Black & White
Players: 1 Player Game | Release Date: 03/26/01 | Genre: RTS
Ever since Peter Molyneux gave the world Populous, the fantasy of playing god has become a reality for the video gaming masses. The game was followed up with Populous 2 and, since then, god games have been pretty rare. This year, Molyneux has returned with Black & White, a new and refreshingly different take on playing god.
In Black & White, as the story goes, gods are created by peoples' prayers. On one fateful day, a couple on Eden pray for help, and thus the player's god is born. At the beginning, you can choose one of three creatures to represent you to your people. Your goal is to generate faith by showing the people miracles, which will expand your area of influence and ultimately lead to more worshippers from which you can draw power.
The creature that represents you starts as a clean (and stupid) slate. Much of the early focus of the game is ensuring it doesn't do things you don't want it to. You can mold it however you want. If you want it to eat villagers, pet it to reward it for taking a snack on a villager. If you don't, you'll have to punish it. Using a variety of leashes, you can also encourage your creature to act malevolently, kindly, or teach it to do a variety of things, such as casting miracles or supplying villagers with food. The creature AI is exceptional, as the creatures seem to have natural curiosity and occasionally exhibit interesting and surprising behavior. For example, this reviewer's creature used to have a nasty habit of picking up villagers only to toss them aside. After a bit of correction, he fixed this behavior and started to pick villagers up, pet them nicely and gently put them back down. Much better. Creatures are chock-full of personality and are definitely the main draw of the game.
Controlling the game is relatively simple, with a control scheme that works fairly well just by using the mouse. Everything from changing points of view, casting miracles and leashing your creature can be accomplished using mouse movements only. However, only the godliest gamers will likely be able to handle some of the complexities of the control system. I found it simpler to move and leash my creature using the keyboard commands, while having the mouse control miracle casting, basic actions (like plucking trees and wheat from the ground) and controlling point of view and zoom levels. Once a few such shortcuts are used, the control is very good. My only gripe revolves around interaction with objects at times. At one point in the game, for example, I was trying to complete a quest and couldn't because the control was too slow or too finicky. Meanwhile, my villagers were being decimated. After I finished the quest properly, I returned to my village, where the population had dwindled to a small handful in my absence. Luckily, such tremendous frustration is the exception rather than the rule.
The meat of the game is a story mode, but after interacting with your creature in a fairly leisurely manner during the early portions of the game, some player may be turned off the further they get, as the game requires a sharper focus as you progress. The story mode is, however, fairly well crafted and challenging, which will surely please a lot of gamers. But if you wanted to be an evil god, be forewarned - the story mode seems better tailored to a benevolent god. A pure, all out sandbox-style mode would surely be a boon to the game. The online mode, as of yet, seems to have a fair amount of issues. First and foremost, online skirmish games seem to have the potential to last longer than many of the players seem interested in staying connected. There are also issues surrounding balance, for, as it stands, online play seems to heavily favor evil deities and their unscrupulous minions. Why try to recruit worshippers on friendly terms when you can simply raze a village until they submit to you. Or, why even bother gaining worshippers at all? Just kill off villages so those goody two-shoes gods don't have anyone to help them expand their influence. The offline skirmish mode may address some of these concerns, but it still binds you to the same objectives you face in other modes and it doesn't offer the sort of variety one might expect.
Visually, Black & White is very impressive. While the game isn't pushing an incredible amount of geometry, everything is very well crafted and the polygons are used very efficiently. The graphics engine is great, using perhaps the best level of detail engine to date. Zoom out for a view from the heavens. Zoom in to a super-close view of one villager -- all in surprisingly smooth motion. Miracle effects and weather effects also look mighty impressive, as well they should. The real stars, though, are the creatures, who are composed of a fair number of polygons. The models look great, but what's even better is the animation. The first time you see a creature dance or gesture at your people, it's hard not to be captivated by it. Every once in a while, you can expect your creature to do something that impresses you, and at these times, the pressures of the game often fall to the wayside as you admire your marvelous little emissary to the world working his magic, getting his so-called groove on, or simply expressing himself.
Likewise, the sound is really good. There is music present, but it's kept well in the background, adding atmosphere but not to be intrusive. Voice acting is impressive, and the spell sounds are excellent also. There's really nothing to complain of in the audio department, other than the mysterious whispers of "death" you'll hear every once in a while. Do not be alarmed. This spooky whisper is apparently how you're notified of villager deaths. Expect to be creeped out early on. Eventually, it's a little easier to ignore or block out.
Black & White is at once a remarkable and frustrating game. There's a lot of great design at the core, yet a lot of the most rewarding interaction sometimes seems obscured by the storyline the game has you wander through. Unbalanced and lengthy multiplayer can also prove frustrating. How many more times will you play multiplayer if during the first few times you play after a dozen minutes or so, there are no human opponents left? These criticisms are not meant to imply that Black and White is a bad game, but it would be sinful to omit the fact that the game could see some significant improvement. Black & White is a worthwhile game, but as it stands many gamers might be turned off by it after 10-15 hours, whereas the core material has the capacity to be far more rewarding and addictive. Right now, Black & White is just a few pieces short of becoming a hallmark of PC gaming. Unfortunately, those missing pieces are fairly big ones.