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Lionhead`s God-sim returns but as TVG finds out, things aren`t always Black & White...
Released to a fanfare of the typical hyperbole surrounding a Molyneux title, itâ??s fair to say the 2001 release of Lionheadâ??s Black & White both satisfied and disappointed in equal measures. Lacking a definite game structure and at times coming across as more an ostentatious experiment into videogame AI, Black & White was certainly a flawed masterpiece however it wouldnâ??t be long before the team was back at the drawing board with plans for a sequel.
Development on Black & White 2 commenced on Valentineâ??s Day 2002 (theyâ??re a romantic lot at Lionhead), a month to the day that work concluded on the awkwardly bizarre expansion pack Creature Isles. With the premise of â??exceeding expectations in every wayâ?, Lionhead certainly havenâ??t shied away from building up those expectations in the continued task of setting their lofty ambitions into the stratosphere.
Three main aspects were identified early on during the development stage: to radically change the conception of what a God game is; add strong RTS elements and lastly overhaul the Creature, making him as worthwhile or useless as the player so decides. On these three fronts Lionhead and Black & White Studios have most certainly succeeded, however we suspect there will still be those out there who criticise Black & White 2 for the traditional issues such as the amount of content, the pacing of the game and more bizarrely the lack of any multiplayer options!
With the mantra â??Are you the God of Peace or the God of Warâ? reigning down throughout Lionheadâ??s studios during the development of Black & White 2, this ultimate question essentially provides the basis for the game; is it a God game or an RTS for you? Thankfully the decision isnâ??t always as black and white as the question proposes; a healthy balance between the two will get you far and the decision is always placed into the hand of the player.
Black & White 2 begins in a similar manner to its predecessor, acquainting players with the basics behind camera control, interacting with the environment (aka throwing rocks) and the essentials behind assigning villagers to become specific disciples focussing on objectives such as cutting down trees, farming in the fields, working in the mines or breeding like rabbits to name but a few. Given that this is the third time Iâ??ve had to play through Black & White 2 from the start itâ??s frustrating to find no option to skip through this time-consuming basics, despite the fact your good conscience asks whether you want to or not â?“ but then again thereâ??s nothing worse then jumping in at the deep end, and Iâ??m sure Lionhead are very proud of their fundamental control system.
One major factor behind the Black & White series which has been enhanced for the sequel is the utterly intuitive control system. Requiring the sole use of a mouse, players are free to effortlessly zoom around the various islands pitching the camera from the clouds above right down to ground level to appreciate the vast level of detail Lionhead have squeezed into this game. The establishment of buildings is a simple affair, simply requiring you to drag the blueprints from a previously placed building or the most requested from the town centre. Paths are essential for ensuring buildings are performing efficiently, again requiring a simple drag from an existing path and drawing where you wish it to go; thankfully this has been tightened from the last time we checked the game out and removes some of the frustrations we had with paths snapping too clinically to nearby buildings. Another major introduction made with Black & White was the ability to draw gestures with the mouse which in turn allowed you to summon magical spells; naturally this returns for the sequel and itâ??s just as good the second time around. Playing a PC game without a single key to remember is a refreshing change; itâ??s completely intuitive system governs every interaction to be made within Black & White 2 and is certainly one of the strongest elements of the game.
Thereâ??s much more in the way of a narrative and challenge presented to the player this time around. Taking control over the Greek civilisation, players have to handle the treat of a warring Aztec society by progressing through eight different lands each populated with varying races. Success comes by either developing your own land, increasing the â??impressivenessâ? of your dwellings which in turn leads to rival clans becoming insanely jealous and emigrating to your town. The flipside is to develop a massive army and conquest the land, taking control of towns that line your way and destroying anything in your path â?“ we donâ??t really need to outline the fact that one develops your orientation towards good and the other towards evil, thankfully a blend of varying tactics can also be employed.
