There's no real mincing of words here. No overly long intro talking about Molyneux and Lionhead's long overdue delivery on their years and years of promises. Just a very comfortable sigh of "they did it". Fable II is very much all it was promised to be, and then some. Like so many other ambitious games and concepts, it's far from perfect and has many, many issues, but what it gets right, it does so affectionately and addictively its pitfalls seem more like necessary bumps in the road, or at least bearable eye-sores in an otherwise perfectly picturesque landscape.
Right out of the box Fable II gets it right. There's nothing overly grandiose: a simple image of a forest and snowfield sitting side-by-side, juxtaposing the extremes you're going to find within, yet each representative of change, and the potential to (equally).
"And so our story begins
," chimes the enchanting voice of our soon-to-be narrator as you're tasked with choosing your sex. Like the first Fable, you'll begin your virtual life as a virtual child; living in the impoverished slums of Bowerstone with your sister.
There are many immediate similarities in gameplay to the Legend of Zelda series, but it's also immediately clear the Lionhead fantasy opus wants to take things in a far more serious and mature manner. You might begin life as a child, but that doesn't mean the world isn't instantly threatening or dangerous, and it's upon hearing one of Bowerstone's shadier denizens essentially proposition your sister for some form of sexual employment, right at the game's outset, this maturity is brought home.
The first half an hour or so of gameplay is based around collecting bits and pieces for hapless citizens in order to earn five gold pieces. You need five gold pieces so you and your sister can buy an ancient music box to make a wish. This is all pretty easy, but also initially introduces you to the game's dynamic decision-making element. It's not entirely prevalent throughout as you may have first thought (or hoped), but the decisions with consequence found are major enough (and wide-spreading) that I can see why they [Lionhead] opted for only a handful of these as opposed to too much. Besides with a game-world as big and lush as this, there would just be too much work in creating the dynamism needed to justify far-reaching decisiveness.
Once you've completed your early quest and made the first of your seemingly harmless decisions, the music box is yours and it's time to make a wish. I'm not spoiling anything here, but wish made you end up in the grand halls of the castle to meet the lonely king, Lucien. Clearly not everything is as dreamy as your sister wants it to be and a terrible turn of events turns
time forward and soon enough you're beginning the game proper, as a young adult.
Wiping the Fable slate clean (so to speak), has allowed Lionhead to re-invision their vision
of the game-world. It has also allowed for plenty of throwback elements to the original in the form of setting and narrative.
For the uninitiated, Fable 2 is set some 500 years after the first game. The Guild of Heroes is but a distant memory, relived now as mere bed-time stories for children. What this means is stature plays a very important role throughout. You are most definitely one of the fabled Heroes of old, but for the average citizen in the world of Albion, calling yourself thus is not really enough. With this in mind you need to raise your Renown which is done by completing specific quests; be it rescuing slaves from bandit camps, killing
certain bandits, winning the Crucible (a gladiator-style event), or completing main story arcs, you'll be rewarded with specific Renown points. You can, however, trounce about town and simply show off your trophies to anyone who will pay attention, and doing so will give you a small dose, but a dose nonetheless.
Your fame is also dictated very heavily by your actions. There are two synergetic gameplay parts to Fable 2. On the one-hand you have a reasonably solid third-person adventure title with role-playing elements, and on the other you have a Sims-like fantasy life simulator. Both feed off each other (though awkwardly at times), but equally remain separate enough neither needs to constantly rely on the other to exist. It's a precarious balance, and one that at times seems incredible in vision and execution and others clumsy and unwarranted. But overall
the game - without one or the other
- would be lost and pointless and it's in this required synergy Fable 2 manages to sweep you off your feet, despite at times not *quite
* feeling right.
There are some very famous voices floating around the Fable 2 game-world, including the likes of the pictured Stephen Fry (Blackadder, Fry and Laurie), Helena Bonham Carter (Fight Club, Sweeney Todd), Ron Glass (Serenity, Firefly) and Bill Nighy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz).
It's an all-English cast, too which makes the game's setting just that much easier to swallow.
All of this means there's a deeply open game-world here to explore. Whether it's seeking out the hidden corners of the immediate environment for that next treasure chest or hidden cave, or planting the seeds of life through marriage and its subsequent consummation - there's always something to do in Fable 2. And as with the first game, you can make good-hearted decisions and wickedly evil ones.
Your appearance will change based on elements like this, as well as other factors such as food (eat too much fatty food or drink too much booze and you'll gain weight). Moreover, in keeping with the dynamic nature of the game, being too fat will likely make you less attractive to the opposite (or same, if that's how you swing) sex (though there are definitely those out there in the land of Albion who don't mind a bit of meat on the bones).
While it might sound complicated, the social element of the game is fairly easy to manage. You can pretty much please everyone by performing a few gestures, and finding out what each person wants you to do is as simple as bringing up a quick manifest of their likes and dislikes (you also learn their sexual orientation and can even rename them if you like). Of course the potential to be an absolute ass to everyone is also there, and while I find it hard to be a "Nobhead" personally (you'll actually gain that title if you act accordingly), I have watched some people run about town killing, maiming and being rude to everyone they come across.
Ultimately though, the dynamic nature of the game-world has no real adverse effect on the one true story you need to play through in order to 'finish' the game. There are benefits and downsides to the sort of person you can become, to be sure, but you can't strictly change
the main arc based on your decisions. Gaming is a long way off before that can happen (Fallout 3 comes close, though), and until that day, Fable 2's social dynamism will have to suffice.
