The highlight of the "Show B4 The Show" party which Electronic Arts held at their plush new European headquarters in Chertsey last night was undoubtedly "Black & White". Designer Peter Molyneux, a man who (as the announcer pointed out) needs no introduction, was on hand to demonstrate the game to a room packed to overcrowding every hour, on the hour, with many people returning to watch the show again and again throughout the evening...
Peter described Black & White as "a role-playing story-based game where you play a god", but there's a lot more to it than that. It's his return to the "god game" genre which he helped to create with Populous. It's a strategy game in which you lead a tribe of superstitious villagers. It's a Pokemon for the new millenium, with giant creatures that you can train to do your bidding. It's .. insane.
The title itself comes from the fact that the game adapts to your style of play, and leaves you open to do pretty much whatever you want to do. You can be a kindly god who takes care of his people, or you can be an evil god that reduces the world to a wasteland - good or evil, black or white, the choice is yours, and as Peter told us "it's been a challenge to get it right".
Get it right they have though, and the result is spectacular, with the landscape gradually changing as you play the game. If you are good, the world becomes a green and verdant land which is bright and sunny all the time, with rabbits hopping around merrily while butterflies flutter through the sky above them. If, on the other hand, you choose to be downright nasty to your people, the world becomes a terrifying nightmare, dimly lit, masked by vast raging stormclouds, and filled by hellish looking buildings. Even the music will adapt to match your actions.
Meanwhile you have a pair of advisers representing the good and bad sides of your conscience. A little white bearded guy tries to convince you to be nice, while a devil-like figure encourages you towards evil doing, and "loves it when you start throwing fireballs and starving people".
You interact with the world via the hand of god, which you control with your mouse. It's a little like the hand from Peter's last hit, Dungeon Keeper, but the interface is far more powerful, a context-sensitive control system which allows you to do almost anything with a few simple mouse movements and button clicks.
You can pick villagers up and set them to do whatever you want to - work on a building site, chop trees, tend crops... Once a villager has been "touched by the hand of god" he becomes a disciple, staying faithfully at whatever job you have told him to do until it is finished or you change your mind. Other villagers will then flock to the disciple and follow his lead, as obviously he is carrying out god's will.
"You can even set people to be breeders, and just run around having sex all the time", Peter told us. "You can tell I'm a programmer - I take all my frustrations out on the game."
Alternatively you can be just plain nasty to your people - Peter picked one poor man up and banged his head repeatedly against a tree, before throwing him across a valley. And it's not just people that you can manipulate - you can also pick up trees and rocks from the scenery and move them around. Trees can be replanted to form your own forests, and anything can be thrown with a simple flick of the mouse, as Peter demonstrated by hurling a rock half way across the world. Essentially you can pick up and manipulate anything and anyone that you want to, but only within your own territory.
Red Sky At Night
Your power comes from your followers, and their worship gives you the ability to perform miracles, ranging from lobbing fireballs to sparking off thunderstorms and raising protective shields over buildings.
A small village was slumbering peacefully as night fell in the world of Black & White, but they were about to be rudely awakened by Peter's demonstration of the spell system - "little do they know I have a fireball in my hand". With a flick of the mouse he threw the fireball into the heart of the village, blowing up one of the buildings. The surviving villagers emerged from their houses and ran around screaming in panic, understandably upset that their god had just reduced their town hall to smouldering rubble.
Peter wasn't finished though - he used another fireball to heat up a rock until it was glowing red hot, and then picked it up and dragged it through the village. As he held it near to a clump of trees they caught on fire, and the flames soon started to spread. And all of this from a single spell...
Your villagers are not your only followers though - you also have one or more creatures, giant avatars which can be trained to carry out your bidding, and which also grow to mirror your actions in the game.
Creatures can be attached to leashes and then pulled around using your hand, or you can tie them to a building to force them to stay put. You can even attach the other end of the leash to a villager and let him take your creature for a walk. And if you are a cruel master you can use a studded leather leash which constantly annoys the creature.
To demonstrate all of this, Peter called up his favourite creature - an ape which looked like an out-sized orang-utan - and tied it to a small hut with the studded leash. The ape promptly went ape and smashed up the building, before picking up a nearby rock. "You can tell something nasty is going to happen here", Peter said, as the ape started to look around for something to throw the rock at. To teach the creature that throwing rocks at things wasn't very nice, he slapped it across the face and then grabbed the rock from its hands.
As well as being able to punish your creatures, you can also reward them by tickling them. With a combination of the two you can eventually train your creatures to do what you want them to do, from watching over your villagers to playing catch with you .. using trees. The sight of a giant ape and a disembodied hand throwing trees backwards and forwards across a valley is odd to say the least...
According to Peter, "creatures can learn anything" with enough training, and he told us that "I have no idea what the limits of this AI is". While he was explaining all of this to us, his ape had wandered off down the valley and was picking up rocks and lobbing them over its shoulder. It seemed to be enjoying itself.
And although Black & White has a strong story-led single player mode, the game doesn't stop there. Play a CD or MP3 while you are in the game, for example, and your creatures will start to dance along with the music. "When you're playing a Spice Girls CD and being nasty to [your creature], he learns to hate that CD", Peter explained. "But when you play a Moby CD, he loves it."
The game will also have strong internet features, allowing you to take your favourite creatures online and meet other avatars. Creatures will apparently be able to create their own websites, posting snapshots of them with their friends. People can even send you text messages over the internet or using a mobile phone, and your creature will read them out to you in-game! Given how addictive the game is likely to be, this is probably a good thing - you wouldn't be able to contact players any other way for weeks on end...
Black & White even reads your address book from Microsoft's ubiquitous e-mail client Outlook, and then names all of the villagers in the game after your friends and contacts. If you get an e-mail from one of them, the appropriate villager will emerge from his hut and stand and wave at you to get your attention.
All of these miracles are powered by an impressive engine. The first thing to catch your eye is obviously the graphics, providing a vast and seamless world in which to play.
There is no fogging, and you can see for literally miles across a nicely detailed landscape of hills, valleys, trees, mountains and seas. You can zoom right out to see the entire land, and then zoom back in to see your individual villagers going about their daily business. The world also has a full day and night cycle, with the sun and moon rising and setting - twilight in Black & White is simply beautiful.
Models and animations are also excellent, particularly for your avatars. Creatures have a full range of emotions and conditions - they can get hot, tired, or angry, and their faces and gesticulations make it clear at a glance what is wrong. They can even catch colds and wander around sneezing, and the germs can spread from one creature to another causing outbreaks of flu.
What gives Black & White it's real appeal though is the physics system and artificial intelligence, which combine to create a believable world where everything and everyone behaves exactly as you would expect it to.
Black & White is quite possibly the most stunning game I have ever seen. It looks set to provide players with an immersive and interactive world the likes of which has never been seen before, and in which you can play with almost complete freedom.
It works on so many levels that almost everybody should find something in it to like, whether it is house training your creatures, raining fire and brimstone on rival tribes, building up your own followers, or simply wallowing in your own evilness. Bloody marvellous.