Players personally steer the fate of an entire civilization, for better or for worse, in this action-strategy sequel designed to further live up to the divine ambitions of the original. Like the first game, Black & White 2 places players in the role of a powerful god, who can bless or curse the people of the land with the snap of the finger or flick of a wrist. Benevolence inspires adoration, and punishment inspires fear, but in either case, faithful followers are any god's primary resource and it is their belief and devotion that allows the deity to perform awe-inspiring acts.
The building and management elements in Black & White 2 are somewhat more structured than in the original game, and the game's main interface has been streamlined. As in the original, individual villagers may have special prayers from time to time, posing distinct dilemmas to deities who chose to answer them. Once again, the comical, cartoonish angel and devil pop up occasionally to offer their yin and yang commentaries, and to provide insight on the practical pros and cons of both the "good" and "evil" possible solutions to a problem.
Perhaps somewhat less prominent than in the first game, but of no less importance, is the player's creature -- an animal avatar in the earthly realms. As a creature grows and learns, it begins to reflect its master's propensity toward good or evil, in both behavior and appearance. There is less of an absolute demand for creature training in Black & White 2, even though its benefits are no less rewarding. Creatures can now be assigned to many menial tasks, which they will dutifully complete. Unless they are taught to think and act for themselves, however, they will never develop into much more than large, powerful drones which must be continually managed.
The original Black & White game turned players into a newly fledged god and tasked them with training their little Creature into whatever they wanted it to be -- from a benevolent provider of healing and food to a mighty engine of destruction -- that would then be to help his or her worshipers take over the world. Unfortunately, the original game was yet another example of a brilliant Peter Molyneux idea that just failed to gel into a real game. Beyond the training, care, and feeding of the Creature, practically nothing in the original game seemed to work as advertised.
Welcome to the world of Black & White 2, where Molyneux and his Lionhead team seemed determined to not repeat the mistakes of the original game. In that, at least, they've certainly succeeded. In every measurable way, Black and White 2 is a superior product, revamping the original game's unfocussed gameplay mechanics into an enjoyable RTS/city-building hybrid. In the process, however, the game has lost a lot of its personality. Unlike the original, Black & White 2's numbers lie too close to the surface, reducing a god's rise to power to a checklist of tasks that must be completed to advance to the next level.
As in the original game, everything begins by selecting a baby Creature during the overly long and criminally inescapable tutorial. Your Creature begins as a moral and intellectual blank, neither good nor evil. Once you wake the creature up, though, it can be trained to be whatever you want it to be. As it runs around your world, thought balloons pop up as it considers various actions ("Should I throw that rock?", "I'm hungry, should I eat this villager?"). Slapping or petting the creature a couple of times is enough to train it to perform the kinds of actions you wish, and if you need it to perform certain other functions in the short term, there are even "roles" such as "Soldier" or "Entertainer" the Creature can be forced into, although this will rob the creature of free will.
On the most basic level, this system is a huge improvement over the "learning leash" system of the first game. There's no ambiguity regarding what kind of personality your Creature is developing, and depending on how you're playing the game, it makes it the Creature a sort of "uber-unit" that can be used when the player's attention is elsewhere. More aggressive gods focused on warfare, for example, will appreciate having a growing and gathering Creature that can maintain the huge food supply needed to field an army. The problem with this system, however, is that it robs the Creature of any sort of personality.
One of my fondest memories of the original Black & White was leading my Creature around on a leash and teaching it what I wanted it to do. I still remember my tiger's first fumbling attempts at performing a miracle and how it would watch me as I uprooted a tree and deposited it in the store house. Then it would do the same and look up at me, waiting for my approval or disapproval. It was hard to train the Creature to do exactly what you wanted, and it inevitably screwed up a lot, but that was what made the Black & White Creature seem like a real personality that I could bond with. The Black & White 2 system shatters this illusion, putting on display what we all always knew -- that the Creature is really nothing more than a series of AI "on-off" switches.
While the Creature may have lost some personality, the good news is that training and playing with it is no longer the central dynamic of the game. In fact, it's entirely possible to play the game with a Creature that does little more than play with its Teddy Bear and occasionally poop in a grain field. The remainder of the game is divided between a city-building portion and a simplified real-time strategy game.
Of the two, the city-building portion is the most enjoyable, partly because of the unbelievable beauty of the game's graphic engine. Every corner of the world is a treat for the eyes, filled with lovingly crafted details on everything from the tiny flower beds that deck civic structures to the waving of grass as your hand passes over it to the waddling gait of your pregnant female citizens. This gets even more enjoyable as your alignment shifts from good to evil. Good cities slowly become brighter and more beautiful, filled with laughter and happy little adornments everywhere. Evil cities, on the other hand, will slowly get darker and more oppressive, with buildings sprouting spikes and fences and the ground becoming a cracked lavascape.
It's also because this portion of the game comes closest to hiding the inevitable number-juggling that goes on in a city builder. As the city grows, various buildings that have different impacts on your civic life and moral alignment will become available. The beauty of the game's incredible graphic power is that what your citizens need and what you as planner need to do is almost always obvious just from looking around your city. Too many workers mourning dead bodies on the street probably means your graveyard is full and you need another. An empty granary and people screaming for food means you either need another grain mill or perhaps should work a couple of water miracles to increase grain yield. The numbers describing your city's needs and production are all available, but I found I very rarely needed to consult them -- the game's cities feel "alive" in a way the game's Creature no longer does.
