Only a few games can claim to be synonymous with their creator. Metal Gear Solid will forever be known for Hideo Kojima, and Tim Schafer’s roster of cult-classics, too. And joining them is Fable 2, infamous for its creator, Peter Molyneux, who has since been tethered to a PR assistant whenever fielding questions from the media, such is his reckless enthusiasm.
It’s difficult to judge any game when its creator promises to deliver the greatest game since the medium’s inception. I feel for Molyneux’s development stable, listening to their boss peddling features like a newly elected President. It’s a thankless task, for if they succeed, their boss reaps the credit; whereas if they fail, the burden is theirs to shoulder.
Fable 2 is a quintessential Lionhead game. It has quirky English humour, a sweeping landscape of lush grass and forests, and a plethora of tools and features to empower the player. Like its predecessor, Fable 2 is striving to inject some choice and deliberation into videogames, with morality and consequences shaping your every action.
It begins with a bird defecating on a young street urchin, either boy or girl, who roams the cobbled roads of Bowerstone with his or her wiser older sister. But their home is a cruel place, danger and temptation lurking around every Victorian-themed corner. Do you collect the lost arrest warrants and insure Bowerstone enjoys a crime-free future? Or do you return the warrants instead to a slumlord, and condemn the town to crime and poverty forever?
Regardless of your moral disposition, tragedy befalls you. With your sister murdered, a blind soothsayer, Theresa, adopts you and teaches you the art of the blade, the bow and magic, preparation for your seething desire to seek revenge.
Despite Molyneux’s best efforts, hiring Hollywood scriptwriters, dramatising the entire story with actual actors and professing to have created the finest story to grace a disc-drive, Fable 2’s plot is mediocre, plodding along to cliché twists and too-sudden conclusions.
But within the world of Albion lies a far greater story, a tale you must write through your own actions. The ghost of a cowardly fiancé compels you to tell his mourning widow of how sorry he is to have abandoned her. A father has lost his son in dangerous, Hobbe-infested mines. A lady of the night beckons you to her shadowy lair.
These self-contained stories, scattered across Albion, offer more drama and enjoyment than the entirety of the campaign itself, and prove how powerful a feature choice and consequence can be in videogames. Simply interacting with the villagers, emoting to mass crowds, is a joy.
Lionhead like feature lists; it’s been a core component of their promotional strategy for years. Fable 2 supposedly includes a dynamic world, where entire regions respond to your actions. It has a family system, where you can woo, wed and bed a spouse and raise a child together.
But Molyneux’s favourite feature seems to be his one-button combat system, a result of Lionhead’s successful prototyping schemes. Instead of numerous buttons for essentially the same action, Fable 2 maps your sword, bow and magic to the X, Y and B buttons respectively.
For instance, bash away at X, and your hero will hack to his heart’s content. The same for Y and B. However, hold X, and he’ll deliver a finishing blow, or aim his pistol and charge a spell. The combat also responds to context and rhythm. If you’re battling against a Cliffside, you may butt an enemy over the edge instead, and coordinate your attack with a musical drumbeat to amass more experience.
It’s an intuitive system, with enough depth to appease veterans but accessible enough for newcomers. Fable 2 is a very forgiving game, with no death or impactful punishment beyond loss of experience and scarring. It’s an odd blend of user-friendliness and pioneering design.
Man’s Best Friend
The ultimate example of Lionhead’s conflicting design is the inclusion of an A.I. companion; your dog. Acting as your guide, protector and often treasure-hunter, the dog removes the need for immersion-breaking compass elements which may confuse newcomers, but also expands upon Lionhead’s obsession with love and emotion.
The dog is a triumph, both in design and execution. Wonderfully animated, carefully rigged to not annoy but to aid, he feels like a genuine character. And the game doesn’t refrain from throwing him in harm’s way, tugging on those proverbial heartstrings.
Diamond In The Rough
Fable 2, despite its innovations, is a deeply flawed game. Its home to a myriad of glitches, some minor, some major. The quests are repetitive and lazy, with very little variation across the ten or so hours of story. It also attempts some ambitious plot-points, such as twenty-year prison sentences, it fails to properly realise. And for all its chest-thumping about choices and morality, the game is awfully binary.
It’s a pity, as I imagine with a tad more polish and development time, Fable 2 could be considered an unequivocal classic. But as it stands, it’s a solid, sometimes spectacular effort, with truly innovative features, hampered by mediocre design and perhaps too-much ambition. With the engine in place and lessons duly learnt, a sequel is a tantalising prospect, and considering the abrupt cliff-hanger, it's also inevitable.