Forget acorns growing into oak trees. Forget a hero moulded by moral choice. Forget a world forged over 30 years. This is role-playing in the child’s sense: dress up and pretend. Example: at one point we played a highwayman. Donning fine coats we prowled Brightwood, sniping off yokels’ heads with a clockwork pistol. Returning to the city gates we swapped our hunting gear for more modest clothes, before spending last night’s spoils on buying hydroponic carrots for the homeless. In our minds we have a clear criminal MO: Robin Hood, but the game only recognises our murders and charity – the mind does the rest.
Ten hours later we were running amok in Bowerstone, chopping guards down with a steel katana and finding small children to scream at. With bodies littering the market square and our reputation in tatters, we found the only man we left alive – the town crier – and forced him to announce that our new title was ‘Joker’. Again, the game won’t recognise the cruel irony of your behaviour, but as long as you do, does it matter?
Your answer to that last question will decide Fable II’s fate in your 360 collection. Do you feel you’re going to be happy sustaining a character even if, in the grand scheme of things, he or she may not really change the world any more than thousands of other potential heroes? There are certainly grand decisions to be made – a passing of ten years mid-game will see an Albion born from your previous actions – but bringing a character to life is largely down to you.
It’s a deliberate move away from the idea of choice that prevails in modern gaming. Take Mass Effect for example. In that game, every choice is clearly signposted – help an alien, become a saint, set his kids on fire, become a rogue. Fable II cuts back on this (we counted ten or so serious moral choices), opting for a fluid flow of reputation – every action performed in front of human eyes is judged (stats literally pour out of people you meet) and the perception of your character adjusts on the fly. In terms of playing and completing the game, this has the most effect on the ease of your lifestyle.
Play a cruel, fear-mongering character and you’ll intimidate discounts out of shopkeepers and rack up wealth through illegal robberies and murders. Decide that you want to be good and you’ll need to put in the time to get to the same place – toiling at jobs and acting the selfless landlord who lets out his properties for a low price. So: good/evil, patient/impatient? It really is as simple as that, but for go-getting gamers the allure of the dark side has never been stronger.
This does lead to some conflict between the story and reputation. The handful of moral crossroads that you arrive at – narrative set-pieces we wouldn’t spoil for you – never feel as weighty as they should, not while the world’s openness to change renders their outcomes non-permanent. Some events threaten to change you forever; in actuality you could enact a holocaust and a few thousand farts would have you back in everyone’s good books. Nothing may be set in stone after each decision, but Lionhead’s new-found eye for drama ensures it doesn’t feel like that at the time. Pulled from childhood to young adulthood to middle-aged adventuring through a series of time jumps, this simple tale of vengeance carries some tremendous scenarios – a stark lesson in obedience comes to mind – but never underestimates the smaller moments.
More important than any of this is recognising the wonderful game that supports all this moralistic to and fro. In the original Fable it felt like we were playing just to witness the grand ideas Molyneux had promised (the acorn to oak tree idea is mocked by one villager in the sequel); Fable II’s adventuring smarts would happily work alone.
Combat is a beautifully efficient system – three coloured face buttons represent three different disciplines (melée, ranged, magic), you then simply use a discipline to earn XP in it. That’s it. With flowing animation (and the odd bit of cinematic slow-mo) sword combat has a dazzling energy. Proper Errol Flynn stuff. With the overblown sound mix, the 18th Century guns hit bandits like buses colliding with elephants. Call in a pal for some local or online co-op and the fun doubles, a nice-tag team element in play: you tenderise them, I’ll pluck off their heads.
Albion itself is a wondrous creation: fantasy minus the Tolkien. Bar the Shire-like Oakridge, there is not a hint of elf, dwarf or orc. God bless Oblivion’s fantasy scope, but it’s nice not to see anyone with a stupid cat face. With the wonky roofs and gnarled oaks, Fable owes more to Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, albeit one drenched in shifting annual colours and that gorgeous, soupy light. The choral-led soundtrack even sounds like Danny Elfman with his dial set to ‘gothic magic’.
We’d go as far to say that Fable II is the antidote to Oblivion. Albion is smaller, but artistically honed. When you pick up a book there’s one funny page as opposed to thirty screens of lifeless prose. Epic quests are happy to end with a punchline. Dialogue is funnier – out-joking the Temple of Shadows entrance exam will take some doing – and the strange nature of villager interaction provides constant laughs. Where in Oblivion would you find yourself trying to bed your wife while some random dude stood by your mattress clapping his hands?
Some may attack Fable for its chugsome scene-changing. Others will point out that the dog is little more than a basic sim-pet, good for treasure hunting and little else. We imagine a good few moans about the clunky inventory screens, and yes, we agree. But with Fable II being the laugh-maker that it is, for tackling fantasy in a refreshing manner and for nearly pulling off its dazzling experiment in character creation, we say give it some slack.
Oct 20, 2008