Never before have so many column inches been devoted to one game. Over the last year in particular, the hype surrounding Peter Molyneux's new god game "Black & White" has grown to gargantuan proportions, dwarfing even the hundred foot tall kung fu fighting cows and head-scratching apes that have featured prominently in the horde of screenshots which have been plastered across the net in recent months.
Rather less media attention has been captured so far by the PlayStation port of the game though. Yes, you read that right. British based publisher Midas Interactive and Krisalis have teamed up to bring the potentially ground-breaking game to Sony's best-selling, but by now somewhat long in the tooth, console. The first question to spring to mind is "why", closely followed by "how". To find out more we travelled to deepest darkest Wokingham for a press day organised by Midas to show their version of the game to the media for the first time...
To kick things off, Lionhead ran us through the first level of the original PC version of Black & White. The recently completed game is looking better than ever, with the sheer attention to detail proving to be perhaps the most impressive aspect of the game. Everything behaves exactly as you would expect it to, with excellent physics and AI throughout.
The player is free to do almost anything, from teaching a creature to kick around a giant beach ball to dunking villagers in the sea or hurling them across mountain ranges. Your actions throughout the game are guided by your conscience, with good and evil constantly vying for your ear. These two characters (represented by a little demon and a white bearded god-like figure) give you suggestions, but most of the time they are at odds and the interplay between the two is at times hilarious, with solid voice acting and amusing dialogue.
The opening level which we were shown acted as an in-game tutorial, with the two halves of your conscience explaining the game's controls to you. Once you know how to move your viewpoint around the island and pick things up, the first few quests then introduce you to the basic concepts behind the game, with characters explaining how to manipulate your surroundings, cast spells, and teach your creature to behave itself. Even at this early point in the game you have choices to make, such as whether to get a vital item by saving a woman's sick brother or by beating his head against a rock and dropping the bloody corpse at her feet, and whether to do as the creature trainer advises you and punish your creature for picking her up and waving her around in the air, or to give it a good tickle and pat on the back to encourage it to do that more often. Certainly a promising start then.
The Outer Limits
But although it was obviously nice to be able to get the world's first look at the (hopefully) final build of Black & White, we were really here to see the very much in-progress PlayStation version. Given that the PlayStation has only a fraction of the processing power and memory of a modern PC, there are clearly limits to what can be achieved, and "a straightforward conversion was out of the question".
The good news is that Krisalis seem to have pushed those limits to make the most of the ageing hardware. There are compromises, but the central gameplay is still more or less intact, and while the graphics are a pale shadow of the gorgeous visuals found on the PC, they are rather impressive by PlayStation standards and arguably actually look better than the game running on a low end PC with all of the detail settings on minimum. The biggest challenge was fitting the game's massive landscapes into the PlayStation's rather less than ample memory without having to split levels into sub-areas which would then need to be loaded seperately as you moved from one area to another. In the end Krisalis have succeeded though, reducing the memory footprint of a land from around 5Mb on the PC to under 200Kb on the PlayStation.
The result is clearly far less spectacular than on the PC, but given the limitations of the platform it's better than you might have imagined. The three lands included in the game have also been drastically redesigned by Krisalis to keep the map sizes to a minimum, and as a result things are a little more compact than in the PC version. But as you can't zoom right out on the PlayStation to quickly move your viewpoint from one part of an island to another, this isn't a bad thing - navigating your way across a full size island would be time consuming, even if it could fit into the console's very limited memory. The number of quests to complete is also somewhat reduced - 25 as opposed to over a hundred on the PC. Still, it's something of a miracle that Krisalis have managed to cram as much as they have done into such an antiquated piece of hardware.
To keep the frame rates up distance clipping has been introduced, and the movement of the camera is rather more limited than on the PC. This ensures that the console is never faced with having to render the vast expanses of open rolling terrain which are present in the PC version of the game. To compensate for not being able to zoom out for a god's eye view of things, a mini-map has been added in the top right of the screen to let players see where they are.
The PlayStation port does include real-time lighting, a full day and night cycle and weather effects though, which all adds to the atmosphere of the game. Alpha-blended fogging will also be introduced in the final version of the game so that terrain blends out gradually in the distance, instead of simply popping in and out of view on the horizon as it did in the early version demonstrated today.
Perhaps the biggest change to the graphics though are the characters - the 3D accelerated villagers of the PC version have mostly been replaced by sprites, with around two thousand frames of animation to make them look as good as possible. This helps keep the game from bogging down, and is surprisingly effective unless you look closely. Meanwhile creatures remain as fully 3D models, but with vastly reduced poly counts - Krisalis have reduced the number of polygons in each of the nine creatures included in the PlayStation port by as much as 70%, and yet they are still instantly recognisable if a little less impressive. They will also morph between good and evil forms as the game progresses, with both models and skins changing, just as on the PC. Which is something of an accomplishment.
As well as putting them on to a drastic polygonal Slim Fast diet, Krisalis have also made some other changes to the creatures. The biggest alteration is to the combat system, with the mouse driven interface of the original clearly not well suited to a gamepad. Instead a Final Fantasy style menu-based system is to be used. Sadly we didn't get to see this in action, but it should prove to be an interesting alternative.
There has also been some degree of dumbing down involved when it comes to the AI, with much of the "connective intelligence" of the creatures proving too much for the PlayStation to handle. This allows creatures to make links and associations between various objects, but whereas on the PC your creature can learn to use combinations of objects for a whole range of different tasks, in the PlayStation version they will instead tend to focus on learning one use for each item.
Creatures can still be trained, they just have somewhat smaller brains and shorter attention spans than their beige box bound counterparts. And again, it's a credit to the team at Krisalis for managing to translate so much of one of the most complex and downright ambitious PC games of recent years into a console which was already old hat when Lionhead first started work on the title three years ago.
While expectations for Black & White are perhaps unrealistically high (no game, however perfect, could match the hype surrounding it at this stage), the opposite is true for the PlayStation version. And although it is clearly always going to be the ugly little sister of the PC and next generation console versions of the game, Peter Molyneux congratulated Krisalis on doing a great job of bringing as much of his vision as possible to the system.
If you own both a reasonably fast PC and a PlayStation, then there is no question as to which version of the game you should buy - the PC version has vastly superior graphics thanks to the higher hardware requirements, not to mention the advantages of the mouse-based control system, more missions to complete, and somewhat smarter creatures. But if what we saw today is anything to go by, the millions of PlayStation owners around the world shouldn't be too disappointed by their version of Black & White when it emerges some time this summer. All in all an impressive effort from Krisalis.