Review: Black & White 2

11 12 2005

While most people try to avoid playing God—and indeed frown upon those who do—if premier game designer Peter Molyneux had his way, playing God would be something that every opposable-thumbed computer owner would look forward to.

In 2001, Molyneux created an innovative game that allowed players to be God. You controlled the world of Eden using (almost literally) your right hand, manipulating this world and its people however you pleased. The game was Black & White, and you were free to be any kind of god you wished—a vengeful, Old Testament-style god, or a peaceful, New Testament kind. While its open-endedness and charm drew in those not usually of the gaming persuasion, the game’s confusing directions and complete lack of interface left it feeling unpolished. Now, four years later, Molyneux’s has returned with Black & White 2, the long-awaited sequel that fixes many of the issues of the first installment, though still manages to be plagued with its own batch of problems.

In Black & White 2, you control the recently attacked Greeks, forcing you to help them flee and rebuild. With the aid of your equally powerful pet, you must help your people regain their glory and defeat their Aztec enemies. Where in the previous game your “ranking” as a supreme being was based entirely on the way you treated your people, the sequel determines how good/evil you are by the way you conquer the world. If you wish to be a first-rate god, you can build massive cities with impressive monuments, persuading other cities to join your empire. If you feel more like a bad-boy deity, you can simply amass an army and conquer foreign cities by force. Your pet, who assists you throughout the game, can be trained to be a ruthless warrior, or a kind gatherer and builder. The best improvement by far, though, is the addition of a real-time strategy (RTS) style interface, allowing you to easily select which kinds of buildings or miracles you wish to create easily, instead of employing a variety of keys.

Graphically, the game is sound, if not above average. Each new landscape is lush, with vegetation and mountainous areas, with the full range of weather effects, and, of course, this wouldn’t be a Molyneux game without an abundant amount of light bloom giving everything a nice, retina-burning glow. The ambient sound in the game is clear and precise, though the music can be a bit bland. The soundtrack only becomes dynamic during combat, and otherwise doesn’t add much experience.

The problem with Black & White 2 is that, for all these wonderful additions, their implementation tends to take away from the whole experience. For example, while it’s nice to finally be able to actually understand your pet (by means of thought bubbles, a feature absent in the original), his overall value is limited; he’s only any use as a soldier, at which point he becomes overly effective, and can destroy whole armies by himself. Also, the interface, while a nice addition, can easily become frustrating due to the lack of hot keys. You can only use your mouse to navigate it—and while I understand the whole “the hand of god” motif, it becomes a bit clunky when you’re forced to control six or seven cities with one freaking hand.

My biggest grievance with the game, however, is that your ranking is solely determined by whether or not you go to war—an annoying feature, since no matter how big a city you build, your enemies will always attack you, meaning you always have to have an army at the ready, effectively ensuring that your going to be at war at some point or another. The game gives you no real reason to be good, and with that, the charm of the first game is almost completely lost.

That said, Black & White 2 is still a fun, slow-paced game that improves on the original by leaps and bounds. While some of the magic of the first game seems lost due to these changes, you will still get hours of entertainment from this godly adventure.

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