PC Fable II

Scott Tortorice

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To what degree you lose yourself may very well be the best measure of any adventure. Indeed, this is the mark of any great fantasy, the willingness to forgo the strictest of logic and enjoy the fruits of an imagination uninhibited, expressed in a sort-of believable universe. Aside from the highest of expectations and the regrettable non-stop lip-wagging of series creator Peter Molyneux, this is the measure by which Fable II must also be regarded.

Fable II greets with an inauspicious and generally underwhelming introduction. Stretching out over a couple of hours, your first glimpse of Albion does not immediately impress. It is also overwhelming, as it is filled to the brim with gameplay dynamics that weave their way through every possible facet of life as you might imagine it in a pre-industrial, post-feudal society, one on the brink of an industrial revolution and stubbornly shunning old schools of thought.

Yet Fable II continues to improve over time. Disparate aspects of gameplay begin to organically and intuitively fit into an overall structure that is astounding in its breadth. This is in stark contrast to its predecessor, where everything felt as though it were shoehorned together with duct-tape and Elmer's glue.

And there are many, many different aspects to the Fable II universe. On the one hand, there's a Sims-like society bubbling in the background, each and every non-playable character with their own distinct likes and dislikes, and each prone to an opinion based upon how you interact with them. Even the real estate they inhabit is individually unique and always up for sale and once purchased, you can move in or rent it out.
While all of this may seem like an aside, it is but one example of how one feature is subtly and ingeniously interwoven into the gameplay as a whole. The more houses you rent the more money you'll make, and this goes a long way towards making other purchases of any nature, including food, potions, clothing, books, and weapons. Weapons, of course, are monumentally useful for your questing.

Moreover, the rent rates charged tenants will reflect on your character with the townsfolk; too high and they will think of you as corrupt, very low and they will think of you as pure. People in turn will offer gifts or discounts depending on their opinion of you. Moreover, certain homes confer distinct benefits from sleeping there, such as temporarily increasing your health, notoriety, attractiveness and so on, which, of course, are only meaningful in relation to other people. Everything is very web-like in its structure and interconnected - and this just barely scratches the surface.

On the other hand, there's the requisite combat to plow your way through the contentious portions of Fable II. The combat tools you have at your disposal are simple in execution but deeper in their progression structure. As you earn experience through combat, you can apply the experience to broad skills relating to Melee, Shooting, and Magic. Melee combat is governed by Speed, Strength and Dextrous Styles, for instance, and unlocks increasingly more powerful aspects of their subject matter.

One button controls one combat function, be it Melee, Shooting, and Magic, and it is therefore quite simply and intuitively executed. Hold X to block, hold and push in any direction to charge-up an attack, combo attacks together with timely button presses and so on - each of these unlockable through progress. The same sort of structure also applies with projectile weapons.

Individually, any attack, be it melee, projectile, or magic, would not offer much variety, but the balance between combat styles is dynamic; taken together, it lends a satisfying feeling to slaying your foes. You could take out enemies from afar with your rifle to thin their numbers and then wait for the rest with a charged flourish of your sword, bouncing back and forth between them with single strikes and possibly throwing in a magic attack or two.

Magic, like guns and crossbows, have unlimited ammunition, further simplifying the combat without the need for cumbersome inventory management. Mind you, more powerful spells need to be charged for extended periods of time, and therein lays the catch. Guns will reload slower or faster depending on their make and your skill, which is levelled-up as you might imagine. All of this is to say that what is simple to understand at the surface hides a finesse of design and an admirable depth underneath.

Regardless of the ease at which this game handles itself, it is challenging enough to offer a real sense of accomplishment. That said, it is worth noting that Fable II is a decidedly easier game than what you might have been expecting. But this plays to Fable II's strengths in a big, big way: rather than present the player with massive road blocks, Fable II offers the sort of mild resistance that ends up rewarding and drawing the player even further into its fascinatingly realized universe.

And what an incredible universe it is. Packed in every square inch of Fable II is such a density of beauty and detail, secrets and rewards, people and dilemmas, that it is practically impossible not to sit in awe of it all. Forests look and feel like forests, grain sways through large fields, wildflowers paint the landscape with striking beauty, and the day and night cycles produce such stunning arrays of sunrises and sunsets it's enough to make you weep. The variety of locals and landscapes is commendable. From a technical standpoint, it is mind-boggling that they fit as much as they did in here.

The social aspect of the game is equally as dense and compelling. Impressing people can lead to more options. Should you impress someone enough, you'll be granted the ability to marry. Once married you can choose to have sex. Sex has consequences, so you can choose to use a condom, thus avoiding pregnancy and STDs. These are real possibilities. Stay away from your family for too long and they'll lose respect and love for you. Then again, you could just pay for sex with hookers instead, or marry into the same sex - Fable II is most definitely a game based on a liberal philosophy.

You can impress the town-folk with your reputation through actions or through the clever use of expressions that have differing effects on different crowds and individuals. Even taking a job to earn money can result in drawing a crowd, and the better you perform, the more positive and lasting impression you'll leave. Both the jobs and expressions are governed by a sliding bar that, should you hit the sweet spot at just the right time, produces a heightened effect. While this may seem very video-gamey, it is consistent in tying together these aspects of gameplay and sufficiently randomized between tasks as not to feel overly repetitive.

Questing, either on the tertiary or main path, will also affect the world of Fable II. Decisions made on one end of the moral spectrum will carry throughout your adventure and further shape the people's opinion of you with appropriate consequences. Your renown is the measure of completed quests, and you can be infamous or famous dependent upon which actions you take.

