|“Black & White”|
|Platform: PC, Internet|
|Publisher: Electronic Arts|
|Developer: Lionhead Studios|
|Rating: * * * * 4.5 out of 5 stars|
Peter Molyneux is a genius.
Molyneux, the PC gaming world’s most innovative soul, taught the gaming world the joys of godhood in “Populous,” the trials of running Disneyland in “Theme Park,” and the thrill of surfing the world on a flying rug in “Magic Carpet.”
Want more originality? In “Dungeon Keeper,” Molyneux’s last game, players expanded the caverns of Hell, trying to tempt heroic mortals into battling hordes of demons.
“Black & White,” Molyneux’s latest game and the first release under his new Lionhead Studios label, is a synthesis. This is a game that endows players with the godly mantel they wore in “Populous” while still permitting them to be as devilish as they were in “Dungeon Keeper.”
The game begins with a cinematic showing a family of villagers roaming a beach on a primitive island. One of the villagers goes for a swim and is nearly attacked by sharks. Fortunately, the hand of fate steps in — literally.
Sensing a disturbance in the cosmos, a deity reaches through the dimensions and plucks the boy out of the water. Needless to say, the boy’s parents are impressed.
They drop to their knees and begin worshipping you, the player.
Thus begins a brief tutorial that initiates players into the “Black & White” world, a world in which they are nearly all-powerful, but soon learn that being all-powerful does not mean being all alone in your power.
During the tutorial, players are led into a wilderness outside the villagers’ town where they discover and adopt one of three creatures — an orangutan, a cow or a tiger.
The creatures are in their infant stage at this point, and still fairly small and benevolent. They need to be fed, comforted and educated. Players accomplish these tasks with their cosmic hand: stroking the creatures to comfort them, toting food to feed them and slapping them when they do bad things.
But education can be a double-edged sword. There is no rule in “Black & White” forcing players to be kind gods. Say you want to rule your village and maybe your entire world from the dark side, no problem.
You don’t have to be nice to your villagers simply because you want them to worship you. You can train your creature to be mean and nasty by stroking it when it is cruel and slapping it whenever you like.
Your creature may grow to be huge and horrible, but it will still do your dirty work. You can send it to terrorize your village and enemy villages as well.
While the giant creatures have become the most noted facet of the game, there are other real-time concerns. The villagers are bad managers, so players have to help them build new buildings, plant trees for wood, grow grain and catch fish.
With creature-training and village-management duties competing for players’ attention, “Black & White” can become a bit confusing. The game requires players to learn a number of different interfaces — a three-leash interface for training creatures, a minimalist one for creating buildings, and yet another for assigning tasks to villagers.
Fortunately, Molyneux and team have created simplified interfaces that are easily learned. At least most of them are easily learned. Creating miracles, especially during combat, takes some practice.
But Black & White pays players off for learning the ropes — and the biggest payoff is a multiplayer function that allows you to seamlessly leave the safety of single-player worlds and introduce your creatures to those of other deities.
In the end, “Black & White” works as a sort of pop culture psychoanalysis — possibly even an interactive and personalized Portrait of Dorian Gray. The decisions you make not only affect your creature’s personality, they also shape its very appearance. Teach it to be vicious, and its entire countenance becomes fearsome.
But in the back of your mind, you are always reminded that your creature is a reflection of you. It may stand 30 meters tall, have huge claws and be covered with deforming scars or it may be no more frightening than a saintly cow. Either way, that creature was formed by you.