After three years of ceaseless hype, Black & White has finally been released. If you've been living under a rock somewhere in Outer Mongolia you might not be aware that this is the latest effort from Peter Molyneux, marking his return to the god game genre that he helped to create with the classic Populous.
Lost & Found
We have all heard about the hilarious giant creatures and the way that you can train their revolutionary AI to aid you in the game, how they will dance to your music and design their own websites, complete with snapshots of their friends, not to mention the ability to receive e-mail, ICQ and SMS messages within the game itself. Unfortunately the first of these features falls far short of expectations, and the rest of them either don't work properly or were cut from the game entirely in a desperate last ditch attempt to actually release the damn thing after months in development limbo. But even without many of the crazy features that Peter Molyneux and friends apparently had planned for us, Black & White still comes across as a lot of neat ideas which don't quite add up to a game.
Despite talk of contributions from Hollywood script writers and TV producers, the plot is at best peripheral to the game, leading you through a series of islands to a final showdown with the powerful god Nemesis. Having said that, the first level does manage a good job of introducing you to the game and its rather awkward controls, with your good and evil consciences popping up to give advice and push the story forwards, while a wide variety of quests (some obligatory, some optional) are available to keep you occupied. But after this the developers seem to have run out of steam, and the gameplay becomes repetitive and glacially slow - build up your village, expand your power base, then convince the nearest village to worship you by showering it with gifts or fire and brimstone, depending on whether you are a good god or an evil one. Wash, rinse, repeat. Once you rule every village on the island your rival will vanish and a portal will open to whisk you away to the next level.
Dumb & Dumber
In an attempt to add some variety to the proceedings, the third island sees your creature being captured by Nemesis, and it is up to you to rescue him. By converting three villages. Once this is done your creature is released, you capture the final village from your enemy, and he vanishes .. opening a portal to the next island. Woah, deja vu.
And it's only when your creature is taken away from you that you realise just how hollow and ultimately unrewarding the game is without him. Most of your entertainment comes from watching him do silly things like breakdancing or breaking wind on a hut full of cowering villagers, and most of your time is spent futilely trying to convince him to help you. Your creature is like a young child - it requires constant repetition to teach it anything, and once it learns something new it does it obsessively for several minutes before losing interest and quickly forgetting all about it. Even something as basic as remembering to feed itself seems to be quite beyond its abilities, and all too often you will see your creature collapsing from starvation while still steadfastly refusing to accept any food.
Teaching it to use miracles is an uphill struggle; you will have to cast the same spell twenty or more times within sight of a creature before it finally learns it. And although your creature won't forget a miracle, it will forget what it should be doing with it. It took most of the first level to train my creature to use the water miracle on fields to grow fresh crops, but despite constant encouragement it mostly just uses it to put out fires now. It also hasn't worked out how to use the healing spell on itself, instead wandering around casting it on random villagers.
Carrot & Stick
A simple punishment and reward system is used to discourage or enforce your creature's behaviour. If he does something you like you can tickle and stroke him. If he does something you would rather he didn't do again you can slap him around, often reducing him to tears or knocking him clear off his feet.
Sadly the AI seems to have a very limited list of objects and actions that it can recognise. For example, I spent over an hour trying in vain to teach my creature to throw rocks. When I was sure that he had caught on to what I was doing I gave him a rock. He dropped it, picked up a nearby sheep, and hurled the startled looking animal down the hillside, before rolling around on the ground laughing. Not quite what I had in mind. I tried again, and this time it decided to start throwing my villagers around. At this point I gave up and out of sheer frustration spanked the infernal creature until it passed out from the pain. This is probably why the RSPCA won't let me keep pets.
If you want to find out what your creature thinks he knows, you can go to his cave. Here you will find scrolls listing his achievements and stats .. except that it doesn't work. My creature seems to be convinced that I am on the side of good, despite the fact that my godly hand has turned into a wrinkled red claw. He believes he is "very, very compassionate", even after his villager flinging exploits. He complains that I don't pay him much attention, even after I spent over an hour doing nothing but teaching him to use miracles. And the list of things which he has learnt how to do only ever includes the same half dozen basic actions which are built into the game as standard, and most of which he never does despite having allegedly mastered them all. This just isn't right...
Erase & Rewind
Apart from trying to train your wayward creature, the game offers little real challenge. All too often the enemy AI simply sits back and watches as you take control of its outlying villages, only bothering to put up a fight if your creature strays too close to its temple, at which point the AI will always fry your poor animal with lightning bolts until he passes out.
Should you have the patience and compassion which I am clearly lacking, and manage to avoid the handful of show-stopping bugs that lie in your path, you may finally reach the fifth level and defeat Nemesis. Unfortunately at this point there is little else to do. You certainly won't want to play through the single player campaign again, because there is no way to skip the lengthy tutorial at the start of the first island, and having a little white-bearded guy floating around your screen explaining how to move and rotate the camera in a condescending voice quickly becomes irritating the second time through.
There is a skirmish mode, but this simply drops you and your creature into one of three islands to convert villages and fight enemy gods with no side-quests and no storyline. Multiplayer support is more of the same, but with real human opponents. The problem here is that you can bring your creature from the single player game with you, so whoever has the strongest and best trained avatar is almost certain to win. The alternative is for all of the players to agree to start from scratch with a new god and a new creature, which means that you will spend most of your time trying to teach your dumb animal how to cast miracles, water crops and gather timber all over again...
The reality of Black & White sadly falls far short of our (admittedly very high) expectations. The story is largely superfluous, the gameplay boring and repetitive, the creature AI is far less impressive than we were promised, and the game suffers from a number of annoying (and at times fatal) bugs, despite months of beta testing. There are rumours that a beta version was mistakenly released by Electronic Arts, possibly as a result of a disgruntled employee, and despite denials from the publisher the fact that the game installs debug drivers and an empty log file titled memoryleaks.txt is certainly rather odd.
But whatever the causes of the bugs and shortcomings, the fact is that there is still no sign of the patch which was supposed to be available "shortly" according to an official post on the Lionhead messageboards dated April 5th. Until that patch arrives it's hard to recommend the game to anyone, and even once it is available Black & White is likely to remain a game that you will either love or hate.