(Wow, this is a big
game, so expect a long writeup. I've only just started playing too, so expect it to get longer.)
Black & White is a highly ambitious god sim by Lionhead Studios. It was in development for about three years. It's big and highly complex (the biggest and most complex game in existence as of this writing, in fact), but almost inevitably has some serious flaws. And some of these aren't your common or garden "game X implements feature Y better" nitpicks, but huge, gaping holes that make you wonder if they really employed testers for this game (the gameplay side at least - technically it's pretty solid). In a nutshell, it's dull. In spite of its problems, the game does raise the bar of what can be expected from a "deep" PC game. It's a bit like Quake in that respect - easy to criticise but definitely a big technological leap. Except Quake is fun. The following are some things that (I think) went right and wrong.
If I had to point out one thing that's really, really wrong with this game, it would have to be the ridiculous level of micro-management involved. This is made even more jarring when you consider that so many strategy games have taken the emphasis off micromanagement (or even resource management in general). Until you get quite established, you have to constantly monitor your settlements and manually drive on their expansion. It can be immeasurably tedious and repetitive.
In most RTSs, you tell your guys to make a building and bam, it appears (or slowly builds itself, should you have enough materials). In B&W, you have to first make sure you have lots of wood (by casting the Wood spell, making some villagers foresters and/or dropping wood into their store manually). You then have to build a scaffold (which you can make one at a time, and have to manually supply the wood for). Once you have enough scaffolds, you have to place it in the right location, and tell people to work on it and supply them with wood (all of this will happen automatically over time, but it takes hours).
Coupled with the navigation method (and being hindered by slow charging spells, slow villagers and slow manual wood drag-and-dropping, especially early on) this process can be glacially slow. It wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't obviously engineered to slow down the pace of the game. When you consider that most of the construction ideas are lifted wholesale from The Settlers, you'd think they'd at least give the villagers enough autonomy to get on with it. There is precious little progression available as well (there's no tech tree, no military aspect, no timeline, and only a couple of dozen spells, none of which are particularly powerful or impressive unlike those in every other Populous-derived game).
N.B. : I now understand the micromanagement side a bit better and can see how it can reach (hard fought) equilibrium. It's still significantly flawed though.
Although the game makes a big display of there being 'no wrong choices', it's insanely hard to maintain a 'good' alignment. While evil points can be gained from practically anything you do (or simply 'neglecting' your villagers... e.g. getting bored of ferrying fucking trees across the landscape for five minutes), 'goodness' requires you to be playing perfectly and performing acts of good all the time. The system is about advanced as that in Ultima IV, only implemented far worse. I defy anyone to even get into the 'good' side of the scale. You're substantially set back from the start by your creature merrily scoffing villagers whenever unattended... because in the game's rules, death is always evil. Which is just stupid. Good idea, unbalanced implementation.
Much has been made of the AI in Black & White, and with good reason. Although Lionhead
's claims that it's really cutting edge, academic level stuff are spurious, it is still pretty impressive
. Because your creature is pretty much a blank slate
to begin with (although not that blank... it has some sense of self-preservation
at least), it acts pretty stupidly. But by interacting with it appropriately (and teaching it thoroughly) you can coax some complex and useful behaviour out of it. The simplest thing you can do is use it as a harvester
(get it to pull up trees and throw them into the store and water - and fertilise
- crops) but as it can do (nearly) any action that you can, the sky's the limit
As well as behaving realistically (and it's eerily realistic at times), the creature's physical model is very expressive and changes to reflect the state of the creature very accurately. My ape is currently veering slightly to the side of good, and is thin (due to regulating what it can eat - i.e. NOT villagers!) and muscular (thanks to teaching it to catch and throw rocks about on the beach). It also has a cool two-tone tattoo on its chest. All in all, the most successful element of the game (although the manual is woefully inadequate in explaining how to use it). In fact, it's when you realise that you're not concerned by (not-so) trivial things like path-finding and you see your creature make an intelligent decision, it hits home that this is a great implementation. And it gets bonus points simply for not being The Sims.
At this point I should mention the terrain
engine. The guys who worked on this surely know their onions
. My first session in the game was largely spent going "gaaaah...!" as the island
zoomed and rotated effortlessly at my command (well, kind of, see the next section...). I wondered how they managed to get so much on screen without the game slowing down (unlike most Sim games, everything is represented actual size), but quickly worked out that it was smoke and mirrors
- zoom out enough and sprites
kick in. This happens so fluidly and imperceptibly however that it's hard to find fault.
The engine is basically tuned to perfection to do its one task very, very well. Having played games with engines built with licensing in mind for the last few years, such an optimised environment comes as a hell of a shock. Immersive? You betcha. But are graphics the most important thing? Well, as you and I (but not PC Gamer) know by now, they're definitely not.
