I’m about 8 hours into Fable 2 now, and I feel I have at least some ability to give an impression of the game, although due to it’s nature, I do have to put a big warning sticker on this saying ‘work in progress’ - because one of the main things about Fable 2 is that it’s a slow burner. You really, really need to spend a number of hours with it before you really start to settle in.
Let’s get the negative things out the way, because I do actually want to finish on an overall positive here. My first impressions were a bit disappointing to be honest. The ‘child’ sequence was a little dull, filled with very simple fetch quests and dialogue that was far too slow paced, despite being well acted. In particular there’s an odd pause between almost all the sentences that really has you tapping your foot at times waiting for them to get the hell on with it.
The next disappointing thing was that local co-op really doesn’t work very well. The second player is limited to a predefined henchman (or henchwoman in our case), who in essence gets very little out of the play experience beyond tagging along and being there for fights (since they can’t interact with objects or people) and the fact that the camera has to accommodate two players becomes quickly unwieldy. After a few hours of playing it together we gave up and are now playing solo, and are enjoying it much more. It’s a shame, because co-op play was one of the things we were looking forward to.
Lastly, the main quest is (so far) a fairly typical hackneyed fantasy story - you are born ‘special’ and must fulfil your destiny to defeat the evil villain who would destroy the world, yadda yadda. It really doesn’t do the rest of the game justice. I’ve played enough RPGs (and read enough fantasy books) by now that I wince visibly whenever someone uses this old crutch as a storyline, there’s really no excuse for it. Go read some Guy Gavriel Kay or Neil Gaiman and get some new ideas for goodness sakes. Whether Fable 2 is actually just setting this up for a bit of genre parody that’ll all twist into something original later I’m not sure, because the rest of the game certainly shows far more imagination, but so far the main quest is very straight-laced and really not the most inspired of plotlines.
Ok, so that’s all the weaker bits out of the way. Despite these issues, Fable 2 is actually a hell of a lot of fun.
Firstly, it looks lovely. The world is fun to explore because it’s fairly densely populated with interesting landmarks and vistas, in contrast to something like Oblivion which had a huge area to explore but which consisted of far too much identical looking forest. Someone’s been reading GPU Gems 3, because they have a lovely crepuscular rays implementation (translation: god rays) that I can watch all day. I like the setting too - it’s not typical fantasy (despite the cliches in the main quest), it’s more like a fantastical twist on a Victorian world, kind of like Van Helsing or the Brothers Grimm (in atmosphere, not quality). In short, the world is sumptously realised in almost every way and is a joy to just wander around. There’s a very occasional graphical glitch where if a new area comes quickly into view (say seeing into another street through the gap between two houses), it appears to pop in a frame too late - I’m guessing this is either down to an occlusion culling lag, or asset streaming - but it’s really only noticeable to graphics geeks like me who use it to try to figure out what they’re doing behind the scenes.
Secondly, the world is full of fascinating and original things that put the main story to shame. The incidental encounters & side quests are very entertaining; the world is awash with NPCs going about their business, and they all behave rather realistically, whether you’re trying to charm the pants off them, or putting the willies up them by summoning undead in the market (hey, who else is going to carry my shopping?). Side quests are abound, and humour is a very common theme - such as being asked to retrieve the Normanomicon (the Book of the Extremely Dead) in an obvious parody of Evil Dead III. The characters are often very amusing, and the outcomes sometimes surprising. Like the best of western RPGs, you have a lot of flexibility in what you do with your time - I’m personally playing an evil character because the lure was just too tempting, and so many of the ‘underside’ characters are more fun to be around, in a comically nefarious way. As soon as I realised I could boost my advancement in the ‘Temple of Shadows Reward Points Scheme’ by sacrificing my spouse (rather than random strangers) on the Wheel of Misfortune, I was running back to the marital home with an evil chuckle. She was getting a bit annoying anyway 😉 It was pretty much a downward spiral into villainy from there on, and I’m loving it.
My wife and I are taking different paths through the game - I’m ripping off my customers (I own a humble meat stall right now, plans to expand later), doing the odd bit of stealing, extortion, and of course the regular sacrifices probably count against me (although not as much as you might think - you appear to need to try quite hard to attain the pinnacle of dastardly evil), while she is pursuing a far more honourable path, and we’re already getting treated quite differently. Children run away from me in the street and people mutter about what happened to my innocent victims when I pass, and I’m currently sporting a small pair of horns and a dog which now has disconcertingly red eyes 😀 I get store discounts by making people afraid of me, rather than buttering them up like my wife is doing.
At the end of the day it’s these little things that make Fable 2 fun. You can spend entire days ignoring the main quest and finding things to mess about with. I’m getting a bit fat thanks to scoffing (cheaper) food for healing; my character did indeed eat all the pies. I amused the townfolk by sporting a fabulous mullet for a short period. I tricked the monks at the temple of light into following me into the temple of shadows to be sacrificed, by swaying them with charitable donations. I’ve been pursued halfway across town by a gay weapons merchant who wouldn’t take no for an answer. While the side quests in Oblivion ultimately put me off, since they were as boring as they were crushingly numerous, the ancilliary distractions in Fable 2 are what keep me coming back. From the numerous silly achievements (like bygamy and chicken punting), to the bonus gargoyles that you have to hunt out and shoot, a bit like Zelda secrets, that taunt you incessantly in a Scottish accent to give you a clue that they’re around, it’s all a bit daft but a lot of fun to boot. Oh, and you absolutely have to read all the descriptions of all the items, there are some hidden gems of comedy writing in there that are among the most entertaining elements.
On the core gameplay experience, the fighting is quite fun once you get a few skill enhancements, allowing you to aim your ranged weapons more specifically and perform special attacks. The spell system is simple but workable, and the spells that are provided are entertaining. Exploration is very solid, the world is not large compared to some games, but it’s certainly large enough for me and is dense; seeking out hidden secrets is entertaining and again very Zelda-like. The dog is done very well indeed, he’s a genuinely useful companion, alerting you to danger and finding hidden treasure, as well as savaging your enemies when they’re knocked down. He’s very convincingly animated meaning it’s very easy to get attached to him - even if you do end up turning him into something from the Omen through your own misdeeds like I have.
I think if you’re the kind of person that likes linear, heavily story-driven RPGs (like JRPGs), or wants hundreds of hours of gameplay to discover (like Oblivion), Fable 2 might be disappointing for you, because there are games out there already that have done these aspects better. However, if you like your games to be compact and perfectly formed, infused with a sense of humour, a lot of character, and like to spend time messing about with things seeing what’s possible, Fable 2 delivers that humour, quality and flexibility in spades; you just need to give it a bit of time.
In terms of the core gameplay experience I would definitely say it feels more like a weird mixture of Zelda and GTA, rather than a ‘traditional’ RPG. It’s kind of like Zelda with a wicked sense of humour, an evolving character & world, bucketloads more freedom, and random sex & violence. Put it this way, if Navi were in Fable 2, you’d have the option of spit-roasting her, marrying her, or selling her to a travelling freak show. And who wouldn’t want that?
Overall then, recommended.