Sunday, September 13, 2009

Fable II (Xbox 360) Review

Fable was a game many people enjoyed, but considered a let down as it didn't live up to the huge hype surrounding it. I personally didn't follow the hype, and only picked the game up later as a Platinum Hits title for about $19.99, and I enjoyed myself immensely. Taking the positive from this experience, I was very excited at the announcement of Fable II for the Xbox 360 back in 2006.

Originally set for a late 2008 release, the game actually came out earlier than most of us thought it would, but with some problems attached to it. The promised items in the Fable II: Limited Collector's Edition were mainly nixed, and the Co-Op game mode would not ship with the retail game, but rather was added in via a Title Update at launch. Shifty things like this made me pause, and I decided to hold off on buying a copy. While the press really liked the game, I had begun hearing from my peers and fellow gamers that Fable II wasn't exactly up to snuff, and that it could have been a whole lot more. This furthered my resolve to either rent before buying, or to wait for a solid deal.

This past May, I found a store that was getting out of the games business, and was selling all new games for 40% off, which allowed me to pick up Fable II for $35.99. Now, months later, I'm glad that's all I paid. Fable II is not a bad game, but it's nothing spectacular either, and I found it significantly less enjoyable than its predecessor.

Set 500 years after Fable: The Lost Chapters, the land of Albion has changed greatly. With Jack of Blades defeated, many Heroes began to abuse their station and oppress the citizens of the world, and finally the common folk had had enough and revolted, succeeding in wiping out the Guild of Heroes and for all intents and purposes, all Heroes everywhere. This allowed humanity to more or less develop unaffected by most higher powers, and thus we come to the larger world of Fable II.

Fable II sees you taking the role of a young boy or girl in Bowerstone who ultimately travels the path of vengeance. You see, the game's main villain tries to kill you, rather unsuccessfully, but he did take something of great value away from you and you're looking for a little payback. Like the original game, Fable II allows you to progress through most of your Hero's life, growing from childhood to young adulthood to later adulthood. What's really cool this time around is that as you age, the world around you changes as well, and many decisions you make will have drastic effects on the game world later on. That's one of several aspects and gameplay mechanics from Fable: The Lost Chapters that have been improved upon, and there's a host of new features to play with as well, but sadly, not all's as fleshed out as it could be.

One of my most beloved aspects of the original game was simply the world itself. Albion was such a hilarious place to visit and to explore, and really, the game didn't take itself that seriously. In many respects, I thought of it as a mature Shrek, and this holds true for the sequel but on a larger scale. Albion is now a very, very complex place, and as I mentioned, one that changes based upon how you play. Not only does the world grow and evolve, but people react to your reputation, be it good or evil, in an expanded way from the first game. I played as a Good Hero, so people would follow me around clapping and cheering and eagerly looking forward to my gifts and Expressions.

New to the sequel are jobs that you can take in the various towns, such as a smith, bartender, or wood cutter, and you can also take up contract jobs such as bounty hunting or assassination, all for Gold. Like the original, you can buy properties and rent them out or sell them, but this time you can adjust the amount of rent, and what's really awesome is that the game collects money even when you're not playing. That's right, buy and rent a place out, turn off the game, and when you log back in later, the amount of Gold you would have earned had you been playing will drop into your inventory. This makes owning property the best way to earn cash in the game over a long period of time. Also like in the first game, you can get married, this time to either gender (hetero or homosexual relations) and now you can even have kids if applicable. If you have unprotected sex with your spouse, pop, there comes a baby. Your baby will stay a babe until you reach a certain point in the game, then after a few days, your child will become a, well, child. Honestly, they're much more annoying at this point, as they mainly just complain that you're never around. The wife too, actually.

The game sends you alerts regarding various things, such as sales or jobs that are available, or any needs of your family. One time, I was battling a swarm of Hollowmen when I got a message from my wife. I checked it out and it plainly told me, "Wants Sex." Um, okay. I'm a little busy dispatching a horde of undead, dear. Can't it wait a minute! Honestly, I found the family was a cool concept, but generally more trouble than it was worth. I mean, I'm out saving the bloody world here, so if I'm gone for a week or so, you'd think the family would understand.

Like the original game, you can have multiple spouses (I ended up marrying three women. One related to a Quest, one for the Bigamist Achievement, and the third because she was an awesome unique character.), and you can actually take people out on dates to their favourite places. Be careful if you choose to sleep around though, as you can contract STDs. This doesn't have any gameplay effect, save that you know you're now diseased. Ewwww.

One of my favourite pass times from the original game, fishing, was completely removed and this made me sad, but at least you can now dive and swim all about water. Instead, you have another great pass time and a faithful companion: a very long-lived dog who follows you around everywhere. You can play fetch with him, give him treats (to heal him up), praise him, scold him, and dig up any treasure he finds. The dog will also help in battles and attack anyone you knock down, and he can learn tricks to compliment your own Expressions. You can't control the dog directly, he has his own scripted AI and can be a bit random at times, which is completely awesome. Honestly, I loved the dog and got really attached to him and the whole concept behind him. I think he's wonderfully implemented and would love to see more games with a pet like him.

