The review format is generally pretty straightforward, but when a game like Fable II strolls nonchalantly up to the plate you have to rethink things a bit. For the last few days I’ve been eating, drinking and sleeping Fable II – and I’m still left wondering if I’ve missed something that would open up a whole new paragraph, like so many meandering sidequests. Such is the nature of the game: open ended, sometimes overwhelming and full of possibility.
For those completely unaware, the Fable series is one that tries to tie the traditional world of the role playing game to moral choice in the fictional land of Albion. You decide what quests to take on, fully aware that your actions may come back to haunt you if you choose to be evil, while equally knowing that the ’good’ choice may be more time consuming, awkward or just plain thankless. Still, regardless of what choices you make, the raw day-to-day of the gameplay is largely similar – you equip yourself with swords, crossbows, guns and magic spells and go explore dungeons, caves and castles killing countess baddies in search of loot, fame and fortune.
The combat is a mixture of automatic lock-on ranged attacks and button tapping melee. As you upgrade your skills you can do advanced attacks, like counter-blocking and aiming at specific body parts, but even at this stage it’s quite possible to get by with the amateur beat-em-up enthusiast’s favourite strategy: button mashing. This seems to take another bow toward casual gaming with another break in convention: it’s impossible for your character to die. The closest you can come to this is being knocked out, at which point you do a Lazarus and dramatically bounce back to your feet, minus some experience points and with one more battle scar, which no doubt looks impressive to the village yokels, but will be a mark of failure you carry with you for the rest of the game.
Following on several hundred years after the original Fable, the story is an entirely new one meaning that new players won’t be lost, while old players will be amused with the subtle nods towards the original. Like the first, the plot is a clichéd affair about an evil pantomime villain trying to take over the world, and unsurprisingly the burden of stopping him falls entirely on your heroic shoulders. The twist to this deliberately fairytale storyline is that you don’t have to be the familiar muscle-bound goody two-shoes, and that you are free (and indeed encouraged) to make your own moral choices to forge your own destiny. You can even entirely ignore the tricky matter of the future of the world and concentrate on your career as a wood cutter/property tycoon/barman if you really feel like it. True, it wouldn’t make for much of a game, but the title is quite relaxed in advancing the plot, and you’re encouraged to go at your own pace being happily distracted along the way.
Much like the original Fable, the good vs. evil mechanic is a binary affair with no real room for all the shades of grey caught between black and white. Sure you can play it like I did and mix up random slaughter with noble sacrifice, but the game won’t really know how to treat you, and some of the title’s ideas of evil are curious – if charging your tenants slightly above average rent makes you a corrupt individual then I will be having serious words with my letting agents come the weekend. That said, one area where the game has definitely improved is that you may find yourself genuinely torn at times, where you’ll find the evil option just a little too guilt inducing to do in good conscience or too lucrative to turn down. As a consequence of one such moment, my avatar, who previously had thought nothing wrong with slaughtering innocents, consorting with prostitutes of both genders behind his wife’s back and leaving the cap off my toothpaste (probably) went through an ’Amazing Grace’ style turnaround. I can’t think of any games that have made me do that before.
There are many other areas where the game has been subtly improved from the first too, and while most of these are purely cosmetic (the ability to catch STDs, for example seems to serve no purpose except to be another stat when other players come a-snooping) the introduction of the dog is a master stroke. While players are led around by a golden trail leading you to your next goal (you can turn this off in the options if you prefer to make discoveries yourself), your furry friend will often lead you off the beaten track, barking at treasure and helping you to discover secrets and bonuses you may never have uncovered on your own. It’s possible to become quite attached to your dog, but it’s also possible to completely ignore him, should you feel that a pet is just for the tutorial.
I mentioned earlier that you can be distracted by the mundanities of the world around you, and this deserves some expansion. Over the course of the game, you can interact with villagers in a limited way (using a series of gestures to represent different interactions), impressing or terrorizing them as you see fit. You can marry characters of either gender, start a family, have extra marital affairs, or get a job. The jobs are fairly limited in their interest, but provide a nice way of getting extra money if you’re a couple of dollars short of a shiny new weapon. These tasks involve timing a button press perfectly to build up a chain, which is hardly the most in depth mini game, but since when was work supposed to be fun?
A better way of earning money is playing the property markers. You can buy most of the buildings in Albion and either move in or rent them out. Redecorating them will increase their value and allow them to be rented out for more, and it’s quite possible to make a silly amount of money doing this. A nice feature is that you claim rent every five minutes – whether or not you’re playing the game over that time. The next time I switch on Fable, It’s likely I’ll be able to afford more property, and subsequently unlock new quest. How this will affect the game in the long term is hard to say, but it does help the feel of realism, and it’s nice to see the game trying once again to try new things.
I remember that the original Fable’s art style – a sort of Disneyfied realism – was offputting to many when compared to the likes of Oblivion or Diablo, and those who hated it will find the sequel equally repellent. Those who don’t mind will be enchanted by the sequel’s visuals – much like the first in art style, but with some dazzling views especially with the ingame sunsets as night falls. The draw distances are impressive (with a little pop-up), and the frame rate is generally solid (though struggles ever so slightly when lots is going on in the rain.) The sound is a mixed bag. While the music is soaring and atmospheric, the voices will sometimes grate – especially the woman who plays the hero of strength, without whose perpetual annoyance, my character would probably have been a lot less evil.
There’s also a limited multiplayer component, allowing you to drop in to other people’s games either locally or over Xbox Live. While this sounds an ace idea, you will only appear as a henchman in their version, and other than picking up the two achievements associated with working together, it’s not a feature you’re likely to come back to that often. A far more interesting multiplayer component is the ability to see people on your friends list in the game as glowing orbs. You can send them gifts and spy on their statistics, as well as get a general idea of what they’re up to. A larger scale variant of this is switched off by default where you see orbs for everyone playing at the same time. Impressively, this seems to result in very little slow down and is a very nice touch although admittedly not a deal breaker either way.
So are there any downsides? Absolutely, but they’re minor when set against the triumphs elsewhere. Some will criticise the difficulty level when it comes to the combat. In this instance you can artificially make the game more challenging by not levelling up, or deliberately getting an underpowered weapon, but for me the fighting is so fluid that the scores of enemies you can chop down is fitting for a hero of your supposed renown. The lack of death as a deterrent may also sound annoying in principal, but given the reaction to dying in other videogames is to reload and try again, it doesn’t feel like you’re losing much.
You can also argue that it’s short for an RPG and with significantly dumbed-down elements for those who prefer to agonize over their choice of sword, but then the type of person these complaints apply to will probably not be in the market for an RPG lite anyway. It’s an improvement on the original, but it lacks memorable moments to match the first – confronting a hero I’d wronged atop a cliff against a dramatic stormy backdrop had terrific drama in the first, and there’s nothing to rival the unforgettable prison escape here – even though the game tries its hardest with elements that are eerily familiar to veterans of the original (playing through the Arena again was one bit they needn’t have resurrected).
But these criticisms pale into insignificance when the achievement of the game is considered. Fable II is an excellent game, and proof that casual players and those born with a NES pad in their hands can live in harmony. Peter Molyneux takes a lot of unfair stick in the gaming community thanks to promises not lived up to, but hopefully Fable II will silence the critics for a while. If you’re a 360 owner, you owe it to yourself to visit Albion – and whether you’re loved or hated by the villagers, you can be sure that you’ll rarely play a game as charmingly moreish as this.