Black & White II Preview
We visit Black & White Studios in the UK for an exclusive first look at the sequel to Lionhead's innovative god game.
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To a god looking down from the heavens, the land could hardly look more beautiful. Fields of wheat and grass sway gently in the breeze, and the clear blue waters of the ocean caress the sun-drenched shoreline. As the camera moves closer, though, it becomes obvious that all is not as idyllic as it first seems. This green and pleasant land is in fact a battlefield on which entire civilizations are at war with one another, fighting for their beliefs in a bloodthirsty conflict that will ultimately see the gods themselves entering the fray.
That is Peter Molyneux's vision for the sequel to Black & White, a vision we were afforded a brief glimpse of on a recent visit to the UK offices of Lionhead and Black & White studios. Of course the game is still a long way from completion--long enough, in fact, that even Molyneux himself couldn't be persuaded to give us any indication of when he hopes to have it finished.
"One of the big things is that originally we thought with Black & White II that we'd do a sequel and it would take us about a year to 18 months--well, now it's going to take us a lot longer than that," said Molyneux. "Now we've decided to go for the full monty--you know, we're rewriting the engine from scratch, almost every piece of code in fact."
As we've reported previously, Molyneux's intention for Black & White games one through five is that with each game, the technology levels within the world will get a little closer to those of the modern world. In Black & White II the technological advances mean that the villagers are now able to build more advanced structures and have learned to go to war equipped with swords, bows and arrows, and the like. The distinctions between good and evil from the first game have also moved with the times for the sequel, and while the difference between good and evil actions in the first game was more or less black and white, there will be numerous shades of gray in Black & White II as civilizations do their best to prosper either through war or peace. According to Molyneux, players who actively prepare for war and seek to expand their empire through the use of force will be considered evil, while those who concentrate on making advances within their own city walls and only fight in self defense will be deemed good.
Taking the evil route to success in Black & White II will mean playing the game in much the same way as a conventional real-time strategy game and defeating enemies in conflict. Attempting to beat the game while remaining righteous will be a totally different experience, though--one that Molyneux likens to playing SimCity, since the only way to "defeat" enemies will be to build a city so wondrous that people from other civilizations will become envious and eventually ask to be admitted. In the words of Molyneux, "Black & White II is about building huge armies or huge cities, that's the distinction." This is a choice that you will be forced to make early on, since the mined ore resource used to construct buildings and city walls is the same used to make weapons for troops.
Despite the fact that the new engine is being written from scratch, most of the game's new features that we got to see in action on our visit were actually running in the original Black & White engine. At the time of our visit, in fact, each of the new features was effectively running on a different machine within the studio, and the first thing we were shown upon arriving at Black & White Studios was, as we'd hoped, one of the new game's creatures.
According to Molyneux, Black & White II will actually feature fewer creatures than the original game, because most of the feedback Lionhead has received indicates that players became so attached to the creature they chose at the start of the game that they rarely took advantage of the option to swap it for a new one later on. We were also told that, while creatures will still be able to fight each other in the game, you won't be able to exert any control over your creature's specific punches and kicks this time around. It's not yet clear exactly how many creatures there will be in the game, but we did get to see some artwork of a friendly-looking lion before we were confronted by an ape that looked far more evil--and detailed--than anything from the first game. The ape in question had a muscular physique, a shaved head, and black fur that--in addition to looking wholly believable--will apparently serve as a good indicator of a creature's health in the finished game. You will be able to style and even tint the color of your creature's fur, a feature that one of the developers demonstrated to us by dramatically lengthening the ape's hair and giving it a subtle blue sheen. Creatures won't always look as though they've just stepped out of a salon, though, and their fur will get wet in the rain, singed by flames, and will even get matted with blood in battle.
Of course the visual improvements for Black & White's creatures are only the beginning, and while those in the original game boasted artificial intelligence that was nothing short of revolutionary, their successors will be capable of learning to perform much more impressive feats than chasing a beach ball, feeding themselves, and tossing villagers across the landscape for fun. According to Black & White Studios, you will actually be able to look around a 3D representation of your creature's brain to see what makes it tick, although unfortunately this wasn't far enough into development for us to take a look at on our visit.
"In the original Black & White you had a creature, and yes, he learned, but he learned to do things like eat and poo," recalled Molyneux. "You'll still be able to teach him things like that, but more importantly, you'll also be able to teach him proper strategies--he learns proper things. You can teach your creature to be the greatest, most powerful unit in your army--he, potentially, is the ultimate weapon. He can get absolutely huge. He can learn simple strategies like when to attack and when to run away and even some more complex strategies like sending some of his army to attack the enemy from behind or having troops perform a pincer movement."
Should you choose to do so, it seems that you will be able to have your creature take command of your armies, but although watching the outcome would surely be fascinating, it's now possible for you to command your own villagers directly, which is in itself a marked departure from Black & White. Rather than employing a traditional RTS interface for commanding armies, the team at Black & White Studios has decided to adapt the leash system that was used to force or restrict the movement of creatures in the original game. While this might sound unusual and a little impractical, we've seen the system in use and can report that in addition to being quite functional, it looks as though it will afford you an opportunity to devise tactics that are unlike those you would ever see in a more conventional strategy game.