Beyond the social gameplay, the action/RPG constituent of Fable 2 is also fairly ambitious in its attempt to become utterly accessible. Upon receiving my review copy of the game I was also given a cover-letter from Mr Molyneux himself, asking above all else to "find somebody who doesn't play games, watch them play and see how their world turns out". He asks this because of the dynamic world you can shape (clearly), but also because everything has been simplified so just about anyone can play. However, the simple stuff has a steep edge to it that rewards experienced players. We've talked about this stuff in the past, but I'll refresh quickly here, because for the most part it is good, but I think does lack overall as a result of Lionhead biting of more than they can chew so we don't have to chew too much.
There are three forms of attack in Fable 2; melee, ranged and magic. Each of these is respectively assigned to X, Y and B for ease of use (with the exception of magic, which has a slightly deeper control element). And equally, you can assign spells or enhance each one through accrued experience points.
You gain XP through direct combat, and depending what facet you use at your disposal will dispel the most in value. So, if you prefer to get up close and personal, you're going to gain more melee/strength XP. If you'd rather pick off enemies from afar with your ranged weapon, you'll gain more ranged XP, and of course the same applies to magic.
It's an interesting idea that works quite well, especially when you learn that the game rewards you for stringing them all together in combat with percentage bonuses based on your use of them individually and in combination.
There's also a deliberate rhythm strewn into combat. So button mashers aren't going to earn as much as someone who utilises a gained flourish through well-timed button taps, and it's in this simple concept the game is supposed to separate the gamers from the non. Unfortunately I just don't think this has ultimately created a truly rewarding system for the experienced out there.
It's incredibly easy to understand the rhythm and three skill combat strings, and once you've nailed it, combat throughout is really only challenging by overwhelming numbers (though all you need then is to cast a level four Raise the Dead spell alongside a Slow Time spell and you're all set).
The system is definitely true to one promise: it is completely accessible for the non-gamer types out there. But in saying that I can see how someone who really has no idea what they're doing becoming really, really bored with it (especially because it could also seem overwhelming if they have no grasp on purchasing and using the myriad of spells available).
There are other gripes, too. While the promise of being able to go anywhere you can see is pretty true, there are still annoying invisible walls and ridiculous fences and barricades you can't cross, even though just a bit further up the road there's another fence about the same size you can totally Vault
. Throughout the massive game-world this element rears its inconsistent and annoying head, and can actually lead you to begin to ignore the otherwise very rewarding exploratory aspect of the game.
Though, speaking of exploration, another major issue I have with Fable 2 is its otherwise useless map system.
There's a map to check out, but no option to zoom or anything - a single map page ala The Legend of Zelda (and so many other titles of this nature) - especially given the size of the game-world
- would have definitely been a welcome inclusion. Moreover, managing your dog, social responses and quests through the D-pad might have seemed like a good idea to Lionhead, but I found it can actually be really annoying when it doesn't correspond to what you'd prefer to do. Being able to manually create your own social shortcuts (because you'll invariably have favourites), dog action or the like with a far more responsive context-sensitive use of the A-button (for digging, etc) makes a lot more sense.
Beyond these annoying nuances, there's also the problem with a technology that falls somewhat short of a clear goal. The game-world, in art-direction and scope, is stunningly crafted, but there's a hell of a lot of pop-up, and I've encountered my fair share of glitches and crashes (at one point my dog was just floating aimlessly around and I couldn't interact with anyone). I've also found the overall animations of most of the game's characters (me, included), just really simple and archaic. I realise there are many, many NPCs filling a pretty huge game-world, but beyond personalities, I would have preferred to see a bit more love injected into character movements and actions.
All that said though, there's an intense amount of freedom available to players with all the world of Albion has to offer. You could spend hours attempting to decode all the Demon doors or hunt down all the Gargoyle heads. You could equally spend hours wooing all the ladies in the land; working towards that ever-rewarding goal of taking more than one to bed with you ("The Swinger", I believe, is the name of the 5G Achievement you'll unlock).
You can set a wife at each end of every town and just work towards keeping them happy (and apart from each other), or you could forget the family component altogether and just roam the land in search of Silver Keys to open the Silver Key chests (each with a number of Silver Keys required to open them).
There's also plenty of digging to be done once you've taught your dog to hunt for buried treasures, as well as countless generic chests with hidden goodies strewn about the land, if treasure-hunting is your thing. But if none of that tickles your fancy why not join a cult, invest in property or take up gainful employment (I hear Bowerstone is looking for able blacksmiths and bartenders)?
There really is just so much to check out and do here you're bound to find something that will keep you glued to the screen, and at the time of writing this review I've logged close to 20 hours, with almost half of all Achievements unlocked and still feel like there's so much more in store for me.
At its core, Fable 2 delivers on its promise of freedom and dynamically-shifting gameplay. You'll find various decisions with long-term effects throughout your journey as well as a fairly straight-forward but well managed story to sink your teeth into. And if you're tired of following the ever-present glowing breadcrumb trail (actually, you can turn it off), Fable 2 offers countless options of a social, near simulation spin on life as an Albion Hero among the people.
It's by no means a perfect game, but it comes pretty close in terms of living up to its original vision, and you'll definitely find it hard to put down.