Due to the importance of games design to the economy of Guildford, the local chamber of commerce has declared 2004 "Guildford Game Year". Signs have been erected on all the main roads into the city saying stuff like "You are now entering Bullfrog country", blue plaques have gone up on key buildings around town with inscriptions such as "Mucky Foot toiled here, 1997 to 2003", and the imposing brick cathedral has been torn down to make way for a 400ft sculpture of a defecating ape.
Recently we met up with development legend Peter Molyneux and Black and White Studios honcho Jonty Barnes in the shadow of this squatting simian colossus, and - sheltering from a biting easterly wind behind a huge bronze turd - we discussed the game that many are calling "the sequel to Black and White".
Appropriately, considering the setting, creatures were one of the first topics raised: the creatures which you train and nurture from your godly perspective, and which awe-struck humans come to revere, love or fear. Five species have been announced thus far and, though these all appeared in the original game, giant graphical leaps mean there's no danger whatsoever of confusion. The most obvious differences between old and new are the lavish polygon counts and the luxurious pelts this time around. Ruffled by breezes, bedraggled by rain, singed by fire, clotted with blood from leaking wounds or ripped out in tufts by the claws of assailants, fur is now so realistically rendered that fleas from passing pets will throw themselves at your monitor while you play. Together with more expressive faces, more numerous and subtle animations and more sensitive alignment morphing, it seems certain that the BandW2 beasts will be amongst the most visually arresting, emotionally endearing characters ever committed to code.
The chance to slough these stunning skins, swapping species at particular points in the story, is one feature not carried over from the first outing. Similarly, those self-contained sparring matches have been consigned to the dung heap of development history, replaced by a far grander, far more brutal form of warfare involving both creatures and sprawling citizen armies. Our hosts wouldn't be drawn on maximum military headcounts but glimpses of the pitched battles looked impressive enough. Medieval meat-grinding will always butter our parsnips. Season it with spectacular sorcery, fabulous physics and awesome outsized animals that, if suitably trained, will happily rip out the throat of a counterpart then sup blood from the ragged hole, and it's hard to imagine how things could go awry.
Hard to imagine, but not wholly impossible. Despite Jonty's repeated explanations it was still difficult to grasp exactly how armies are to be directed, and tactics implemented, in the heat of battle. There's much evidence of backtracking and simplification in terms of the interface in BandW2 (movement, camera controls and spell-casting are all far more conventional than they were) but talk of a novel system of control "threads", rally flags, context-sensitive cursors and selectable manoeuvre blueprints left us a little anxious about martial marshalling.
If the means of controlling troops turn out to be half as elegant as those for constructing static defences then there will be nothing at all to worry about. Wall erection is particularly satisfying at present - a sinuous sweep of the mouse pointer painting serpentine city wall foundations directly onto the scenery. Defensively minded deities can teach their animal assistants to repair breaches in bulwarks like these. Whether caused by a catapulted boulder or a giant paw, such rents have a pleasing plausibility about them - the new physics engine meaning masonry shatters naturalistically rather than along pre-programmed fault lines.
Ramparts are just one form of obstacle at a defender's disposal. Typical of the way miracles have been revamped, fireballs can now be wrung out like dirty dishcloths over terrain to create blazing barriers similar to Stronghold's pitch ditches. The influence of Firefly's crenellated charmer, and older, historical municipal management sims like Caesar and Pharaoh, is also evident inside BandW2 burghs where there appears to have been a very deliberate effort to add texture and interest to town planning.
Saintly overseers who skimp on urban enhancements like parks, statues and taverns run the risk of cultivating discontent, just as black-hearted overlords who hold back on the heads-on-spikes risk forfeiting the fear and fidelity of their flock. Soul shepherds who invest massive amounts of time and resources in moulding and managing metropoli will see a direct payoff in the shape of mass migrations from neighbouring, less impressive communities. Although such movements of populations will bring their own problems - overcrowding being the most obvious one - they should provide a viable alternative avenue to victory for players with little appetite for aggression.
As we parted company with Peter and Jonty and began wending our way back to the station (passing as we did a park bench dedicated to the memory of Lost Toys), even the wariest among us to had to admit that Black and White 2 was looking reassuringly wonderful.
Black and White 2 should be available for PC come autumn