Retro Monday: “Black & White 2”

Title: “Black & White 2”

Developer: Lionhead Studios

Publisher: EA

Released: October 2005

Why am I not doing the first one? Because I don’t have it. And it also seems like the first is just an inferior version for the second, (the first coming out in 2001 and the sequel in 2005). From the brief looking up of the first “Black & White” and from playing the second, it looks like the second (where plot, mechanics, and style are concerned,) is exactly the same as the first except it is a more streamlined and shorter experience. A fact that I find rather interesting because “Black & White 2” is kind of boring. I should elaborate…

“Black & White” as a series sees you play as a god, born from a pure prayer, helping a civilisation survive adversity and defeat evil. You play as the ancient Greeks because… why not? They’re good a civilisation as any. But while in the first game the antagonist was an evil god called Nemesis, in the sequel the antagonist is the ancient Aztec’s. The game starts with you, represented by a disembodied hand, being born in the land of the gods. You are then transported to the first of two tutorial levels (there is one before this but that is just used for teaching the controls,) where your goal is to save as set amount of Greeks by dropping them into a escape portal. You also get to kill some Aztec’s but they ultimately destroy everything. After watching the island being destroyed, you and your refugees appear on a new island where some Norse people reside. This island is just the tutorial for the building and surviving mechanics as well as the army controls. After you finish here, you move on to another Norse island but start from the absolute beginning and go it mostly alone. I say mostly alone because the tutorial characters, two chibi-like caricatures of your good and bad conscience, never leave you and always spout advice, whether it annoys you or not.

You may be wondering about the ‘two chibi-like caricatures of your good and bad conscience‘ thing. That is because this game, like every other Lionhead game, has a binary good/evil alignment system. I am very much against using good/bad alignment systems in games because they do not have the human moral complexity grey area. Just good or bad. The system in “Black & White” is mainly built around your actions and what you build. If you help the people you are good. If you kill them you are bad. Basically, if you play the game you are going to be good because you have to go out of the your way to be bad. Being bad is more complicated because you have to build up armies and put your people in squalor while sapping and hiding their resources and every now and then killing some first born. But to be good, all you need is to plan out your cities and/or build accordingly, (build industrial areas away from houses and homes). There are even ways for null the bad that you do. For example, you need to build a building, so you rip up a tree (bad action) but use it to ‘god build’ the building, (good action). If there is any tree left, you replant the tree (good action) so you end up as good with 2/3 good actions. You can change your alignment by building bad buildings (hovels, and “Judge Dredd” style super blocks,) but that only goes so far. Meanwhile, being good means just building temples, universities and such and then buggering off. You don’t even have to build them to get the good modifier. Just plonk the blueprint down, get the good modifier, and let them build it themselves.

One of the more annoying aspects of the good/bad system is that army buildings are ‘bad’ buildings. So you build army bases and get called evil. Also, as soon as you build military bases, the enemies become more likely to attack and invade your city. So if you build an archers base so you actually use the walls that surround your city for that ‘just in case‘ case, you will end up being invaded and called evil. Even if you are totally ‘good’ in every other regard. So to be good you have to avoid having armies of every kind. It ends up making the game boring. Being good is easer then being bad but you end up being aloof at playing the game. So you decide to be bad and play with army men. Then be prepared for a moral scalding from the developers eye because you shouldn’t be evil. Evil is bad. Be good. Good is good. If you decide to be evil, you can almost hear Peter Molyneux whispering in your ear, calling all the way from 22 Cans, saying your a bad man. Sorry Peter, but the game isn’t that interesting unless your evil. If your good, you become a manager rather then a god. Being evil makes me feel like the Pope, which is a strange and distant feeling in on itself. I get to command armies with the sole reason of ‘I’m better then you‘ and make all the civilisations mine.

Each civilisation you face has their own building style but there is no real difference in how they act. The difficulty will go up per mission and by difficulty I mean the likelihood of them using solders goes up. There is entirely a possibility that you will never be attacked at all during your play-though. Except in the final missions. The last Japanese civilisation is rather quick to attack but if you build your impressiveness quick enough you can dull them. But on you final mission against the Aztec’s, you will be attacked from the start. So if you have decided to be good and not have any armies, prepare to build armies and have a trial fire because you you don’t you will be swiftly destroyed.

Veterans of the game may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned the giant creatures you can control. Well, I am mentioning it as much I used them. By that I mean that while playing the game I forgot I had one. Really. The creature makes so little an impact to how you do things and how you go about business that on more then one occasion I forgot he was even there. I ended up being his nanny more then a god who welds a giant creature that is the envoy of the almighty’s. He can be useful in the later levels when I would get attacked from people but then I get told off for using him in the ‘evil’ way even though he is strong after exercising with trees, plays with the populous for fun and is well fed and rested. I ended up thinking of my creature like an assassin from “Assassin’s Creed”. Does evil actions to uphold good, even though his size could put Godzilla to shame. Although the game doesn’t have that sort of moral complexity. I just get called a bastard.

The only bad thing about this game is the alignment system. Alignment systems can be good but they need to allow for that moral grey area that humanity has. Even the more modern “Infamous” games fell into just having a binary alignment system, making the whole ‘moral choice’ aspect rather flat and only having it make me play through the game twice, once as evil Cole and other other as good Cole. As the rest of the game goes, it’s ok. The creature stuff is a bit tacked on but like I said in the ‘using him as a weapon‘ paragraph, the creature has his uses. But like the alignment system, not very integral. Saying that, it is sort of a testament of the polish on the building and populous management mechanics. If it was a game of just that it would be much better. It would also be “Sid Meier’s Civilisation”, a game I really like but am terrible at. So what I’m saying is that “Black & White 2” better then most but worse then “Sid Meier’s Civilisation” which is a funny coincidence because “Sid Meier’s Civilisation: Beyond Earth” comes out later this year. Maybe you should get it. Maybe I could get a review copy from Fraxis Games. It’s my column I’m allowed to ask/beg. I did it with Twinings and E3. Didn’t get a response from them and not expecting one from Fraxis but I’ve been on a roll since my “Wild Warfare” Spotlight so might as well stab furiously and blindly in the dark.

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