As we've noted on earlier occasions, the original Black & White is a fittingly named game, since gamers usually fall into one of two camps when you discuss it. You either loved it as an open-ended, original strategy game that let you play as a mighty god, or you felt that Black & White was a bit too unfocused and shallow for its own good. Now, with the sequel nearing completion, you might expect that the debate will begin anew. But we've gotten our hands on the latest version of the game, and we have to admit that Black & White 2 is starting to feel like the game that Black & White was meant to be.
In Black & White 2, you once again play as a god to a people needing some divine intervention, but this time, your people have an identity. Truth be told, your people are Greeks. No, Black & White 2 isn't set in the ancient world, but the game is set in a world where the Greeks, Norsemen, and Aztecs coexist, though definitely not in harmony with one another. At the beginning of the game, you're witness to a massive Aztec assault on the Grecian capital--hundreds of Aztec warriors rampage through the streets of your city, while a sinister-looking creature stands on a ridge and casts magical spells that cause volcanoes to erupt out of the ground. (We should note that all this happens in real time, using the game's 3D engine--an impressive feat that prepares you for the huge scale of Black & White 2.) During the chaos, you spirit away a handful of survivors to a distant land, where you have to oversee and help them rebuild their society so they can take the war to the Aztecs once and for all.
The story alone is proof that Black & White 2 has more focus and structure than its predecessor, and that's certainly a good thing; the original Black & White sort of just plodded along. Now you have a goal to work toward, as well as an identifiable enemy to crush. But that's just one of the major new features in the sequel. It appears that Lionhead paid attention to the criticisms of the first game and has moved to address them in Black & White 2.
You'll discover that it's actually not that easy being a god in Black & White 2, because you have numerous duties and tasks that will keep you busy throughout the game. You must constantly address the needs of your people and answer the occasional prayer, so that they'll worship you. This is important for a variety of reasons. For one, having worshippers means that you get to perform miraculous deeds. Second, you want your people to multiply, which gives you more potential worshippers and enlarges your region of influence. This will also let you build up a mighty army so that you can go out and convert other cities to worshipping you, or, if you're more of a peaceful god, you can create such a magnificent civilization that neighboring peoples will drop their gods like a sack of potatoes and rush over to join your society.
Black & White 2 feels much more like a strategy game than its predecessor, but yet it's still fairly open-ended. There's a clear city-building mechanic that's incredibly easy to use. For example, if you want to build houses, just click on an existing structure, drag it onto an empty plot, and, voila, you've built a house. Or if you need to extend a road, just click and hold on a section of road and draw out the new section of road. With a little practice, it's easy to create a good-looking city that's well laid out. And, as with other city-building games, there's a certain strategy at work here. You need to provide housing and fields so citizens have shelter and food, and there are a slew of additional buildings, from armories to temples, that you can unlock and construct. Assigning citizens to various tasks is also simple, as you just have to pick them up and drop them over what you want them to do. Drop them on a tree, and they'll become a lumberjack, drop them on a field and they'll farm, and drop them on another citizen and they'll, well, breed.
Creature FeatureWhile you're busy city-building, you'll occasionally hear a call for help from one of your citizens in the form of a prayer. Like Fable, another recent Lionhead game, these prayers create an ethical dilemma for you to solve. How you solve it will help determine if you're a good or evil god. One of our favorite quests early in the game begins with a farmer who blames you for immaculately impregnating his daughter and demands that you owe him a dowry. You can give in to his demands and give him what he wants, or you can follow the daughter around to find out what she's been doing behind his back. To help you decide, your conscience reappears in the sequel. Like a cartoon character faced with any kind of ethical dilemma, a literal angel and devil appear in front of you, advising the path of good or evil. And like their cartoon counterparts, the angel and devil provide some humor to the game. They also serve as the in-game tutorial, and they can walk you through virtually every aspect of Black & White 2.
When you get a decent-sized city built up, with a lot of idle citizens walking around, you can build an army that consists of a platoon or multiple platoons of more than a hundred men each. Simply grab and drag a flag from the armory, and then move the mouse left or right to adjust the size of the platoon. Men will rush in to fill the ranks, and you can then march them off to battle, as well as capture enemy town centers, thus converting them to your side. To attack, simply drag the flag over an enemy formation or building and double-click, and the men will take it from there. There are different types of units that you can eventually assemble, from regular swordsmen to archers and beyond. Platoons also gain experience over time, thus making them tougher and more valuable to you. From what we can tell, this army mechanic adds a strong real-time strategy component to Black & White 2, one that seemed missing in the first game.
Of course, you can't talk about Black & White 2 without mentioning the creature, your animal avatar in the world. The creature is a highly sophisticated artificial-intelligence construct that takes the form of a walking lion, cow, wolf, or ape. Even cuddlier than before, thanks to the addition of realistic fur, the creature can be trained to become whatever you want through the use of rewards (petting) and punishment (slapping). This means that the creature can learn to love and look after your citizens (and will even pick up and play with them), or it'll terrorize them by devouring them for food. You can train the creature to help construct buildings, gather resources, or kill the enemy. And training the creature is easier than ever, now that you can actually see his thoughts in the form of thought bubbles. This way, you know when to reward or punish him to encourage or discourage a certain behavior. If that's too much trouble, you can also just assign the creature to a specific role using the creature menu, though at the cost of the creature's free will. In other words, if you assign the creature to do a certain task, he will do so, but the longer he works at it, the more of an automaton he becomes. This means that he can eventually lose his free will over time.
Black & White 2 is an extremely simple game to play, and Lionhead has streamlined the interface considerably from the first game. The entire game can be played using the mouse alone. In fact, in the documentation accompanying the version we played, designer Peter Molyneux implored us not to even touch the keyboard. It's an impressive feat, especially considering the vast scope of Black & White 2. And this is certainly a big game. Once again, you can use the mousewheel to zoom in very close to the ground (close enough to see the bugs in the grass), and pull the camera back far enough to see the island surrounded by ocean. It's also an undeniably beautiful game; there is some beautiful eye candy at work.
The preview version that we played with only has a handful of the lands that will be in the final version of Black & White 2, so we couldn't get a sense of how the game escalates the further you get in. We are told that "epic" things are in store, though, and judging from the volcano-summoning that we saw in the opening sequences of the campaign, the ability to raise and level mountains is pretty epic indeed. And it's also clear that Black & White 2 is more of a "game" that its predecessor, which is great news for fans of the series. Skeptics, on the other hand, will still probably take a wait-and-see approach with the game. But so far, things are looking pretty good for Black & White 2. After years of development, the game is almost done, and it's expected to ship next month.