I liked the first Fable, as I played it about a year after its initial release, after the hype had died down and my expectations were lowered. Though the good/evil mechanic was kind of gimmicky and the story sucked, it was a reasonably solid action-RPG with a lot of really interesting ideas.
It was with a reasonably amount of excitement, then, that I looked forward to Fable II. Granted, that excitement was tempered with the usual "it's by Molyneux, so it will be disappointing in many respects" emotions we've all memorized by now, but I remained hopeful that, amidst all the untapped potential and failed mechanics, there would -- maybe -- be tiny pot of gold.
I wasn't prepared to find a swimming pool full of the stuff.
Hit the jump for the full review.
Fable II (Xbox 360)
Fable II is full of bugs and poorly implemented mechanics held together by an abysmal interface.
It also elicited the single loudest, strongest emotional reactions I have ever had from a videogame, and had me literally screaming at my television, eyes beginning to moisten, by the time it reached its end.
The problems with Fable II are impossible to ignore, until you do. The protagonist awkwardly moves like hybrid between a standard character and a survival horror hero. The context-sensitive D-pad actions are so user-unfriendly that one can easily eat a blueberry pie instead of a potion, and suddenly become fat and unattractive by sheer accident. The menus are poorly designed, and the expressions wheel is awkward and cumbersome. The breadcrumb trail will often get confused and lead you in several directions at once. The Troll bosses sprinkled throughout the game all behave, and are defeated, in the exact same way. You can't have sex without buying a book which teaches you how to have sex. Your dog will sometimes tell you to dig somewhere, only to run around aimlessly and never quite reach the spot he's looking for -- and since you can't take your shovel out on your own, you have to stand around, impotent, until the dog happens to luck upon his intended destination.
And that's just the small stuff.
Fable II's biggest changes, the job system and the co-op, are exactly what you'd expect from a Molyneux game: cute in theory, problematic in execution. While it's disappointing that both online and local co-op forces one of the players to basically serve as a gussied-up henchman (get your handbag), that's not the real problem with the multiplayer. After your buddy joins, there's simply nothing to do. You can beat up dudes together, or attack everything in sight, but that's about it: you can't interact with one another in any meaningful way, and the henchman is just a mule for helping the player get through fights. Your partner can go rogue and kill every innocent NPC in sight, but if the only entertaining alternative to "run around and kill monsters" is "murder your best friend's family," then we have a problem.
Beyond that, the job system is not well implemented. The design choices behind the jobs seem obvious: make them repetitive, boring, and only somewhat well-paying, so that the player will be tempted to give up on living a moral life and turn to crime for income. As it stands, however, the jobs are simply too useful to make a life of robbery and murder at all feasible.
After an hour or so of thwacking steel at a blacksmith, or cutting wood, or filling beer mugs (all jobs are functionally identical, controlled by the same basic timing minigame), the player will easily be able to reach a four or five star promotion, which greatly increases the amount of money received for every successful sword made/wood cut/beer poured. After less than two hours, a blacksmith can make 1000 gold goins for every sword successfully made. Meanwhile, if you choose to play as an evil thief, stealing from cash registers will only yield about 30 coins on average, in addition to the hassle of fighting off guards and doing community service. As the rest of the game's moral choices seem to be focused around the ideas that good is difficult yet heroic while evil is easy but morally revolting, doing the "right" thing and working for gold is way too easy. After working for about an hour or two at the beginning of the game and accumulating around 30,000 gold (I watched Colbert to distract myself from the monotony of it), I never needed to work for cash again.
These are the flaws. These are the problems that, if Fable II were a lesser game, would make it irritating, aggravating, borderline unplayable. Luckily, however, Fable II turns out to be far, far more than the sum of its parts, thanks to its combat system and its emotional, narrative core.
