Black & White
Lionhead steps into the boots of the gods, but are the boots too big?
Yes, far too big. Released mid 2001 by Lionhead Studios and EA Games, Black & White was set to take gaming to a new level in sims. The player takes control of a young God, and has the power to shape his flock of worshippers. The only problem is, this game sits on the fence too much: its not an RPG, its not an RTS, and its far too dull as a sim.
To begin with, the graphics were mindblowing in their day, and they are still quite pleasing even today. Popup is essentially nil, there can be an amazing amount of on screen activity with almost no drop in performance, and so long as you feed it plenty of memory, it can be viewed in large resolutions without much trouble. With a Pentium 4 2.4 GHz, 512 MB DDR DRAM and a GeForce FX 5600 256 MB, the game runs smoothly at 1600x1200x32. Terrain is beautifully modelled, and people, while not brilliant in realism, are rendered well enough for the cartoon depictions that they are.
Sound is average, nothing outstanding, but not below today's standard. Surround sound is available, but doesn't help or hinder you too much, whether or not you have it. Effects are average, if sometimes unrealistic sounding. Music is more or less non-existant, so there is not anything to say about that aspect. Overall, sound could have been made more impressive.
So now we move on to gameplay, and it must be noted here: this is a revolutionary game in the God Sim genre. Once you have acknowledged this, you enter the game with much enthusiasm. After all, it is Human nature to often wonder: "If I were a God, and all I had to guide me was my own conscience, what would I do?". My initial thoughts were that this game would build upon Populous and other God Sims, making it more freeform and giving you more powers as a God. This is only half correct - and that is being very generous.
What Populous lacked in God Simulation, it made up for with RTS. It was fun and addictive; Black & White does not make up for its lack of Godliness. You start the game on a small island, and when a child is almost eaten by sharks, and his parents pray to the heavens, you come down and save him. First mistake: they have broken their promise of a completely freeform game immediately. If you were evil, would you have saved him? No, you would have picked his parents up and dropped them in with him; or better yet, drop one of the parents in so the other can return to tell the tale of your omnipotency. What's worse is that after this you are suddenly whacked with a whopping long tutorial that is so simple that a trained monkey could follow it; and without the patch there is no skipping it.
Also, your freedom is severely restricted through this tutorial. You must help the builders by bringing them wood, you cannot choose to smite the slow ones, thus speeding them up and forcing them to bring the wood for their own lazy selves! After this, you get to choose a titan. At this point I thought: "Choose? Choose! You told me I could CREATE my own creature!" They lied. You choose either a cow, a monkey or a tiger, and over time it changes depending on how you treat it. This is not how they described it, and it is a severe disappointment. I wanted a half shark/half jaguar, evil killing machine, but no, there is no customization here. Even as your creature does evolve to become a malevolent, horrid, twisted beast, or a benevolent, kindly creature, he still remains a cow, money or tiger.
As you progress, you will start to notice that you are not much of a God. If you want to smite someone, you've either got to drop heaving things on them (repeatedly... even a boulder twice the size of them will simply bounce off them), drop them in the ocean and wait five minutes for them to drown, pick them up and hurl them at a mountain side, or have your titan eat them. No fire and brimstone, no thunder, no angel of death. Even if you want to be a kind God, you can't do much, except save people during random quests, play with your titan and supply wood to singing sailors that you would rather choke to death. Things start to get better in the second level, as you obtain miracles such as a food miracle, wood miracle, fireball and lightning. The fun begins... or not.
By this stage you will really be starting to notice that you are a God in a world of mindless drones. I do not know about you, but what I would like to see in a God Sim is where you, as a God, perform miraculous deeds, create things, destroy things, convert and smite - God like duties. Your followers, on the other hand, will pray on their own whims, gather their own food and wood, build their own houses, give birth to children, defend their own lands and strike down the pagan enemies you designate. This is not the case in Black & White at all. You must designate when and how many will pray, who farms and who gathers wood, who will stay home and breed, and you must build all their buildings yourself. Now most Gods aren't carpenters, Jesus Christ was, but that didn't mean that he built things for Humans!
Micromanagement is utterly ridiculous, and if you decide you'll leave them alone, they get upset and stop worshipping you, and then their society falls into chaos. Eventually you will come to blows with other Gods, and here is where you would think that you would order your followers to build up some vast armies and march them towards the pagan lands! Not in Black & White, your followers are oblivious to the art of war. Instead you must do all the fighting yourself - very tedious, very boring, very irritating. While you are in another God's lands, either smiting the unbelievers or performing miracles of food and wood to awe them, you are using up alot of belief.
To get more belief, your followers must pray, but while they are praying, they need food, so you must spend belief making food for the worshippers. If they are praying, they cannot build, therefore you must keep some back in the towns building, but its not enough and they will get upset that not enough is being built. If you leave them there too long, worshippers start to die, thus upsetting your people and making you lose belief. Now, you are either diverting all your energy into preventing death and discontentment, or you are off trying to use this belief to convert followers. Either way, one task gets neglected, and there are obvious negative consequences for it. If your own followers went to war, and all you had to do was aid them with some miracles, things would be much more simple and fun.
Your titan will also come into conflict with rival Gods' titans. Titan combat is even more irritating than God combat. In mythology, titans fought with weapons, not with kung fu style moves that are so poorly rendered it looks like it's straight out of Kung-Pow (especially if you choose the cow as your titan). Its point and click here, and it is very boring. Your titan is your only real troop, your followers are useless, but your titan can romp around enemy lands, either impressing them, or throwing them about and snacking on them. He can learn to throw rocks at enemy houses, and can also learn to perform destructive miracles.
The interface is similarly frustrating. It uses gesture recognition to activate the various miracles, but the only problem is that some of them are tricky, and the recognition is not forgiving. If it is not almost spot-on, it will not acknowledge you are trying to select it. Thus, if you have poor frame rates, a bad mouse mat or a bad/dirty mouse, you are not going to be able to select them, and will have to scroll all the way back to the temple and select the icon there. But even moving back to the temple is irritating - click terrain, drag towards/push away to move, repeat; move mouse to side of screen, click, move mouse to rotate the screen; move mouse to top of screen, click, move up or down to pitch screen; scroll mouse wheel, zoom. Sounds simple and functional, but you quite often cannot maneuver the camera into the position you want immediately, instead having to twist and turn constantly.
As you continue to progress, it becomes more and more obvious that this game is very linear. Yes, you can choose to be good or evil, and you can choose from one of three creatures, but beyond having the choice of how to win the level (but any RTS game gives you that choice) that is all you can choose. You cannot choose what land you travel to, whether you convert these people or you don't, what your land looks like and what creatures dwell within... all of this is already decided. There is a strict storyline and you have absolutely no choice but to follow it, like it or not. I don't, because any sense of freeform has now officially been blown out the window. Multiplayer is just as bad as singleplayer, if not worse. It acts as if it is an RTS, pitting you against other Gods, but it has all the faults of singleplayer without the storyline to interest you.
Overall, Black & White is a could have been. There is not enough RTS, RPG or God Sim in this game to make it succesful in any of the genres. It remains a large step forward in the God Sim genre, but that is all it is. Its appeal is lost in the first few hours of gaming, and all but the most patient and/or inquisitve gamers will endeavour through the entire game. I don't reccommend this game to anyone.