Thursday, October 23, 2008

Review: Fable 2

Lionhead Studios

Xbox 360

In 2004, Peter Molyneaux and the team at Lionhead Studios made some massive promises, and while the original Fable was an enjoyable action-RPG, the promised ‘anything and everything’ just failed to deliver – you could make the villagers like you, but once you’d done it once to see their reactions, there wasn’t really a pay-off to doing so. Changing your status from good to evil was a fun gimmick, but it didn’t add terribly much to the gameplay, beyond accessing certain quests.

Four years and many more promises later, Molyneaux still wants you to feel "very f***ing cool" when you’re playing Fable 2, he’s added a dog as your companion, removed stats from the different clothing you can wear, updated the graphics, and, for some odd reason, really screwed up the game’s menus. But it’s still an engrossing game, despite the flaws – you’ll hit the walls on the much-vaunted person-to-person interactions pretty quickly, but it’s fun while it lasts.

Set 500 years after the first game, Fable 2 sees the player set course on a classic revenge mission, to right the wrongs done against you (and your family) in the game's opening scenes. In doing this, you'll have to assemble a kind of dream team of Heroes - corresponding to the three experience trees the game offers - Skill, Will, and Strength. Seeing other Heroes fit into these categories did make me wonder where my Hero fit in, and it might have been interesting to see your Hero take the role of one of the three, but I suppose there's more to be gained by letting players alter their specialities than locking them in early on.

Molyneaux apparently made a point of removing the stat bonuses from clothes, which is an interesting design choice – after all, clothes should just be about appearance bonuses, and not good or evil – but as far as I can tell (sixteen hours into the game, my Albion-wide property portfolio all but complete), there just isn't a big enough range of outfits to justify Molyneaux's decision. Lucky, then, that you can dye your clothes any colour you want - provided you've found or bought the right dye. (There's even a goth Achievement, which you get after you dye your hair and all your clothes black, as well as putting on black makeup in a beauty shop.)

Another hyped design choice is the addition of a dog to accompany the player throughout (almost) the entire game, and this one really pays off – there's a real emotional bond with the dog, for all that it can't do much more than bark when there's treasure nearby, and attack enemies when they're on the ground. There's even a subset of emotions available to let your dog know just what you think of it, and a rubber ball you can throw for the dog, although the options available are slightly more complex than necessary, given the dog's reactions.

And that's just one more oddball thing about Fable 2 – for all of its supposed complexity, it still feels incredibly dumbed-down. It's an odd dichotomy; a lot of work obviously went into the game, and there's a lot happening behind the scenes, I'm sure, but binary choices (good/evil, corrupt / pure, male/female, rich/poor etc) are barely choices at all, because they don't result in any kind of real change in the world – at least not a change that matters, or one that alters the main storyline. Your 'relationships' with NPCs carry no emotional heft, even after you've 'married' or 'slept with them', and it's simple to reset their opinions of you by giving gifts, hitting them or simply throwing gold around willy-nilly. Yes, you can buy a pub, give the beer away for free and get everyone in town drunk, but it's the equivalent of turning on the disaster mode in Sim City, for all it means to you. And while at least there is a choice, all it really offers is a reason to play through the game one more time. And once you've gone through the game as a saintly man, or a downright evil woman (my first two characters – and what does that say about me?) I don't see a great reason to play it again. (Although that may change once online multiplayer is patched up, so watch this space for an update.)

The main storyline will last a good ten to twelve hours, after which you’re free to run around in the world you’ve saved (or doomed), buy property, run businesses in a very stripped-down fashion (you’re pretty much limited to raising or lowering prices), get married (as often as you like), have children (as many as you like), and work as a bartender, woodchopper or blacksmith. (Well, I say ‘work’, but it’s more like a rhythm game with only one button – when the dot is next to the green zone, press A, rinse, repeat, ad infinitum, ad nauseaum, or ad repetitive strain injury-um.)

Of course, all of these sidelines are available while you’re polishing off the main quest as well, but I found that they simply served to unnecessarily complicate the game. Yes, Fable 2 has a rather large variety of gametypes and play styles, but the game focuses on the same types as its predecessor – story-driven action-RPG, and the open-ended world sim, and they’re best taken separately.

Also available at any point are the pub games, which were released separately on Xbox Live, and let you merge a Pub Games patron with your Fable 2 hero to win or lose massive amounts of gold. Of the three, there’s really only one that’s worth playing – Tower of Fortune. Spinnerbox is pure chance, whereas Keystone is too involved for casual gamers or anyone looking for a diversion. Better, and more profitable, to put your idle Fable hours into the jobs, where there’s at least a modicum of skill required. Short of getting all of the Achievements in the game, I don’t see a reason to play these games at all. Harsh words, but true.

I have a few proper gripes, and they’re mostly to do with the game being rushed out the door to meet its shipping deadlines. It ships without online multiplayer, and you’ll have to patch the game as soon as you get it to enable the feature. At the start of the game the splash page loads in at least four separate chunks, leaving quarter of the screen black while the rest of the data catches up. Also, if you’re too rushed with your button-pressing to get the game up and running, you can actually stall the ‘load game’ progress, and freeze your system, necessitating a quick restart.

Once you’re in the game, you’ll find that menus load tortuously slowly – it’s not as crippling as the menus in the recent Force Unleashed, but when you’re trying to get to a couple of potions quickly, the load times are infuriating. Buying items is a bit of a trial as well, as there doesn’t seem to be a way to compare the traders’ weapons with those currently equipped, or even to see how may of a particular item you currently own. It seems bizarre that only Japanese RPG-makers (and Bethesda) can get the inventory management system right, but I haven’t seen a European RPG with a decent menu / inventory system yet. Still, if the game can be patched to allow multiplayer from day one, surely Lionhead can fix the other problems as well. Right?

Last on my gripes list – why can you buy potions that give you experience points? It’s fine if they’re limited to prizes or gifts from loved ones, but being able to buy experience? It’s all a little too close to in-game gold-farming for my liking.

Fable 2 is still stretching Molyneaux’s vision of a medieval world sim, and if you buy into Lionhead’s (typically European RPG) idiosyncrasies, you’ll find a solid timesink of a game. RPG fans won’t necessarily appreciate the menu oddities, but they’ll find a compelling storyline, slick graphics, satisfying magic and combat, and a faithful canine companion. And did I mention the lambskin condoms, designed to avoid unwanted pregnancies and 'social diseases'? They’re just weird.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

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