The RTS portion of the game, on the other hand, is a bit more problematic. It's fairly simple. Platoons of melee troops and archers are created from your city's excess population, along with large quantities of wood and ore for weapons, and grain to eat. This means that fielding any kind of decent army require spending considerable time creating an infrastructure to support it. Once armies are created, the player can move unit flags around where pop-up tags offer common-sense orders -- "attack," "capture," "defend," and the like. This is all fine, but very simplistic, and the enemy AI's strategic capability makes the AI that runs your simple Creature look like Patton. The game's RTS portions can be boiled down to "Build a bigger army than your enemy and throw them into combat."
Black & White 2 follows the course of the fall and rise of the Greeks, whose civilization has been destroyed by the Aztecs. With your divine help, the Greeks must reclaim their greatness, rebuild their civilization and defeat the Aztecs by conquering a series of islands. How the player chooses to pursue this goal, however, is up to them. Good gods can choose to focus on city-building, creating impressive cities that eventually convince opponent's citizens to join their culture. Evil gods, on the other hand, can build up an enormous army, capture the opposing culture's cities, and force their enemies to convert at the point of a sword. Had this idea been fully realized, there's no doubt in my mind that Black & White 2 would have been an instant classic. Even in its less-than-perfect state, I had a lot of fun building up and perfecting my little Greek city-state. Unfortunately, this element of the game is its biggest flaw.
The problems begin with the "Tribute" menu -- although it can be difficult at first to see what's wrong with the system. The Tribute menu is merely a collection of unlockable toys that the player can use to improve his or her city or increase their powers -- standard issue in city-building games. There are new buildings, new miracles, new Creature powers, and even new wonders of the world available to be unlocked, all of which can have a profound impact on the game. The Siren wonder, for example, can be charged up with prayer and used to summon a spirit that can convert enemy armies and villagers to your cause.
The cost of these toys, however, is deducted from the player's "Tribute" total -- basically divine currency awarded for achieving certain goals. Now, one might assume that putting together a great city that pleases your worshipers would naturally open up more city structures on the tribute menu, while turning your Creature into a warrior would perhaps cause it to learn some dark, destructive miracles. That's the way it usually works in such games, but not here. Instead, tribute is gained by ticking off chores on an arbitrary checklist of goals. Having your Creature mine 8,000 Ore might be worth 10,000 tribute. The numbers are too naked, the tasks themselves too random to really feel like anything but busywork. I'm supposed to be a god -- not some automaton mindlessly checking off boxes on a task list. The Tribute menu makes it very difficult to approach growing your empire in a way that feels organic, not when you're constantly trying to "make your numbers."
Tribute can also be garnered by completing quests marked by silver scrolls that are liberally dotted about the landscape. Unlike the original game which made these side quests a fun, integral element, the silver scroll quests in Black & White 2 are mostly pointless, do nothing to move your alignment, and are remarkably little fun. The worst offenders are a quest to help a student monk break boulders that is almost impossible to do without some intercession by a real god, and a challenge to clear a village of disease by waving away clouds of gas with your hand. The latter quest, in fact, has you jerking around the mouse like such a lunatic, I may have developed carpal tunnel syndrome. Unfortunately, the pressing need for tribute means that these quests can often not be ignored.
Black & White 2, in ironic tribute to its name, perhaps, takes a pretty binary view of good and evil. Anything associated with building and growing is automatically good, anything associated with making war is automatically evil. The game makes no distinction between a peaceful state building an army for self-defense and one designed for murder and conquest. Building a nursery is automatically good, even if the purpose of the nursery is to free up slaves to toil more hours for your Mordor-like state and to raise the next generation of mindless drones.
The result of this is that is becomes incredibly difficult to run a truly "good" state. Gods that try to co-opt their opponents by building impressive cities can find their city's "impressiveness" ranking hurt by a slide towards evil engendered by simply defending themselves against an aggressor. A player who truly wants to run a good civilization can go crazy trying to build a city big enough to empty out their opponent's capital as the "impressiveness" of various city improvements gets hit by diminishing returns.
Co-opting smaller enemy settlements doesn't really help, either, since you don't actually take over enemy cities that way. Instead, their populations migrate to join your capital, possibly becoming homeless (which can hurt your impressiveness rating), and leaving empty towns that can either be "evilly" conquered or left for the enemy to use as a forward base. Wouldn't it have made more strategic, tactical, and gameplay sense to have people join your civilization in their own city and add those towns' impressiveness to your overall total?
Playing as evil, on the other hand, is a snap. It's unbelievably easy to turn your civilization into quite the mini-Hellhole, pumping out cannon fodder to be led to mindless slaughter by your depraved Creature. In fact, this can happen even if you don't want it to. Put simply, if you don't want to spend forever pushing for incremental improvements to your city on the "good" path, the game's lack of strong strategic AI can make Black & White 2 an awfully short game as your hordes overrun the world.
In the end, Black & White 2 is an example of a sequel overreacting to the problems of the original. Peter Molyneux and the Lionhead team clearly listened to the massive criticism the first game received, and spent more time focusing on the "game" aspects of the title, implementing a fun city builder and a (slightly less fun) RTS aspect while spending less time on the cute Creature animations. They also made the game much more transparent, finally creating a viable process for turning the Creature into more than a useless oversized Tamagotchi. Kudos to them for that, as the resulting game is certainly an enjoyable one. Unfortunately, in the process of fixing the game, they ended up stripping much of what made the first game so endearing by allowing the numbers to take precedence over the personality. What Black & White 2 gained in competence; it seems to have lost in soul.
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