#03: Fable II (Xbox 360)
Genre: Action RPG, Adventure
Platform: Xbox 360
Release Date: October 2008
It’s hard to review Fable II without first talking about Peter Molyneux and since it’s a lot easier to get the whole thing done with now, let’s get down to it: Creative Director of Lionhead Studios (and before that, Bullfrog Productions), Molyneux’s overseen some of the most seminal videogames of the past two decades; from Black and White and Dungeon Keeper to Populous and Theme Park. Fantastic though his output is, he’s attained a reputation in the industry for being happy to talk to journalists early in a game’s gestation period and promising a huge bunch of “cool shit” to appear in the final product (note: Not actual Peter Molyneux quote). Understandably, the time and budget constraints of developing a current-gen videogame mean that a lot of good ideas end up getting dropped, or scaled-down upon release; leading to inevitable disappointment from fans and a product that doesn’t live up to the whirlwind of hype. With each new release, the promise of (r)evolution detailed by Lionhead’s pre-release statements gets larger and larger, offering a mind-blowing combination of Choices, Options and Potential. There’s nothing wrong with ambition, but too often, trying to be a jack of all trades with a vast array of game modes, minigames, side-quests tends to disengage from the main game itself and that sums up Fable II: A darned solid game, but nowhere near what it’s trying to be.
If you look past all of that ‘action-RPG’ fare that’s the core of Fable II, what lies beneath is more the ‘simulation’ that’s at the heart of much of Molyneux’s work. If there’s ever a Theme (no pun intended, scoff) to run through Molyneux’s efforts, it’s that of freedom. The original Fable saw widespread adoption of this philosophy, with the flexibility to evolve into a world-saving hero of Good, or the oppressive Evil force dominating the land of Albion through fear and death; albeit with very little grey area in between. Continuing in the same vein, there’s plenty of decisions to be made throughout Fable II: Do you stay honest and earn cash the hard way through minigames, or perfect the art of cat-burgling and pinch it from unsuspecting villagers? Do you rescue the slaves to set them free, or sell them on for profit? Do you stay faithful to your chosen partner, or make use of the ample supply prostitutes (of both sexes) that populate the seedier towns of Albion? It’s all about giving the player the ultimate choice about how to pursue the game, but there’s just that nagging suspicion that, whatever the decision, its impact on the player’s experience is largely unnoticable. Everything’s been designed so clinically that the personality of the game is so polished that you never really relate to the main character or the story’s key protagonists; even if you royally shaft them over to further your own ambitions rather than the usual mission of Saving the World. So, while there’s freedom, there’s not that emotive feedback that real-world decisions are subject to and as a result, story-defining decisions are far too easy to make.
All across the board, Fable II is a treat for the senses. One thing the original Fable excelled at was capturing the essence of a fully-working society: Many games attempt to ‘bottle’ the sights, smells and atmosphere of a living social environment and end up with just a random collection of chunky NPCs who either interact either too little, or too much, and the overall effect is unconvincing. One of the key natures of the Fable universe is that everything’s in motion – the world’s inhabitants go about their own business, interact with each other and alter their opinions of you in real-time; not just stand still and wait for you to approach, or spout the same line of text each time you stumble across them. Of course, there’s only so much you can cram onto a single game disc so there’s copy-pasted villagers that pop up all across Albion, but there’s so many different NPC personalities that it’s hardly noticable. The respectable market town of Bowerstone is full of polite citizens who clamour around the Hero, whilst the seedy dock of Bloodstone is full of beggars, prostitutes and undesirables hassling you as you make your way across town. Whilst the range of expressions and emotions available to the player to interact with the townsfolk has been upped, it still remains a ‘side dish’ to the main game: There’s no necessity to interact with the townsfolk, and aside from the odd gift from an adoring fan (or, indeed, a terrified pedestrian) the pitiful amount of Reknown which you can gain by interacting with NPCs pales in comparison to that which may be attained by attempting and completing quests; something that’ll tempt the player a lot more than trying to gain a standing in the community, be it as a benevolent Hero or intimidating overlord.
Time in the gameworld passes at quite a lick; each ‘day’ in the game lasting around twenty minutes to half an hour, with shops opening and closing, and different NPCs emerging at different hours of the day. Play long enough, and you’ll notice the seasons change, too. Sound quality across the game is also superb, with a whole range of British voice talent lending some superb voice acting to all of the NPCs on show (including some famous names in the form of Zoë Wanamaker, Stephen Fry, Julia Sawalha, and others), and it’s by no means wasted: There’s some of the most well-written dialogue ever seen in a videogame: from the main story dialogue; through comments that permeate the various loading screens; the lore contained in the numerous books you can purchase and read in-game; all the way down to throwaway comments NPCs will yell at you from time to time. There are many instances of pure laugh-out-loud hilarity, and there’s a huge dollop of some classic British-style humour that’s interweaved with the characture style displayed across the whole of Albion. Everything’s kept light-hearted at all times (except for notable points in the story where the game very clearly puts on its serious face), and it’s this fact that continues to make Fable II a very easy way to lose much of a weekend without input from the brain.
