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Enthusiastic producer Peter Molyneux brings us the sequel to one of the premier RPGs on the original Xbox, Fable. Despite having a lot of merits, Fable was unceremoniously crushed under the weight of expectation, victim of its own ambition: talking up a myriad of features, only to axe them one by one as release drew nearer. Four years and one hardware generation later, Fable II promises the stars again; does it deliver?
I always found "Fable" to be one of the most aptly named games ever, with its storyline being exactly what I picture when I think of the word: A medieval fantasy setting, brimming with magic. An unlikely hero of humble beginnings, experiencing the loss of his family at an early age. A villain with a convoluted plan to take over the world. Even the Kingdom's name, Albion, is equally classic, or generic, depending on your disposition.
Whichever the case, the fact is that, much like in a summer blockbuster, the plots in both Fables are primarily there to string explosive action sequences together and at that they certainly succeed, often managing to be genuinely funny as an added bonus. Truthfully, Fable II does try to up the story ante a little bit, but even the "twists" remain pretty much stock; it does however succeed in weaving the story better into the gameplay and connecting the hero avatar with the player that much more.
Gamers will probably find the pay-off a bit on the light side, as the game is certainly lacking in climactic one-on-one battles, but it does culminate to a couple of hard choices that will leave you questioning your actions in retrospect. That is a strange achievement indeed for a video-game, but with a little more effort Fable II could have had its pie and eaten it too. But, I guess, there has to be room for defying proverbs in Fable III.
Rather than revolutionize the original's archetype, Fable II builds up on all of its predecessor's existing gameplay systems rather seamlessly, making even brand new features feel quite familiar.
For the combat, your hero is adept at three fighting styles: Skill, that is using ranged attacks like guns and crossbows, which is great for heavily damaging a single foe, Will, calling forth a plethora of magic spells, that excels in dispatching numerous enemies at once and Strength, meaning melee combat with swords and axes, which doesn't leave you nearly as open to attacks as the other two. Each style corresponds to a different face button and stringing various combos together is theoretically a breeze. In practice, it is a bit more laggy, as some keystrokes often don't seem to register correctly but it thankfully never comes to being frustrating, just a bit disappointing; and when it works like it's supposed to be, it's great fun.
Which is a good thing, considering combat is prevalent throughout the game, with enemies reappearing endlessly at most places you've already visited and rarely encountering a decent stretch of land devoid of bands of lurking bandits. It is pretty weird that even a saintly hero will have decapitated scores of human opponents by the end of the game, but I guess that it all comes
back to the "summer blockbuster" theory, where it never counts as murder so long as the victim is evil. Still, it would have been very impressive if Fable II had dreamed-up non-violent alternatives for dispatching foes that were as enjoyable as combating them.
An existing feature that seems equally impressive is that your hero's appearance is defined by the way you play: In most games you select your character's looks from a predetermined list and while Fable II has that too, with a variety of hairstyle and clothing options, the biggest changes come from your in-game behaviour. Be greedy and mean-spirited and you'll have a sickly, haunting visage with maybe a couple of protruding horns. Be ever-helpful and benevolent and you'll have perfect complexion and a tiny halo floating over your head. Battle skilfully and you'll grow taller, powerfully and you'll gain muscle, mystically and you'll soon find magical tattoos covering your body.
But while this exciting feature works well for the "character behaviour" parts, it misses an opportunity with the combat portions as it doesn't take into account the ratios, as in how often you use ranged attacks over magic, swords over guns and such. It simply takes into account how many skills you've learned in each style. That does have its logic, but it means that if you play long enough you'll invariably end up with the same tall, muscular and tattooed figure, which is, without a doubt, extremely limited compared to the ever-changing effects your social behaviour has on your avatar.
Speaking of which, the Social part of the game still involves rounding up citizens and performing "Expressions" on them to alter their opinion of you. You can scare them into worshipping you, or entertain them enough to love you. Flirt them up and marry them, or zap them up and fry 'em. The choice, as always in Fable II, is yours, which is impressive even if it's always a choice between two extremes. Providing black & white options with little to no middle ground has been the status-quo for video-games since the last generation of consoles and games such as Fable II only take minuscule steps forward; but at least it's some progress.
The "Expressions", helpfully grouped into several categories, including Rude, Scary and Funny, is Fable's clever way of having your hero interact with any denizen, without actually speaking. Some of these expressions can be "extended", requiring you to release the button at the right time to increase the effect, as in ending your fist pump with a high five, or face the hilarious consequences, as in not quite pulling of the grand finale you were going for and ending your dance routine flat on your backside.
All of the expressions are very fun to try out, but their effect seems way too pronounced, as it is way easy to sway your audience's opinion very quickly. This might make sense once you have a few quests under your belt and earned some renown, but having the hero be extremely charismatic right of the bat lowers the challenge a great bit. This can be a general gripe with Fable II, as its often remarkable accessibility and friendliness can make the experience feel all too easy. The game's train of thought seems to be that the reward doesn't lie in accomplishing something very difficult, but rather in enjoying an exciting and stylish, if easy-going, journey
Resembling the way extended expressions work, Fable II offers a variety of different mini-games to try out, pass your time and earn money. There is a variety of jobs to find in Albion, such as woodchuck, blacksmith and bartender, all of which revolve around pressing the A button at the right time. They are slightly varied and, for once, their difficult curve seems enough to remain interesting for a while.
