It has become a tradition in the field of video game criticism to bash developer Peter Molyneux. He has been called overly ambitious, unrealistic and an outright liar for announcing tantalizing game concepts and features, then abandoning them before the game’s release.

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Tiny video game characters … with spicy club sauce! (Courtesy of EA Games)

When the original “Black and White” came out, fanboys concentrated on what wasn’t there when they opened the box, criticizing the game heavily. The game, centered around the trials of a young god who must choose between good and evil, was supposed to be able to name the player’s followers after addresses in their Outlook Express mailbox. If players received a new message while in the game, it would be displayed to them by one of their minions who would carry the same name as the letter writer.

While the sequel to “Black and White” still doesn’t have this and other whiz-bang features, Molyneux and Lionhead Studios have done their part to refine a game that was, while conceptually mind-blowing, a little rough around the edges.

Gone are the crab-shaped limbs of the original game’s inhabitants; the sequel’s graphics finally allow players to zoom seamlessly from the clouds down to the faces of their human flock. The player’s main outlet for communication to followers, the feature that distinguishes “Black and White” from other “god games,” is a giant animal (cow, orangutan, lion or hyena), trained by the young god to be either good or evil. It’s now less of a Tamagotchi-esque add-on and more like a real feature. Players now know what they’re specifically teaching their pets – the pets have finally become intelligent.

Besides graphics and an improved artificial intelligence, the major advancement brought about in “Black and White 2” is something not new to seasoned Real Time Strategy (RTS) veterans – warfare. In the original game, decisions between being either good and evil were more cut and dry, there was no incentive to be evil apart from the inherent thrill in crushing your followers.

But with the inclusion of combat, players who would normally take over a land the “good way” (by building a beautiful city and advanced enough to entice migration from other cities of other gods), now have a faster, more evil option. Sure, it is “evil” to train your creature for war and have it lead your troops into battle, but it saves time that players should probably be spending studying for tests or writing papers. Molyneux and Lionhead deserve to be commended for making the temptation to be evil that much more attractive.

Typical RTS fans might feel as if the game is too simplistic for them. But that’s not the point; gamers who would play “Black and White 2” and complain about the lack of specialized army men, or multi-branching upgrade trees don’t understand what Molyneux is trying to do. It’s groundbreaking game design and matchless in ambition and scope. His experiment in morality makes players feel realistically godlike. From its lush, ambient tribal music to the crisp, close-up in faces of your disciples, “Black and White 2” is a singular gaming experience from start to finish.

 

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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