Black & White Preview

Curious about the upcoming console versions of Lionhead's phenomenal Black & White? We've got the latest information regarding the PlayStation and Dreamcast versions.

With the critical acclaim that Black & White has thus far enjoyed, the fact that Lionhead has several console ports in the works should come as no surprise. For those who've managed to escape the buzz surrounding the game, Black & White is the latest god simulation from Peter Molyneux, who is widely recognized as the pioneer of the strategy subgenre. The game puts you in the role of an upstart deity who must battle other gods for the faith of the inhabitants of a small island. To effectively win their faith, you'll have to convince them of your divinity--you can either shower them with blessings and kindness, thus winning their love, or you can take a more "fire and brimstone" approach and inspire fear in them. Combinations of the two are also possible, and they've proven quite effective for intrepid and creative players.

The images that most people associate with Black & White, however, are the creatures that you gain control of early on in the game. Basically, they're giant bipedal animals that serve as the primary manifestation of your divinity to the villagers. The creatures are like children--they must be raised, nurtured, and taught, and the way you treat them when they're young has a great effect on how they'll eventually turn out. Each of the three basic creature types has its own characteristics: The cow is the most passive and peaceful, the tiger is the most aggressive and willful, and the ape is the quickest learner, though he isn't very strong or imposing. What shapes the creatures most, though, is your treatment of them. Basically, the creatures can imitate any action you perform in their presence, be it moving something in the gameworld or performing a miracle (the game's spells). You can either reward or punish such actions. The former consists of praising the animal by petting it and such; the latter consists of severely beating the beast. The game's sophisticated behavioral model allows your creature to learn from your reactions to its behavior--beat it after it randomly eats a villager, for instance, and it will likely cease such actions. Praise it after performing a miracle, on the other hand, and it will surely continue to do so. Your treatment of the creature also affects its general disposition--regular beatings will result in a creature that is angry and vicious, while repeated unwarranted praise will cause your creature to be spoiled and idle. As you'd imagine, getting your creature to behave the way you want it to is more of an art than a science--different reinforcement patterns work for different gods, and choosing which to adhere to depends on your overall strategy.

As the point of Black & White is to win the faith of humans through impressive acts of divinity, you'll have to devise strategies that let you do so in the most effective manner. Performing miracles is one way to do it, and Black & White's system for doing so is very intriguing. In the PC version, casting a spell is achieved by tracing a certain pattern on the screen with a mouse--one notable example requires you to trace a pentagram onscreen. We can only assume that in the coming console versions, you'll use an analog stick to trace the patterns. Whatever the case, you can perform only so many miracles before your followers begin taking them for granted. While they'll initially be very impressed by your creating food for their starving populations, they'll eventually become less and less moved by such miracles. By the same token, if you launch travesty upon travesty on them, they'll quickly take to their sad lot and be less moved by further atrocities. Players of the PC version have found that keeping the villagers on their toes--by alternately blessing and cursing them--is a good way to earn their respect. And when you consider that your creature's actions can also influence your worshippers' faith, a multitude of potential strategies become instantly apparent. Black & White is a very free-form game, and it allows for many ways to go about fulfilling your godly agenda.

At its core, though, the game is very much grounded in the strategy genre. During any given mission, there will be other gods trying to sway the island's inhabitants in their own favor. To quell your rivals, you'll have to more deeply impress the villagers by being harsher, kinder, and generally more divine than they are, as the situation warrants. These other gods, though, will have giant creatures of their own roaming the island, enacting their will and swaying the villagers in their favor. As you'd imagine, when your creature meets one of your rivals' creatures, a duel ensues--what transpires is a rather comical hand-to-hand showdown between both creatures, with the most ferocious emerging as the victor.

Those looking for an altogether unique experience should definitely be excited about Black & White coming to the consoles. Visually, both the PlayStation and Dreamcast ports are relatively humble when compared with the PC version. The game's interface, though, is clean enough to easily manage the console port--the PC version's default configuration required no use of the keyboard, and an analog stick and a set of buttons could easily take up all of the mouse's functions. Also, the fact that both console versions are being developed internally by Lionhead Studios bodes extremely well for the integrity of the ports. We're anxiously awaiting playable versions of the games, as we're intensely curious as to how they'll make it through the transition. We'll keep you posted, at any rate, so keep your eyes on this space. Both the PlayStation and Dreamcast versions of Black & White are due to ship at the end of this year.

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