Black & White II Updated Impressions

We take an updated look at Lionhead's sequel to Black & White at Game Developers Conference 2004.

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Lionhead Studios brought along an updated version of its upcoming strategy sequel Black & White II to GDC 2004. Creative director Peter Molyneux admits that the original Black & White had some very lofty expectations to meet when it was first released, and explained that the first game did not meet his own expectations completely. Both the original game and the sequel let you play as a disembodied god who takes control of a starting village, then gradually expands through force of arms or by encouraging the populace to breed. The sequel will also bring back creatures--gigantic animal wards that resemble upright-walking lions, apes, and cows, which can be used as powerful military units, and trained by giving them positive feedback, such as praise and a gentle pat on the head, and negative feedback, such as beating them with a stick. However, the sequel will strip out many of the less-developed features of the original game (and its expansion pack, Creature Isle), like giving your creature the ability to raise its own creature.

Instead, the new game will focus on two major strategies, which Molyneux sums up with this question: "Are you the god of war, or the god of peace?" You can achieve victory by amassing a huge army of soldiers, or by creating such a massive and ornate home city that neighboring cities will flock to you and become loyal citizens. Creating a warlike civilization will involve building barracks to train your subjects as soldiers, as well as training your creature for war. According to Molyneux, "there is absolutely no limit on the number of soldiers you can have" in the game, which is why the game's battalion control system will be so important. Armies will automatically file into small battalions, each of which will be indicated by a flag icon. You can order an entire battalion to attack simply by selecting its flag, then issue move, attack, or defend orders. Since the game will have a context-sensitive interface, ordering one battalion to move onto another will cause it to follow that other battalion; in this way, you can link several squads of soldiers to one original squad and give only this squad orders, and the rest will follow suit. You'll apparently be able to use this structure to create varied armies with different marching orders, where swordsmen take the fore and archers and siege weapons bring up the rear. You'll also be able to direct your armies to man walls--a new civic development that can be built around your cities to repel invaders.

Walls can be built between individual guard towers by clicking and dragging around the area you'd like to wall in--according to Molyneux, this process should be as simple as possible, rather than require you to constantly change camera angles and rotate your towers until they're just perfect. Walls will play a crucial role in the game's other major strategy--city development. While your subjects will go about their daily lives and may build their own enhancements, like planting trees and other smaller additions, your role as their god will let you place structures like taverns, which will increase your citizens' happiness, though like in real life, it's possible to get too much of a good thing--building too many taverns will drastically lower your population's productivity rate. However, keeping them happy will encourage them to have large, healthy families who will build more houses and fixtures for themselves. Eventually, if you can create a suitably large and impressive-looking city, the people of neighboring cities may pack up their things, file right into your city, and settle down, increasing your population considerably, but also leading to overcrowding and a decrease in the quality of living. And once you've conquered or assimilated all the towns on your island, you can turn your attention outward to neighboring islands, which will be populated by other independent towns that will grow and develop on their own using what Lionhead calls "level-of-detail AI." This provision will give the world a much more dynamic look and feel (as independent towns grow independent of your activities), and it will also improve the gameplay later on. Molyneux explained that this new system will avoid a common situation in other strategy games that he dislikes intensely--finishing a mission by building up a massive complex, then going on to a new mission and starting over from scratch building each individual structure. The new game will let you build up your initial town, then, as you seek to expand, simply go back to your original holdings, grab some citizens and resources, and drop them down into the new area to get a headstart.

We also watched some of the new epic miracles in action. Both Black & White games have "miracles"--acts of god (in this case, you) that are essentially moderately powerful magic spells. However, the game will also have epic miracles--large-scale effects that will be featured in a brief cinematic cutscene and may completely change the environment, such as an erupting volcano that rises out of the ground and releases gouts of lava. Interestingly, Black & White II will feature a physics engine that will model anything from smashing wall with a catapult to the flow of lava down a hillside, which will run over outcroppings and pool in ravines. This modeling will extend to the way even normal miracles work; the fireball spell, for instance, can be hurled at an enemy army to deal damage, but it can also be dragged across a dormant volcano to reignite the lava, causing smaller lava flows. Boulders can be piled on top of a mountain, then nudged to create a rockslide that can devastate an invading army, or to create a makeshift buttress at the foot of your defensive walls.

Like its predecessor, Black & White II will still be a very ambitious game, though it also seems more focused on better-defined goals. The game will be completed and on store shelves after Lionhead finishes developing it.

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