At every corner there is a moral conundrum. If you take the high road you will instil respect in individuals, should you be dastardly you will instil fear. As you continue on your path, your very appearance changes with streaks of light coursing through the good or gnarly horns growing from the evil. Eat too much and you'll grow fat, engage in jobs and melee combat and you will grow muscular.

As you continue on your quests, be they side quests or along the main story, the game pushes you to critical junctures and, much like Mass Effect, forces you into genuinely difficult and moving decisions, often asking for a personal sacrifice in some way, shape or form. These decisions will sometimes literally shape the world – for example, cause some towns to fail or prosper - and you'll see the changes first-hand after a passing of years.

Fable II involves you emotionally as much as it does viscerally. To that end, they give you an ever present companion, your dog, who grows and develops alongside your own development. Although I cannot say I grew a strong emotional bond to him throughout the adventure, I asked myself whether, after having played through a substantial portion of the game, if I would enjoy my adventures as much without him, and I concluded that my trekking would feel barren in comparison.

Your dog is also practically beneficial, attacking enemies and finding hidden treasure throughout the game, without the need for exploring every last inch of terrain. This is of great import in Fable II, as it offers a remarkable sense of discovery and reward at nearly every step.

There is always some buried treasure, or treasure chest, an elusive silver key, a Gargoyle statue or Demon Door in about every nook and cranny. There is rarely the moment you'll feel you've stalled, and this results in an addictive experience. The game even goes so far as to work even after you've turned off your Xbox, as you continue to earn money from properties in real time. This is such a clever feature that it drew me back after a night's rest to see just how much money I earned while I slept.

Even without the generous sprinkling of secrets to uncover, the missions you partake in are massively compelling in their own right. Entire areas are developed with the sole purpose of facilitating side-quests, each a unique aside to the main story but nevertheless lovingly crafted. Then again, this is perfectly fitting with Fable II's approach as it is clearly focused on the broader Albion universe, rather than pushing you in a linear fashion through a long and well developed main narrative.

The main narrative is a simply told tale of revenge. As a young child you witness the death of your older sister at the hands of Lord Lucien. You are nearly killed yourself, but live on to fulfill the prophecy of a hero rising to defeat Lucien and his nefarious plans of attaining world devastating magical power.

Your character has no voice, no dialogue, no personality to speak of, save for their customized appearance. While this is somewhat disconcerting, the story makes up for it with brave departures that one simply would not expect, and the aforementioned moral dilemmas that actually feel like real dilemmas. It is also a short story all considered, and so pushing through it too quickly is not recommended.

Any shortcomings in this department are massively dwarfed by the powerful personality spilling over into every facet of the game. Your dog animates beautifully, whimpers pathetically, joyfully romps about, plays games and performs tricks just for you. Characters and enemies are incredibly diverse, equally well animated, and filled with impressive amounts of dialogue that's completely reactive to your character and his exploits.

Roaming around town will result in a near cacophony of comments from passers-by, be they directed at what you've accomplished, what you're wearing, your appearance and so on, which are in turn a reflection of that particular individual's likes and dislikes. Even something as benign as a gargoyle statue is imbued with a thick Scottish brogue, insulting you with hilarious quips as you draw near (which, coincidentally, lets you know one is close by and in need of some shooting).

Your enemies are brilliantly realized too. Certain species rarely feel repetitive or cloned, as Lionhead appears to have put great effort in creating variety amongst their groupings. What's more, some of the foes faced are genuinely frightening and brought to life (or death) with convincing animation and sound work.

As if this weren't enough, every locality is distinct and of great interest that you simply can't predict what you might discover next. You could be knee-deep in fog in the Wraithsmarsh, wandering through fields of grain in Oakfield, or stepping through a Demon Door into something utterly fantastic. Accompanied by an ambient musical score that sets the mood for your adventure in a convincing and unobtrusive manner, and you have a perfect storm of design, art, sound, and execution.

Alas, Albion is not free from problems. Poor initial impressions point to what is by this stage in videogame development a technologically unimpressive structure to Albion: your natural inclination in a game such as Fable II is to run for the hills with the wish to explore uninhibited, but you cannot because you are purposely hemmed in. Instead, localities are contained with only certain exit points that lead to the next area. The game stops, loads the next local, and voila, you're someplace new. It is disjointed and disappointing, and frustrates a sense of place and scale in what is otherwise a captivating landscape.

Furthermore, glitchiness abounds in Fable II making it noticeably rough around its edges. Your character will stick to edges and get stuck in combat animations, interrupting your suspension of disbelief and constantly reminding you that you are playing just a game after all. Worse yet, I've come across at least one quest-killing bug that prevented me from completing it despite the fact that I had satisfied all of its objectives. Simply put, the game broke. Sadly, judging from forum reports online, this is not an isolated case, and the blame is being put on the auto-update download implementing online co-op play.

Online co-op is an impressive although hampered feature. It is amazing to see glowing orbs representing your friends floating about your world, and the ability to interact with them and join in on their world is equally as amazing. But in practice it is less impressive, what with being unable to separate yourself from your co-op partner as the camera stays locked onto either one of you, and you cannot take your customized character across the ether. One has to wonder if it was worth all the hassle, if the hassle was indeed caused by the co-op patch.

Closing Comments:

Whilst Fable II is not quite the finely polished experience you would expect given its triple A stature, it is utterly captivating in every other way imaginable. A stunning victory in some regards, it is safe to say Fable II may be one of the best games I've ever played. Notwithstanding my downright love for the game at times, I wished for a tightening-up of niggling issues that should have never made it into the final copy, and a more advanced structure befitting the nature of the genre and the game's incredibly lofty ambitions. Still, losing yourself in Fable II is a joy unmatched in recent memory.

9.0 out of 10
 
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