Black and White 2 is OK, but OK might not cut it as it currently faces some stiff competition for your gaming dollar.
(Reviewed using a Pentium 4m, 1.6GHz, 1 GB RAM, 256MB ATI Radeon Mobility 9600, and two-channel sound.)
The initial incarnation of Black and White was a moderately open-ended game that allowed you to play God as you progress from level to level attracting followers and concentrating your power. The best thing about the original game was that the game more-or-less played you. Your decisions and actions in-game affected your good-versus-evil alignment and your access to different aspects of gameplay. It was as if the game could look into your heart and display what it found on-screen. The shadow no longer knows: Black and White does.
At the heart of Black and White was your creature, a trainable avatar that helped manage your island and helped launch or repel attacks. To begin with, your creature required quite a bit of handholding and training, but once trained, it could drastically shape events around it on its own.
Black and White also introduced a completely clean interface, and allowed spell-casting through mouse gestures. This allowed the game to unfold in an open screen, and allowed the player to become more immersed in the action.
Black and White , while inventive and groundbreaking, was not without its problems. The gestures were sometimes difficult to execute correctly. Creature combat was simplified to the point of being uselessly frustrating. The gameplay at times seemed disjointed and linear. Some of these issues have been fixed in Black and White 2 , some have been made worse.
The sequel isn't as groundbreaking in its gameplay approach as the original was. The familiar mouse gestures and yank-out-a-tree godlike maneuvers are still present, as is the clean interface. This isn't as original as it was a few years ago, but is still a great approach. Once again, your omnipresent hand lets you interact with the entire B&W2 gameworld, so much so, the keyboard isn't really necessary to play. Helpful hints pop up from time to time, especially when encountering some new island feature for the first time.
B&W2 now concentrates mainly on city building, which in turn affects your villagers, which in turn affects the strategy elements of the game. The entire aim of city building is to balance the villager's wants with their needs, much like the approach a smart mayor takes in designing their SimCity . This is very simply implemented in B&W2 : to build houses you select a house and drag out an area over the island, and new houses will appear. Roads are built the same way. It's an interesting approach that allows you to custom-design cities without ruining the god-feel of the interface.
The classic aspects of Black and White are also present in B&W2 . You can still throw followers into the sea, move game world objects around to impress them, and can offer divine assistance at your leisure.
B&W2 is also much more story-driven than before, something greatly improved over the flimsy backstory of the original. Basically, the B&W2 world is occupied by four different tribes: the Greeks, the Aztecs, the Japanese, and the Norsemen. The Aztecs have sacked your capital, and it is up to you to guide your people (the Greeks) to revenge or rebuild.
While the story itself is an improvement, it breaks down, however, in the execution. Instead of the (mostly) open-ended story of the original, B&W2 follows a very linear path. This makes the game feel like an extended version of the first-island tutorial from the original game. Great open-ended games--Like “Pirates!” for example--offer long-term goals the player tries to reach along with immediate, short-term tasks. This leads to constantly having something to do in the game, and allows for ebbs and flows in the level of challenge while playing. The first Black and White had long-term goals, but seriously lacked enough short-term tasks to not have the game feel boring at times. The sequel swings the pendulum too far in the other direction. You basically have one long-term goal, and the game tells you basically every little intermediate task you must accomplish to achieve that long-term goal. This no longer feels like an open-ended game, but a finite, extended puzzle game. More like KOTOR2 than the original Black and White , B&W2 seems to only allow you to do exactly what the developers wanted you to do. In a big way, this kills the best part of Black and White , and makes the sequel feel hollow.
"While the story itself is an improvement, it breaks down, however, in the execution."
