Fable II Review

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Fable II Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Lionhead Studios

Platform: Xbox 360
Reviewed on Xbox 360

Anyone could end up a hero, from the most powerful mage to a starving urchin. But in most role-playing games, players tend to start off as the urchin. That's certainly the case in Fable II, a game in which players start as a child, grow to become a powerful hero (or villain), ultimately exploring the wide-open world of Albion to become one of the most powerful individuals to pass the time belching and acting out sock-puppet shows since the fall of the Hero's Guild.

Kyle Ackerman

Peter Molyneux said I would fall in love with my dog in Fable II. Then again, Molyneux also created a timing-based mini-game for farting in Fable II, so perhaps our tastes don't exactly overlap. As much as we might differ over flatulence jokes, Molyneux and Lionhead Studios made a game that nearly everyone can love with Fable II. And while I didn't love the dog in Fable II, he's cute, plays fetch and sniffs out treasure, which is damn impressive for a virtual pooch. Besides, the tremendous breadth of the dog's abilities are representative of Fable II as a game – Fable II offers a huge variety of activities, but not as extensive a plot as I've come to expect from role-playing games. That said, there are so many options in Fable II that they can keep all styles of players entertained, and they demand replay with different types of characters.

"My Finger Looks Naked Without a Ring"

Fable IIThe main storyline of Fable II is actually fairly short, and while entertaining, isn't really the main point of playing. Anyone who simply rushes through the central plot is missing most of what Fable II has to offer. The world of Albion is an excellent example of an open-world game – not a game in which players can do anything, but a world in which most things players might want to do have been deeply fleshed out by the developers. There are tons of side quests, people all over the world to interact with, hidden treasure and collectibles, the ability to pursue real estate acquisition or make a living as a trader, and even the possibility of dating or marrying the inhabitants of Albion. The secondary activities are so compelling that after 10 years of brutal, undercover servitude, when I should have been venturing forth to stop a madman from possibly destroying the world, I took the time out to arrange a blind date for a farmer's in-the-closet son.

The game doesn't end after completing the main story, just as the fun has really only begun. The only issue with such a design is that it's very difficult to balance character power with quest difficulty in a world where you can do anything, in nearly any order. The main quest is balanced for those who would power straight through, but anyone who does a few side missions, or sits around having sculptures carved in their honor, will find combat to be a cinch. Similarly, it's easy to own so much property that money just keeps rolling in every few minutes. This means that most items are quickly and easily within reach. At the same time, some quests only become available when very expensive properties are purchased, so this is all part of a greater scheme.

Just Keep Hitting "X"

Fable IIFable II is meant to be accessible for casual players, but that doesn't significantly decrease the entertainment factor for experienced role-playing game fans. The nods to casual players come down to two things: The hero never dies. (Death just causes a small experience loss – there's plenty of experience to go around – and leaves the hero with scars that permanently diminish his attractiveness.) And combat is extremely simplified.

Experience (gained from combat and potions) comes in four flavors. There is general experience, and then experience linked to strength, skill and will. Strength experience lets players use more melee moves, do more damage and gain more health. Stronger characters look bulkier. Skill lets players shoot faster, do more damage, aim firearms better and look taller. Will improves the player's portfolio of spells for use in combat (and makes you character glow in a funny way). There are a few dodges and flourishes that can be executed, but mostly each type of combat (melee, ranged and magic) requires the press of a single button. Combat is fun at first, but so simple that it becomes repetitive. For example, I initially relied on magic, and came up with a sequence of spells that I used the same way every time. The same was true of melee and ranged attacks. Combat could have been deeper, but it would have been at the expense of alienating casual players, so Lionhead made a good choice, even if it falls short of expectations for certain players.

Xbox Live Arcade Interactivity Was... Unfortunate

One disappointment with Fable II comes from the way in which it interacts with the Fable II Pub Games. By purchasing and playing the gambling games from Fable II on Xbox Live Arcade prior to the release of Fable II, players could unlock items and earn cash that could be used in Fable II. In the process of reviewing the Fable II Pub Games, I racked up some debt and unlocked a variety of items. To see how things would work out, I merged my Fable II character with the data from the Fable II Pub Games.

Fable IIWhat I didn't realize was that the reward items from the Fable II Pub Games weren't particularly valuable, and I had racked up debt equivalent to the mortgage on a large pub in a major city. Also, Fable II uses a single save slot, so progress can't be undone. So, in this era of major, real-world economic meltdown, my virtual character that I play for fun was burdened with so much debt that I was regularly arrested for the non-payment of debt, and faced with the option of permanently becoming a foul criminal or literally spending hours chopping wood, bartending and forging iron blades to pay off my debt.

The gambling issue speaks to a larger issue in Fable II that is the game's biggest weakness. In an effort to create a living, breathing world, sometimes Lionhead Studios has gone too far in replicating reality. It's really a question of the balance between fun and realism. For example, it makes sense that if players want to play landlord, they should be able to purchase and manage as much property as they have the patience to acquire. However, certain tasks like taking a job just don't have rewards commensurate with the amount of work required. By pressing a button thousands of times, one can become experienced enough to make working a job rewarding, but initially it's just absurd busy work. Other tasks, like maintaining a family or trading, seem similarly too labor intensive to be fun. Better for such tasks to be like keeping your dog, where playing fetch is entertaining, and entirely optional.

Bad Guys Always Have More Cash

Fable IIAs you play Fable II, your character's actions align your character on an axis of Purity vs. Corruption, or Good vs. Evil. The Purity vs. Corruption dichotomy isn't particularly interesting. Objects like pie can confer useful experience, but make your character corrupt and fat. Hard work will render your character pure and more attractive, just as eating celery will make your character slender. It mostly comes down to corruption is convenient, and purity makes your character attractive to others.

The Good vs. Evil dichotomy is more interesting. Do you protect the innocent or sacrifice your own spouse to dark gods? The choices are meaningful and different enough to make it easily worth replaying the game. The dilemma here is that evil is just so much easier. It takes more effort to remain good, and it's very easy to accidentally frighten villagers while trying to protect them from monsters. So players interested in keeping on the good side of Albion's inhabitants will have to work harder than those who are content to bully shopkeepers and scare children.

Who Cares About Tiny Interface Issues When It's Stephen Fry?

Fable II suffers from a few irritating glitches. For example, it's easy to start stealing from a cash register when you only intend to speak with a shopkeeper. To deal with this, the developers have made it so that you have to hold a button down for a few seconds to perform most actions, but that delay can be irritating. Similarly, the D-Pad usually has context sensitive actions designed to make it easier to quickly do whatever you might want. Sadly, because those actions can change so quickly, I found myself accidentally eating a pie and getting fat when I only meant to pet my dog. Also, the much-hyped co-operative play isn't particularly interesting in a world that casts one person as the central hero of an era. Fortunately, these minor issues are more than offset by the great voice acting and amusing dialog that helps carry the game for many, many hours.

Ultimately, the main storyline of Fable II isn't as engaging as it could be, but the world of Albion is so rich and filled with possible activities, collectibles and quests that it's hard to depart after the main quest has ended, and I often found it difficult to motivate myself to continue the main quest with so much else to do. Still, whether you pursue the fable itself, it's easy to recommend Fable II as many hours of fun for anyone. I may not have fallen in love with the dog, but I certainly fell in love with the potential of Albion.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on October 28, 2008 10:07 PM.

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