Choice is something that we have to deal with every day. Stay in or go out? Take the bus or drive? Buy or rent? Yet in videogames, choice is often a luxury. You are an elite soldier. The princess must be rescued. Kill or be killed. Fable II is different though; while it retains the right to push you along through its story, how you get there is fundamentally your choice.
“In videogames, choice is often a luxury”Your first decision comes at the very beginning; do you want to play as a boy or a girl? Once you’ve chosen, we’re introduced to Albion, the same world that we saw in Fable, but a few hundred years later. Heroes are long gone and so too is a large part of the old town, destroyed at the end of the previous game. Magic is also now the stuff of legend, so when a trader turns up in town with a music box that supposedly possesses mystical powers, you and your sister Rose can’t help but take a look. It sounds too good to be true, but a mysterious woman called Theresa convinces you to buy it and from here Fable II’s fairy tale takes off.
The gameís semi-linear format is much the same as before, with a number of quests central to the plot and then many more that you can complete as and when you desire. In addition to gold, quests earn you renown, so as you progress through the game, Albionís population will begin to recognise and respect you more. How exactly they react is another matter, since everything you do affects how youíre perceived. Good or evil, corrupt or pious, attractive or ugly; itís up to you. This isnít just any old RPG with a few cause and effect mechanics tacked on though; itís one of the most accessible, usable and generous games youíll find.
The first and most striking innovation in Fable II is your dog, which accompanies you through most of the game. You donít have any control over him, yet his presence is extremely useful. Heíll bark when he sniffs out treasure, growl to warn you of nearby enemies and occasionally help you out in a fight. Done incorrectly, this could be a terrible hindrance, but Fable IIís dog has been implemented perfectly. He requires very little attention and you never have to worry about where he is, since his AI allows him to navigate the landscape without a hitch.
Thereís no credit crunch hereAlmost all of the houses and businesses in Albion can be bought, and then rented out for a fee. Gradually youíll be able to build up your property portfolio from humble stalls to castles and mansions. Each region in Fable II also has its own economy, which you can affect. Crime drives prices down, while spending gold, working and artificially inflating prices sends costs up.Finding your way around is also relatively easy, due to the inclusion of a glowing trail which leads to your next active quest or task. On paper, this sounds like an annoyance and something that would make Fable II too easy, but in practice it cuts down on switching back and forth to a map view. Having the trail there also encourages you to explore beyond the main paths and if you donít like it at all, then you can switch it off entirely.
Fable II’s combat is another area where its accessibility really shows. There are three types of attacks your hero can perform; melee, ranged and magical. Each is assigned to a single button, but as you gain experience and improve your abilities, new moves and combinations become available. This system makes combat straightforward to understand, but provides enough depth to stay interesting.
Aside from undertaking quests, thereís a fair amount to do in Albion. You can earn money by working as a wood chopper, bartender or blacksmith, each of which is a done through a mini-game that requires you to tap a button at a particular time. There are also a number of other quests which become available from time to time, such as assassination contracts and bounty hunting. Most of Albionís real estate is also available to buy and then rent out to fund your adventures.
Albion itself is exquisitely designed, with bustling towns and flowing countryside. Since the game world isn’t one continuous environment, it’s allowed Lionhead - the developer - to really focus on a few small parts and give them each a unique atmosphere. The attention to detail is superb and you never feel like you’re running through a copy and pasted landscape. Fable II’s art direction is coherent and unlike the previous game, the game runs extremely smoothly with no frame rate issues.
Fable II’s graphics are excellent, but it’s the audio that seemingly pulls the whole game together. The musical score and the sound effects complement the visuals extremely well, while the quality of the voice acting is amongst the best you’ll find in a game. ZoŽ Wanamaker’s contribution is particularly notable, with Stephen Fry and Julia Sawalha also adding to the game’s auditory muscle.
It isn’t without its flaws though. Fable II’s co-op multiplayer is elegantly integrated with the rest of the game, but its implementation leaves much to be desired. You can effectively play the whole game with another person, but because both characters must stay on the screen at the same time, moving can be exceedingly awkward. That said, it’s not a feature that you’d really expect to be in this type of game, so it’s more of an ambitious add-on that doesn’t quite work rather than something that ruins the whole experience.
The birds and the beesFable II has a fairly comprehensive relationships model. You can have sex, marry and have children, which youíll then need to provide for. Be careful though; unprotected sex can lead to unwanted pregnancies and STDs!The interface is also a little frustrating at times. The game’s map doesn’t allow you to zoom in or pan around and the menu can be sluggish at times. Context-sensitive items are also a little too sensitive, resulting in a quick shuffle around an object until the game allows you to interact with it. Some on-screen elements such as icons in the expression menu can also load a little too late, which detracts from the otherwise sublime visuals.
To dwell on these minor annoyances is to miss the point though. Fable II is a game with so much charm that it’s hard not to fall in love and overlook its occasional mishap. Your journey through Albion feels like exactly that - yours. I can’t remember a game that made me really care about its characters; I went from accepting the dog as my companion to actually missing its presence during the parts of the game where it was absent. When you come home from an adventure to see your family, it’s hard not to feel something when your children run up to you and say, “we missed you Daddy, will you stay longer this time?”
That is essentially Fable II’s trick; it successfully manages to humanise a bunch of polygons in ways that few games can. The inclusion of your dog, the accessible combat system and the trail are all things which make it enjoyable to play, but it’s the humour and way in which your hero interacts with the rest of Albion which will really keep you coming back for more. Fable II is ambitious and inclusive, but this time Lionhead’s audacity really has paid off.
Nine out of ten