Developer: Lionhead Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release Date: Out Now!
Of course, Lionhead’s opus is not the only game released this month to chronicle the adventures of one man and his dog; Bethesda’s latest sprawling adventure Fallout 3 also tackles the idea of freeform adventuring, as did the equally accomplished Oblivion. In many ways, in fact, it is fair to view Fable II and Oblivion as being at the opposite sides of the spectrum, tackling the concept of player freedom in different ways.
Oblivion’s focus was on creating a brilliantly-realised world with a rich, detailed history, culture and religion, arguably at the expense of the player’s connection to the stories being played out in Tamriel, and the people affected. In an alarmingly short span of time, the NPCs populating the world were reduced in the player’s eyes as being nothing more than points of information; the fact that their interactions with the player were limited to a small set of unique dialogue shattering any suspension of disbelief. The more games strive towards veracity and realism, the easier – and more tempting - it becomes to find flaws, to purposefully set about pulling at the frayed edges.
Fable II, and its predecessor, cleverly avoids the problem by having players interact with the good people of Albion through a variety of amusing gestures; the reactions displayed are manifold and follow a clear internal logic, whilst never seeming prerecorded. Thrust your hips and grunt at a whore and she’ll clap and coo, whilst any noblewomen will look on in disgust; the animations used throughout are fantastic and – necessarily – exaggerated, always making the results of your foolishness clear. It’s a shame, then, that the game does still feel the need to have floating icons appear over NPCs’ heads; the materialisation of smiley faces every time you start whistling does start to become disconcerting.
The notion of morality in Fable II is also something of a slight disappointment, although not because of what’s present – one moment in particular will make you put down the joypad and really think – but because I’d have liked there to be more. The key word here is exaggeration, with the majority of players unlikely to have massive crowds of people asking for their autograph, or fleeing in terror. The indistinct grey area inhabited by most people will be a curious mixture of alternate praise and fear. Again, the existence of sliders indicating your level of corruption/moral upstanding seems to be rather missing the point, and felt to me wholly superfluous; after several hours of playtime, I simply ignored them because they weren’t necessary. The amount of background chatter remarking on my character’s every trait, from his generous rent demands to his choice of tattoos was overwhelming.
But let’s not get too carried away here. Whilst it’s certainly far easier to become engaged with the people inhabiting Albion, and to view them as fully fleshed-out individuals, I don’t think I would actually say I cared about them. Tellingly, though, I haven’t yet felt the urge to embark on a spree of mindless slaughter, one of my favourite pastimes in Oblivion. Peter Molyneux has reportedly said that one aim of Fable II was to make it far more difficult to be good; I beg to differ, as the observations of the people made me want to constantly be on my best behaviour. That’s the key, right there: the world may very well revolve around you, but in Fable’s case the world doesn’t always like it.
The game’s much-vaunted ‘one button fits all’ philosophy also leaves rather a lot to be desired, with spellcasting being a particularly cumbersome affair. Although it’s by no means a broken system, anyone other than the most casual of gamers will question the lack of depth apparent in the system. Having said this, there is a real tangible weight to your hero’s actions and movements that always makes watching fights unfold thrilling.
And what of Minimap, the dog that loyally followed me through hell and high water, with no recognition on my part? Strangely, wonderfully, Fable II’s story proved that you should never take things for granted: I miss the damn mutt already.