Black and White Review21 Apr 2008  by
Most anticipated game of the year? Well probably. The gaming world has been waiting for the release of Black & White for what seems like an eternity and on the 6th of this month the shiny boxes arrived on the shelves of game retailers across the land. So was it all hype? Did Peter Molyneux just talk a good game? Let’s find out.
The premise of Black & White is pretty straight forward, you play a God whose job it is to oversee his followers and expand his territory across vast island landscapes and ultimately become the only God and capture the ‘creature creeds’.The game kicks off on a small island world where you are spoon fed tips on gameplay by your advisors who come in the form of the devil representing ‘evil’ and god representing ‘good’. It’s at this point your gameplay style is moulded depending on your ambitions and how quick you want to reach your goal.
To progress in Black & White you need to make tough decisions and try and find a balance between the two, acting evil can get you where you need to go quicker but has the downside of upsetting your many followers and potential followers whereas acting good can make the process a whole lot harder and take lot longer. Finding the perfect balance is what this game is all about.Black & White is not just about conquering the lands there is a story to follow but what makes the game more interesting is the use of sub-plots throughout the levels. These mini-missions are represented by floating scrolls, click one of these and you’ll have a short mission to carry out, and should you be successful, there are rewards to be had.
These mini missions are an excellent idea and allow gamers to make decisions on their gameplay style. For example you can play through a level pretty quickly without activating any of these missions but you could miss out on useful info or special bonuses that make completing a level a lot easier.Controlling territory and taking over the lands is the key and Lionhead have done this using an influence system , if you can influence enough villagers to follow you as their god then you can take control of their villages and expand your territory, indicated with by a red boundary. Controlling the land is essential to using the many powerful spells in Black & White, which in turn, can influence your followers. The more impressive miracle spells the followers see, the more they warm to you as their God.Your main power is the magic spells. These spells can be either positive, like creating food, wood or healing, or can be destructive like lightning or fireballs. To cast spells Lionhead have come up with an interesting control systems. Each spell has a specific symbol which you need to draw on the ground with your mouse which means you need to learn the different shapes to draw to activate spells. To keep you straight, on the bottom right of the screen are spell icons that show you the shapes but after time you do start to memorise the many spells in the game. Once the spells have been activated you need to either place the spell or if it’s a spell like a fireball throw the spell with the movement of the mouse which determines the distance and height depending on how soft or hard you moved the mouse. Activating the spells like this can be fun but can also be a source of frustration at key moments. Sometimes you can draw the shapes and have absolutely nothing happen on the screen. There were a few points where I was thinking ‘come on, draw you bastard!!!!!!’
To make use of the spells you require magic which is obtained by charging them up with the use of your temple. The only way to get spells charged is to have enough followers worshipping your greatness, so to get your trusty followers worshipping the village totem needs to be raised. The raising of the ‘totem’ sounds a bell and the amount of followers worshipping is determined by the percentage you have raised the totem in the village centre. Once again not everything is that simple, the followers can be demanding and having too many worshipping you without ample supplies like food can tire them out and eventually kill them off. It was a but puzzling at times, you could place stack loads of food down and they would race through it so if you didn’t constantly watch the followers they died.Although the worshipping idea is a good concept it did become frustrating at times, followers could be just too demanding and you end up thinking ‘die you little bastards’.
This is fact is a problem with Black & White, the game doesn’t really let you concentrate on the actual gameplay if that makes sense, you would keep having to pay attention to what would seem like the most minor things and once you have a few villages it’s pretty hard to keep track.One of the most talked about features of Black & White are the many creatures that appear in the game. At the start you have a choice of 3 creatures to choose from and the one you select will be your best buddy throughout the entire game. It is up to you to train your creature from a young age to act as you would like him to throughout the game. This is carried out by training him with a punishment and reward system. Do something bad like eat a villager then smack him around a bit as punishment, he will then refrain from munching through your followers. Should he do something good then a friendly stroke or tickle will suffice to let him know you appreciate his actions and if he has learnt well will remember everything and go off and carry out similar actions on his own free will.The creatures in Black & White are almost a game in themselves and you’ll find yourself getting very attached to the little blighters as you bring them up to adulthood. They can really help your game a*uming you get their personality sorted out early on. You can train the creatures with the use of ‘leashes’.
There are 3 leashes to choose from , an aggressive leash, a compassionate leash and a training leash. These leashes set the mood of your creature depending on which you have activated and they are also a means of guiding your creature round a level or a good way to keep him under control by attaching him to an object like a tree or building, this is handy when training your creature, it keeps him in one place.The creatures are a source of much amusement in Black & White, they will head into villages and try to impress followers by breaking out into a ‘muscle man’ show or burst into full-on dancing. This is a great way to increase your followers belief and takes some of the task away from you while you manage the villages, a*uming you have trained him well of course.The creatures do look awesome and there are a wide variety to choose from as you progress. You can change your creature but only at certain points in the game but you’ll probably find yourself getting very attached to your original as he becomes your best pal. The creatures add the ‘tamagotchi’ aspect to the game and each creature does have it’s own personality, learning ability, strength etc.Creature fighting is something that crops up when taking on other gods and Lionhead have included a mini-fighting game. When a creature is challenged, the creature draws an arena on the ground and it’s here the two creatures will duke it out. Apparently there is a complex fighting system included where you target different parts of the creature’s body, unfortuntely the fighting is a bit disappointing, the creature’s sort of react on their own and the moves seem pretty limited. In the single player, once your creature gets to any decent size, as long as you are controlling the fight, you’ll kick the enemies’ a* just about every time making the whole thing a bit pointless.
