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Publisher: Feral Interactive    Genre: Strategy & War
Min OS X: 10.4    CPU: G5 @ 1800 MHz    RAM: 512 MB    Hard Disk: 5100 MB    DVD-ROM    Graphics: 128 MB VRAM

Black & White 2
June 24, 2009 | Michael Yanovich

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Recently, Richard Garriott – better known among gamers as Lord British – spent $20 million of his own personal money for a vacation on the International Space Station. He built his self-made fortune by creating massively successful video games, starting with his initial entry into the genre, Akalabeth.

I helped him build his fortune. That is to say, I purchased a copy of that game when it was brand new – I was about ten years old at the time, and the lure of the cover art promised a world of danger and adventure that was irresistible to the boy I was. The cover depicted a giant, red demon rising up from a glowing pentagram, while a puny human wizard cowered in the face of the creature’s evil power.

I wanted THAT experience in the game. I wanted desperately to fight that creature; to battle it with swords and magic, to beat it into submission and make it beg for my pre-adolescent mercy.

Instead, what I got was stick figures.

Seriously, much of the “graphics” were just lines of text that represented the walls of a dungeon or the layout of a town. Creature battles were depicted with cheesy, flat graphics that looked like a moderately talented 8-year old had scribbled them with old crayons.

What the cover art promised, and what the game delivered, were two vastly different experiences.

I was... disappointed. And yes, that is an understatement.

Sure, it was barely 1980, and the game was pretty advanced for the day (this was five years before the first Bard’s Tale game came out). But advanced or not, it still didn’t deliver on its promise.

Nowadays, that longed-for experience is pretty commonplace. Lots of video games allow you to wage epic battles with hordes of demons. As our technology has evolved, so have the games. But it all had to start... somewhere.

And all that was the long way of saying that Black & White 2 is breaking new ground, that it may be more Bard’s Tale than Akalabeth, but that it still has a ways to go.

What new ground, you ask? Convergence. The idea’s been around for a while, but convergence games are still relatively new. See, old games did one thing and one thing only. Pole Position was a racing game. Donkey Kong was a platformer. Doom was a shoot-‘em-up. But over time, as computers have raced through massive advances every few years, game developers have attempted to harness the extra horsepower to merge genres. The games have stepped into new territory, but the growing pains have been obvious.

One of the more successful convergence stories is the Grand Theft Auto III series. They took a driving simulator, added a shoot-em-up game, and opened up a whole new world of gaming. Problem was, while the driving was fun, the shooting interface was problematic at best. Controls were clunky, and it was easy to get frustrated when you couldn’t beat a mission because it was so darned hard to aim your weapon at your opponents.

Now, Grand Theft Auto IV fixed many of those issues, and the new series has a vastly improved playability level. But neither the driving nor shooting elements are as good as other “dedicated” driving or shooting games. I expect that in another 10 years, the GTA VI series will leave current releases in the dust.

Now, if you think merging driving and shooting is a challenge, take a look at the Black & White series. These games merge elements from:

Real-Time Strategy games (such as Warcraft or Command & Conquer)

Sim-City (slightly more than just basic resource management & building that most RTS games have)

The Sims (you have to train a creature and guide it through its life, yet it maintains a modicum of free-will and self-determination).

And on top of that, it adds God game elements (Hints of Populous).

The resulting amalgam is quite interesting, but mainly in an, “I can’t wait to see what this will be like in 10 years” sort of way. Not that the game is bad, it’s pretty playable overall, but it’s just clunky. Jack of all trades, master of none.

Of course, this technological advance is already about four years old. After all, the game came out in 2005 on the PC side. I don’t know what took so long to port the game over, but it does feel odd to be writing a new review for a game that has been reviewed in depth many times before, and those reviews are all but buried in spider webs two feet deep.

Whatever. Here we go.

The Big Picture

The best thing I can say about this game is, it’s fun. I’m going to continue playing it even after this review has been published. And that’s not something I say very often.

But hand in hand with the best is the sad fact that the game has many downsides.

For those of you not familiar with the game concept – or for those who played the first part so long ago it’s hard to remember much about it – the idea is that you play the Hand of God, more or less. You have to grow your village, meet the villagers’ needs, and complete a series of objectives along the way. These usually have to do with taking over all other competing civilizations on the map. You can go about this task one of two ways (hence the game title): do enough Good that neighboring tribes voluntarily join yours, or use violence and force to break people and command them to do your bidding. That’s considered to be morally treacherous territory, obviously.


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