What kind of hero will you be? This is the central theme of Fable II, Lionhead's follow-up to its popular Xbox title. Will you be a selfish hero who hordes his money and looks for any opportunity to earn more, even if it means others would suffer? Or will you be a noble hero who gives to the poor and would sacrifice everything he owns to protect the innocent? How you answer these questions will affect how the world perceives you and determines the future of Albion.
Fable II begins more than 500 years after the events of the original. You don't have to know a thing about the first Fable to enjoy the sequel, but there are numerous references to the past. There are plenty of surprises waiting for those fond of the first Fable; consider it a reward for having played the original. In Fable II, you play as a new character -- either male or female -- who begins life as a street urchin and eventually becomes savior of Albion. The main story is brief and has little in the way of plot. It's about as basic a hero's tale as can be fashioned. It's the atmosphere and elements outside the main storyline that prove most rewarding.
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Coming along for the journey is your dog. If you're a cat lover, this may not be the game for you. A dog is a hero's best friend, as we all know, and your dog is no exception. He loves you unconditionally. You can scold him all you want, leave his wounds unhealed, or never pay him any attention whatsoever. It doesn't matter. You are his master and he will always be on your side -- even if you're a total jerk. Play with your dog or give him treats and you'll probably feel better about yourself. Either way, your dog is a welcome ally. He's your pathfinder, sniffing out treasure chests and hidden items, warning of approaching danger, and tearing at the throats of fallen enemies. You may never give him a single kindness, but by the end of Fable II, you'll have become completely reliant on his abilities.
The dog is a success. I can't say that you will fall in love with your dog and keep a special place in your heart for him even after the disc's stopped spinning in the drive, but some will. And the rest can at least appreciate a canine companion who is helpful and almost never gets in the way or acts as a nuisance. You never control the dog. It acts independently and wisely. And though, on occasion, you may see him walk through a closed door or witness the textures on his fur disappear, he is a well-crafted pet.
Your dog is not your only navigational tool. There is also a golden breadcrumb trail that (usually) points in the proper direction for your next quest. Instead of taking up a chunk of screen real-estate with a mini-map, the breadcrumb trail fits nicely into the scenery. It can be turned off, but that would be a mistake. The trail at first might seem like a lame gimmick, but it actually frees you up for exploration. Fable II's world is significantly larger than the original and is packed with secrets to discover. There are 50 silver keys to collect, 50 gargoyle statues to destroy, nine Demon Doors to be opened, and a half-dozen magical statues with mysteries to solve. Also, there are whores to screw.
Thanks to the breadcrumb trail, at any time heading to a mission or even during a mission, you can break off and explore. Wondering what's out in the lake? Dive in and find out. When you're done, you can just follow the trail back towards your objective. I can't tell you how many times I go sidetracked on the way to a mission. Because of the breadcrumb trail, I never hesitated to explore anything that might be of interest. The breadcrumb trail encourages exploration. Embrace it. If you stick to the path and charge blindly ahead, you will miss a lot of Albion. And you'll finish Fable II very quickly. Fable II is meant to be leisurely. The more you invest yourself in Albion, the more you will get out of the ending. Those who rush to the finish will have little at stake come the final showdown with the evil Lord Lucien.
If you take the time to explore, you'd discover Albion is an interesting world with some really odd characters in the mix to lend personality. Lionhead moved away from the storybook look of the original, settling on a grimmer world. While areas around Bowerstone are lush and beautiful, many of the later areas such as Wraithmarsh and Bloodstone are depressing. Even in Bowerstone, there is a distinctly Dickensian feel. Dickens, by the way: not the most uplifting of writers. The charm and whimsy of the original is lost in Fable II. Modernity encroaches on fantasy.
There is quite a lot to do in the world of Albion when you're not focused on the main quest. Every building -- home or business -- is for sale. Even the beautiful Castle Fairfax can be purchased after you complete the main story. Investors will find a simple but workable economic system. Keep the roads clear of bandits and spend a lot of cash in the shops, and the economy of a town begins to grow. That's bad, though for making purchases. Properties have a base value, but a number of other factors amend the cost. If the economy is good, the price of properties will increase. If you cause havoc in a town, destroy property and steal from shops, you can drive the economy down and drop property values.
A shrewd business person could hurt the economy for a while, get a town in a bad spot, and buy places at a discount. Then, the entrepreneur could turn around, help bolster the economy and make a tidy profit. Or you can ignore this stuff all together. If you do start making purchases, you'll be able to rent out your houses and operate businesses. You can raise or lower the rent as well as alter prices at your retail outlets. Overcharging will make the people in town turn on you. After all, you're the horrible landlord. On the other hand, you could buy the bar and drop the price of drinks and everyone will love you.
