Fable 2 Xbox 360 Review
Peter Molyneux has never been a man to downplay his own creations. A decade of overpromising and under-delivering left many gamers sceptical about each new Lionhead Studios release. Fable 2 is no different, especially being the sequel to a game that failed to meet expectations. So has he finally made a game that lives up to the hype? Short answer = Well, yes, mostly, sort of. For the long answer, please read on.
Fable 2 is set in the land of Albion, 500 years after the events of the previous game. The player-character, who can now be of either gender, starts off as a lowly street urchin in the town of Bowerstone. An enclosed tutorial section, some interesting moral dilemmas, a few character introductions, and a tragic event later and the plot jumps forward twenty years. You’re all grown-up and the world of Albion should be your oyster, shouldn’t it?
Unfortunately the initial expansiveness of Bower Lake and its surrounding environs belies the truth that although Albion is now much larger and more open than before, Molyneux’s claims that “if it looks like you can go there, you can” are full of more hot air than The Hindenburg.
Rather than being an open world, Albion is separated into areas, divided by loading screens. Adding this to the lack of an overall world-map, and these various regions can feel somewhat disconnected, making it difficult to feel like the world has genuine geography.
Although the areas usually have a few branching paths, they almost always have one main route, and only one ‘exit’ at each end. Despite this, exploration is still possible in many places, but the decision not to include a handy mini-map was probably a prudent one, as it would have highlighted the world’s limitations.
The world itself is a visual and aural delight. Each area looks unique, and feels like Lionhead have ripped a page from a beautifully illustrated old fairytale book, added a third dimension and some bloom lighting, then populated it with all manner of strange and wonderful people and creatures.
The full orchestral scores add a sense of grandeur and weight to questing, and provide urgency whilst battling. But the highlight for the senses has to come from the wonderfully British voice acting and Discworld-esque humour. After years of bland, American voices in games, Fable II feels as fresh as a sea breeze. The excellent vocal talents of Stephen Fry, Julia Sawalha and Zoe Wanamaker will not go unnoticed, and bring certain gravity to the events that unfold.
Lionhead have done a great job in making the player have a real presence in the world. As your actions (and inactions) can affect the landscape around you, the player is given an almost physical connection to the setting. As your deeds can affect the townsfolk’s reactions to you, the player is given an emotional connection to the population of that world. And as you can buy, sell, adjust rents and prices and redecorate every home and shop in every town (thus affecting the economy), the player is given a financial connection too.
Although your character is a mute, he (or she) does have an ever increasable range of gestures and actions that they can perform, ranging from dancing and lute playing, to sock puppetry and heroic posing and of course including farting and flipping the finger. Although this can sometimes feel like you’ve somehow stepped into a game of The Sims, the non-player characters reactions to your tomfoolery elevates this above the trivial.
Each character will have their own likes and dislikes. Whereas a child may find it hilarious if you belch in their face, an upper-class gentry-man is likely to be grossly offended. At first the process of wooing a spouse and having a child can seem pointless, considering that your chosen loved one more than likely has several identical twins roaming about town. But when you find yourself on your travels buying a toy sword because you know it’s your son’s favourite gift, and picking up a nice necklace for your wife while you’re at it. When your son looks up at you and says, “Are you leaving already, daddy? When I grow up, I want to be a hero like you.” When your wife casually mentions that the furniture looks a bit tatty, and you vow to perform an Extreme Home Makeover that would put Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen to shame. When a little girl comes up to you in the street and asks for your autograph. When you consider leaving your wife, because you have your eye on the cute barmaid in Oakfield. When you actually regret that wild killing-spree you just went on, because now people look at you with fear in their eyes, and plead for their lives every-time you pass. When moments like these happen, you picture Peter Molyneux’s grinning face in your mind, as he whispers into your ear, “I told you so”.
So the world and its characters are compelling, but what about the dreaded fact that Peter Molyneux has vowed to make a game that is accessible for the casual or non-gaming player?
Unfortunately this is the area where Fable 2 lets itself down slightly. The much-touted ‘one-button’ combat is actually three buttons – One for melee attacks, one for ranged attacks and one for magical attacks. This part of the game does manage the ideal scaling setup that Molyneux and his team were going for. It’s extremely simple for inexperienced or lower-skill players, but with different combinations of holding buttons and timed presses it has surprising depth. The combat is really as interesting as you make it. While it would easily be possible to go through the whole game simply shooting everything in sight, you can combine the various spells and weapons to create some exciting battles.
Fable 2’s dog is another feature that Molyneux informed us would make us feel love for a virtual fictional animal, and although you’ll heal your dog when he’s injured, (he can’t die) and comfort him when he’s scared, this is only to ensure that he is effective for his sole purpose – to find buried treasure for you. Somehow your dog manages never to age over the thirty year scale of the story, but despite his constant companionship, you’ll never feel the same sort of emotional connection that was seen between Wanda and Agro in Shadow of the Colossus.
Shockingly, in Fable 2 you cannot die. If you run out of health you are merely knocked out for a few seconds, any uncollected experience orbs from the current battle disappear, and the hero pulls themselves back up again with a full health bar and a new scar. By removing any possibility of failure, most of the tension that comes from battle is also removed.
This approach really highlights Fable 2’s biggest failure, a lack of consequence for your actions. For a game that gives you so many opportunities for good or evil, it’s just too easy to switch between one or the other. You can go through most of the game being so evil that monstrous horns sprout from your head, and then donating a large sum of money to a beggar will instantly transform you into a being so good that you have to be careful not to catch your halo on low doorways.
Money and experience are ridiculously easy to earn, with rent from owned properties being paid to you automatically every five minutes whilst playing the game, and even every hour while the game is turned off. To remove any of the dilemmas that come from choosing which abilities to upgrade with your experience points, these can simply be ‘sold’ back if you change your mind. Similarly, removing any of the usual RPG enjoyment that comes from mulling over and selecting your favoured equipment is the fact that when picking up a new weapon you are told, “This is BETTER/WORSE than your current weapon.”
Fable 2 also features a golden ‘breadcrumb trail’ line that leads you to your next objective. This is perfect for newbies who may be worried about getting lost, and veterans who find that it distracts from exploration can simply turn it off. A better map function would have certainly been preferable to this though.
Lionhead must be lauded for the true drop-in, drop-out co-op play that is included in Fable 2, especially as offline co-op is something that is all too rare in these days. The fact that the host must decide the percentage-cut of gold and experience that the henchman is allowed to receive, is a cause for much enjoyable debate and negotiation. It’s just a shame that the co-op camera copes so badly in the frequent enclosed spaces, that you begin longing for solo play before very long.
Ultimately, though it’s the little touches draw you into Albion and keep you there. Such as the 50 obnoxious Scottish gargoyles scattered around Albion that must be destroyed, who throw genuinely irritating taunts at you, but their insults betray their positions, making their extermination that much sweeter. And how about that bisexual Town Crier who stalks you through the streets, begging you to put a ring on his finger and make him an honest man.
Peter Molyneux and Lionhead Studios have created a fantastically compelling world in Albion, and a game that gives you a tangible sense of self in your interactions with the lands and its people. Fable 2 would be a superbly accessible entry-point into action RPG’s for any casual gamer, but more experienced players may feel let down by the concessions to simplicity that have been made.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I think that distant cheering means the people of Albion are calling their hero..