Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fable II Review

Fable II enjoyed many perks that it's predecessor did not. The expectations had been managed by the muzzle Microsoft had finally strapped to Molyneux, the Xbox 360 had the power to deliver more of the dream that got everyone so amped for Fable I, and it was a sequel. A guaranteed solid performance was all but in the bag. The reviews would be positive, the money would be ample, and the fan-base would be satisfied. A year and a half later and it looks like it all worked out for Lionhead and co. Fable II is the best-selling RPG on the Xbox 360, weighing in at around $3.5m in sales. Critics were generally positive, aggregating for an 89% positive ranking on the MetaCritic scales. And, despite a few bugs early on, the fan base seems fairly happy.

RPG's of old were weighed partially on how they excited the player's imagination. Without the power of modern technology to realize sweeping vistas and fantastical creatures, there was an art to suggestion. Those unreachable mountains, those unbeatable creatures...the best RPG experiences knew how to draw you into their worlds without the polygons to actually put you there. The loss of that sense of wonder is one of the main criticisms the old school has against the new. It is to the credit of Lionhead Studios that they are able to still evoke the player's imagination in much the same way, despite being firmly of the new school.

Such potential

STORY: 4/5
Fable II's story is Horatio Alger set in Albion. You start off as a homeless child and eventually grow to be the greatest hero in the land. Along the way you free some slaves, befriend some locals, and, should you choose, find a spouse and settle down. Most of the story ranges from uninteresting to downright laughable due to the enormous brush it's painted with. The main villain is slightly deeper than the rest of the cast but, for the most part, it's a forgettable yarn.

Despite touting a good-evil morality system, most of your choices are inconsequential unless you are deeply concerned with your avatar's appearance. Bold claims to the contrary notwithstanding, little of what you do has a lasting effect on your world. And the actions that do effect real change don't feel connected to their outcomes. (I love the idea of the butterfly effect as much as the next guy but the result of my youthful actions in Bowerstone didn't resonate when I returned a man. And if a game fails at giving you meaningful feedback on your actions, revolutionary game design doesn't matter.)

Didn't I see you in the last town I was in?

Another example of the skin deep story is in the NPC's that surround you. It is ironic that so much work and hype have gone into the NPC AI because the villages don't feel populated in the slightest. Sure the denizens might react (relatively) believably to my actions but what does that matter if they are un-differentiable? What does it matter if I don't believe in them as characters? They become another transparent feedback gimmick that reflects how I'm playing the game. They might as well be the flies that circle my evil character or the halo that adorns my pure one.

But, despite the aforementioned problems with the story and world, Fable II still manages to evoke serious wonder with its surroundings. The game's linearity combined with it's impressive art direction creates vista after haunting vista that draws you into the world. And their inaccessibility captivates you in much the same way as the inaccessible beauty of RPGs of old. Every region is a narrative unto itself with an attention to detail that hints at a story far more interesting than the ham-fisted yarn you're forced to play through. The table is set for the world of Albion but, thus far, no decent food has been prepared by the chefs at Lionhead.

Pretty, yes. But she's a bitch to steer.


As with the story, the gameplay of Fable II is a mixed bag. When it shines it shines bright but good gameplay is the exception rather than the rule. With unresponsive controls, a headache of a shooting mechanic, and uninspiring puzzles, the only truly fun part of controlling Fable II is in hacking and slashing (and magicking). There's a good sense of weight to your blows and alternating between swordplay and fireballs is svelte. Walloping someone with an ax feels different and fresh compared to slicing and dicing with a one-handed saber. And stringing together a few fine cuts with a force push never gets old.

But everything else (and I mean everything else) feels wrong. Your character steers like a truck, button inputs across the board have a noticeable lag between your press and the action, and the game world jitters. And don't even try to negotiate those menus. They stutter and freeze and hesitate to load. In fact, the whole game seems like an asthma attack, constantly gasping to keep up.

It oozes all the right things. (Style, atmosphere and beauty you pervs!)

Like it's predecessor, Fable II tantalizes us with what could have been. Project Ego's hype continues to elude Molyneux and Lionhead, despite their most valiant efforts to deliver. While more of Project Ego's ideas are present in Fable II, the game feels like it's barely hanging together. It's a distracting, fourth-wall breaking problem that even the inspired art direction can't overcome. Add to the glitches the soulless NPCs and uninspired story and you've got a downright bad game. But there is magic here and the combat is enough to keep you entertained. One of these days the dream will be realized and Fable (III? IV? V?) will be as originally touted back in 2003: the best game ever. Until that day comes, it seems we'll happily shell out money for these bastard children of the dream.

No comments:

Post a Comment