One aspect of the game that I really wasn't impressed with was combat; a rather important aspect at that. Unlike the original game, I found the combat in Fable II to be ridiculously clunky. This time around, Lionhead Studios tried to place everything per category on one button. So if you're using a melee weapon, you use "X" to attack, hold it to block, etc. If you press "Y," you'll fire your ranged weapon or hold it to zoom in on your target. "B" selects and charges up your spells, and you can use the left stick to determine whether you'll use it as a direct attack or an area effect spell.

Honestly though, the combat system needed a whole lot more refinement. It was far to easy to Block when you wanted to Flourish with a melee weapon, and heaven help you if you wanted to do some precision tracking with your ranged weapon. I'm also not a fan of the charge-up spell system at all. If I want to use a Level 5 Force Push, I want to use it NOW and not wait several seconds while it charges and I get smacked around. I know that was a design decision, and just something I'm not overly used to, but combined with the rest of the horrible combat system, it just served to have me spending more time playing in towns or taking odd jobs instead of fighting or Questing.

"A" is used to run and dodge once you acquire that Skill, but unlike most games that let you roll out of the way at any time, you need to have your weapon drawn to dodge. What genius came up with that idea? So many times I wanted to dodge, only to find my Hero had automatically holstered their weapon, forcing me to take some punishment instead of rolling out of the way. You also can't dodge if you were casting spells, since you're not using a weapon. At least the games enemies aren't that bright, so you really don't need to dodge too much, but still.

The story for the main Quest is pretty poor, and while the game doesn't take itself very seriously, there's no masking the fact that the main villain has horribly developed motivation, enough so that's it's actually quite laughable. In fact, I felt the main Quest so tediously boring that I often took week-long or more breaks in-between the major life phases of my Hero, as I just couldn't keep going without loosing interest. Don't get me wrong, I certainly got my play time out of the game, coming in at about 33 hours, but really, it was a struggle at many points just to keep going.

Graphically, Fable II looks good. The land is very rich and detailed, and character models look solid until you get real close or zoom in. Audio wise, the music features new and old tracks, and the voice acting is spot on for the stupid villagers and sarcastic bandits; right in line with the game's humour. Surprisingly though, there's no real map. On the main screen, you're presented with a glowing trail to follow to your next objective, but in the menus, I'd of hoped for a map that I could zoom in and really examine, but your only presented with a simple map that's all cluttered about. Very unimpressive, and not that useful, actually. I understand the developers were trying to clear up the main interface, but again, it just didn't work out.

From a technical standpoint, I was disappointed that I couldn't copy my save game to a Memory Unit, thus backing it up in case of HDD failure. While not a huge deal, it is worth mentioning, and rather odd since most games allow you to do so.

Thanks to a very friendly forum goer at the Xbox Canada General Discussion forum, I was given a code for the Limited Edition content of the game, which includes Hal's armour and weapon (a Fable version of the Master Chief's armour and Energy Sword from the Halo franchise), as well as a special dungeon with a unique sword. While the Energy Sword was rather disappointing, cool but overall weak compared to many other weapons in the game, Hal's Armour was most useful, and it was absolutely hilarious to watch my Hero, dressed as the Master Chief, serving drinks, chopping wood, and getting chewed out by my wife (or wives as the case may be). The bonus dungeon wasn't anything really special, and the unique sword wasn't as good as my current weapon by the time I got it, however I can see it being useful to an Evil character.

Speaking of bonus content, Fable II has some rather unique integration where any Gold or items you accumulated via the Fable II: Pub Games Xbox LIVE Arcade game would transfer over to your account, and any items you won by playing "A Hero's Tale" on the Fable II website would be available in a Treasure Chest in your actual game. This is very, very cool, as it allows you to earn things for the game from outside of the actual game. It'll be interesting to see where developers take this concept in the future, if anywhere at all.

Moving onto the game's Multiplayer, Co-Op, I was honestly disappointed here as well. In Co-Op, you join a game as the host player's henchman, not as your own Hero. This allows the two of you to Quest together with the Henchman in an "assistant" role. As a Henchman, any experience and Gold you earn will be applied to your own Hero, so there is benefit to you, and you can also earn Achievements by watching your Friend's Hero complete various objectives, and do joint Expressions, etc. Overall, it's not a bad concept and certainly has it's fun moments, but for some odd reason, you can't control the camera! In Co-Op, the game switches to a fixed camera that moves around with both of you, and it often is in a horrible position. I can understand this limitation in split screen, but over Xbox LIVE, why can't we reposition the camera each to ourselves? Another very odd design decision that needs to be placed in the negative column.

So is Fable II the revelation that it was touted as? No, it's not. Albion's a wonderful world to visit with a lot of detail and plenty to do, and overall, Fable II's a solid game with some exceptional concepts, but many of these are poorly implemented or relied on the oddest design decisions. This makes much of the game plain frustrating and tedious, and while there's a lot of potential in it, Fable II simply needed more polishing time. I most certainly couldn't recommend the game at full retail cost, but once it finally hits Platinum Hits status, I'd say give it a whirl. With any luck, Lionhead will have learned from their mistakes to greatly improve Fable III, but I have a strong feeling it'd be best to wait for a sale on that game to.

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