Monday, November 10, 2008

Review: The Ambitious Fable II

This post is our first official EXP review. We try to approach the review process a bit differently than most. For one, we will never give you a review score. Scott highlighted some of our reasons for this decision in an earlier post. Additonally, we'll be transparent about how far we progressed in the game as well as any other factors influencing our perceptions. Our goal is to participate in an analysis and dialogue about the game in question and the videogame world overall. We encourage you to participate by leaving your comments below.

Fable II was played on an Xbox 360 (of course). I completed the game on an evil path.

Awhile ago I wrote about the potential benefit of hype, suggesting the excitement around a game's release may serve to spur discussion in regards to innovation and the future of gaming. As a proponent of this theory, I willfully consumed all the hype surrounding Fable II. As I wrap up my thoughts on Fable II, it may be useful to begin with some of the features I was looking forward to and how they measured up to my expectations.

A Moral World

I was looking forward to a world in which every deed would shape my character and my approach to the game. Unfortunately, as I covered in more detail a couple weeks ago, I found the morality system incredibly simplified. Each of your actions are given a numerical value in a binary system between pure good and pure evil. Killing a rabbit gives you evil points, helping a man fall in love gives you good points. Depending on your choices, the game will give you a halo or a set of horns to make the point even clearer. Without an interesting or viable alternative to good and evil, you'll have to use your imagination to create a morally ambiguous persona.

It's a Social Affair

The social aspect of the game was a huge selling point. I am fascinated with interacting with a world of unique individuals. In Albion however, each and every individual is as dumb as a bag of bricks. Despite my hideous appearance and a tendency towards murder, a few jolly thumbs-up will have a gaggle of Albionites follow me to dark sacrificial chambers.

Every interaction with the populace (those available on your wheel of behavior) reminds me how artificial they are, distracting me from the game. For example, one day I was trying to cheer up my very picky wife, the undead Lady Grey, and a strange bald man in an S&M outfit walks into the bedroom of my house, complimenting me during the most intimate moment of my "arm-pump seduction". Why would he the NPC do this? And why, when defending my home, would I be the one arrested? What a profoundly aggravating citizenry.

The Companions

During the first week of the release, I played quite a few hours of coop mode. I can say pretty confidently, Fable II coop is atrocious. The camera is terrible, but even more disappointing is the fact you cannot bring your personalized character into friend's game. I imagined a situation in which, on my own screen, I would be able to play in my companion's world free to do anything short of murder (unless safety is turned off). Instead, one player is designated as a henchman with the limited abilities of the host. Becoming a lackey is just not as appealing as a compatriot hero.

There are smaller criticisms of the game as well: the sluggish and terribly inefficient item system, the ridiculous amount of load screens between locations, the lack of a coherent map and sense of place in the world being the most important. Then why, despite all the aggravations, do I enjoy this game so much?

Rewarding Ambition

Despite its many failures, Fable II is a great game. Combat is entertaining and just the right blend of simplicity and complexity. The environment is unique and often stunning; it is a joy just to walk through this highly stylized world. The voice acting is superb, noticeably better than most highly acclaimed productions, and the dialogue is genuinely funny.

What really makes Fable II shine is its ambition. This game leaks innovation. Last week I complimented the scarring mechanic. I have got to follow up that commendation with praise for the dog companion. The dog, Sir Reginald in my case, surpassed my expectations. Along with the bread crumb trail, he serves to obviate the need of a cumbersome mini-map. Also, its fierce loyalty and playful behavior makes it hard not to fall in love with your canine pal.

Even the features that annoy me also make this game fantastic. My moral choices, though painfully simplistic, irreparably and visibly shape the world, drawing me into the story as it progresses.

The same can be said for the social environment. Though I prefer to ignore the populace, I interact with all of them. The first time I walked into town I accidentally drew my sword and the townspeople cowered in fear. There are countless games in which opening fire in a public park would not draw the slightest attention. This constant immersion counter balances the distractions of a moronic citizenry.

Cooperative play is less forgivable, but earns some redemption by empowering your companion to participate in social interaction. They can potentially ruin your family or murder your children if you allow it. At the very least, coop mode is more than a backup combatant.

Is it fair to reward ambition? One of the reasons I shy away from numerical review scores, though they certainly have their place, is because I think it is important we can applaud ambition and innovation, even when flawed. With a numerical value, we may unintentionally suggest the review will always be accurate, something I cannot promise. The flaws of Fable II will always be flaws, while the enjoyable attributes may one day become trivial.

That being said, Fable II is an excellent game that will likely stand the test of time. I am sure I will be revisiting Fable II as soon as the holiday season winds down. Meanwhile, Peter Molyneux better get cracking. I already have high expectations for Fable III.


  1. There is so much that this game seems to offer in which I find myself interested, despite the many flaws I have seen of it. I just hope it comes to the PC, as this is a type of game I do not enjoy on consoles.

    Yeah, I'll start labeling myself the PC fanboy.

  2. Out of curiosity, why is it you prefer PC play for this type of RPG? I actually think the fairly simple combat system and interaction wheel make the game perfect for consoles.

  3. God dammit. Not only do I bemoan the lack of luggage space available to me on my travels, I curse the PAL format. Sigh. One can dream of playing this soon enough.

  4. *sigh

    Once again reading a blog post about Fable II makes me instantly want to go and fire the game up. In a way, I have kind of neglected Fable II and yes I do regret it. When I first bought the game I decided to save it while I focused on finishing up some other games I was playing. Now those are done I find myself playing the other big games that have released recently like Fallout 3, Gears of War 2 and Dead Space so once again Fable II sits there being barely played.

    The little I have played though certainly suggest what I have to look forward to and when combined with the various blog posts about the game I have read in recent weeks, certainly gives me something to look forward to. I know it's a game I want to play when I can give it the time it deserves and I also know that I want to look at it with more depth so that I can explore and analyse some parts of it too.

    I also know that I want to do this with the other games I am playing too, so god help my time management in the near future...

  5. "The little I have played though certainly suggest what I have to look forward to and when combined with the various blog posts about the game I have read in recent weeks, certainly gives me something to look forward to."

    Erm, I really should stop typing at 5:34am...

    I'm sure you knew what I meant though.

  6. @ Nismo

    I prefer late-night non-sensical comments. A lot can come out of ramblings.

  7. So you used countless words to tell us that Fable is a 8 out of 10, right? :D

  8. @ treeto

    I think I would use the Star Search strategy and give Fable 2 three and three quarters Stars. :P

  9. I liked Fable II a lot - though all the numbers seemed superfluous. If i scare the shit out of a bunch of citizens (Very easy to do with one accidentally mis-pressed spell button in the town square!) I don't need a bunch of floating negative numbers to appear to say that something bad has happened - the fleeing and screaming tells me that. Fallout 3 integrates a similar system with much more subtlety IMHO.

  10. Oh, and one more thing I thought was sadly lacking - the map is terrible. The main effect of this is to give you no sense of how Albion fits together. 10 years on, I could still sketch you a map of Hyrule from Zelda TOOT - Not so with Fable. Ok, so location jumping is no bad thing, but Fable 2 is nowhere near as big as say, Oblivion, and arguably did not need it. The end result is a series of seemingly unconnected locations.

    Still, this is a great game. Worth playing to the end (something you could do in 5-6 hours if you ignored every side-quest)just to experience then argue about the final few scenes.