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Good or Evil, 200 foot apes, Godly powers; Lionhead returns with an eagerly awaited sequel...
In a time when marketing money and hyperbole are crucial to a gameâ??s success, very few developers manage to attract the same attention of Peter Molyneuxâ??s Lionhead Studios. An unparalleled level of hype surrounded the UK studioâ??s first release, Black & White, promising the true evolution of Molyneuxâ??s self-created â??Godâ? genre with the most advanced AI ever witnessed in a videogame and a strong moralistic gameplay dynamic.
Time however was unkind to Black & White; during its development many promises and claims were made which the final game failed to live up to â?“ at times Black & White felt more like a social experiment in AI then an enjoyable videogame experience. Undeterred the team took onboard the various criticisms and began work on a sequel, promising to right the wrongs and advance the genre in a way many had hoped for from the original.
Making its debut at E3 2002, Black & White Studios (a splinter team formed to work solely on the brand) have taken their time to ensure the sequel delivers; itâ??s also fair to say that Molyneux himself has aired on the conservative side of excitement when talking about the sequel, however the fans expectations and demands remain high so have the team delivered a sequel thatâ??s been worth the wait.
Black & White 2 begins in a familiar style to its predecessor, reacquainting players with the comedy duo that serve as the playerâ??s conscience and guide you through the basics. Once again the game revolves around choosing a Creature to act as your physical persona, although this time around a lot of the frustrations in training your character have thankfully been eradicated. Beginning with a choice of an Ape, Lion, Wolf or Cow, this opening section highlights the vast visual improvements that the team have been working on with a real sense of emotion presented thanks to the combination of believable AI and stunning animation.
The first land of our short preview build provided a tutorial of the basics, guiding playerâ??s through the process of controlling the camera and necessary commands such as picking up rocks. It can be a little tiresome for the B&W veteran especially as thereâ??s no way of skipping through the lengthy narrative; however it does rekindle the joyâ??s of the control setup which makes sole use of the mouse without a key to touch or remember.
In some ways the game remains very similar to its predecessor; Gold Scrolls advance the game, whilst Silver Scrolls act as secondary quests to earn the gameâ??s form of currency Tribute. This first land throws up a number of these and continues through the basics such as assigning villagers to become disciples â?“ workers assigned solely to one task such as Farmers, Foresters, Builders and Breeders and Worshipers. A few from the original have been replaced, no longer can your villagers sit by the sea and lazily watch the day pass while hanging on a fishing line; instead itâ??s down to the mine to collect Ore, a new resource in the world of Black & White. From what weâ??ve seen so far Missionaries and Traders have also been sacrificed in the sequelâ??s aim to streamline the experience and remove the frustrations.
Itâ??s not too long before the basics are mastered and itâ??s time to teleport to land two which is again a familiar experience for fans of the series. Flying over the sea to a land ravaged by war, the task before players is to rescue as many Greeks from the invading Aztecs by placing them into specific portals to safety. This stage gives an indication of just how epic Lionheadâ??s sequel is shaping up, as literally hundreds of foot soldiers swarm down a hill, whilst fireballs rain down from on top and buildings catch light. The fire-red of the sky symbolises the hellish nightmare before you; however things take a turn for the worse when your evil conscience advises you of a brutish ape standing tall on a hill in the horizon looking ready to wreak havoc. A split-second later a mountainous volcano emerges from the ground, drawing immediate comparisons to Molyneuxâ??s previous classic and the origins of the God genre Populous â?“ certainly Black & White 2 is an immediately more visceral experience then its predecessor, notching up the tempo considerably.
Thereâ??s very little for the player to do on this land beyond rescuing as many civilians as possible, however a brief form of entertaining respite comes from pulling out a fence to watch barrels roll down a hill smashing into a pack of marauding Aztecs, along with setting light to a batch of hay bales and watching them roll away into another pack of unlucky invaders.
As a second volcano looms itâ??s time to move onto the third land. Thankfully here the game branches out and becomes less of a step-by-step tutorial, presenting players with a basic setup to begin founding a new empire and take over the inhabiting Norse tribe through good or evil means. The sweeping changes are immediately evident on this land. In an attempt to put a definitive game experience around the world of Black & White, the sequel places greater emphasis on RTS aspects such as the creation of buildings and establishing mighty military forces â?“ but more on that later. Beginning with basic amenities such as a crop field, storehouse and town centre, the challenge laid before players is a simple one, namely expand upon this humble dwellings.
The Town Centre is the most crucial element within a society and replaces the Totem pole in Black & White. The four pronged town centre provides a wealth of information including Peopleâ??s Desires, Resource Desires, Alignment and an array of demographic information and details on the â??impressivenessâ? of your town. Desires are indicated by escalating columns that display how much a particular demand is needed, whether its food, wood or ore to free time, sleeping and homes. In the centre of the Town Centre appears the type of building that your citizens most desire; one aspect that immediately makes constructing towns a less frustrating experience then before.
