Black & White

No shades of grey here.

snap969Lionhead Studios has taken the god-game genre pioneered by its founder, Peter Molyneux, and revolutionized the genre with stunning AI and amazing visuals. Amazingly, Black & White has made good on all its promises hyped up during its development. And you really haven’t played anything quite like this before. Things start simply: in a world known as Eden, a family is out for a beachside stroll. Their son runs off into the ocean and suddenly finds himself in deep, shark-infested water. The parents cry out in prayer for someone to save him, and you are created as an answer to their pleas, and save their son.

Once called into existence, and as any self-respecting Populous player will recognize instantly, you must expand your realm by gaining more believers and spreading your influence. Eventually, a story involving an evil god named Nemesis and a set of powerful items called “creeds” is introduced. It’s up to you to defeat Nemesis and obtain all the “creeds.” Exactly how this is accomplished is up to you. You may become Beelzebub-incarnate and rule through terror and wickedness, or play the benevolent card and gain believers through love and compassion. Thus, Black & White.

Your own personal Eden

Eden itself is a planet not too different from our own. There are blue oceans, towering snow-capped mountains, and lush, green forests. The people that populate it require food, shelter, safety, and, eventually, offspring. They giggle or sob while other hypnotic ambient sounds bring this unique game world to life.

snap985You interact with the lovely world of Eden in two ways. The first is through your mouse-controlled hand. Think of it as an actual extension of yourself into the physical realm. With it, you can pick up and replace boulders, trees, and villagers, cast spells, and travel from village to village. To toss a boulder, you grab one in your fist, move your mouse forward with the button pressed and release it to send that rock sailing. The camera is also moved along with the mouse-controlled hand in combination with several keyboard buttons.

Spells, known as miracles, are cast through mouse movements called “Gestures.” For example, to start up a miracle, you make a clock-wise swirl with the mouse. This opens a spell menu at the bottom of the screen that lists other miracle-specific gestures. All you have to do to cast these miracles is make their respective gestures. Making a “W” motion with the mouse casts a water miracle, moving up and down rapidly casts a fireball, and making the shape of a heart casts a healing miracle. There are plenty of miracles to play with. You can protect your villages with shield miracles, lay down the law with lightning miracles ot impress non-believing villagers with the Flock of Birds miracle that makes a flock of doves magically appear.

However, you do have some limits. You are only able to interact with objects and cast spells within your circle of influence — highlighted in the game world by a shimmering, translucent red wall. This circle grows as more people believe in you and your influence grows. More worshipers means more prayer power, and more prayer power means you can cast more miracles. But how can you make them believe in you if you can’t do anything outside of your circle of influence?

Creature comforts

This is where the second method of interacting with the world comes into play: your creature. Think of the creature as the ambassador of your will. In the extensive early game, once you’ve practiced controlling the camera, you get to choose from three base creatures: a chimp, a tiger, and a cow (others are made available later in the game or via free downloads online), each with unique attributes. The chimp is smart but not the strongest fighter, the tiger is dumb but ferocious, and the cow is docile and plodding. Like any parent, it’s up to you to teach your creature how to behave with a brilliant balance of punishment and reward.

snap1002The theory is simple, but mastery of it is a real challenge. If your creature does something bad, you slap him around. If he does something right, you pet him. Moving the hand cursor slowly over the creature — under his chin or on his belly — acts as a ‘pet’ while quick short twitches of the mouse translate into slaps. Be your alignment good or evil, you pet and punish in the same way, but for different actions. Should your pet eat villagers, set fire to houses, and behave as Godzilla, he can, if that’s the behavior that you choose to reward.

This system relies on some meaty AI – your creature wanders around doing his own thing whenever not under your direct control. The AI is one of the game’s major high points. Each creature develops their own personality – they feel anger, sadness, and happiness, and aren’t afraid to show it. There’s a strategy to balancing these personality quirks. Dumber creatures, such as the tiger, will take more reinforcement before they learn their lessons, but the chimp will figure things out faster. Eventually, the creature will be able to do anything you can do, from casting miracles to finding food for villagers. To teach it, you just have to attach it to the “leash of learning” and have it watch you perform whatever it is you want it to learn. It can also learn things by watching villagers go about their daily chores.

bw_slide_1As your creature ages, it grows in size and its alignment is reflected in its physical appearance. For example, a benevolent chimp will look cute and huggable, while an evil one will look menacing. This also applies to the appearance of your hand icon. If you’re good, it looks clean and healthy; if you’re bad, it turns purple, veins bulge out, and your nails grow long and claw-like. Subtle little touches like these give the game its charm. There isn’t nearly enough room here to go through all of Black & White’s intricacies, but it’s definitely worth delving head-deep into Eden and finding out how things work for yourself. You won’t feel disappointed.

System Requirements: Pentium 166 MHz, 32 MB RAM, Windows 95

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