Besides the main quest which involves taking over the island by whatever means you wish, each island contains a significant number of side-objectives and entertaining respite in the form of silver-scrolls. Completing these earns Tribute which serves as the gameâ??s currency and can be used to buy the huge amount of items available to you throughout the game, ranging from new miracles to different buildings, creature skills and toys for him/her/it to play with. Purchasing new items, constructing buildings, checking out objectives or keeping an eye on your creatureâ??s developing skills are all taken care of by the Toolbar. An alien-like concept for the series and something which the original tried to do away with, the Toolbar actually eradicates the ambiguous nature of its predecessor once youâ??ve gotten used to it and provides a much needed sense of structure to the whole experience. Miracles, buildings and such firstly need to be unlocked by buying them with tribute before then can be constructed or used; the system can be a little bewildering at first because thereâ??s a wide number of resources at hand: wood and ore to construct buildings, mana to summon miracles and tribute to buy them all; however after a short time it all becomes second-nature and provides much more guidance to players then before.
If we had to be critical then weâ??d have to say the â??constraintsâ? imposed on Black & White 2 in terms of objectives have been a little too forceful. To give the game some structure this time around the various side-objectives are presented to guide players to the means of success, such as taking 3 towns by force or creating 12 disciple breeders. These come across as less omnipotent then before and lack the â??humaneâ? touch of the tasks featured in Black & White, leaving the player feeling less like a benevolent God and more like a city planner! To be fair the Silver Scrolls do provide this aspect with tasks such as throwing kegs of beers between islands to allow the inhabitants to establish a brewery, or knocking over the stone statues that a Martial Arts apprentice is trying to destroy; ultimately they just feel a little detached from the main game.
Lionhead and B&W Studios have done an excellent job of streamlining various aspects of the game and as such reducing some of the tediousness of its predecessor. God Building which allows you to build constructions instantly at the cost of more resources is an absolutely godsend, whilst the ability to cycle between night and day by clicking the sky and moving a sun-dial is a really smart touch and helps to create the sensation that you are a powerful God in command of everything you touch. Handling your disciples still requires careful micro-management as they will not pass on their knowledge to their offspring, as such youâ??ve got to keep a close eye on their levels when the disciples naturally reach a certain age and pass away.
On initial inspections the creature within Black & White 2 appears to take on less importance; however this largely stems from the fact that its significance is largely down to the player. Itâ??s possible to carry on the game and virtually forget heâ??s there; however a little time and concentration can yield the results and youâ??ll find the creature takes on significant importance, redeveloping towns whilst your concentration is on something else or linked to the army to provide enormous benefits.
Thankfully teaching the creature is less like bringing up a new-born this time around and doesnâ??t need constant supervision. Once out of his den the Creature will begin to interact with things, asking the player whether itâ??s good to do something or not; simply stroke him to encourage the action or give him a good slapping to condemn it. A sliding bar provides a definitive response to a particular action so thereâ??s none of the ambiguities of before, whilst all the actions can be easily checked via the taskbar menu. The leashes provide more assistance then before, putting the creature into definitive roles such as Builder, Entertainer, Gatherer, Soldier or Free Will; itâ??s worth bearing in mind however that assigned to one role for too long will drain the will from your creature and leave him nothing more then a mindless drone! With a little time and perseverance youâ??ll soon have the creature performing tasks of great benefit: casting water miracles on crops and gathering them into the store or casting health miracles on the troops and providing a ferocious roar and accompanying stomp on any enemy troops that dare to get too close. Truly Black & White 2 takes the original concept and develops it into something obscenely worthwhile within the game â?“ but if itâ??s not for you then you can simply leave him in his den playing with a teddy or voodoo doll, the choice is up to you!
Progress through the game is a very stop-start affair, itâ??s a real roller-coaster ride sometimes whizzing through and often slowing right down to a ponderous crawl. Those who try to win everything over by being good will find the task much harder as once youâ??ve established the town to a certain degree itâ??s harder to make that next leap. This probably ties in with the adage of it being â??easy to be badâ?; often my most honourable intentions in the game were ruined by not being able to make that final leap and having to recruit large armies to go out and secure the last town instead.