When Two Tribes Go to War
By using leashes it will be possible for you to "tie" your armies to enemies, objects, or even to each other should you wish to create an elaborate attack formation. As in the original game, it will be possible to alter the length of any leashes used and so, for example, determine the size of an area to be patrolled by a group or have the group closely guard a specific structure. The scope for you to come up with your own strategies using the leash system was demonstrated by a member of the development team, who was able to breach an enemy's city wall and get his troops in quickly by literally attaching his army to the large boulder he threw at the wall.
Molyneux is promising that the armies in Black & White II will consist of hundreds and thousands of individual troops, and although we only actually got to see a battle between a total of around 100 individuals, it was clear that each of them was acting independently--suggesting that even the most epic battles will essentially consist of a massive number of individual battles. Apparently, each soldier in an army will actually have its own statistics, and, according to the ever-ambitious Molyneux, the offspring of long-serving soldiers will actually be stronger than those born to farmers and the like as a result of their inherited genes. Although we didn't see any evidence of it, Molyneux also said that the first warning you will get of an approaching army will be the thunderous sound of it marching, closely followed by the appearance of storm clouds and lightning that will follow an evil army wherever it goes.
The weather conditions in a given area of the map will only be one indicator of its inhabitants' alignment, and while the changes that occurred to the landscape as a result of your actions in Black & White were almost so subtle that they were barely noticeable, those in the sequel will be much more pronounced. We saw still blue waters turn bloodred and rough, flowers spring from the ground as they will when a good creature walks by, and thorny black vines come from the ground as they will in the presence of an evil creature. We also got to see a brief demonstration of how the landscape will be covered with individual blades of grass and how each blade will react to external forces such as a gust of wind or the footfall of a passing creature. What we saw was only a tech demo featuring a very small area, but the movement of each individual blade was certainly impressive, and the prospect of seeing entire fields and landscapes of grass and wheat rippling like water in the breeze is mouthwatering.
In addition to objects in the natural environment being affected by your alignment, when adding new buildings to your cities, you will find the structures available to you also take on new forms as your alignment changes. The examples given to us of good and evil versions of the same structure included a maypole that becomes a burning stake and a children's playground that turns into a torture pit--buildings will only morph within your palette, though, and once they're placed on the map they will effectively be immune. There will, however, be a way for you to reposition buildings, which could be important if your city expands and one of the important structures ends up in a spot on the outskirts that makes it vulnerable to attack.
Travel the World
As well as the fairly conventional attacks from armies, Black & White II will of course feature a number of magic spells--around 16 compared to the 30 that appeared in the first game, but in this instance fewer could actually equal more. For starters, six of the new spells will be what Molyneux describes as "epic spells," and while we weren't given specific details on what the effects of these might be, it was suggested that each and every one will look more spectacular than anything that's appeared in a Final Fantasy game to date. One spell that we did get to see in action (or at least a work-in-progress version of it) was a variation of the fireball spell, where rather than just hurling a fireball at a target, you are actually able to squeeze lava out of it. The waxlike lava drips onto the ground below, and as it runs down hills it sets fire not only to everything in its path but also to any objects close enough to burst into flames as a result of the intense heat. The water spell from the first game will also return, and while you can still use it to water crops, you will also be able to fire the water at enemies like a high-pressure fire hose--there are no plans to allow water to settle and eventually flood areas at this time, though.
Perhaps the most intriguing new feature of Black & White II from a gameplay point of view is that while the game will essentially be level-based--with each level set on a different themed continent--you will be able to travel back to previous levels at will and will even be able to set up trade routes between continents so that you can benefit from resources gained from good performances on previous levels. It was also suggested that, on occasion, you might be required to return to previous levels to rectify problems that have occurred since they were completed, but no specific details were made available to us for fear of giving away the game's storyline.
According to Molyneux, Black & White II will be less story-driven than its predecessor, but the team is still aiming for an epic cinematic feel for the game, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the game's soundtrack. Using state-of-the-art software, the developers are creating music for the game in a small sound studio, and it genuinely sounds like a large orchestra has recorded it. In addition to the incident-related scores that will accompany battles and the like, there will be around 35 different ambient tracks for each of the game's five tribes, which include the Egyptians, Greeks, Aztecs, Japanese, and Norse. For the purpose of the soundtrack, the alignments in the game are classed either as evil, evil to neutral, neutral, neutral to good, or good--with seven different tracks for each that will fade in and out more or less at random to ensure that you aren't forced to listen to the same one all the time. We only got to hear a handful of different tracks on our visit, but those that we did wouldn't have sounded out of place in a Hollywood epic, and they are sure to sound even better when they're accompanying onscreen action.
What we've seen of Black & White II to date basically amounts to a collection of mostly very good ideas, which, if they're successfully brought together, should amount to a game that's even more fascinating--and fun--than the original. If everything has gone according to plan at Black & White Studios since our visit, something more closely resembling an actual game should be on show at GDC later this week. We'll let you know when we get there.