable to even build houses without divine intervention. The problem here is that the game isn't really designed to make this easy.
The two main resources you'll have to deal with are food and wood. Supplying your villagers with enough of each is a definite necessity and an occasional pain in the ass. Despite the fact that you're a god, you cannot click and highlight a group of villagers - you have to pick them up one at a time and give them specific tasks. You can't really set up supply lines, which means an inordinate amount of time must be spent dealing with irritating day to day details, like finding wood to create scaffolding just to build one lousy house.
This can become frustrating, I highly recommend training your Creature to become something of a little Jesus, roaming the land taking care of the details while you focus on the bigger picture, like kicking the crap out of other gods.
As if the single player experience wasn't deep enough, you can play the game multiplayer. Go ahead and prove to the world that your trained monkey is the baddest mamma jamma around.
And all of this is just the tip of the iceberg. The intricacies of the gameplay could take hours to explain. Black & White has captivated the entire GR staff with its amazingly creative and unique gameplay, graphics and humor. It's the sort of game that comes around once every few years and totally changes the gaming landscape. Take heed, heathens - there's a new god in town.