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
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 literally
feel 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
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
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.