Teaching your creature the spells can take a long time which takes focus away from the sim and strategy element of the game but to get the most out of the creatures you’ll have to put the hours in, a badly trained creature will cause havoc, be warned!Black & White is a god sim at its heart which means there is a certain amount of management that needs to be done. At the start of the levels you are given a village centre and a small amount of followers, from these humble beginnings you need to create a thriving village and increase the population. Like real people your villagers have needs like building materials, homes and of course food. The villagers will first of all create a place of worship your temple and your source of magic spell power, from there they will start to build homes but they do need to source their building materials.It’s at this point you have to a*ign jobs to villagers. You need villagers to farm, gather wood, breed, build buildings and create building scaffolds in the workshop. All this is done by simply picking up a villager and placing him next to an object that specifies his job. For example, need a woodcutter place him next to a tree and he will get a little axe symbol a*igned which you can see when you highlight him. As your villager breed and the population grows managing the resources and jobs becomes harder and a challenge in itself.
There is one problem with moving villagers around though you can only pick one up at a time so if you want to repopulate one of your other villages with 100 villagers from a thriving village it’s a long process and can drive you nuts after a while.At the village storehouse where the food and wood are stored you are kept up to date with villagers needs by flag poles that raise and lower depending on the villagers requirements. Keeping the villagers happy at all times is essential so watching these is of the utmost importance or villagers will simply stop believing in you and could lose your influence over the village to another enemy.Creating buildings after the initial buildings like the temples are up and running is carried out by the workshop where Lionhead have implemented a simple ‘scaffold’ system. The workshop creates scaffolds from the chopped wood and as each scaffold pops out you can join scaffolds together to create different buildings . for example 2 scaffolds equals a large residence and if you from another scaffold on top of that one you can create a municipal building. Once the scaffolds are joined simply place it on the landscape and the village builders will get to work.
The building system is very simple and easy to use, you can get a whole load of buildings up and running pretty quickly a*uming you have enough builders and wood of course.Black & White is a stunning looking game, all the landscapes are in 3D which allows you to rotate the map and zoom right in or right out above the clouds covering the islands. Objects like trees sway in the breeze and water flows serenely down mountainsides, it’s awesome stuff. The villagers themselves are also well detailed and animated, you can get right down into a village and see their every action, it’s intensely satisfy watching your minions getting on with their chores like chopping wood, carrying logs or farming.
The landscapes in Black & White are pretty detailed and the textures look great making everything seem very real. The game also features some tasty lighting effects which become more apparent as the levels slip through day and night cycles and fireflies dance amongst the rocks, houses and trees.The lighting effects are also utilised on the spell effects which make look even more impressive, throwing fireballs can get highly addictive. Lionhead have created a world that certainly seems very alive and the ability to lift and move objects like huge boulders and trees with your godly hand is very nice indeed.Control in Black & white takes some getting used to, you can move around by folding the left mouse button and dragging across the landscape, zoom in and out with the mouse wheel as well as rotating 360 degrees with the right mouse button when the pointer is at the edge of the screen. There are handy hotkeys that allow you to jump straight to the temple or your creature but it does take some practice and fortunately the first level eases you into the game nicely allowing you to become a dab-hand at the controls just in time for the real action to start.If you haven’t yet purchased the game and your machine is of an low spec then think twice, B&W is fairly taxing on the hardware so make sure you have a decent processor and 3D card to get the most out of the game. we have been playing the game on a PIII 650, a GeForce 2 GTS, 256 Meg ram and found the game runs very well.No complaints on the sound front, the music is both atmospheric and enjoyable to listen to so you won’t be reaching for the mute button. The voicing acting in the game is very well done, whether it’s other Gods, the villagers or your two companion advisors, it’s top-notch. The sound effects are also very well done, the spell sounds and even the sound of picking up wood, food or trees sounds excellent.
The multiplayer allows you to play on LAN or online with the use of the integrated Gamespy server browser. For some weird reason you have to leave the game and register your account at the Black & White website first, why you can’t register from within the game is a bit of a mystery, especially if you have never been to the B&W website before and were unaware you had to register there. Time to check that manual.Once registered it’s fairly easy to get hooked up with other player and test out your godly skills.
One drawback is the creatures, you will enter a multiplayer game with the creature you had in the single player game meaning you can find yourself up against it if your opponent has a more developed creature. Having said that the multiplayer is fun but make sure you have plenty of time before starting a game, they can take some time.This is was certainly not an easy game to review, after all the hype over the last couple of years you have to look at the game as it is. There are aspects of the game that were not included, no doubt due to EA wanting this game to get out the door after the delays.
Black & White is a weird mix, it is essentially a sim and will appeal to god game fanatics but it does lack some cohesion, especially with the creatures. The game can become repetitive after a few levels but nevertheless will probably keep you coming back for more, mainly due to the story, the sub-plots included in the levels, the creature training and the many tips and tricks you can do with spells and objects in the game. One other thing, don’t restart the game, you’ll have to go through the tutorials all over again which may put you off going back to perfect your skills with a new creature from the start, a skip feature here have been very handy.Lionhead have created a game that is a lot of fun but has probably not realised its full potential.
If Lionhead release an expansion pack, some of the game’s features could be improved, and once the imminent patch is released the irritating bug issues may get ironed out. Black & White is definitely a game worth checking out, just be warned, it may disappoint gamers who have been following its progress closely.