Xbox 360 Review

Fable 2

Flashes of genius, says Martin

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.

The narrative, too, is nothing short of wonderful. Item descriptions are often funny, cute, or loaded with self-referential jabs to Fable and the technological foibles and drawbacks of the game universe in general. The text and speech is immaculately crafted. On top of that, Lionhead have even managed to nestle an Anchorman reference (think Sex Panther) within their voluminous archives of in-game words. Aesthetically, the game is simply outstanding. While not perfect visually, the ambience and presentation are so perfectly slick and polished you can't help but realise that this game is a serious labour of love on the part of the developers. Some of the NPCs, settings, stories and details are so sublime they cast a resplendent glow across the game as a whole. One of my favourites is Gorgoron, the little girl with an incredibly deep, booming voice that unfortunately cannot participate in the (mandatory in fantasy RPGs) arena because of an evil ingrowing toenail. Or Cainine and Fabel, a biblical story where Cainine murders Fabel over a rubber ball incident. Then you've got bandits with names like "Allan 'Alliteration' Altamont". There's also characters like Barnum, the "positively betwuzzled" entrepreneur whose curious vernacular comes from a dodgy thesaurus and who bumbles his way through the game. Fantastic little touches, each and every one.

On a monetary level, the game is considerably more complex than its contemporaries. Vanquished enemies don't simply drop a big pile of gold, so you can't just go around grinding through foes to accrue a hefty bank balance. There's the option of playing the Fable 2 Pub Games XBLA-game, and gambling your way to a fortune, but if you haven't pre-ordered the game and got it for free it would be a complete waste of 800 Microsoft Points. Alternatively, you can get an in-game job - such as bartending, blacksmithing or woodcutting - and repeat a rather basic, uninteresting mini-game until you have a reasonable amount of cash stored up. Or you can just be a complete sod and pinch anything that's not bolted down. Whichever route you take, ultimately your goal is to save up enough money to invest in either property or business, and then receive a steady income through rent and profit. There's a definite snowball effect here, and after you've started renting out three or four big properties you'll never have to work again. If you decide to get married, part of your money will go on that. If you have a kid, there's enough expenditure. But, really, the cash flows so freely none of this matters. At least Albion isn't suffering a credit crunch.

In between the talking and larking about, you've got the combat sections. These are trying to balance themselves between easy (think casual gamers, remember) and rewarding. Whereas fantasy RPG supremo Oblivion shot itself in the foot with a character creation system so complicated and backwards you had to set useless perks as your major skills, Fable 2 has simply opted not to muck about, leaving everything open and accessible to the player. You've got three basic tiers. Strength is melee, Skill is ranged and Will is magic, and all the potential spells and abilities are ripe for the plucking. Harvest enough experience and you can become an unstoppable fighting, shooting and magic flinging vehicle of destruction. You do this by harvesting the orbs dropped by fallen enemies, which come in four different colours - one for each branch of the levelling system and one for general experience. Then it's simply a case of adding together your various, respective pools to see if you've got enough points for the next level of upgrades.

You're allowed to part-exchange skills you've bought for some of the experience you used to buy them, but because there's no punishment for just levelling everything up and the amount of skill returned is so low, it's dubious why this was even deemed necessary.

Melee and ranged attacks pretty much explain themselves, but it's worth noting that Fable 2 doesn't have a mana bar, which means you don't have to fiddle around with watching any meters or replenishing your magic every twenty seconds. Magic, then, is only restricted by the casting time of each spell. With all this attention to accessibility, it's worth noting that combat is steadily entertaining throughout. Your player dances around the combat arena with flair, grace and brutal execution. All you actually do, though, is spam a few buttons on your pad. It's like the Early Learning Centre version of Devil May Cry. Essentially, you hammer away at a few bad people to become good, and a few good people to become bad.

Which brings us around to Fable's original selling point: the choose-you-own-morality gameplay. One of the original pioneers of this sort of system, it's been repeated and recycled so many times now it's barely an attraction. While they've tried to expand on simply good and evil by including another slider for corrupt and pure, distilling the good/evil mechanic reveals a system that's still as ultimately flawed as it was in the original, as it is in every single game that offers you this way of playing. Be bad and you grow horns and get red eyes, and be good and you manifest a little halo. There is simply no room for the moral grey, so you're basically encouraged to go through the game as entirely noble or a complete bastard.

Perks are given to you for both extremes and, depending on what actions you choose at various fixed points along the way, you watch the game world either become a better place or take a massive turn for the worse. Albion is a static world that you have no control over apart from when the game has been designed to give you two options. It's the illusion of choice and an open playing world, but the trick is mostly well crafted. There's gratification in seeing your world become better or worse depending on how you're playing the game, and there's enough temptation to go back a second time and have a bash at the polar opposite.

What I've purposefully avoided throughout this review is mentioning the plot or the environments. Part of the enjoyment of Fable 2 comes from experiencing these things on your own, and for me to go into them in detail would be like giving away the twist in BioShock or all the details of Liberty City. The plot, as clichéd and derivative as it is, is packed with a few emotional sequences and some delicious little twists and turns along the way. The environments, well, they're mostly typical fantasy-RPG settings but Lionhead do throw in some really unexpected stuff. One of the areas even has hints of science fiction.

The first Fable was a game that occasionally shone between many laborious flaws. Whilst Fable 2 is not exactly flaw-free, the bulk of the game is splendidly entertaining. Lionhead consistently bite off more than they can chew with their games, so the scope and ambition of Fable 2 is both unmatched by other development studios and occasionally unrealisable in a current-gen video game. As far as the game stands, by polishing up the presentation and giving the game some real character they've managed to create a genuinely endearing, although sometimes confused, action RPG.

E3 Trailer