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Playing God

Deities Use Miracles to Win Followers and Rule Eden in 'Black & White'

April 12, 2001|AARON CURTISS | aaron.curtiss@latimes.com

Talk about an ego trip: In "Black & White" for the PC, players are gods--literally.

By combining the best elements of role-playing, real-time strategy and pet-training games, the brilliant and disturbing "Black & White" allows players to lord over tribes of primitive people and win their worship in order to someday reign over all of Eden as the one true god.

How one achieves this lofty goal can be revealing. The two extremes of the game's title--black and white--refer to good and evil. Players choose early on whether they prefer to exist as a mean and nasty god who smites folks for sport or a kind and gentle god who loves his flock like a shepherd.

Rarely, though, is it that simple. As anyone who has ever been a parent, a manager or a friend knows, one person's intentions may not match another's perceptions. So even players who strive to be good may do things that people don't like or don't understand. And sometimes, even the kindest god must rain a little fire to remind followers who's in charge.

Helping in all this is a creature that is essentially the physical manifestation of a player's godly spirit. This creature--which looks like either a cow, a tiger or a chimp--learns from players and becomes a sort of emissary charged with spreading the good word through whatever means it deems appropriate.

Yes, it sounds confusing. But "Black & White" is one of the most creative and compelling games in years. And once the ground rules are understood, the game is easy to play. Everything starts to make sense within the context of the "Black & White" world. Despite being more than a little creepy, the game entices players with lush environments and convincing artificial intelligence.

Players begin the game--created by legendary designer Peter Molyneux--as a disembodied hand summoned in a prayer by Aztec parents whose child has been swept out to sea. After plucking the tyke from the ocean, players are praised by the villagers, who erect a temple. The temple becomes like a base in which players can remind themselves what they know, what they possess and how far their influence has spread.

In addition to the Aztecs, "Black & White" exposes players to the Japanese, Tibetans, Greeks, Celts and the Norse. Each culture enjoys its own idiosyncrasies, which makes winning them over increasingly difficult. In the same way that Christianity spread by adapting to different cultures, players must be flexible in their dogma.

All of the villagers in every land need care. Players can help out by gathering wood and food for the village or by assigning a disciple to harvest crops, cut trees, fish or even make babies. Over time, villagers demand more than food and wood and ask for new buildings and other trappings of civilization.

Keeping the villages happy is critical because they return the favor with prayers that generate the power behind miracles. The more miracles in their godly toolboxes, the more powerful and awe-inspiring players become as they seek new followers in new villages.

This is pretty standard stuff for a real-time strategy game. Instead of building a fort to set up a lab to develop a new weapon, "Black & White" requires the building of devotion to channel faith into something that moves mountains.

Where the game deviates most noticeably from the genre, though, is in the evolution of the creature. Initially, the creature exists in a state of nature. In other words, there are no rules. It is ruled by its stomach. When it's hungry, it eats whatever happens to be walking by. When it's tired, it lies down and starts sleeping.

Over time, players impose upon their creatures a sense of discipline and duty. They teach their creatures the difference between acceptable and aberrant behavior. So if a creature pops a tasty villager into its mouth, players have to decide whether to beat it or stroke it to express displeasure or approval.

But like a child, the creature develops on its own. It interprets the player's moral code in its own way and becomes a virtual being with its own sense of duty and purpose. So while players are off performing blessed miracles to wow another village, their creatures may be back home wreaking havoc.

More than just an interesting diversion within the game, the creatures play a critical role. Players sometimes must fight another god's creature to remove it from a village. As creatures get more powerful, they grow to gargantuan proportions, so some of the later fights are true clashes of the titans.

Given the complexity of "Black & White," it is remarkably easy to master. Basic functions are outlined by the game's conscience--an angel and devil duo--which also sets players down the initial road to good or evil. But because there are so few basic controls, it's a snap to get comfortable quickly.

Miracles and some other tasks are performed by moving the mouse in a particular pattern. To heal something, for instance, trace a heart with the mouse. This takes some time to get right, but that's the idea. Overall, the control scheme is simple and straightforward.

And visually, "Black & White" is gorgeous. The various islands of Eden are full of varied and detailed terrain. Whether players are looking down on it from the heavens or walking among its people, the land sparkles.

As does all of "Black & White."

*

Aaron Curtiss is editor of Tech Times.

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The Skinny

Genre: Real-time strategy

Price: $40

System requirements: Pentium II 350 with 64 MB of RAM, 600 MB of available hard disk space and a 3-D accelerator with 8 MB of video RAM

Publisher: Electronic Arts

ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) Rating: Teen

The good: Engaging and compelling

The bad: Awkward control

Bottom line: Most imaginative game in years

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