For a change of pace over the holidays I went through Fable II, a light-hearted fantasy role-playing game developed by Lionhead Studios and its industry leading founder, Peter Molyneaux. Between the first and second Fable, Lionhead was purchased by Microsoft, meaning that Peter was now in the market of making Xbox 360 exclusives. I was especially curious to see if Peter and his team were going to take special advantage of the console like Epic Games has done with Gears of War. Sadly this wasn’t the case.
Before I get into that, let’s give the good stuff its due. In Fable II you play a hero born from a powerful bloodline, one that allows you to wield magic. A hero hunting villain is hot to kill you in hopes of ending the line and preventing your kind from stopping his plans for world domination. For the rest of the story you are building yourself up in order to facilitate this final showdown.
The quaint land of Albion is a pretty enough place to go for a walk in the forest. You’ll encounter a modest variety of enemies throughout the realm and dispatching them is Fable II’s best feature. At any given time the player can use a melee weapon, a missile weapon, or a suite of magic spells. The joy of mixing up these attacks is what kept me playing the game to its completion.
Fable II claims to provide variety for your character but I was left nonplussed with the customization available. In theory, what your character does has an effect on his appearance. Good characters begin looking saintly, evil characters demonic. Eat pies and get fat, eat celery and get thin. Use melee weapons to get buff, use magic to get enchanted looking.
In practice, however, characters get funneled in certain ways. All characters will use the three attack options on a continuous basis, I mean they’re there and fun to use so why wouldn’t you? This means that each hero is strong looking, tall, and has blue lines of power on his or her face. My wife played completely differently from how I did in almost every way but by game’s end our characters could have passed for brother and sister. By that I also mean that she looked a lot like me, a VERY BIG girl with cankles and the quads of a linebacker. Going on the all-celery diet couldn’t halt this genetic predisposition. That my wife couldn’t make a heroic female that looked feminine in the traditional sense, or even a sword-maiden possessing her own slim figure, was in her own words “disappointing.”
This lack of depth is a theme that can be found throughout the game. Fable II has all the options of a role-playing game but there is little below the surface. There are few weapons to match the mere handful of skills and spells to master. What this means is that after just one play through your character can already do everything so there is no point in going through it again. The wardrobe is threadbare, the equipment list equally so and most of it is silly. You can buy property and earn rent money but all this money is good for is buying more houses because everything at the market can be bought for a handful of coins.
The world itself is cut up into bite-sized regions that can be entered and exited only in certain places. It’s not an open world in the real sense of the word. The quests you undertake can be amusing but they’re all short, single-chapter affairs and there aren’t many of them. The jobs available are beyond repetitive and most use the same mini-game mechanic as social interaction with people, so both aspects of the game get old quickly. Marriage and child rearing is present but even more tedious than in real life. (I don’t even know how they managed that!)
One aspect of the game I liked was a jump forward of many years. There are opportunities to do something (or not) and when the story jumps your choice has a definite impact on the world. Buildings will have gone up or have come down. This alone could be the basis of a great game, but like everything else it was handled in a very basic, limited fashion. You get just a taste of this mechanic. The idea itself, like so many others in Fable II, seemingly doesn’t benefit from having earned the developer’s strength of conviction.
Worst of all are the bugs and other forms of technical imprecision that abound throughout the game. Your character moves poorly and tends to get caught on objects. The game slowdown and stuttering is brutal during combat. Finding button prompt locations is a chancy, clumsy exercise. The menus lag badly and weren’t given enough thought as to how people were going to use them. The maps (not that you need them much given the simple geography) are not helpful.
Finally the co-op feature touted in this title is unplayable because they couldn’t do anything reasonable with the camera. An exclusive game of this nature demands a modicum of polish in order to properly represent its console and Lionhead failed to deliver in this regard.
My wife downloaded the Knothole Island addition and after completing it in a single sitting I’ll warn you that it’s just more of the same. You’re also paying too much for it. If I paid $60.00 for thirty lukewarm hours of Fable II gaming then Knothole Island should come to us for about $4.00 but it actually costs triple that. It’s also way too easy if your character has already completed the main quest. If Lionhead wants to pump this game for more money they should at least make their episodic content a real challenge, as chances are it’s going to be played by advanced characters.
That my wife played the game every bit as much as I did was a nice change. We got to talk about the title throughout our play and witness the consequences of each other’s actions. This was especially handy because we got to watch the ending twice, which made us both perfectly certain that it was rubbish and a waste of time since for the last hour of the story you do NOTHING of consequence.
She made no bones about why Fable II grabbed her attention though. She’s very busy and has her mind on other things right now. She is willing to play a game provided it’s both exceedingly simple and ridiculously easy. She could and does play better but can’t be bothered to expend the energy these evenings past.
She’s quite right, as usual. Fable II is indeed simple and easy but on the other hand it isn’t smart or polished enough to come off as charming, merely as struggling. Thin content and lack of depth might be the hallmark of a game geared towards casual play and in truth the stink of that particular fear lay thick on Fable II, but it’s more than just that.
Lionhead Studios has never been a technical powerhouse but you don’t need to be to make a great game. That said, it appears that Molyneux’s Microsoft-owned company is getting outstripped mightily by other game developers, especially its role-playing peers. After playing Fallout 3 and Fable II in the same season it feels like the former came from a future generation.
It didn’t however, games like Fallout 3 and Mass Effect have become the standard and so the comparison works in the opposite direction. Fable 2II feels old right out of the packaging and is a lackluster showcase of what the Xbox 360 can do. If you are only going to sink time into one role-playing game this year, Fable II isn’t what I would recommend. Better to stay with the times.