Another way that B&W2 falls flat is with creature management. In the original game, you needed to train your creature in such a way that it would learn what you wanted it to do and what you wanted it not to do. You would have to follow your creature around, and smack it on the snout when it would defecate in your wheat fields, or try to eat a villager. (Of course, if you wanted it to eat villagers, you could pet your creature to reinforce that behavior.) Training your creature in the first game was a labor of love, but could really be challenging. This has been addressed in B&W2 , but again, the pendulum swings too far in the other direction. You can now--a la the Sims--see exactly what your creature is thinking. This allows you to correct the behavior before seeing it, but somehow feels like cheating. It also makes your creature feel less real, and it ruins the bond the player could build with their creature from the first game.
Training your creature is no longer the central activity in B&W2--city building is. While this makes the game more fun in the early going, it quickly becomes tedious as you are faced with another island with another city that needs to be built. You build the same buildings and the same roads in marginally different settings time and time again. Towards the end of the game, this gets to be a real chore, and definitely detracts from the fun aspects of the game.
The city-building must be undertaken whether you decide to be benevolent or evil. To win the game by being peaceful, you need to have cities so impressive that other tribes' villagers defect to your faction--reminiscent of the “culture” in Civilization III . To win the game by being warlike, you need enough farms and infrastructure to support a vast army. Of course, as in the first game, how you play effects your appearance, your creature's appearance, and the look of your kingdom. The alignments were unbalanced in the first game--it was much easier to take evil “shortcuts,” and this has been made worse in the second game.
This has been made worse because of the awful combat AI. The AI plays much, much too passively, sending units against you a few at a time. A beefy number of units will frequently overwhelm the enemy, so no real strategy is involved. Add your insanely powerful creature into the mix, and the combat becomes much, much too simple.
On a high note, however, Lionhead still has their quirky style and tounge-in-cheek approach firmly entrenched in the sequel. Other than with training your creature, most of the allure and fun of the first game is intact. If the original and this game could somehow find their way into the teleporters in the movie “The Fly,” and retain the best parts of both games, this would be an unbeatable combination. As it is, in trying to address some of the lower points of Black and White , Lionhead has introduced a new set of problems. The first game wasn't perfect, but had a soul and that was enough to find its way into a lot of gamers' hearts. This second one loses its soul by going overboard improving aspects of the original that probably just needed a little tweaking.
The graphics are nothing short of revolutionary. You can zoom in and out to tremendous distances. While zoomed in completely, single blades of grass blow in the breeze, and insects crawl around. Zooming-out gives you a god-eye view of the island. Zooming in and out is quickly and smoothly accomplished.
The islands at full-zoom--either out or in--or at mid-level zoom, look incredible. The same fantastic detail exists at any level, and the colors are amazingly vibrant. B&W2 has many “wow” moments graphically, and even better, the performance never really seems to lag or to slow down at all. This wow-factor is even present at lower detail levels, so if your hardware is maxed-out playing B&W2 , don't be afraid to lower the detail a notch, you won't be missing much!
There are a very few video artifacts that can be found, but these only stand out because of their infrequency. Because of the amount of detail, the smooth zooming and smooth overall performance, these are some of the most technically impressive graphics ever seen.
"...these are some of the most technically impressive graphics ever seen."
The sound is adequate, and fits in well with the overall game. The undocumented sound effects from the first game seem to be gone, and everything pretty much sounds as it should. There isn't much that stands out good or bad, but it fits and fits well.
Since B&W2 is not as open-ended as its predecessor, its replay value is greatly reduced. By the time the player has built their third city, he or she likely is not looking forward to building more, much less going back to the beginning and working it through again. The one saving grace is that you can try to play the game being evil or good, so working through the game one more time following the other alignment is an option--an option that isn't that attractive, again, because of the tedium of the city-building.
The bottom line is this: if you thoughtBlack and White needed more focus and more RTS elements, pick up the sequel. If you liked the original for the creature training and the open-ended gameplay, you'll likely be disappointed. Again, the game is firmly OK, and its biggest issue may be its release date: there are simply better games competing for your dollar in the marketplace right now.
"...there are simply better games competing for your dollar in the marketplace right now."
-Extremely graphically impressive, even at lower levels
-Retains the game-plays-you philosophy
-Easily conquered AI.