Of all the claims Molyneux made about Fable II during development, I had the hardest time believing his boasts about the combat system. I couldn't see how an accessible, button-mashy mixture of ranged, magic, and melee attacks could simultaneously be deep or interesting -- I was very, very glad to be proven wrong. The fun in Fable II's combat comes with the fact that any given fight requires the player to use at least two of his or her skills to defeat enemies. Where the first game pretty much locked you into one mode of play depending on your experience spending (if you upgraded strength a lot in the beginning, you basically had to play as a melee guy for the entire game), the three types of combat are effective and streamlined enough to each be uniquely useful for different scenarios. Simply by spreading my experience points to skills I found useful, I was able to have an absurdly satisfying time slowing down enemies with a bullet time spell, slashing at them with stylish melee flourishes, and shooting them in the head with a repeater rifle. Though you can get through the entire game by button mashing, it's far more satisfying, and moderately more effective, to use all your differing skills in every fracas. Since ammo and magic are unlimited, you're encouraged to experiment and mix up your combat styles to find one that suits you.
I'm amazed to be saying this, but the combat is exactly what Molyneux promised -- accessible and fun, yet potentially deep. Many players may rightfully be put off by the game's relative lack of difficulty and the too-small penalty for death (your character gets scarred and loses some XP), but I found the combat itself to be satisfying enough that I didn't need ball-busting challenge to make it entertaining.
It also helped that, when I wasn't running around shooting banshees in the face, I was getting pulled in by game's surprisingly emotional core. Though I initially started a family just out of curiosity (I ended up marrying two women, just so I could unironically say that I had "hos in different area codes," until I felt so guilty that I divorced one and had a child with the other), and though my wife and daughter had no real emotions of their own outside of canned dialogue reactions, I was surprised to find myself caring about them just a little bit, going back to my house after every quest just to say hi, just to check up on them. I felt nothing terribly profound toward them -- definitely nothing like love, or anything like that -- but I guess they were better than nothing.
The dog filled all my emotional needs, anyway: forever loyal, and incredibly helpful in finding treasure, the dog simultaneously makes the game much more friendly and streamlined (I hate running around searching for treasure, so to have the dog do it for me was a great benefit) and gives the player an adorable, loving companion to share the experience with. I wouldn't say I loved the dog, but I definitely cared about him quite a bit.
The story starts off pretty typically. I'd go so far as to say that for the entire first half of the game, Fable II is completely underwhelming in the narrative department: apart from the nonlinear quests you must take to get Renown points, it's your typical kill-the-bad-guy-and-save-the-world stuff up until your player heads to the bad guy's Big Evil Castle and the game -- quite suddenly, and without warning -- decides it wishes to be interesting.
Most games that include some form of moral choice usually do so very simplistically -- you're either a saint or the devil, with no in-between room. Being a good guy gets you benefits, while being evil is effectively pointless except for how neat it feels to be a total bastard. Other games' moral choices are gimmicky, irrelevant. Many of Fable II's choices are similarly shallow, but a precious few manage to transcend the black-and-white silliness which plagues most games with branching storylines. A few choices you make will permanently, and quite noticeably, change the landscape of the world.
Others, including the ones made at the Big Evil Castle, present true moral quandaries: do you do the wrong thing and remain safe, or do you do the right thing and suffer by losing experience or attractiveness or any number of the things you've built up throughout the game? I don't want to go into detail about the sorts of choices you'll be making, and, again, there aren't nearly as many of them as there should be, but Fable II is the first game I've played since Fallout that displays moral choices with the degree of nuance and ambiguity they so rightfully deserve. Especially the choice at the end.
Oh, god, the end. Until I got to the ending, I was convinced I'd rate Fable II a 6/10; above average, but nothing mind-blowing. Once the ending rolled around, however, I was so exhausted, so completely positive that I'd never emotionally reacted to a game this strongly before, that I couldn't help but forget about all the monumentally irritating flaws I mentioned above. I can't go into details, obviously, but as moderately interesting as the story is up to that point (an arrogant, homicidal rogue voiced by Stephen Fry being the highlight), the ending is on an entirely different level. It trades a challenge-driven climax for an emotionally-driven one, and is all the more effective for it.
Fable II, though incredibly flawed in numerous ways, is a damned good game. The combat is remarkably satisfying, the story is incredibly effective, and there are flashes of brilliance in some of the game's moral quandaries. You'll have to slog through a very frustrating few hours in order to get to the good stuff, but once you've gotten over the game's incredibly obvious flaws, you'll find one of the most emotionally evocative games ever made. It's definitely not perfect, and when taken as a whole it's not quite great, but it is a game that positively must be played by anyone who cares about narrative in games.
Score: 7.5 (7s are solid games that definitely have an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.)