The actual RTS elements and taking control of the various armies is perhaps a tad over-simplistic, merely requiring the player to setup an Armoury, Ranged Armoury or Siege Workshop to establish the three different factions and utilising flags to indicate where you want them to go. Armies can develop with experience and the ability to link other platoons or the creature to them is a nice touch that provides varying different tactics for the player to employ. Sadly the game does suffer from the common blight of the RTS genre; build up a huge military force and the rest is like a walk in the park!
In a nod towards Molyneuxâ??s Populous building wonders allows you to summon incredibly powerful magical attacks such as raising a volcano from the land or using a Siren to lure enemy troops to your cause. Weâ??re a little surprised that that game doesnâ??t make much of these until relatively late on, despite alluring to them on the second stage; itâ??s largely possible to go about the game without utilising them which is a shame given their impressive nature and the fact theyâ??re one of the few things that reminds you that youâ??re playing as an almighty deity.
With 8 lands to conquer Black & White 2 is significantly larger then its predecessor, however as with any Lionhead title it is possible to whiz through the game relatively quickly. Focussing on large-scale enemies will often provide an easy means to quick progress, particularly in the early stages where the opponent AI seems a little shallow sticking its own armies into pre-designated spots and largely refusing to adapt its tactics based on the players varying strategies. That said for those willing to bide their time, exploring every inch of the island, uncovering all the silver-scrolls, side objectives and the plethora of Lionhead secrets thereâ??s plenty to get your teeth sunk into.
As mentioned above some of the enemy AI does seem questionable; on one particular land I had taken over an enemy town near to the last city and built my way up with new houses, expanding the circle of influence (effectively a fog of war) until right up by their fortified walls. What did my opponent do to counter this techniqueâ?¦ not a thing; even leaving the doors open for me to practise my fireball throwing technique to destroy the town from afar. Admittedly this was on an early island and a fairly abstract battle tactic; however the lack of response in any shape or form to their town crumbling was a little disheartening and certainly sucked you out of the illusion of two almighty gods fighting against. Another frustrating situation involved an enemy unit breaching my castle walls and hiding themselves into a narrow alley, which the creature could not attack until the buildings around them had been destroyed. It seems that if you play Black & White 2 in either of the two ways that itâ??s meant to be played youâ??ll be impressed, but try something else and youâ??ll uncover one or two cracks in the traditionally robust opponent AI.
Given the significance placed on RTS aspects, the fact that people will complain about its length and the popularity of multiplayer itâ??s a little surprising to find that Black & White 2 features no such modes at all. Admittedly their inclusion within Black & White was hit-and-miss to say the least, however itâ??s certainly something we were expecting and a little disappointing to find that Lionhead have seemingly overlooked this aspect completely.
If youâ??ve got the power Black & White 2 can look nothing short of breathtaking. Scale, or more appropriately a sense of it, has always been key to the series however this time around the game is packed full of little details, such as insects burrowing in the ground below or individual ears of corn swaying in the wind. The game is packed full of impressive effects, whether itâ??s trees catching alight thanks to a passing fire-ball or the glistening reflection of a beautiful ocean â?“ at times you want to forget thereâ??s an epic battle being forged and just while away time on the beach. Thankfully the game scales down well and will work fine (admittedly not as nice) on a relatively low spec system such as the measly 1.6GHz with a 64MB GeForce 4 series sitting at home.
That said it does have its fair share of misgivings and one or two issues that really should have been ironed out. Experimenting with the opponent AI reveals a number of cracks and the importance it places on pre-determined tactics, which doesn’t lead to the most encompassing game experiment if you want to test the boundaries of the game. The lack of multiplayer in any shape of form is disappointing; perhaps I missed out on Lionhead confirming that this wouldn’t appear in Black & White 2, but it certainly came as a shock to me.
Ultimately Black & White 2 is a refreshing game amongst the staple of PC releases and should be in any PC gamers library; it’s just a shame there’s more ammunition for the harshest Lionhead critics out there to utilise against them.
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