It is a depressing case of art imitating life when I'm being forced to endure all-night shifts pulling pints to scrape enough money together for a house. Plunging through the rigorous monotony, I realise that I'm getting married to somebody I've literally only just met. There's a definite sinking feeling at this point as I start thinking of ways to get out of this sham relationship without corrupting my immaculate, saintly nature. And then, what am I supposed to do with the baby? For all its attempts at being the first tedious task simulator since Shenmue, Fable 2 is definitely still firmly in the land of make-believe. It was, after all, a ghost that first introduced the fiancé, and like most game worlds the economy is so unrealistic I'm getting over 720 gold pieces for each pint I serve. Plus, I have a giant great cleaver holstered on my back. And I can shoot lighting from my fingers.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Fable 2 has been, allegedly, designed from the ground up to appeal to a more casual breed of gamer, and head honcho Peter Molyneux has been keen to stress this throughout the development of the game. Even with this in mind, though, I can't possibly work out what casual demographic Molyneux and his motley crew at Lionhead are catering for by peddling a game that comes with a 15 certificate and features bigamy and gangbanging. In fact, having played the game, I can't really see Fable 2 and casual gaming working side by side. There's little aspects strewn about that suggest a casual market, such as no permanent death and the main quest not being too long but, really, such an open world is always going to be particularly daunting and unfriendly. Also, even though there's a comfortable prologue and detailed explanations, there's a definite sensation of being thrown in at the deep end. Seasoned gamers will have no trouble sorting the game out, but I just can't see anyone in that elusive, lucrative casual gaming sector putting down their copy of Wii Sports for this. More pertinently, however, and depending on each respective person's familiarity with games, Fable 2 is going to distance people because it's either a sequel to a game they've never heard of, or that it's a sequel to its bland, tepid and unremarkable predecessor.
With that, it's worth cutting straight to the chase. Fable 2 is a decent game and a good RPG. Lionhead have produced something worth some attention. There are plenty of glorious little touches that serve as enrapturing icing on a fairly decent, well-baked cake. But then, sadly, there are almost constant niggling annoyances that persist from the very second the disc enters the drive. Most pertinently, why can navigation become such a hindrance? Upon entering a new town I often fancied a new haircut or a tattoo, but the map can only be seen on the pause screen where it takes up about a sixth of your display and is distressingly fixed on very-far-out mode so you can barely work out what it is you're actually after. Just trying to find stuff like properties and businesses you own can be an absolute torment, and nothing is more frustrating than trying to rediscover the sentient, treasure-guarding Demon Doors when you're equipped to solve their respective challenges. The whole navigation and user interface could do with a bit of polish. For instance, even something as basic as shopping for new gear is made cumbersome and fiddly: to work out if the stuff you're looking at is better than your current equipment you've got to quit out of the buy/sell screen, pause the game, check out your current inventory and then re-enter the buy/sell screen. The shops only highlight the best weapon available out of the vendor's selection of weapons, not what the player currently has equipped. Which, ultimately, makes very little sense.
It doesn't help that there's a small amount of loading time between pressing pause and actually getting the pause screen, either. This was annoying in Too Human, the last Microsoft-published action RPG, and it's just as repugnant here. When will developers learn? Load times are a fairly grievous problem, too, always cropping up every couple of minutes and never being quick. This is a game that really needs the new Xbox update to come out so you can pre-load it to your hard drive.
The trouble with the map and general navigation, I think, is that so much navigational emphasis has been designed around the dog and golden trail that Lionhead just simply forgot about the map. Your canine companion sniffs out and directs you to buried boxed treasures whilst a sparkly, golden path acts as a fantasy GPS directing you to wherever your primary quest wants you to be. The problem is that when you want to find almost anything that isn't a primary quest you might as well book the week off work because you are going to have to search nooks and crannies until you're close to breaking point.
At this point it might seem like I'm against Fable 2, but that isn't really the case. The negatives are just somehow more apparent than usual because it's just a bit disappointing when you stack them up against the flashes of genius that Lionhead often display. There's so much potential and joy in the game that I spent most of my time in Fable's delightfully fictitious land of Albion having an exquisite time. It's just those occasional niggling quirks that drag the game down from serious greatness.
The good stuff, then. Returning to the dog, much has been made of Fable 2's inclusion of the reliable pooch. You find the little mutt as a child in the game's prologue, and it follows you around from that point onwards. It's pretty handy, mauling enemies knocked to the floor, helping you find stray treasure chests and sniffing out buried loot. It's also rather adorable, always providing amusing moments like chasing his tail in the background whilst serious, important cut-scenes play out. I was fairly ambivalent towards the concept before playing the game, but afterwards I think it's a delightful touch.