Even if you avoid the more cumbersome acts of commerce, you will need some money by the story's end. Quests net you renown (the more you have, the more famous you become), but not cash. Sure, you'll find treasure chests full of gold all over Albion, but usually not enough to buy you the premium weapons you'll want as you near the end of your journey. At some point, you'll want a job. There are some painstakingly pedantic offerings. Be a bartender, a blacksmith or a woodcutter if you want to play some very bland mini-games. A blacksmith, for example, must hit the A button when a dial crosses the green section of a meter. Get several successful hits and you've made a sword and earned a few gold coins. Keep doing this again and again and again. Eventually you'll make some serious cash. But it's not very exciting. The other jobs are more or less the same idea.
Fortunately, there are a few other options for making cash. You can be a bounty hunter or a slaver, a gambler or an assassin. When you beat Fable II, you will be the most famed hero in all of Albion, but whether you are also the richest person in Albion or a pauper is up to you.
While in town, you can also socialize. And by socialize, I mean that you can make a fool of yourself to impress people. Your hero never speaks in Fable II. There are no dialogue trees or drawn out conversations. Your gift for communication is the Expressions Wheel. There are well over two-dozen expressions to learn, from dancing to giving a thumbs up to farting to blowing a kiss to snarling. All of these are fairly cartoonish, but are necessary if you intend to play Fable II's social game.
Every NPC has an opinion of you based on your renown, appearance, and morality. You can alter that perception through the giving of gifts or by using expressions. Making someone like you can earn discounts at shops or engender feelings of love (or lust). This is where Fable II steps all over the idea of gamers playing a role. You could be the most evil bastard in the history of videogames -- you've slaughtered whole towns, sacrificed your closest friends to the Temple of Shadows, killed innocent bunnies -- but because you want a shop discount, you'll dance like a jackass in the town square. You may be given a serious philosophical question to ponder, but your responses are either a cheesy thumbs up or down. For a game world that is often dark and depressed, this clownish behavior doesn't fit.
Aside from looking out of place, social interactions in Fable II are completely artificial. You're not playing a role when socializing. You are merely choosing expressions to manipulate various meters so you get the reaction you want from an NPC. If you had to discern a person's likes or dislikes and their feelings towards you from visual clues, that would have worked. Instead, you can access the likes and dislikes of anyone you meet via a menu, making it the entire process feel disingenuous.
If you don't want to be a loner, you can use your renown and the expressions in your repertoire to get others to fall in love with you. With a wedding ring and a home to live in, you can get married to any interested man or woman. From there, you can have sex (sadly, no mini-game is included) and have kids if you don't use protection. Yes, there are condoms in Fable II. Unprotected sex leads to STDs and babies. Hopefully not on the same night. If you're a female hero, don't worry -- you won't have to sit around for nine months waiting for junior to pop out. As soon as you're pregnant time warps and the little one is gurgling in a crib next to the bed.
Your baby eventually becomes a child, one who worships you. There is something quite touching about coming back from a long adventure and having your kid hug you. Your spouse may be a different matter. Being married is a real bitch. Even the most understanding of spouses needs attention. But with your adventuring ways, that's not always easy. Unless you make an effort to get home regularly, you'll come home to a serious nagging. Keep up your estrangement and you'll likely be divorced before you ever save Albion. Trust me; you're better off without her.
Of course, what is an RPG without combat? When you're not trying to convince your wife to have an orgy with four hookers, you're out clashing swords with bandits. Fable II's combat system is simple but brilliant. The X button handles melee attacks, Y is for ranged attacks, and B is for magic. What makes Fable II special is that you can easily combine all three buttons for some really fun battles. Tap X a few times for some sword slashes, then whip out your pistol and pop your enemy once in the chest before flamebroiling his ass with an Inferno spell.
The more you mix up the three elements of combat, the higher your experience multipliers. Experience can be spent to unlock new functionality for your swords and guns, increase your strength and accuracy, and improve any of your eight spells. Once you have unlocked all levels of the Brutal and Dexterous Styles, you'll have a blast kicking the crap out of just about any enemy who gets in your way. And since magic uses no mana (aka energy), you are free to keep slinging spells rapidly at enemies. Combat is streamlined for ease of use and really never becomes too complex. Combat is a lot of fun, despite two deficiencies: It's far too easy and there is very little variety in the enemies you battle.
