E3 2002: Black & White: Next Generation first look

Lionhead demos the console adaptation of the popular PC god game, which now has a new control scheme that works better for gamepads.

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Ports of PC games haven't traditionally done well on consoles. For this reason, Lionhead Studios decided to adapt the design of its 2001 PC hit, Black & White, to better match the style and conventions of console gaming. While Lionhead's Project Ego is set to take the spotlight at this E3, the studio's founder, Peter Molyneux, was on hand before the show to give us an early demo of Black & White: Next Generation running on a PlayStation 2.

The most fundamental change to Black & White is the direct control scheme. Instead of controlling a floating "hand of god" with the mouse and indirectly influencing a pet creature, in Black & White: Next Generation, players control the creature directly with the d-pad. All attention is focused on the creature. It's the creature that casts miraculous spells, impresses villagers, and engages in combat. Worshipping villagers still charge up the power source for godly miracles, but now villagers follow the creature around instead of worshipping at a central temple.

Followers glow red as they mill around the creature's feet, making it easy to tell them from regular villagers, who keep busy with day-to-day tasks like growing food and building homes. The more followers you have adding to your spellpower and combat ability (indicated by an onscreen power meter), the fewer are keeping your village healthy and growing. By holding down a button, you can call more villagers to gather around your creature, and a different button assigns them building and harvesting tasks. Molyneux likened the villagers to the Pikmin from Nintendo's quirky strategy game, and said that this console version of Black & White is even more of a cross between RPG and god game than we saw in the strategy and god-game emphasis of Black & White for PC.

The creatures were widely considered the most unique element of Black & White, and despite the direct control scheme, Lionhead has left the creature personality AI intact. The direct control scheme would make it particularly frustrating if the creature wandered off and disobeyed your orders as it's likely to do early in the PC game, so Lionhead has had to weave in the personality elements in less intrusive ways. Creatures still learn from players using a Tamagotchi-like punishment-and-reward system, but instead of complete disobedience, the bad behavior players will have to correct is more like the occasional trampling or eating of innocent villagers. Part of the original game's appeal came from trying out different types of creatures, from mighty bears and fierce tigers to smart apes and hardy turtles. But it's now easier to switch creatures later in the game, since now all changing creatures requires is a particular spell. Given that different creatures have varying abilities, there's incentive to change forms to best reflect the situation, but you also might just prefer one creature over another.

The game's graphics engine has been completely rebuilt for the needs of the PlayStation 2, but keeps the scalability seen in the original game. The view distance is practically infinite, because the game adapts the level of detail of objects in the world on the fly. Even when the camera following the creature looks out from the tallest peak on an island, you can see far out into the distance. Even with all this graphical detail, the simulation part of the game is still running, so you can make out villagers moving in distant settlements. While the textures and environments don't look as detailed as in the PC version, there are still some nice effects, notably a water rippling effect on the expansive ocean surrounding the island. A neat element of Black & White's engine is that the look of the creature changes to reflect your alignment towards good or evil, and this reflects the game's central emphasis on giving players the opportunity to play in different ways.

Black & White: Next Generation has been previously listed for both Xbox and PlayStation 2, but we only saw the PS2 version running. Lionhead wouldn't specify a release date, but confirmed that the game won't be out before next year.

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