Within minutes of initializing gameplay in Black & White, it's readily apparent you're not looking at a clone of a typical good versus evil adventure or a god game. Mixing elements of empire building, resource management, life simulation, survival and brawling with complex strategies and tactics in a gorgeous fantasy setting seems too good to be true -- but that's exactly what famed Populous designer Peter Molyneux accomplishes in developer Lionhead Studios' first effort.
Rather than bombard you with gushing platitudes regarding the nearly uncontested beauty of the game, the focus here is on gameplay, style and innovation. While it's fun to play the supreme decision maker in games such as Afterlife and Dungeon Keeper, the unbridled enthusiasm of characters in Black & White simply takes your breath away. Rarely does a game immerse you so quickly and so completely in the fortunes or failures of its protagonist (or antagonist).
So much effort is eventually expended in molding your character into exactly the type of deity you want him to be, including personality, foibles and moralistic bent, you find yourself really caring what happens to him and fiercely defensive of any enemy who might presume to challenge his domain. All of this builds from a seemingly innocuous beginning as a god-in-waiting or rookie god, if you will.
The plot is not, in or of itself, particularly new but does have a twist. You're in charge of getting things done not by a specific hands-on approach but through manipulation of your subjects, whether they're groveling, sniveling and cowered minions under your unrestrained and turbulent dominance or happy creatures entranced by your gracious kindness. The methodology behind this control is at the core of Black & White and it works on all cylinders. The environment is so convincing that suspension of disbelief is not a problem -- you are immersed in a luscious and live world teeming with entities begging for guidance from the start.
Usually games of this nature give you two choices: good or evil. Black & White, on the other hand, offers a third possibility. Some may think it just a sub-set of evil, but the unmistakable fact remains that you can mold your character to a level beyond evil -- pure unmitigated nastiness. There may be a fine line between evil and nasty but, in this case, nasty can reach a new level. And yet, with all the possibilities, success can be achieved and be just as sweet regardless of the path chosen -- scare tactics, rewards, cajoling, demands, beatings, threats, trust, starvation -- the options boggle the mind. Let your personal preferences soar and become one with your god.
The aspect of watching your character take on your own personality over time can't be overemphasized. While manipulating the populace is a means to one end (specifically the overriding game goal of defeating your arch rival Nemesis and his minions), how you handle your own creation is another facet of gameplay altogether and one just as rewarding, if not more so. Through subtle changes brought about by your ministrations, corrections and guidance, a complex personality emerges that will make you either proud of your progeny or downright upset if he fails miserably -- you'll take it personally.
Are there any clouds in the otherwise clear skies of Black & White? Some gamers may not like the somewhat limited creature combat setup, which basically consists of in-your-face, creature-to-creature, non-lethal slugfests incorporating special moves, agility, and the occasional miracle (synonymous with spells and magic in similar games). While effective at determining immediate confrontations, the combat interface is a bit awkward and creatures don't actually die -- they recover from wounds in their temple. These conflicts occur mainly in skirmishes and multiplayer sessions but are rare in story mode and are not to be confused with important combat in the macro-sense of destroying enemy villages, sacrosanct temples, inhabitants, and even resources to prevent expansionism by your opponent.
Story mode is consistent with similar games in the genre. Manage your village, construct buildings, produce or forage for resources (wood and food are the staples), and explore to discover mini-quests (in this case, scrolls) that can enhance your chances for success. While not overly challenging, the puzzles provide a means for increasing your arsenal of tricks and items. Gold scrolls, for example, are essential to story advancement.
What the game boils down to, though, is user preference. Fans of linear, do-this-to-accomplish-that goal-oriented adventures may be put off by the open-ended quality of gameplay, which is somewhat reminiscent of The Sims. Those who decry micromanagement in any form may be dismayed at the level of involvement required to keep the villagers from whining and complaining constantly. Still others may be turned off by the overabundance of defecation and puking sounds.
Regardless, the game has the potential to give each player a real insight into his or her own psyche. The name of the game is self-expression through the character you develop. Besides, the game is simply pure fun once the learning curve is behind you and offers an immense canvas on which to paint any god-like aspirations. Go forth, multiply and rule!
Graphics: Absolutely stunning and gorgeous graphics add to the belief that you're really a part of this fantasy garden of Eden. Fluid movement of characters, luscious backgrounds and general environmental settings are praiseworthy. Oddly enough, though, individual villagers are simply and undeniably ugly (by design perhaps?) and occasional clipping and overlaps occur.
Sound: Creature sounds, voice effects and general ambiance is of high quality, ranging from villager-speak to subtle audio clues as to what's happening around you. Humor, terror, death rattles, screams, streams, wind, life-affirming sounds and more create a wonderful mix of aural complexity that reverberates throughout gameplay.
Enjoyment: Rarely is an immersion factor and identification with characters so prevalent as in Black & White. Creature manipulation is nearly honed to a science and small complaints like the combat interface, the unavoidable tutorial required for each restart, and somewhat excessive resource management for villagers (especially for only two resources) don't detract appreciably from the overall immersion of gameplay. You can be good, evil or as nasty as you want to be -- playing a god has never been such a fulfilling enterprise. Even the overall mouse-intensive interface can be adjusted to keyboard input if desired.
Replay Value: Even with initial gameplay, be prepared for some very long and intensive hours and the occasional restart as you learn the complexities of Black & White. The game demands literally hundreds of hours to completely explore and reap the benefits of total character creation and the multifaceted aspects of gameplay. Add the diversity of the main characters and the nearly unlimited permutations of possible gameplay to its sheer size and multiplayer aspects, and a long game life is guaranteed.
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