Fable 2

October 28, 2008

Where will your morals lead you? Will you be the savior of Albion or its harbinger of doom? Fable II is all about player choice. Even the story takes a back seat to the early and often hyped morality system. The choices you make will affect every aspect of the Fable II experience, but nowhere is the affect greater than the opening and closing acts. Your first choice will determine whether Bowerstone is a den of thieves or a bustling marketplace surrounded by upscale homes.

Smaller choices will affect your day-to-day interactions as well. Brandish your weapon in town or set off an accidental Force Push spell and the townsfolk will grow to fear and hate you, but if you cater to their needs and work the right expressions they will love you and ask for your autograph. So far the interaction system sounds an awful lot like that of the original Fable, and it is. If you played the original then there won’t be any surprises waiting for you in Albion in terms of personal interaction, and that’s a bit of a letdown. The system certainly works, but the game world should be immersive, and it just doesn’t feel right to woo your first wife by doing a funny dance, giving her a single bouquet of flowers, dancing once more, and then moving into pick up line three times. At this point you’ll notice that the object of your desires’ love bar is in the marriage zone and present her with a ring. A silent protagonist – save for the occasional belch or fart – who interacts with people day in and day out serves to break immersion and showcase the mechanics that really ought to remain behind the scenes. When the magician’s strings are exposed throughout the trick it kills any feeling of wonder and highlights that you’re moving sliders on a bar instead of courting a young woman.

Where Fable II does improve upon its predecessor is the addition of your canine companion. Just like a real dog he will love you unconditionally and accompany you on all of your travels. You can name him, train him to do tricks, train him to search for treasure – buried and otherwise, and turn him into a valuable combat asset. My personal favorite is knocking bandits down with Force Push and letting Fido finish them off while they lay on the ground in pain. What really sets the dog apart from other game characters though is that he acts naturally He’s excited to see you, apologetic when you scold him, and eager to please when taught a new trick. He looks like a dog, sounds like a dog, and if it weren’t for the fact that he only ever shows up on the television set I’d swear he was a real dog.

What the dog doesn’t do, however, is guide you from point A to point B. And it’s a shame because it would have been a great way to nudge the player in the right direction without laying out a trail of video game breadcrumbs to follow. The trail can and should be turned off, at least when exploring. It’s impossible to get lost in Albion when a golden trail is always pointing toward the next plot point. Navigation is a constant stumbling block for Fable II. In an effort to reduce on-screen clutter Lionhead chose to exclude a mini-map. This wouldn’t be a big deal if there were a decent map available in the pause menu, but the only maps available are small, undetailed, and impossible to use for any real navigation or course plotting.

If you take the time explore you’ll discover that Albion is a large and varied world with distinct locales and denizens. Moving through the game at a leisurely pace will allow you to really connect with Albion and its inhabitants. Forging a meaningful relationship really pads the game length without feeling forced and lending emotion to the game’s final act. If you rush through and follow the golden trail for quest to quest Fable II can be completed in around eight hours, but you’ll be robbing yourself of the experience.

That experience can be found in the everyday life of the citizens of Albion. The blacksmith needs help forging swords and laments his loss of business to the gun maker across the square. The farmer needs wood split for the fireplace, and the barman needs help serving drinks to thirsty crowds. And after you’ve earned enough money you can live the Albion dream by purchasing your favorite watering hole and watching the profits roll in. You can also purchase the tailor’s stall, the blacksmith’s shop, and every other building in every town of the game. Even the majestic Castle Fairfax can be purchased by a hero with an especially heavy coin purse. If mini-game bartending doesn’t appeal to you, the pure of heart can take up bounty hunting and the corrupt can take up slaving. A third option is available to anybody that can spot the game master at the local pub: gambling. Just like in Fable II Pub Games the three offerings are Keystone, a hybrid of craps and roulette; Spinnerbox, a medieval and magic slot machine; and Fortune’s Tower, solitaire for money. Fortune’s Tower is the easiest of the bunch, but just like in real life there’s no feeling quite like hitting the jackpot on a slot machine.

So now you can make money and impress your friends, but no RPG is complete without combat, and Fable II delivers on that front. It’s important to understand that Fable II isn’t played for the challenge. It is played for the chance to feel like a badass hero proficient in all three combat disciplines: melee, ranged, and magic. Unlike other games, Fable II encourages you to spread your experience around. It pushes you toward it further by doling out four types of experience points – strength (melee), skill (ranged), will (magic), and general. There is less choice between specializing in ranged or melee combat and more choice of what type of multi-faceted warrior you’ll be.

Combat is simple to facilitate victory and ease of use. X is used for melee attacks, Y is used for ranged attacks, and B is used for magic attacks. You’re rewarded for using all three with more experience orbs dropping for the hero willing to swing his axe to take out the vanguard, charge up a Force Blast to knock three bandits down, and finish off the whole group from afar with well-aimed pistol shots. It’s possible to complete encounters using only one combat discipline, but the system really shines when you spread the love around each of the three combat buttons. One place Fable II’s combat falls a bit short, however, is punishment. It is literally impossible for the player character to die. If you lose all of your health you fall over and right back up. Your only penalty is the uncollected experience and a new scar to call your very own. Defeat ought to be temporary. After all, you’re the hero of Albion. There should be a real penalty for failure, though, and Fable II does not ever adequately punish the player for his failures.

What does every hero want? To show off. Or maybe to save the world with a friend. Don’t get me wrong. The dog is great, but there’s something to be said for being able to play through a game with a friend. Fable II delivers both offline and online cooperative play, but neither is especially compelling. What is the point of buying clothes and weapons if I can’t take any of it with me when I play coop? More importantly, who could possible think it is a good idea to allow to bring experience and skills but not my weapons? Unless your character is heavily favored towards Will abilities you’ll be playing at a disadvantage every time you buddy up and act as a henchman for a friend. You might think I’m only describing online coop, but I’m not. For some strange reason Fable II can’t display both my and my buddy’s characters and weapons when all of our save data resides on the same hard drive. When so much time goes in to character creation, fancy hat buying, and weapon augmentation it just doesn’t make any sense to deny the guest player any individuality.

Fable II does a lot. Some of it is infuriating (why are there no cartographers in Albion from whom I can buy a decent map?), and some of it is exceptionally rewarding (pistol sniping bandits from across a field). Thankfully, Fable II does more good than bad, and I’ve yet to come away from a play session disappointed. I grumble about the interaction system and the lack of decent maps, but the exceedingly fun combat and narrative that becomes more relevant with each moment I spend in the game world more than make up for them. Albion is worth visiting, and it’s certainly worth saving. Fable II should not be missed by anybody who enjoys getting caught up in a populated and diverse fantasy world.

Plays like: Nothing else, but is clearly related to the first Fable though drastically different
Extremely fun combat, lots to do, engrossing narrative
lackluster coop, no good map
M for Blood, Language, Sexual Content, Use of Alcohol, and Violence – Fable is a Dickensian cartoon, and the M rating is appropriate, 17+ only

Score: 4/5

Questions? Check out our review guide.