Constructing buildings has been made much simpler, requiring players to simply drag and drop where they choose to place a particular establishment. Buildings can be rotated and placed wherever you so wish, however location is a very important aspect as certain buildings have a knock-on effect to others, i.e. an unsightly armoury will displease your citizens if built close to their homes; however a temple to worship in will have the opposite effect. In one of the many moves designed to streamline the experience players can now activate â??God Buildingâ?, which essentially allows you to drop wood and ore onto a building to construct yourself when you havenâ??t got the time to wait for builders. Thankfully from what weâ??ve seen so far, the game shows no sign of the hugely aggravating moments when resources were scarce and progress grinded down to a standstill that were prevalent in its predecessor. Thereâ??s a huge amount of buildings and furnishings available to the player ranging from Taverns to Fertility Statues, Universities, Amphitheatres and Siege Workshops. Each type of building has varying gameplay aspects, such as providing the worshipers with a place to spend their free time or opening up new military options.
In keeping with the instinctive nature of Black & White 2, creating roads and paths is an intuitive technique, simply click an existing path and draw out its intended path. The method is extremely fluid although can be a little tricky at times as paths tend to snap too closely at times to buildings. Roads however are important, itâ??s crucial to link buildings with roads to increase productivity whilst well trodden routes that require roads will be indicated by a slowly developing muddy path.
When Black & White was first talked about it was championed by Lionhead for its lack of menus and such, so itâ??s a little surprising to find a slightly daunting Toolbar so prevalent in Black & White 2. The toolbar provides access to a wide array of menuâ??s and sub-menuâ??s, which allow the player to buy new buildings, powers and toys for the creature along with checking objectives and keeping an eye on how the creature is performing.
Suggesting that the creature may not be as important in Black & White 2 as it was the first time around, itâ??s only after a sufficient town has been established that the creature makes his (her?) first major appearance. Undeniably a key aspect of the series, Lionhead will be the first to admit that teaching and training the creature in Black & White was a frustrating experience to say the least â?“ less of a God sim more of a Good Parenting guide is how we like to think of it.
This time around the creature is ready to start from the onset. Once again a variety of leashes are available (Free Will, Entertainer, Gatherer, Builder and Soldier), however this time around they clearly define an exact role for the creature to take. To teach him something youâ??ve simply got to show him once, although set on his own Free Will the creature will carry out a number of activities without constant supervision. The biggest change comes from training the creature the difference between right and wrong; set on his own free will the creature will ask you whether itâ??s good to do something such as eating a villager or collecting ore, playerâ??s simply have to slap or stroke the creature to promote or criticise such actions. To completely eradicate any sense of confusion a gauge appears to indicate varying stages of whether an action should be carried out or not; slap them enough and the bar will slide down and the creature wonâ??t do it (along with a few bumps and bruises to serve as a costly reminder), whilst stroking him will raise the bar and convey the message that itâ??s a good thing to do.
At first it appears that the talismanic creature takes on a less important role, however the truth is that his implementation is far more subtle and thankfully more effective. The creature can perform a huge variety of tasks ranging from mundane resource collecting to assisting in the epic conflicts, either squashing enemy units underfoot or healing the playerâ??s units as they suffer damage. The stunning AI combines with beautiful animation to create a starring character that youâ??ll become very attached to, especially when everybody else thinks its fun to slap him about when youâ??re not looking!
The main aim is naturally to increase your population and thus the amount of people worshiping the ground you never actually get to step on; this can be carried out in two ways, namely good and evil. Your good conscience will advise that the smart way is to keep building atop your humble beginnings and look to your citizenâ??s wishes, which in turn raises the â??impressivenessâ? and results in neighbouring villagers flocking to your town out of jealousy. Increasing the profile of your town expands the size of your influence, which like Black & White is the designated area in which you as God can carry out actions and commands.
Your evil sidekick however will promote military muscle as the means to conquering lands by constructing an Armoury. A number of different units are at the playerâ??s dispersal, ranging from ravening swordsmen to deadly archers. Based on successful conflicts military factions will gain experience and rise in rank, which in turn increases their effectiveness until youâ??re commanding legions like Genghis Khan. The most satisfying aspect of this new concept is the fact that youâ??re no longer tied to carrying out actions within your influence, speeding up the tempo of the game but coming at the cost of being despicably evil.
The final land of the preview build finds the Norse once again providing the competition, however this time around thereâ??s a rival god and creature to fight against. Presenting all the options to the player itâ??s only on this stage that the game properly commences as the two rival Gods fight for control over the land. The ability to use both good and evil strategies to succeed is evident on this land, taking over smaller towns through peaceful means and fighting against the rival God. Unlike before Creature fights donâ??t require any input from the player, however theyâ??re still a highlight of the battle as two heavyweights battle it out, killing worshipers under foot and destroying anything that gets in their way.
Further touches of brilliance continue to emerge such as the ability to advance between day and night simply by clicking on the sky and moving the time-dial accordingly â?“ as you can imagine day passes into night and vice-versa with stunning effect, however the worshippers wonâ??t be too happy if they keep missing out on sleep! Sense of scale has always been a major aspect for the Black & White series, famed in the original by being able to zoom out and see the entire island from above the clouds to zooming in on a worm eating through an apple. As youâ??d expect Black & White 2 intensifies this area immensely; individual blades of grass sway around in the wind, insects scurry around underneath and a brilliantly atmospheric weather system governs the lands.
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