Game Review - by James Allen
The real time strategy genre has taken a turn for the surreal in recent memory. With innovative games such as Sacrifice coming on the et, the genre has evolved away from the characteristics set forth by games such as Command & Conquer and Warcraft to a much more open ended affair, where anything is possible. The result of eons of work by British developer Lionhead, we are (finally) presented with Black & White, a god game where you rule over several lands in hope of converting the locals to worshipping you. Certainly an ambitious title, there are many aspects of gameplay that were previously never combined into one product. Does Black & White prove to be the one true religion, or is the gaming public excommunicated from an enjoyable experience?
Surprisingly, Black & White's biggest (and only) pitfall comes in the features department. You can play the game in the default single player campaign, a skirmish mode, or online play. There are a grand total of eight maps (5 single player and 3 skirmish/online), and the first map serves as a tutorial. Granted it takes quite a while to defeat each land, but come on, only eight levels? There are many, many small missions you can undertake in each level, which does make the game last much longer, but I'm still surprised on the frank skimpiness of the included lands. Hopefully, more maps will be created by either Lionhead or individuals in the Black & White community. Luckily, the actual world you play in is only secondary to the main gameplay elements, but more variety could have been included, especially in a game with so many other ground-breaking attributes. To distract your attention from the deficit in maps, you can name the villagers after the people in your e-mail list and use the actual weather outside. These extras are a nice addition to Black & White, and make the superfluous features seem more comprehensive.
The sound is exceptional. All of the characters you encounter have their own distinctive voices, your character responds accordingly to your actions, and the air fills with the sounds of worshipping followers, thunder cracking in the distance, and the casting of miracles. Most everything that occurs during gameplay is conveyed through sound rather than just text messages. They even have an appropriate pooping sound for your creature when he defecates on the town square. Coupled with the graphics, the Black & White environment is portrayed in lifelike accuracy with impressive sound and light.
The gameplay in Black & White is the most varied creature that I have encountered in quite a while, and grasping all the elements is just one of the challenges in Black & White. Luckily, the rolling tutorial teaches all of the important aspects of the game itself. The basic idea is that you are a newly summonded god, and you would like to convert the locals to worshipping you, eventually "taking over" each of the five levels. At the beginning of each level, you are given a starting village (which may or may not be finished yet) and left to fend for yourself.
You are supplied with a creature to carry out various actions of your bidding. This is a game in itself, and it's a shame that during one level you are left to play without it. In the beginning, your personal disciple is a student waiting to learn, and you convey the approval or disapproval to its actions by petting or hitting it. For example, if you like the fact that your creature eats the villagers, just let him know, and it will continue to do so. You can even have your creature act differently than you. If you set fire to a village, your creature might go over and put it out, depending on how you taught it. You can play the same several times over with different creatures seeing how your input affects its behavior. You teach the beast by attaching a leash, and leading it around like a dog. It's like virtually housebreaking a pet, only with no carpet stains! Bonus!
The other aspect of gameplay involves interacting with your villagers. Each village has several wants and needs, which if you heed, the locals will learn to love and respect you. Constructing an array of buildings, such as abodes, workshops, and wonders, is needed to increase the population of your villages, and your influence. You can delegate any village to be a disciple, assigned to conduct a specific task, such as farming, foresting, building, and breeding (lucky). You can also allocate a certain number of villagers to around the clock worship, which fuel your miracles.
The center of your power is your temple, where all of the worshipping villagers gather to dance around and give you prayer power. The inside of your temple is very impressive. Even the simple action of saving and loading a game is an impressive feat. You can consult your library, the challenge room, the creature cave, and the future room. The sum of all these rooms presents any and all the information that you'll need during your travels throughout each land.
With the prayer power generated at the temple, you can cast miracles. These range from creating food and forests, to more destructive means such as fireballs and lightning, and protecting your towns with shields and healing. The most original aspect of Black & White is the mouse-driven gesturing model. Making shapes with your mouse, you can cast miracles at any location on the map. And it looks really cool when you do it. Miracles are the main technique to impress other villages, and eventually take control of them. However, doing the same action over and over again will result in less belief each time around, so you'll need to mix up your choices. Hurling locals against the sides of buildings also works (then dropping their carcass in front of their family ha ha HA HA HA). You area of influence is a factor of how much each village believes in you as a god, and you're limited to casting miracles around your influence area. You can send your creature to far away lands to break dance your way into their hearts. Of course, launching three fireballs from way downtown works just as well. As you might have guessed, being either evil or good in Black & White is just as effective. Being a combination of both usually yields the best results, and leads to several different approaches to the same problem. Combining several very different facets of gameplay, Black & White delivers a very reable package.
What is up with the astounding graphics in recent games? Sacrifice, American McGee's Alice, Giants, NASCAR Racing 4, and now Black & White. Methinks there is some secret deal with nVidia. Nevertheless, the graphics in Black & White are impressive. The lands look good from any level of zoom, the miracles are miraculous, and the overall character of the graphics renders a very, very realistic world. The people themselves have hammer hands, but you'll never really notice except during cut scenes and the like. Using gestures to cast miracles looks really darn cool, you'll just have to check it out for yourself. Transitioning from noon sun to midnight darkness is a especially neat experience. The world that the graphics in Black & White portrays is ultimately believable and magical at the same time. Top notch.
Black & White is a land game. Combing elements never before assimilated together, we are presented with a completely satisfying gaming experience. Despite the scarce number of levels available, Black & White is still an event that should not be missed.