Fable II (Xbox 360) review
"One of the most impressive evolutions in Fable II is the way it holds your hand in a non-intrusive manner. For years, games have been including mini-maps in the lower corner of the screen so that you can check at a glance where you are in your environment. Here, there's none of that... and the game is actually better because of it! No longer do you have to consult a semi-transparent overlay to see where the next exit lies. You can still pause the game and bring up a cumbersome—and sometimes useful—map if that's what you want, but often there's no reason."
According to gamers throughout the English-speaking world, Peter Molyneux hypes his games too much. Before Fable arrived on the original Xbox, he'd basically promised everything but the sun, moon and stars. Then the final product arrived and it was merely 'really good,' so of course it didn't live up to his promises. Humbled--if only slightly--the amiable fellow exercised a little bit of restraint when it came to the next-generation sequel. Sure, he talked it up a lot, but the relatively subdued praise he lavished on his latest effort had a surprising effect: it allowed Fable II to hit retail with less buzz than it deserved!
At first, that might not be apparent. Someone who plays for just a few minutes will almost certainly feel justified in dropping the game in favor of something else. That's because like its predecessor, Fable II begins by briefly portraying the rather dull life of a child who will someday grow into either a great hero or a virtual monster. Eventually there will be marriages and property purchases and swamps with glowing mushrooms--everything you'd expect, really--but initially there's just a dingy district at the heart of the land of Albion. It feels almost like a remix, except that from beginning to end, everything has improved. The graphics are better, the area design superior and the depth is... deeper. In short, 'really good' just became 'great.'
One of the most impressive evolutions in Fable II is the way it holds your hand in a non-intrusive manner. For years, games have been including mini-maps in the lower corner of the screen so that you can check at a glance where you are in your environment. Here, there's none of that... and the game is actually better because of it! No longer do you have to consult a semi-transparent overlay to see where the next exit lies. You can still pause the game and bring up a cumbersome--and sometimes useful--map if that's what you want, but often there's no reason to do so. Instead, you can simply look around you, where a faint trail of sparkling lights will point the way to your next objective.
Such an innovation could easily have failed. It's not difficult to imagine trails mapping their way through impassible rock walls, for example. Yet that doesn't happen here. A valid and expedient route is always given the golden light treatment. Talk about useful! And for those who are worried that the game can now be played through on cruise control: don't. While it's true that you can follow the on-screen prompts to reach the end of the game in short order--perhaps 10 hours or so--you'd truly be missing out on much of what Fable II has to offer you if you didn't stray on occasion.
For starters, you wouldn't find many of the gargoyles. That might not sound like a loss, but it really is. Scattered throughout the gorgeous world of Albion (more on 'gorgeous' in a minute) are stone heads that feel compelled to insult you. As you're wandering through some dangerous swamp, battling enemies and seeking treasure, you'll hear insults raining down on you from somewhere close by. “Some hero you are!” a voice might shout, or “I'd tell you to shoot me but you might poke out your eye!” If you spend the time looking around, you'll find the source of the jibes, usually mounted on a distant wall. Shooting it down will allow you to retrieve a map that points the way to a hidden treasure room. Slay enough of the stone linguists and you'll receive some great gear.
If you're a trophy hunter of sorts, you may also decide to embark on a quest to find all 50 of the silver keys positioned throughout the land. Or if you're looking for something more rewarding still, you may decide that you want to purchase every last building in the world. Nearly everything is for sale at one point or another and you can quickly amass a small fortune by snatching up the local pub and blacksmith, or by renting residential spaces to your adoring public. Besides that, you can easily modify prices to influence how people rate your kindliness... or wickedness!
You can be a proper ass if it suits you, and not just in your role as landlord. As before, 'expressions' figure prominently in your interaction with Albion's residents. You'll begin with a limited repertoire at your disposal. Maybe you can point and laugh. Yet as you continue on your quest, you'll eventually find satisfying new abilities like the vulgar thrust (which involves swaying your pelvic region for the ladies or gents). You can even tell someone to kiss your ass... though not until late in the game. That sort of powerful social weaponry doesn't come easily! In some cases, you may even have to have your dog dig it up for you.
Man's best friend is the one addition to the game that Molyneux was willing to discuss at length in the months leading up to Fable II's release. The way things work is that early in your quest, you'll find a stray pooch who then stays by your side for the remainder of the plot. He's not just decorative, either. As you work through the numerous environments, you'll watch as he goes running off the path to a suspicious group of ferns, or a likely spot of soil or an enticing garden. He'll start sniffing around and pawing at the surface, at which point you can dig to find items. Similarly, your lovable mutt will aid in combat, growing stronger as you battle more foes. He might even pounce on them while they're down, a helpful action when combat grows particularly fierce.
Speaking of combat, it's as smooth as you could ever hope. The hero has three basic forms of attack: melee, projectile and sorcery. The first is simple enough. You just head in with your sword, mace or similar weapon swinging. As you power up, you'll learn combo moves and each strike will come more quickly and with more force. Projectiles are similar, in that you start by just shooting at various targets but can eventually aim at specific body regions and switch targets on the fly. Finally, you have several spell types available to you, all of which can be powered up as you gain appropriate will points. The combat system might seem rather limited on the surface, but it works great because each attack type is mapped to one of the face buttons. This makes it easy to switch between attacks on the fly and allows you to chain together great combos for devastating effect. Nice!
Equipped as you are with smooth moves and a helpful canine companion, it's not difficult at all to traverse the varied landscape that makes up Albion. In fact, that's where so much of the game's best elements shine through. If you're the sort that likes seeing a fairytale world brought to life, you'll love what you find here. From beginning to end, each region is flat out gorgeous. There are plenty of views of the distant ocean, or hazy skies over a bustling cityscape, or even dank caverns and swampy wastelands that feel like something out of the Brothers Grimm. Perhaps never before has a fantasy world of this sort come together so cohesively. It's truly a treat.
One final point worth considering is the way that the developers packed the experience with so much humor. Load screens contain silly comments by random residents of present-day Albion, including nice bits of history. At one point in the game, there's reference to an old guild master who was found murdered with “Your health is low” slashed into his forehead. Those who played the first Fable should get a laugh out of that, and there are other nods to the first game that are similarly intriguing (including an entire environment).
Really, the only thing Fable II does wrong is that it doesn't provide a long enough primary quest if you choose to ignore the piles of optional content. Impatient gamers shouldn't have any trouble at all breezing through it in less than 10 hours. If that's how you want to play, you can but the game as a whole will then seem simple and shallow. Afterwards, you probably won't have trouble heading online and finding folks talking about how Molyneux over-hyped yet another game. They're remembering the first Fable, though. And while that title definitely fell victim to the hype train, it's not fair to penalize the sequel by extension. Especially not when said sequel is thoroughly excellent...
Staff review by Jason Venter (November 11, 2008)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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