Much has been made of the 'gesture
' system for casting spells in the game. It's certainly original, but it's also almost completely useless
. At the bottom of the screen there are a set of icons representing the gestures you can cast at any one time, along with a diagram of the gesture. Now, this may sound like a crazy idea, but why not just let the player click on these icons
?? Although to be fair the system does allow you to cast spells fairly effortlessly and looks cool (rather like the superfluous first person
view in Dungeon Keeper
). Come to think of it, although the philosophy
behind the interface is 'no icons
', there are icons everywhere
- the village desire
flags, the spells
, the temple
, the scaffolds
Navigation is a bit of a mixed blessing (ba-dum-chh) as well. You can change views pretty much as you wish (performing town management from a birdseye view and interacting with your creature in close third person, for example) and generally fly about without having to think about it, once you get the hang of it. But you can only control so many degrees of freedom at once. You have to 'drag' the scenery around to scroll, which can get irritating (unless you set lots of bookmarks, which isn't much better really). Games like Earth 2150 felt a lot simpler. There's also a pseudo-Ultima Underworld style rotating mode, which is exasperatingly useless (and just serves to pitch your view wildly when you hit the top of the screen).
Everything else (saving, stats and tickertape of game messages, etc.) is managed through the Temple. This is a rather lame idea all round really, as it flies in the face of keeping everything fluid and intuitive (in fact, making it very onerous to check your creatures in-depth profile). It also looks quite crap - a Myst-style flythrough rendered in realtime, which is impressive exactly once. (Oh, and saving, by the way, takes approximately seven billion years on a large map - and you are forced to save all the bloody time.)
One final point that is perhaps too much to ask, is that there are no integrated communications features as far as I can tell (in the style of Tribes 2). If I could use ICQ and browse relevent information from inside the game, I'd probably never leave (if there was actually any point in playing the game after completing it, that is).
Tutorial & Quests... why?
If the AI
are resounding successes, then there is another, very prominent, element of the game which sucks hard. Whenever the game is being a big, powerful virtual sandpit
and a freeform
RTS/Sim like Populous
, it's great. But whenever you hit a pre-scripted
section, it all goes pear-shaped
. The game starts off on the wrong foot in fact - making you wade through the longest, most tedious, patronising, and badly acted tutorial
sequence ever commited to disk. (see Learning from Lotus Notes
Now, tutorials are an idea totally without merit to begin with (I blame those bloody space combat games), and suggest to me that the time spent developing them could be better spent making the interface more self explanatory (or writing a good manual, even). They're shite, without exception, and the one in Black & White is particularly bad (and you can't even skip it without the patch). There's a lot of information to get across, but why not just fire up (skippable) help sequences when the game is started? Or have a training mission or something? You know, like Dungeon Keeper did? Just don't make it as incongruous and shit as a tutorial.
But once you've weathered all that (and they keep popping up in dribs and drabs right through to the end of the second world), there's still some pain in store: the quests. Now, the 'quests', such as they are, come in two flavours: skippable and pointless and unskippable and easy. If anyone would seek to argue in their defence then they are clearly a fool. If I recall correctly, they were added to give the player 'more to do'. They must have taken not inconsiderable effort on behalf of the coders. But it was effort wasted.
Some of the quests involve a totally stupid crowbarring of a christmas cracker puzzle into the game world (e.g. towers of hanoi, rubik's clock, pelmanism... the last one a guess but I bet anything it's in there). Some require no skill, but try your patience (such as fetching items*, or having to perform some action that the interface makes disproportionately hard in a small time). None of them are enjoyable in the slightest or would bear repetition (compare and contrast the subquests and minigames in most modern console RPGs). When I reached a puzzle "that not even our wisest elders can solve" and found a piss-easy game of Simon, I stopped playing in enraged disgust for a fortnight. Hardly next generation entertainment.
To make it worse, they spoil the illusion terribly - all of a sudden you have indestructible actors and sets placed in the game world. There are also plot devices sprinkled around liberally (some of which help to balance the game). The most annoying thing is that although the game should be 'pure' and 'freeform', these little tasks are neither. You can't even figure out your own solution in many cases, you have to trigger the proscribed event. Maniac Mansion it ain't. And the presentation is completely risible (with one significant exception, see below) - both graphically and sonically. At one point Lionhead were making noises along the lines of "it's not a strategy game, it's an RPG". Well, fuck that, you've just been playing Zelda too much. This is as much an RPG as I am a heron.
N.B. : Did I mention how buggy it is? If the game has 50 hours of gameplay, roughly half of those are retracing your steps after it crashes randomly after several hours of unsaved play. For that matter, nearly 90% of the time is spent gardening unless you want to run out of wood - and wood is like oxygen in this game.