Lionhead made the decision that the hero can never die. I actually agree with that. In many ways, death is an antiquated idea in videogames. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't be challenged. And with the exception of a single battle in Fable II, I never felt challenged. I was only "knocked out" once -- and that was on purpose, so I could see what happens. Lose all your health and you get knocked down, costing you all uncollected experience and earning you a few scars. Within seconds you are back on your feet fighting again. Defeat just isn't punishing enough.
For a good deal of Fable II, you will be battling Hobbes (think goblins) and bandits. Later on there are a few other enemies thrown into the mix -- Balverines, banshees, hollow men -- but none of these ever create that sense of wonder and awe expected from a fantasy game. Only the trolls -- of which there are few -- measure up to the level of the fantastic I expect from a game like Fable II.
One way to add some spice to combat and your social interactions is to bring in a second player. Online co-op play is not yet available for Fable II, but is expected to be available in a downloadable update during launch week. There is still couch co-op and some online functionality.
The online elements allow other gamers playing Fable to appear as moving orbs in your world. Wherever a gamer is in Albion, they show up as a bubble in your world. You can set your game to show everyone who is online, just your friends, or turn it off. These bubbles aren't just for show. You can talk with these people, trade items, and view their stats. Eventually you'll be able to hop into an online game with them, but that's still to come.
If the online co-op works anything like couch co-op on a single system, count me out.
Couch co-op has a number of flaws. The game is set in the world of the host, with the other character joining as a henchman. Here's the catch: A henchman brings with them all their experience and skills but none of their weapons or their character model. The henchman must play with a preset character design. One of the great things about Fable II is how varied one hero can look from another. Isn't one of the purposes of co-op to show how different my character is from yours?
Another issue is the camera. It is limited in how it can be manipulated and because of having two heroes on screen, is pulled back too far. You also won't get the benefit of being able to zoom into with your gun. And no, you cannot fight your friend. I don't know why, but even if you turn safety mode off (used to avoid accidentally killing innocents) you can't target your pal. Doesn't everyone want to spar with a buddy over the spoils of battle?
There are a few good things about couch co-op. You and your guest can decide the split on both money and experience earned during your session. A lower-level hero could "hire" a more powerful character to come into his game and help him kick some ass. All the host has to do is up the split on gold so the henchman gets all the coin. It is enjoyable to run around killing with a friend, and there are experience multipliers for combining attacks. Plus, the host can turn the safety feature off and let their henchman kill their spouse. That way you're no longer married, but don't have to shoulder the guilt of being the one who killed your better half.
So what kind of hero will you be? The family man? The loner? The bigamist? Will you befriend everyone in Old Town only long enough to lead them to the Wheel of Sacrifice at the Temple of Shadows?
Morality is really just a device to give players choice. Your actions will affect Albion -- sometimes in small ways and other times in very significant ways. Not only are you measured by good and evil acts, but also by your level of purity or corruption. Good/evil centers on your choices -- do you set slaves free or hand them over to a new master? Purity/corruption is more about how you treat your body and live your daily life. Raising the rent and drinking beer will corrupt your body and soul. Giving to the poor and eating vegetables are acts that purify you. Having the two meters creates some nuance.
How you act not only affects how others view you, but also alters your appearance. The truly evil will grow horns, while the saintly earn a halo. Your level of corruption also alters your appearance, as does what you eat. You can get fat in Fable II. Orca fat. Most drinks and food have fat content. Some vegetables can help you lose fat and most meat and alcohol will add weight. If you want to stay slim, you might reconsider eating a big slab of meat to heal yourself when out on a quest. A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips.
What you eat, who you befriend and who you betray, where you live and how you act as a landlord -- these are all choices you'll have to make in Fable II. Many of these are very minor choices that have little impact on the game world as a whole. But there are several that have a significant impact on the future of Albion. Those choices, however, are often easy to make once you've decided to play as either good or evil.
Does it really matter to you if the town guard or the town thug gets the five warrants you've collected? I doubt this kind of choice has much of a real impact on a gamer. Now, what if the choice you had to make could cost you experience points? What if the one thing you want to do would require you to sacrifice XP? This choice occurs halfway through Fable II and it is the single toughest moment I have ever had in a morality-focused RPG. Experience matters more than my character's family, the dog, or anyone in Albion. It's too bad that these kind of truly tough choices -- the ones that really matter to a gamer -- are so rare in Fable II. There are only a few choices that truly cost you as a player -- and those are the moments when Fable II shines.
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