Monday, October 27, 2008

Hands-On with Fable II

Like most Xbox 360 owners, I've been spending a great deal of time these days immersed in Fable II, Peter Molyneux’s follow-up to the ambitious yet somewhat disappointing first installment released for the original Xbox in 2004. It promised a great deal, but I never felt as connected to the game’s world as it clearly wanted me to be. Thankfully, Fable II thus far is stacking up to be a vast improvement on its predecessor.

As far as its storyline, it’s pretty typical of a fantasy adventure. Taking place in the realm of Albion 500 years after the original game, the player takes the role of a young boy (or girl) who discovers that they are a Hero of legend. Unfortunately, that revelation makes way for tragedy, when the villainous Lord Lucien attempts to murder the Hero and his/her sister once he learns of their powerful lineage. The Hero survives the attempt and is nursed back to health by a mysterious woman named Theresa, who sets him/her on his quest—track down the other three Heroes spread throughout Albion, find Lucien and kill him.

The mundane story actually works to Fable II’s advantage, however, as it encourages the player to make their way through the game at their own pace and in the manner of their choosing. The real story is whatever they make of it. Like in the first game, every conversation, action and gameplay decision has consequences throughout Albion. Take out a gang of bandits and townspeople will cheer your name. Brandish a weapon in the middle of a pub and the other patrons will shriek in terror, and their opinion of you will sour. It would be easy to write off this mechanic as a novelty if it wasn’t so well-implemented. Lionhead Studios has crafted with Fable II an organic world that surpasses even Grand Theft Auto IV in providing the player with a living, breathing environment to explore (or exploit).

At the beginning of the game, it’s wise to start earning gold, which the player can either pilfer from local shopkeeps or earn honestly through backbreaking labor. I chose to hone my skills as a Bowerstone blacksmith to get some new equipment, stock up on potions and get my hands on some real estate. Yep, you can buy pretty much any piece of property in any town in the game and either choose to live there or rent it out to earn extra cash. Of course, you’ll need a home for your wife and children if you choose that gameplay route. In an early mission, a jilted ghost asks you to seduce his living bride-to-be and then break her heart. Softie that I am, I instead proposed to her and bought her a humble house in the Bowerstone marketplace. Once married, you can sleep with your spouse and, provided that you wear a condom, you’ll remain child-free. I, on the other hand, am now a proud father in the game. Note, this is all separate from the whole “save the world” storyline, but it’s all very well thought out nonetheless.

On the combat front, this is one of the most accessible action games on the market. Genre newbies will get along just fine by button-mashing, while more skilled players will find satisfaction through cycling through magic spells and taking a more active role in each battle. By dispatching enemies, the player can upgrade their Skill, Will and Strength attributes to earn new magic spells and abilities. While just about any role-playing game or action title these days has upgradeable attributes, the player always feels in full control of their character’s development in Fable II—for better or worse.

As in the original Fable, the player’s decisions ultimately influence whether your character is good or evil, which in turn affects how the citizens of Albion react to you. As of this writing, my character is a generally well-liked person, but time will tell if juggling a career, a family and the fate of the free world turns my character into a major dick.

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