There are also plenty of opportunities to gamble, with Game-Masters setting up cute fantasy variations of notorious casino games, like the Roulette and the Slots. My favourite has to be Fortune's tower, probably the most different of the games but still a bit reminiscent of Blackjack.
Jobs and lucky streaks aren't the best ways to earn money in Fable II, however, as that honour goes to real estate. You are able to buy almost every building in the game, which you can then turn into your personal pad, or move in with your family, or, for the bigamy-intrigued, make it a marital home for your newest spouse; but you can also rent it out. Renting, which is the only option when buying stores, pays dividends every five minutes and accumulates even when you are not playing Fable II. So, if you take a break to read one of my over-long reviews, you'll probably be the richest cat in town by the time you finish.
Speaking of cats, they are surprisingly absent from the world of Albion, but one of Fable II's biggest new features does deal with a four-legged companion and it involves both the combat and social aspects of gameplay. Your Dog, the best friend a hero can ask for, mimics your personality, aids you during expressions with antics of its own, can hunt for burried treasure and finish off enemies you've knocked prone. It is also used in a few cinematics for dramatic effect and I am pretty certain if there were newspapers in Albion, it would cheerfully fetch them practically drool-free. Despite the few issues with AI and path-finding, the Dog is, in all, a very welcome addition to the game.
One of the biggest advantages to having the Dog by your side is that it often points you to the camouflaged and just-out-of-view treasures that seem to be mandatory for every fantasy game. With the Stone Gargoyles offering auditory cues when near their vicinity and the Demon Doors being huge enough to spot from afar, most of the hidden extras in the game stay within very reasonable levels of challenge and you don't have to be hardcore to find them all.
The treasure-finding, the jobs, the gambling, the never-ending enemies, all these clearly set the game up for even more adventuring after the primary quests are done, but that is not to say that these have been rushed or otherwise compromised. The main quest is noticeably lengthier than in the original Fable, even though it still can't quite scratch the depth of games such as Oblivion, Neverwinter Nights, or Zelda for that matter, but I find that its length is just right for those that want to casually get through the game without investing too much time, but still feeling like getting their money's worth, without having to delve into the sidequests, hidden extras
Pictures of Fable 2 (Xbox 360)
Turns out that every story does turn out innocently enough
For all the thought that went into making Fable II's gameplay more robust, it does have the odd bug, broken AI and missing feature to keep in line with the old days; I can't help but miss the boasting mechanic from the original Fable, where, upon undertaking a new quest you can stand on a pedestal and proudly state: "I am going to clear out the Bandit's Den and I am going to do it... in my underpants."
From the get go, it's fairly evident that Presentation is Fable II's weakest suite. The humourous but numerous loading screens, the slow menus and their shockingly unintuitive interface, the frame-rate hiccups, and the needless messages, the weird sound balancing, they all leave much to be desired and really drag the game down.
Still, Fable II does pull its act together somewhat for the most crucial story moments, with passable voice acting and clever use of the 360's interactivity. It doesn't nearly even out the sometimes amateurish mistakes made elsewhere, but it means that if you go in with a forgiving attitude, the bad presentation will barely get in the way of your enjoyment.
A bit like in the Story part, there are just enough things the Lionhead crew got right here to leave a disappointing after-taste: the feeling that a little more effort could have achieved something great.
As is the wont of games in this age, Fable II has added a multiplayer mode, where you can visit another Hero's world as his henchman, or vice-versa, using either two controllers on a single system, or over Xbox Live provided you have a Gold Subscription. The game plays out pretty much like the single player, with all the quests available, achievements granted as normal and the difficulty trying to scale to accommodate the dual threat, but not quite succeeding. There are also a few quests and extras that can only be completed via multiplayer, including getting all of the "Hero Dolls" for which you'll have to visit at least 5 different "universes".
Even though henchmen can't talk to NPCs, interact with properties and have a few more similar limitations, they can still leave a mark in their contractor's world, whether it is helping him or her earn a few gold or wiping out an entire village. Thankfully for those not feeling particularly reckless, or with friends prone to shenanigans, you can opt not to save the impact caused by the henchman at the end of the session.
In my mind, Fable has always been a more solitary experience, but being able to include a friend on the action on the fly is certainly a welcome bonus, even though I wouldn't recommend it over Xbox Live due to the extra lagginess. An online venture or two are worth it, however, if only to take a gander at how different a stranger's Albion turned out to be; the changes might be very surprising.
In what is a first for a Peter Molyneux game, Fable II proved itself to be exactly what I expected: A next-gen Fable. A harmlessly enjoyable heroic adventure that is virtually guaranteed to entertain, even if just for a few hours. The possibility for a much longer stay in Albion is strong, however, as the main quest is meaty, the mini-games are fun and the hidden extras are just challenging enough to keep you looking without being frustrated. As such, I strongly recommend giving it a try and putting the tagline question to bed: "Who will you become?"