"Play good, play bad, play god," the tagline on the back of the game box implores you. Unfortunately, the overriding feeling I have from playing Black & White 2 isn't one that I've been playing god. No, in fact, I feel a whole lot more like a middle manager, though I suppose "Play good, play bad, play David Brent." didn't quite have the same ring to it when they had the brainstorm session for the marketing strategy.
I hope you'll forgive the rather sacrilegious tone to the start of the review, but the problem with Black & White 2 is that if the level of micro-management required by gods in the game is anything to go by, not to mention the relentless stupidity of your subjects, then it goes a long way towards explaining why God has kept his trap shut since carving out The Ten Commandments and giving them to Moses; being God, it would seem, isn't nearly as much fun as you might think.
Initial impressions are mixed. The opening cinematic is essentially identical to the prequel. Someone at Lionhead obviously decided that the SFX movie from the first game of the god you play careering through the cosmos to the planet Eden was too good not be used again and was simply married to a barely revised voiceover. It's not all bad: it's undeniably a very good looking game. The scale and flexibility of the 3D engine is genuinely astonishing. To be able to zoom from an almost orbital view of the playing area right into being able to see the expressions on worshippers' faces as they dance around the altar is a breathtaking feat of programming. You can even see the wind ruffling the long blades of grass and the wheat in the fields, and the textures and water effects are sumptuous.
Unfortunately, whilst the visuals impress, it's all too easy to peel back this technological wallpaper covering the cracks (I say cracks, what I mean are more abyssal fissures) in the game design. Whilst the 3D engine has moved on leaps and bounds in the four years since the original, it quickly becomes apparent that the game design is living in the past. An unforgivable amount of time is spent on surely the most tedious in-game tutorial since... Black & White. I'm praying for one brave game designer somewhere, someday to design an in-game tutorial that just shows a screen with the following text: "READ THE BLOODY MANUAL!" I also resent being patronised in the most condescending manner possible that managing to hold down the right mouse button and move the mouse a few inches at the same time is "great work". Whoooo! I RULE! I can use a mouse! This will be a piece of cake!
You're asked to choose your creature straight away, but unlike in the prequel, there are no other creatures to be unlocked, so the choice you make between Ape, Cow, Lion and Wolf is an important one. No sooner have you chosen which creature you want to spend the game with, however, you're bundled through another few tedious tutorials and denied the chance to interact with it; I'm not sure who thought that was a good idea. This opening island (of eight in total) displays almost staggering shonkiness in design. Not only are you unable to skip the opening camera tutorial after picking your creature, to make matters worse, you can't skip the dialogue from the two halves of your conscience (yes, they're back, and they're just as annoying as in the original), even if you've heard it all three times before, and you're just curious to see what the Cow is like for a couple of islands. Wait. It gets better! One of the game tweaks Black & White 2 features is that now you have to buy abilities and new structures using 'Tribute', which is given to you for completing Gold Scrolls and Silver Scrolls (story tasks and challenge tasks, respectively).
Even here, Lionhead have managed to stuff things up admirably. On the first tutorial island, once you've developed several stomach ulcers from grinding your teeth through the camera tutorial, you can either leave the island directly using a Gold Scroll, or continue with the tutorials to unlock the Silver Scrolls, meaning that if you don't want to forfeit a whole load of useful Tribute, you have to plough through the hideous monotony of dragging a few rocks around a few inches of the screen, all the while being told how great you are, as if you had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Surely it wouldn't have been such a great problem to set up a flag in the player profile to say "Yes, I have completed the tutorials, I don't need to do them again" and simply have the Silver Scrolls unlocked for you to complete after you've picked your creature. It's simply knuckleheaded design. The Silver Scroll challenges aren't even that fun. The Waterfall quest aptly demonstrates how Lionhead haven't fixed the cack-handed throwing mechanics from the first game, and the Nomad Valley quest likewise shows just how fiddly it is to pick up villagers if you don't have the camera set just so. As for the Rock Garden challenge, that's so insultingly easy that it's barely worth sitting through the (unskippable) cutscene telling you what to do. No wonder I dropped the rock on the villager's house, and then threw him into the sea. This, however, exposes yet another problem in the game design: You don't get Tribute for concluding challenges evilly. So you have to be good if you want to gain enough Tribute to buy the really powerful spells later in the game; So much for having choice, eh?