Fable II is all about the decisions you make, and takes that premise a few steps further than the original Fable. Although your moral options are still of the a)good or b)bad variety, Lionhead has managed to create greater degrees of subtlety. Do you sacrifice XP for the greater good or do you go along with things just to see what happens? Sometimes you regret a decision and sometimes you just shrug your shoulders and move on. However, sometimes your choices change the world around you and that’s when you begin to take a step down the path to hero or a nasty piece of work.
As soon as you enter the world of Fable II you’re faced with a bustling, Dickensian town. Crooked houses huddle together in cobbled streets and back alleys which echo with the sound of a myriad voices. From cheeky street urchins to pompous town guards, jolly trades people and shifty types, Lionhead has spent time populating its towns with a chorus of British regional accents, lending rich texture and humour to the game.
One of the most highly anticipated (for anticipated, also see hyped by Molyneux) aspects of the game was the addition of a canine companion. The moment you get your dog, Fable II takes on a whole new dimension. Okay, so it’s not the heart-rending story Molyneux had it cracked up to be, but there are endless moments of joy to be spent following your hound through the woods and throwing him a ball. He is the most natural looking gaming dog ever, running ahead of you, but always looking back over his shoulder to check that you’re following. And then of course there are the tricks.
Your dog is more than just a four-legged shadow; he is also part of your social arsenal. Delight townspeople with his ability to bunny hop or equally dismay them when he cocks a leg on command. Enter a dungeon and your dog’s tail droops and he softly whimpers. Give him a bit of praise and he’ll soon perk up and be barking at you when he’s found some treasure. As the game progresses you can find more tricks and skills for your mutt, making him a more skilled fighter or treasure hunter. The dog is just another great way to waste time in Albion.
In fact, one of the most satisfying wastes of time is wooing and entertaining townspeople. I’ll happily dance, whistle and flex my way to distinction, surrounded by adoring crowds and then run off to my adventures, leaving them wanting more. This time around Fable allowed you to play as a female character, however, I was disappointed that the social expressions didn’t change to reflect the gender. For instance I would have liked to flash a bit of ankle, rather than flex my biceps or pull out a fan and laugh coquettishly, but no such luck. As a result, the female avatar option felt a little bit tacked on and I’d rather they hadn’t bothered, but this is a minor gripe in a game that offers oodles of scope for arsing around.
Fable II provides a golden trail to follow, making it easy to know where your next mission is. At the start of the game, this feels like you are being led around by the nose, but as the game progresses, there is so much to distract you that the glowing trail of breadcrumbs is a welcome reminder of the bigger picture. A quick tinker with the options allows you to turn the trail off or make it a faint glimmer, leaving you free to fart at passers-by and spend your days as a blackSmith if you so desire.
Albion is wide and sprawling this time around, with plenty of side missions to be discovered. There are only a few towns to visit, but you can make any of them your home, or should you decide to become a business mogul, there are taverns and market stalls to be bought. Should the fancy take you, you can buy up several houses, push the rent up and watch your tenants suffer. Rule your town with an iron grip or raise the economy of a struggling village and become a hero. You can pay an artist to erect statues and increase your renown, bringing yourself more fame and fortune and the adulation of simple folk.
When it comes to combat, Fable II offers a simple one-button affair, which makes it accessible and easy to succeed. There’s more to it than first appears though. The amount of cool magical powers means it’s easy to spread your experience points too thinly, only to realise that you can only wield a few spells at a time without having to go into a menu and re-jig everything. The more I progressed though, the more it made sense to focus my attentions and max-out certain spells so that I could really kick arse.
As you gain XP melee attacks gain special counter-attacks and flourishes, as well as crushing combos created by executing timed presses of the X button. In addition, Ranged combat gains increased zooms and lock-on-views for that crucial between the eyes shot. This said, if you just can’t be bothered with all that finesse you can just button mash your way through.
One of the biggest innovations in Fable II is the lack of death. Yup, death has been given the old heave ho, in favour of a slow-mo faint. Then before you know it you’re back on your feet and ready to fight again, albeit a few XP lighter and hideously scarred for ever more. Some may feel cheated without the fear of death to spur them on in battle.
I for one am not sad to see the back of the return-to-go-do-not-collect-$200 style punishment we are traditionally meted out in games. Who needs to play a game, only to make one slip up and have to do the whole bloody lot all over again? Not me, that’s for sure. I’d much rather, dust myself off and carry on blundering my way through. Fable II recognises that we are gaming for fun and the RPG doesn’t have to be a grind, it can actually be rewarding, entertaining and brighten up your day.
Okay so Fable II is an RPG, but not as we know it right? It plays with the old rules and brings in some new ones, but the basic premise is the same. Hero from humble beginnings, check. Historical setting, including rural farmsteads, check. Buried treasure, check. Fantastical beasts, check. Revenge story with big bad at the centre of it, check. Sprawling world with map, ch"hey hold on!
For some inexplicable reason, Fable II has decided to do away with the world map and give us chunks of maps that don’t fit together. The inability to use the map to explore fully makes for some frustration and also makes the world seem claustrophobic and severely limited. I want to be able to wander willy nilly and that means taking the occasional look at the map to see where I’ve been and where I’m going next. It is beyond annoying that you never quite know how all the areas fit together. I’m sure it was done for what the team think is a very good reason, but I’m blowed if I know what the heck it is and I’m hoping they never, ever do it again, ever!
Added to this, the game is littered with bugs worthy of the likes of Tomb Raider II. Bodies float twitching in mid air and once I was even trapped in an eternal battle with nothing at all. Call me picky, but I don’t want to have to replay a battle because my character’s had a funny turn.
Fable II is by no means perfect, but it is effortlessly entertaining and that is what gaming should be all about. In short this is the gaming equivalent of "messing about in boats" and for that it heartily deserves 4.5 GIN gems.