One thing that instantly hooks is the gorgeous visual style that’s present across everything from character design to the flawlessly cartoonish scenery. The style nestles gently between realism and characature, making it a game that rarely fails to draw the eye and often lubricates the desire to simply explore. The time-shift from the medieval fantasy setting of Fable means that now everything has a Middle Ages steampunk-ish feel to it, and this is no more evident than the re-invigoration of the cityscapes, turning the archaic villages and hamlets into bustling centres of commerce filled with Olde Worlde shopfronts and houses permeated with that realistic cartoon style. The game’s weaponry has also gained a new lease of life and the technology now permits ranged weapons such as clockwork rifles, spring-loaded crossbows and hulking blunderbusses (blunderbii?) which you can opt to lock onto enemies in 3rd-person view to riddle them with bullets or aim in first-person to snipe from a distance. The extension and evolution of the stylings carried over from Fable show clear signs of growth and maturity, yet retaining enough of the character. If you’re new to the series (heck, maybe even the genre) the don’t fret; it’s just as straightforward to break into, and it’s this accommodation of varying levels of interest and experience that is to Fable II ‘s credit.
Something the original Fable excelled at was the ease, pace and structure of the adventure, and there’s no doubting that the same philosophy has been plugged expertly into its sequel: There’s no stress of character micro-management as you try and set up your party to be effective against every possible eventuality, and the story is never so unforgiving that if you get to a place you shouldn’t, you don’t immediately get ripped apart by some higher-level goon. The main gameplay sees few changes from the original Fable: The combo of a main sword weapon accompanied by a long-range bow and array of magical spells continues, with experience in each class earned through combat which may then be re-spent on the class in upgrading features like physical toughness, long-range accuracy or the power/abilities of various spells available to the magic user. It’s a simple design that doesn’t alienate either the novice or expert, and it’s never subject to unnecessary level-grinding to get your Hero up to speed. That being said, Lionhead’s drive to make everything ‘accessible’ means that you’ll never, ever, see a ‘Game Over’ screen; despite the amount of ‘death’ you’ll experience: Getting wiped out by a monster simply sees you resurrected a few seconds later with a message about everything being prophesised, hence the Hero must survive; recalling Altair’s de-synching with history when he dies in Assassin’s Creed). With only a small loss of experience, there’s no real ‘penalty’ for going into battle head-first since the worst that can happen is you lose a few EXP orbs which you’ll soon get back once you defeat the baddies in question. It’s a fine premise, but it does mean that it’s far too easy to Tank the whole game with a strong, sword-wielding character with mastery of one magical attack skill with little necessity to give other combat styles a chance.
Despite the praise and criticism detailed above, Fable II is crippled primarily by its disappointingly-short main game. Since true ‘death’ is never an issue, there’s little challenge to be found on the combat side, and there’s a glowing breadcrumb trail which directs you exactly to your next quest or task (which can be switched off, granted) which means most players will rip through pretty much everything there is to see in less than 25 hours or so bar clearing up some of the side-missions or scrounging those last achievements. There’s some DLC to be had, but with it the rather sore feeling that it should have been included on the original release anyway and a lack of motivation to throw money at recycled content. Given the level of writing and production that’s invested in the Fable series, the main story is disappointingly weak. Even in the context of the very relaxed pace set by Molyneux’s vision of Freedom, it’s so abominably stunted that just when it seems like it’s getting going, the credits roll and the curtains close. There’s rarely a sense of drama or real danger, and relationships between the Hero and the main pro- and antagonists just aren’t explored to a large enough an extent that such an epic tale deserves.
Still, at least you haven’t got to do it all alone; and the major surprise is that it’s taken this far in this review to mention anything canine. Yes, in Fable II, you have a dog. Yet, far from being just a simple Molyneux gimmick to say “Hey! Look! You can have a dog now!”, it’s actually a remarkably refreshing device that re-defines the ‘adventure’ aspect of the game’s wide pigeonhole. Señor Pooch (yes, you can name it whatever you want) follows by your side as companion throughout the game; sniffing out treasure, locating dig spots that yield useful items and helping to attack ambushing enemies. Books are littered across Albion which can be used to improve Fido’s skills and, unlike the human companions that may accompany you during the game, it’ll soon become largely the only character in the game that you build up any respect for during the adventure. Ultimately though, its presence is merely yet another diversion from the disappointing main story; another distraction in a gameworld that’s seemingly built on ‘distraction’ yet possessing no solid foundation of core gameplay beneath. Perhaps that’s the problem with Fable II in general – there’s so much focus on covering every base and offering something for everyone that, perhaps, it ends up not catering any single demographic with any mastery. It’s neither a disappointment nor a triumph; instead of an epic quest across Albion’s beautifully-rendered countryside filled with excitement, danger and intrigue, it feels more like a walk in the park.