I seriously disliked the first Black & White – I should probably stress that right up front. For those of you who plowed through my review of it, all roughly 9 million words, you could possibly recall that my greatest complaint was that your role didn’t seem very godlike (incidentally, for those of you who didn’t have the patience to read through it all, bear in mind that I not only wrote it, but then reread it in preparation for my review of B&W2, so in effect I’ve actually read it TWICE). In the first B&W you harvested grain, gathered wood, told your people where to build and what to build, and performed a series of itty bitty eenie meenie miny tiny miracles – like making it rain or creating food, and throwing the occasional fireball – all in the hopes of swaying your enemy’s worshippers to yourself. I opined that perhaps my role in the game was closer to concierge than god. Much of the focus of the game seemed to center on your creature, a giant animal (in my case a monkey) that you could teach to do your bidding, to be your physical emissary on earth. I instead chose to beat mine and teach it to eat my people, apparently without penalty as far as the game was concerned. I suppose it is up to each man to decide how he wants to play with his own monkey. In creating the creature they may have thought they created this incredible interpretive interactive AI, but I saw training the creature as time consuming, onerous, dull, inconsistent, unreliable, and inadequately rewarded in the scheme of the game. In short, I didn’t like it – any of it really. Too thin to be another Civilization, less awe-inspiring than Populous, too rambling, uncoordinated and pacifistic for an RTS, B&W resided in an unentertaining gray area between Caesar and Sim Earth.
Anyway, without perhaps repeating my entire previous review, I just thought it was important to get a little perspective on what B&W was, because in a lot of ways B&W2 is the same. I’m still concierge and city planner to the people, I’m still playing with my gigantic monkey (or rather I could have played with my giant monkey, but just to be different I went with a tiger this time), and I’ve still got my bag of insignificant miracles. On the other hand, there have been vast improvements as well. The entire creature training process has been streamlined, taking far less time to make a far more useful creature. Cities have far more complexity in the shear number of building types available for construction. I’ve got new epic miracles like volcanoes and earthquakes with which to smite my enemies – definitely more godlike! Most importantly, the entire game has been recast into a more standard RTS mold, which, if you happen to like RTS games, makes B&W2 a lot more enjoyable. However, despite these changes, and B&W2 is far from the only RTS game to suffer from this, extensive repetition in the basic mechanics of the game and a timid enemy AI drags the whole affair down considerably, making the later levels more arduous than interesting and challenging.
B&W2 is, under the hood at least, a rather standard RTS. Your peasants gather four resoures – food, wood, ore, and mana. They’ll do a certain amount of gathering on their own, but they do a better job of it if you assign them to the task (the game calls this creating a disciple). If you create a farming disciple that person will do nothing but farm from sunup to sundown, and you can similarly create forester, miner, and prayer disciples. It’s a little strange because now instead of one type of peasant to manage I have many, but in terms of actual gameplay it doesn’t change much. There is additionally a fifth type of resource, people, and it’s up to you to create breeder disciples and monitor your town’s population as you lose them to war and old age and such. It’s also up to you to tell them where to build houses, temples, armories, foundries – none of this is dramatically new to the RTS world. The village square very helpfully tells you what the people want and how badly they want it and offers just tons of other useful information about your society – you can practically run the whole show from the village square. That is a truly great thing.
Probably the largest deviation from the RTS mold is the creatures. There are now four creatures to choose from instead of three (wolf, cow, tiger, and monkey – the wolf is new). B&W2 tells you even less than B&W1 about the significance of choosing one over the other, saying only that each creature can grow up to be anything you train it to be. I Personally couldn’t see rallying behind a cow into battle and I played the monkey in the last game, so it was kind of a coin toss between the tiger and the wolf. As your creature wanders around the map he’ll try and interact with the objects he finds or that you give to him. A thought balloon appears over his head “I think I’ll smash these trees” or “I’m going to eat this villager.” If you want him to fulfill his thought, wave your godlike hand over his tummy in a rubbing motion and an attitude bar will appear over his head and slide to the right through “I’ll sometimes smash trees” through “I’ll frequently smash trees” to “I’ll always smash trees.” You could also use your hand to slap him, and that will slide the attitude bar in the other direction. Carrot and stick complete with a grading scale – now we’re creature training! While occasional reinforcement is required, by and large your creature does learn what you do and don’t want him to do, what you do and don’t want him to eat, and training him to a new task is no more difficult than handing him and object and seeing what he thinks of trying to do with it, and then disciplining him appropriately. You can also assign your creature to a specific role, like gatherer or warrior, and that will make him concentrate on that task. The game warns about leaving him in one role too long – something about decreasing his free will and turning him into a robot – I didn’t understand it really, but as a whole there is never really a need to leave him in one role forever as some new task is always coming up that he can help you with. Additionally, if you want to train your creature to be really good at a particular task you can spend tribute to buy a creature upgrade in that task.
What’s tribute? For doing good things for your people, feeding them, protecting them, reaching certain city benchmarks, solving side quests, the people repay you in tribute, sort of a cosmic form of tithing. Tribute can be exchanged for new building types, military units, new spells and miracles for you to cast, training for your creature, or other general upgrades. There is a huge selection of stuff you can spend tribute on, and at least early on it seems that you want all of them; tribute becomes, perhaps inadvertently, the goal that drives you – at least it did for me.
Where the game starts to really bogs down, and maybe people who play Sim games will disagree with me here, is in actually winning the levels. Building up a fledgling society, laying out small cities is interesting, but to actually win a level requires taking over all of the enemy cities in the land, which can be accomplished one of two ways. First, you can build a city so huge and impressive that your enemy citizens will abandon his cities to come live in yours (they actually pick up and march across the map – VERY slowly- to your border and request to live there). This doesn’t give you possession of his physical cities, but when he’s out of people he loses. Winning this way requires a VERY large, VERY impressive city which takes a VERY long time to build up, boatloads of micromanagement as the large city runs out of food, ore, or wood, and becomes overcrowded and unhappy, not to mention that frequently geography can make just fitting a city large enough and impressive enough into the available space difficult. Incidentally, this route is considered “good,” and this is sort of what the first B&W was like. The second way to win is to raise an army to go capture his cities one at a time (“evil”). The difficulty here is that soldiers are actually men from your town removed from the pool of people capable of doing other work there and soldiers eat food at twice the normal rate. What I’m saying is that fielding a large army again requires an enormous micromanaged city. It actually becomes worse than that because each captured city must be grown and managed as well. So no matter how you slice the game up, B&W2 starts each level with only a town center and you have to build up the town, build up the population, and it takes a really long time. Additionally, this entire time, the enemy is threatening you verbally and sending tiny clusters of troops at you that your creature or a small standing force can handle easily. Very little really exciting or challenging is going on, but it sure takes a long time to happen!
I’m trying like mad to avoid another 9 million word review here, but B&W2 is a very complex game – I’ll readily give them credit for that. It’s also beautiful graphically, which is not a compliment I throw out to just any game. I think almost everyone is going to be able to find some facet – the city management, interacting with the creature, the combat, the side quests – that they like, but somewhere in the mechanics of actually playing the game that facet is going to become lost and buried under the trainloads of other things that must be tended to in order to achieve victory. B&W2 has funny bits and strategic bits and dramatic moments and the creature represents at points a fascinating AI with which to interact, but in terms of a game (and I know I probably use this phrase far too much) the total is much less than the sum of the parts.