Puzzle using the iFeel
parsed from the internet. Villager names taken from email
address book. Creature can dance to MP3
s (not yet implemented). Creatures can be used in some ICQ
style program (not yet implemented). All nice touches which add and subtract nothing from the game. All a very obvious nod to Hideo Kojima
's silly little 'touches' in Metal Gear Solid
. In both cases, many column inches were devoted to these gimmicks
with comments along the lines of "yet another example of the attention to detail in this game". No, they're not. They're gimmicks, gimmicks engineered to distract absolute fucking fools
from the myriad problems with the game.
When a game's readme file devotes more time to explaining the procedure for getting the game to alert you to incoming email than it does mentioning that the game is riddled with show-stopping bugs and is basically unplayable online, you realise someone has lost the plot*.
*Not that there is a plot in the game, just a half-assed sequence of events strung together with some 'funny' (i.e. horrible) voice acting.
While we're on the topic, the game really was ridiculously overhyped
. Granted, it's a significant
step in the evolution of PC games (from a technical vantage point
), but surprisingly few of the lofty claims and promises that preceded it have been delivered on. It's not the best game ever
, which was the team's specific aim from the start, and gushingly alluded to in the readme file ("Making this game, we found out who we really were. We hope that, as you play, you'll find out who YOU really are." Gack!). Worst of all, it's a bit
buggy and there are features missing (yes, even with the ridiculously delayed and flaky patch).
After three years, this is a bit rich, but I think we can blame EA for this as much as Lionhead. But if EA are the root of the problem (and I can imagine that at least some of the problems with the game came as a result of trying to appease the suits), why are Lionhead such a bunch of fucking pussies? This game is a far cry from the vaunted 'Bullfrog ethos' of the mid-Nineties. Would Yuji Naka (for example) fuck up his games to ring up some extra sales? I think not.
I haven't had a chance to play it yet, but it looks to me like the online game is much like every Bullfrog online game (except Syndicate
).... slow, a bit non-confrontational and unfocussed. Could be mindblowing with the right kind of mods
though (I wonder if there'll be any mods for this game? Is it possible?).
Concerning Old Farts and Cambridge Dons
An unfair issue, perhaps, but maybe the 'answer' that Black & White represents isn't quite to my satisfaction because Lionhead are asking the wrong 'question'. As I understand it, Lionhead are comprised of industry veterans
(with a strategy/paper-rpg slant) and maths/technology guru
s (and Steve Jackson
for some reason). Their view of what would make a perfect game seems strangely out of kilter with the post-1997 world. On top of this, they seem to have aimed the game at the most casual of gamers ("now try moving the mouse... good... good..."), so you end up with a game that's half Fischer-Price
hand-holding and half hardcore snoozy tin-pushing
. Essentially, it's like Populous with added gardening and pet ownership.
But somehow, it works. You can't help but think that it would be better (maybe even recapturing that quality that made Syndicate, Magic Carpet, Dungeon Keeper and Populous so good) if they'd not pandered to the casuals, and left out the stupid quests and just concentrated on making the game tight and entertaining. Still, it's nearer Chris Sawyer (Transport Tycoon) territory than Will Wright (The Sims), so for that I am thankful.
The best thing about the game, and the one thing that received no publicity
at all, is unleashed completely unannounced at the end of the first world. Nemesis
, your imaginatively-named nemesis
in the game, an evil and callous god, is voiced by none other than ... (kneel, because you really are not worthy) ... Hugo Myatt !
from seminal kids TV show Knightmare
.) I don't know if he gets to say "The only way is onward, there is no turning back
", "Ooh dear", or "Life force critical!
" but he still rocks the helmet of justice
. He is criminally under-used though.
Basically the game is a mixture of Settlers 2
with a fairly powerful (yet not exactly revolutionary) AI system thrown in. Oh, and there are only five single player levels (although they're 'worlds' that take hours to play). There. Those two sentences are all you need to know to guide your purchase and yet none of the arse-kissing multi-page magazine reviews bothered to actually tell you this. A great (not at all classic) game to be sure, but next time Peter
(and company), can we have something that isn't just (yet another) Populous
*The worst fucking part of the game by a country mile is the 'Ark Quest' on map one. You have to bring various items to some people building a ship. After each stage, you are subjected to the most annoying song ever ("Eidle Eidle Eee, Eidle Eidle Eee, We've built it too big and we've run out of wood...." etc.). Did you, Peter Molyneux, sit in your nice office and play through this and give it the green light? If you did, you're fucking, fucking insane. And rich. Damn you. Gizza job.
There is a revised and extended version of this piece at http://www.rantingextreme.com/articles/b&w.shtml