Black and White 2
Ever wanted to play God? Smite non-believers, cast miracles, and all that? In the Black and White game series, that's just the first level. In this god simulator from designers Peter Molyneux and Ron Millar, your power and supernatural prowess is determined by how much worshippers fear and love you. With two guiding "consciences," you can build a beautiful city and have the people adore you and your peaceful ways; or build a large army, conquer the land and have the people tremble before your wrath.
The plot of Black and White 2 begins as a "pure prayer" beckons you to return to your tribe of Greeks. You find that your people's city is being ransacked by Aztecs, and through the course of the game you must confront the Aztecs, Norse, and Japanese in order to re-establish your people's livelihood. The developers seemingly threw together peoples throughout history without concern for chronology, geography, or common sense.
In practicality, Black and White 2 is one part city simulator, one part real time strategy (RTS) game, and oddly enough, one part pet simulator. The amalgam of the genres is not as awkward as it sounds, but does leave something to be desired. During gameplay, you command a group of worshippers who need to build up their city and civilization. You assign them jobs, aid their society's advancement with a magical anthropomorphic creature who you also need to guide, and ultimately command their armies should you choose a warlike path.
Unlike many other strategy games, the interface for Black and White 2 is stripped down. Your mouse guides a hand that can manipulate most of the world around you. By grabbing and placing civilians, you assign them a disciple status of a certain type- worshipper, forester, farmer, breeder, etc. You can grab and place new buildings, roads, and even control your creature. A series of gestures allows you to cast spells and if you feel like being a wrathful god, you can throw people or throw rocks onto people.
While it's a real thrill to throw rocks at enemy soldiers and there are times when your hand is really a useful tool, the game relies too heavily on the inexact mechanism. While trying to assign a disciple to a new job, I'd often end up dropping and killing it. The hand is positively clumsy when trying to manipulate rock throwing, and I'd often end up slapping my creature when I meant to be petting him.
Training your creature is one of the most time-consuming elements of gameplay, and requires a great deal of micromanagement. You'll be grateful that you trained your creature well when he successfully demolishes an enemy platoon. But you'll also get frustrated when you have to stop what you're doing and discipline your creature for crapping on some villagers. The game does a good job of showing how the creature matures physically and develops his various skills--he's your greatest weapon and tool to use; but even after training him for several levels, he's still going to act like a moron when you need him most.
Part of this is the game's universally abysmal artificial intelligence. Not only is your creature dumb ("I'm going to go munch on those rocks!" it says) but the citizen AI is also sickly stupid. You'll welcome a migration to your city (hooray!) but they'll then decide to stay outside your influence ring and slowly die out, thereby robbing you of their manpower. On the plus side, once you figure out the AI's ridiculously simple battle tactics, many of the missions are very easy to complete. I set up my wall with archers and because it was so close to the enemy rallying point, they constantly picked off enemy soldiers without me having to do anything. The enemy platoons, for their part, just stood there and wondered where the rain of arrows was coming from.
The game separates good from evil and encourages you to use whatever tactics work best for the given situation. You are encouraged to use whatever tactics you want, but what it comes down to is the amount of time you want to invest. If you don't mind spending days on a mission then you won't mind playing the good path, which takes many hours to build up an impressive enough city to ultimately win the land. The enemy city will also seek to become more impressive, and so you basically play a dumbed-down version of SimCity for hours and wait until victory or boredom occurs.
The evil side is pretty simple to win. You build up a massive army and send your troops with your powered-up creature to wreak havoc on the neighboring cities. Instead of playing SimCity, you'll be playing the world's wonkiest war RTS game. There are only a couple of troop types to use, a limited number of tactics to employ with them, and a control system not designed for timed troop management. Build up the experience of your archers by deploying them in your walls and upgrade your creature by giving him lots of opportunities to chew on enemy platoons. Throw the whole mix at the enemy town and win.
If playing as extremely good or evil doesn't do it for you, you can do a combination of both. Though I take issue with the game's designation of self-defense as evil, basically any use of your creature for war and any construction of armory buildings will be considered evil. In any given map, it's easiest to build up your city with some limited archer defenders and then finally build up that army to take out the enemy's major city center.
But just the RTS, pet-sim, and SimCity elements of the game do not equate a god simulator. Black and White 2 also has a handful of supernatural miracles you can perform. Your citizens worship at an altar and can grant you mana to cast spells. These include healing, fire, lightning and (on the epic scale) volcanoes. They're fun, and can become intuitive by the use of hand gestures with your mouse, but they still feel somewhat limited.
At the end of the day, Black and White 2 only partially lives up to its potential. Your limited abilities make your command seem more like a mayor with superpowers than a god, really. Sure, you can throw people around and decide what careers they'll have, but there are missed opportunities for godlike mischief. The challenges you encounter are hit or miss, which is a real shame because the game's at its best when you are tasked with renewing the faith of someone or doing something really all-powerful. That is to say, the game has some funny challenges (like proving a woman's child is not your divine offspring) but others seem ho-hum (one mission tasks you with finding scattered statues all over a map). The campaign is long but neither multiplayer nor skirmish options are supported. The ability to play as the Aztecs, Japanese, or Norse would also greatly expand replayability of the game.
The Mac edition of Black and White 2 comes with the Battle of the Gods expansion pack. The expansion does little to change the fundamental gameplay, but does grant you additional miracles, creatures to choose from, and a new campaign against the resurrected Aztecs. On the Mac, the game performed seamlessly. I didn't experience any slowdown even when my city achieved metropolis status and the graphics were strong, considering the 2005 initial release date.
Macworld's buying advice
Having mentioned to several friends I was reviewing Black and White 2, I was intrigued by how different people's opinions were. Some people saw a great "everything" simulator that has its flaws, yes, but offers supernatural powers unheard of in a strategy game. Others saw it as a dumb-down city simulator with some bells and whistles tacked on. I found myself defending the game's obvious merits-great graphics (especially for 2005), some clever design choices and a whole host of things to do. But I also can't defend the lack of multiplayer, the inability to play as the other races, the frustrating controls, and the limits on your creature's abilities. Likely a game deserving of a cult following, Black and White 2 is a mixed blessing that will divinely inspire some and churn the hellish wrath of others.